Breaking Down the ‘White Lotus’ Finale & the Present’s Surprising Success

Murray Bartlett as Armond in HBO’s The White Lotus. Photograph by Mario Perez/HBO
Warning: The following contains spoilers for HBO’s The White Lotus
Lost amid the slow-burn obscurity and tropical Succession-on-Xanax vibes of HBO’s The White Lotus  is the reminder that this is a murder mystery at its core. You’ll remember way back in the first episode, “Arrivals,” we were tipped off to the inevitable tragedy that was to occur at the resort. One can be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security what with Belinda’s (Natasha Rothwell crushing it all season) deep-tissue massages and Quinn’s (Fred Hechinger) daily ocean vista wake ups. Sunlit wealth porn is intoxicating, to say the least.
Yet over the course the show’s six-episode run audiences have continued to cast suspicion on each and every character at one time or another. In the end, however, Occam’s Razor prevails. The fates of these intertwined characters were sealed from the very moment they arrived and the most obvious outcome came to pass.
The finale “Departures” concludes with Shane (Jake Lacy) accidentally stabbing Armond (Murray Bartlett, earning every ounce of that forthcoming Emmy statue) after the hotel manager broke into his room and, uhh, left him a parting gift in his suitcase. Really, this was the only way the story could play out. Armond had been circling the drain all season and his conflict with the hotel’s resident rich Mama’s boy was the most suitable vehicle for creator Mike White’s endgame. But rather than feel unfulfilled by the unsurprising development, The White Lotus uses it to twist the knife in its ongoing searing exploration of class and wealth.
Shane gets off scot-free (admittedly, it was unintentional, but we were all rooting for that douchebag to be punished) in what becomes a thesis statement for the finale. Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), embracing her own agency as recently as last episode, slinks back to him in the end. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge, great all season) dashes Belinda’s dreams in favor of her own romantic chase. Kai’s (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) life is ruined after Paula (Brittany O’Grady) Lady Macbeth-ed him into breaking into the Mossbacher’s room. The incident, and by proxy his suffering, brings the despicable “it’s hard to be a white guy right now” Mossbacher clan closer together. (How great was Steve Zahn this season?)
The tragicomedy ends with the rich winning, succeeding and thriving while everyone else who exists in the real world in the shadow of the 1% losing or getting screwed over. Welcome to the hellscape that is modern economics. May I interest you in a coupon for being treated as a second class citizen for the rest of your life?
Jake Lacy, Alexandra Daddario, Molly Shannon in HBO’s The White Lotus. Photograph by Mario Perez/HBO
The White Lotus has been a deliberately uncomfortable but often engrossing watch. That discomfort works for the quirky satirical humor and bits of the drama. But it’s so obscure and vague at times that it can feel like a series of disparately connected shorts rather than a series. Vignettes of malaise and misery interspersed with ASMR flavorings. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. But was it also an esoteric, glacially paced downer? That’s fair to say, too. So is it surprising that HBO has doled out a second season order for the limited series?
The show is averaging less than 500,000 live linear viewers on HBO, ranking 14th among HBO’s active shows (not canceled or concluded even if they’re in the offseason). In the key 18-49 demo, it ranks 13th in raw live linear viewership for the premium cable network. But currently ranking #1 among all series on HBO Max, The White Lotus has achieved consistent week over week growth for both premiere and digital audience, leading into the finale episode, per HBO. However, no specific viewership stats have been provided so we don’t really know what that means. 
Conventional wisdom would suggest that something more sturdy and traditional such as Mare of Easttown or The Undoing would be the recipients of a renewal. Yet despite The White Lotus‘ malleable disposition, it appears to have developed into a buzzy oft-discussed hit across linear and streaming.
“Crash and burn,” Armond snarls before snorting a line of Ketamine that will ultimately drop the question mark from his fate. That may be the decisive end for his character, but The White Lotus is on the opposite trajectory.

Right here’s What ‘White Lotus’ Creator Mike White Thinks of That Murderous Finale

The White Lotus creator Mike White explains the finale’s meaning. Photograph by Mario Perez/HBO
Warning: The following contains spoilers for HBO’s The White Lotus
HBO’s twisty murder mystery tragicomedy The White Lotus concluded its first season Sunday night. We’ve already supplied our own deep dive thoughts on the final episode, the season’s strengths and weaknesses, and its unexpected breakout success. And while we have great confidence in our own takes and appraisals (why do you think we shout our opinions from the digital rooftops?), we won’t be offended if you’re more interested in hearing directly from creator Mike White.
White spoke with Entertainment Weekly and Vulture to answer a handful of burning questions after the sixth episode. But what really stood out was his take on the death of Armond (Murray Bartlett) and the central message the finale’s parting shot leaves audiences with.
On Armond’s death:
“Well, the thing is, I was like, ‘We got to have a death here,’” White told EW. “Because otherwise it’s just going to be like My Dinner with Andre in Hawaii or something. So it was engineered from the beginning and I just felt like the guy’s like an actor who plays King Lear. He has his best scene ever. And then he has the ultimate act of defiance where he craps in someone’s bag. And I was like, ‘There’s really nowhere else to go from here.’ But this is your swan song. So it felt like the right ending for him.”
It did indeed feel as if Armond’s fate was inevitable. The character was submerged in gloriously self-destructive behavior all season and a happy ending seemed to be a leap too far at this point. White revealed that it was always the plan to bookend the season with Chekov’s casket and the final big reveal of who was in it. Filling in the blanks became increasingly clear as Armond became increasingly erratic. RIP you sad and wild man.
On Rachels big decision:
After summoning up the courage to leave Shane on their honeymoon, Rachel ends The White Lotus by going back to him and the life their marriage represents. As it turns out, this move was always in the cards.
“I always knew she’d go back to him,” White told Vulture. “There was something about her, even in the way she’s approaching him; it’s like someone who wants to get a response. Honestly, it feels true to life for me. I’ve seen peers who may not have been in this exact situation. She’s started to feel the limits of what she thinks she’s capable of, and it’s the reality of the seduction of a lifestyle. Some people read it as cynical; to me, the thing that I feel about Shane is that even though he is a privileged asshole, he does really love her. Even if it’s just an idea of her.”
On first read, this move suggests an underlying weakness to Rachel’s character. But White didn’t necessarily see it that way. It’s not a binary problem with a simple solution.
“To me, it’s an indictment in the sense that it’s sad that principled actions don’t always win the day,” the creator said. “But it’s also — she already married him! They had the wedding. I can see how you’d just be like, No, never mind, I don’t want to have to unravel this. It’d be interesting to come back and revisit them down the road and see what happens.”
On whatever happened to Lani:
In the first episode, we meet Lani, a pregnant hotel employee who gives birth in Armond’s office and then we never see her again. It turns out, that was both practical — The White Lotus was shot in the fall of 2020 with COVID restrictions — and thematic.
“It’s not just her, too. We meet Kai and then he just disappears,” Whit says. “There’s a practical aspect to that, which is that we were forced to shoot in the bubble, so other than when we were out on the boats, we couldn’t shoot anything else. That was the mandate.”
He continues: “But I thought it would be interesting to do that. At the very beginning, [Armond says], ‘We’re interchangeable helpers.’ It’s like they don’t exist, this idea that once they exit the hotel, they’re pulverized, they vanish. I thought that would be maybe controversial, but it’s like a steamrolling. The people waving in the beginning, by the end they’ve been replaced, and it’s like the experience of these hotel guests — oh, she had a baby, he’s in jail, whatever. My hope is that the critique of that is built into the DNA of it.”
On the final image: 
The White Lotus ends with Belinda and the other employees burying their true feelings as they smile and wave at a new group of guests arriving to the resort. The heartbreaking image is something of a thesis statement for the season’s exploration of socioeconomic class divides.
“In the end, I think that having money is the difference between being able to continue to make mistakes and fly out to Honolulu with the guy you just met and whatever, and then being stuck in the job that you want to get out of, or where you want more,” White explained to EW. “And I just thought bookending the show where you have all of these people greeting them at the beginning. And then by the end, either they had a baby, they were murdered, they ended up in jail, or their dreams have been shattered. And the guests move on to the next thing. It just felt like it was, ‘Well, this is kind of a devastating moment.’ But it feels like it’s true to the story.”
HBO has renewed The White Lotus for a second season with a new cast and location to be determined. Here’s to hoping we go from sunshine beaches to whiteout winter wonderlands.

The Whiteness Lotus: HBO’s Hit Present Needs to Critique Energy, However It Fails to Commit

Natasha Rothwell and Jennifer Coolidge in The White Lotus. Mario Perez/HBO
This post contains spoilers for the first season of The White Lotus.
“This is the spa!” Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the spa manager of the White Lotus resort, says in a voice that conveys both “effortlessness” and a vascular maintenance of emotional presentation. At the very end of “spa,” you can catch a slight sigh. (In another life, I worked as a houseboy at a bed and breakfast in Provincetown, so I know the sound.) “Hey, it’s me,” the other voice says on the line. It cuts to Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), an affluent goofy-cum-troubled guest at the hotel, stepping somewhat hesitantly onto the balcony of her room. She pauses and stumbles over some of her words, the way she has throughout the entirety of the show. “Uh, listen, um. Is it okay if we push our dinner off till tomorrow? I — I got asked out, believe it or not.”
Tanya, who is mourning her abusive mother and craves intimacy, goes on to describe the man as working with “a group from Black Lives Matter.” Belinda, who is Black and who has been promised by Tanya a possible business partnership, understands, agrees and supports Tanya’s endeavors, because, of course, she must. It may lead to heartbreak of a certain kind, but it must be done when you’re in the service industry, mustn’t it?
This exchange, and the relationship itself, from the fourth episode of The White Lotus — created, produced, written, and directed by Mike White — is microcosmically emblematic of the best and worst attributes of the show. It’s a setup for a later joke (Tanya’s date does not work with Black Lives Matter) where the punchline is dilated beyond broad comedy so that it flips back to drama again. It’s positioned as broadly prickly and satirical at first (this rich white woman and her mistake) before icily changing its focus back to ensemble study (the woman of color who still has the dangling carrot of independent success in view). And it codifies their relationship as explicitly within a matrix of sociopolitical lenses with regard to race, class and gender.
The show looks sheepishly at exploitation and imbalance, and then covers its face with a shit-eating grin, congratulating itself for glancing at everything in the first place.
In a way, their dynamic of a kooky, unhinged master and reasonable, hopeful submissive is the show’s most thoughtfully illustrated, often keyed into relational subtleties and the specific frustrations of what “emotional labor” actually entails for the service workers that must maintain their emotions for their work. One doesn’t exist without the other, and Coolidge’s at once amusing and horrifying performance wouldn’t work without Rothwell’s thoughtful, heartbreaking one.
But it’s basically a promise that’s seldom kept by the show. A kind of inverted Fawlty Towers, with Murray Bartlett as its relapsing addict version of Basil Fawlty, the put-upon hotel manager, The White Lotus feels unclear in its tone and intentions. Nominally imploding the lives of a flurry of people staying at the resort and the people who work there, the show gleefully enjoys whiplash between the sharply critical and generally melodramatic, the (supposedly) incisively satirical and aspirationally fleshed out interiority. For every piece of exaggeration intended to register as social critique and satire, there’s another that wants to take that same person’s life with a level of seriousness that is spoken in an altogether different contextual voice. Steve Zahn’s patriarch dodges cancer and goes over the top with a “life is so precious” spiel, but later has to process the news that his father died of AIDS complications and was queer. It’s too broad to be a good satire, too pointedly critical to be a straight tragedy, too invested in its melodrama to be a broad comedy, until it becomes ouroborosian in its indecision on tone and ethos. It’s not that these genres and tropes can’t coexist. It’s that here, they float adrift, devoid of alchemical balance.
Steve Zahn and Connie Britton in The White Lotus. Mario Perez/HBO
The White Lotus asks us to look at their interior lives but then lets the characters engage in morally or ideologically dubious behavior and dares the audience to judge. Or frame or codify it in relation to a change in the sociopolitical sea. While Jake Lacy plays the ultimate unsatisfied guest, a nightmare of entitlement, Zahn and Connie Britton opine about the place of the straight white man in the modern world in front of a woman of color, on this island, in this social climate. Add to that mix a reactionary leftist podcast–ready Sydney Sweeney as their daughter, and Brittany O’Grady as her conflicted nonwhite friend, jousting with zingers poised to be posted with a chirp). It’s theory vs. application, the two never to meet harmoniously. This feels less like an accomplishment of thoughtful and rigorous characterization and rather an uncertainty of how these characters and ideological concepts want to orbit or obliterate one another.
This panoramic view, with various characters’ paths crossing but their trajectories kept pretty insular, never really crystallizes why we’re here in the first place. Relationships that are at first complementary remain confined, like Alexandra Daddario’s character trapped with her rich husband man-baby played by Lacy. And, sure, that’s part of the point, but, again, why are we here again? Because if power is a central question in everyone’s relationship (it is), a fixation for White to be sure, what exactly does he have to say about it? That it’s irascibly fickle in who it lets harness it and to whom it will never be stripped? Who will never acquire much of it in the first place? And what’s it got to say about whiteness — the way it shape-shifts, intrudes, haunts, pervades, invades — that isn’t easily tweetable?
Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy in The White Lotus. Mario Perez/HBO
The White Lotus hedges on those questions, too, centering whiteness without necessarily subverting or unsettling it. Despite a half-assed interest in Native Hawaiians, the score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer aided by music by the Rose Ensemble to give it a layer of proximity to quasi-Indigeneity, it is about politics but refuses relatively staunchly to be “about politics.” Its Native characters, like staffers Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) and Lani (Jolene Purdy), are a blip, with White’s “interchangeable” intention never registering because it never gives them enough time for that thematic conceit to register. It splashes about these people’s lives, mired in the rhetoric of the extremely online trying to balance the ostensible realism of its characters emotional interiority, a didacticism spouted by those ideologically and hierarchically inert, and something about their locale being, effectively, a chess board laden with the ghosts of historical abuse and scarred by a history of colonial power.
For every piece of exaggeration intended to register as social critique and satire, there’s another that wants to take that same person’s life with a level of seriousness that is spoken in an altogether different contextual voice.
It’s a show about whiteness that frequently gestures towards prodding something deeper about the possibility of whiteness’s power being, if not toppled, then at least destabilized in some way. But these grand, and frankly romantic, signals are unsent like a mistaken Gmail before the time has run out. It feels, like some of its cinematography, muddled, both feeling an impulse to critique whiteness with brittle humor about money, autonomy and discourses du jour, but stops short of being actually satirical, sincerely destabilizing anyone’s sense of status safety. Rather than a laceration, it licks at what feels most like “boo boos,” while it’s unable to decide whether we’re watching humans or arch parodies of the affluent and unapologetic.
It’s this tacit embarrassment to go in on these concepts that frustrates me most, as someone who is very fond of White’s usually tender, deft hand at balancing tone, seeing both flaw and beauty, good intention and awful execution. I still believe Enlightened to be one of the best pieces of art in the 21st century. But, unfortunately at the White Lotus, power will not be displaced, status quo will not be disrupted, and critique will waver. It’s not really about the ones most at risk or made vulnerable by that power inequity. It’s mostly about those who are, if not at the center, then at least have some of the greatest proximity to it, which would be less bothersome if it had more precision in its aimed poisoned arrows. It’s not about history or politics, either, which would be fine if it didn’t constantly orient itself around the idea of being about history or politics.
The show looks sheepishly at exploitation and imbalance, and then covers its face with a shit-eating grin, congratulating itself for glancing at everything in the first place. The gorgeous title sequence by Plains of Yonder features beautiful, delicate wallpaper designs of sea creatures and presumably Native people canoeing, and as the sequence goes on, the ink on the paper begins to bloom and bleed. That’s what the show needed: to bloom and bleed. But it didn’t. The petals just wither and wilt.

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.
The White Lotus is available to stream on HBO Max.