“The White Lotus”–White Gaze

In this HBOMax six-episode mini-series (which ended August 15), we watch two uber-wealthy families on vacation in Hawaii (at the upscale Four Seasons) make themselves miserable in a perfectly-seeming tropical paradise. Their privileged existence is the luxury not to be concerned with others. 

In White Lotus’s opening scene, at the airport, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), an insufferable, narcissistic scion of a wealthy and powerful family, explains with great disdain to fellow passengers that his wife, Rachel, has died…on their honeymoon. A cardboard coffin marked  “human remains” is loading onto a plane.  We’re ready to be hooked in:  a mystery awaits.  Who killed Shane’s wife?

Privileged to a degree that the wrong hotel suite–one without a plunge pool–can ruin his honeymoon, Shane zeroes in on making Armond, the hotel manager pay–with a vengeance–for assigning him an “inferior”suite.  Shane deserves the best of the best–and feels unhinged by the perceived slight.  Armond (the scene-stealing Murray Bartlett), the “hired help” providing impeccable but fulsome service to those who expect no less, cannot comply with Shane’s wishes but is excruciatingly obsequious in trying to placate him…as do all hotel staff.

His young journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes from a far more modest background, and is proud of her budding career.  She is beautiful, sincerely wants to be an independent woman, and is frightened by the specter of being Shane’s trophy wife.  Unable to endure Shane’s tantrums and humiliation of the hotel manager, Rachel soon becomes inconsolable.  Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), who pays a surprise visit to her son and daughter-in-law on their honeymoon, tries to convince Rachel that being a trophy wife can be lots of fun.

The Mossbachers are equivalent to Shane Patton’s family in excess and decadence.  Nicole (Connie Britton) is a Forbes-style mega-entrepreneur emulated by ambitious women. But her teenage daughter, Olivia, can barely share the room’s oxygen with her. Bringing her friend, Paula, to distract from her dysfunctional family, Olivia hopes her friend will ease the tension on vacation.  Paula, however, grows increasingly uneasy with what she observes.  The dad, Mark (Steve Zahn), questions his own relationship with his son Quinn, the outlier in the family, after learning some secrets concerning his own father.

And then there is the wealthy single Tanya (the outstanding Jennifer Coolidge), who is in Maui to scatter the ashes of her unloving mother.  Lost, wanting some peace of mind, she offers to finance the dream of a local hotel masseuse, Brenda (Natasha Rothwell) to own her own spa.

This  luxury vacation is all about relaxation and renewal… until it is not..  The social critique of colonialism and its impact on the local residents is scathing and, at times, insightful.

All the characters have unhealed wounds, and most don’t know it.  They surround themselves with distractions, with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “need to be white”,– the addiction to having power over others,– to use wealth and privilege to maintain position, oftentimes unaware of this thirst or the deep emptiness in their own souls.   Paula, in one scene, astringently observes that her friend, Olivia’s, insistence that she is not privileged and entitled is delusional:  “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.”  The self-absorption is, at times, on the verge of suffocation.

The hotel employees, caught up as providers for the served, want independence from being dominated. What drives the engine in all relationships throughout The White Lotus is money.  The hotel staff is essentially bought– body and soul– by the guests,

So many characters, so many threads of possibility:  dramatic turns of characters and their arcs.  We are hopeful.  But then they almost all fall flat. The ending of The White Lotus borders on fraudulent.  Hooking the viewer with an opening scene of a dead honeymooner in the tradition of a whodunit but then not delivering.

 No, no, no!   This series was such a disappointment in concept, writing, and overall structure with more questions than answers about amorphous, half-developed characters.  There were some good lines but I’m afraid a grade of C+ is generous, and only given because there was so much promise from excellent actors who needed a tightly plotted script, and a few highly original political and social comments about the “white gaze”.  A second season? Really?

Availability: HBOMax

“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBOMax mini-series, we watch a mother,  Mare Sheehan (the remarkable Kate Winslet) attempting to come to terms with her unexpressed and unresolved grief over the death of her young adult son, Kevin. She is also a detective living in Easttown, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, who is  investigating the murder of an adolescent single mother, Erin McMenamin. 

Mare is a local hero, a high-school basketball champion dating back 25 years. She now has multiple setbacks and tragedies to deal with:  an unsolved missing case of a young girl, a divorce, her judgmental mother, her grief-stricken and wounded daughter Siobhan, a professor boyfriend, her best friend’s suspicions, and an ex- addict ex-daughter-in-law battling for custody of Mare’s grandson.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

The supporting ensemble cast– which includes Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential), Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), and Jean Smart (Hope Springs, The Accountant) — is exceptional.  All integrate their characters’ backstories, whether revealed on screen or on their faces, as past histories remaining untold.  Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart deliver shattering, emotionally brittle performances, often leaving them trembling from their open wounds. In unforgettable scenes pairing Winslet with Nicholson and Winslet with Smart, we see female empowerment and vulnerability simultaneously and inseparably.   Simply brilliant acting!

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming