Yacht, Rocks: On HBO’s “The White Lotus” and Picturesque Dread
By Jorge CotteFebruary 10, 2023
Each season is a new destination. The first, in Wailea, Maui, has colonialism as its backdrop and a tone described by Jackson McHenry, in a piece previewing the show’s return, as “particularly acid, despairing.” This is an ambivalence personal to White, a feeling of being caught between acknowledging the destructive force of tourism that caters to the wealthiest and most ignorant Americans and the fantasy of island life that is too magnetic to give up. This complication delivers a warped focus, ruthless to the very characters about whom it wants to tell a satisfying story, while those most affected, with one notable exception, are left behind in their wake.
Taormina, Sicily, provides a different playground for White. As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is the product of centuries of conquest and battles for control between powers in what we now call Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The places we see onscreen bear the marks of that history while locating the past in art, architecture, and cultural vestiges. The Taormina resort itself is a renovated former convent, lined with anguish-filled paintings; gardens of cherub statues, their features pruned indiscriminately by time; the severed heads of Testa di Moro vases, always watching. This Sicily is anachronistic, marked by the ruins of ended civilizations and futures now past.
On one level, it’s the guests’ own petty conflicts and self-destructive obliviousness that pave their fates. Infidelity, abduction, swindling, and death are all payoffs to their flounderings. But the show is formally haunted by a dread and anxiety that undermine the rejuvenating promises of luxury and natural beauty. The White Lotus takes notes from horror — slow push-ins, empty hallways, and creeping pans. In the first season, much was placed on the shoulders of Cristóbal Tapia de Veer’s score, full of “discordant flutes and steadily accelerating percussion layered with animalistic shrieks and heavy moaning.” The second season’s music is more romantic, even operatic, more piano-driven, though it plunges into darkness and tension at unexpected moments. In Sicily, it is the physical setting that unsettles vacation dreams.
The beaches of Wailea are stereotypically pretty. Bathed in sunglow, the sea is horizontal and tranquil, caressing the white sand beneath palm trees. Taormina has starker personalities — its tawny days reflect pale stone Arab architecture, bleached cliffside dust, and a beige desert broken up by shrubs and cacti like bad skin. The craggy coasts are beautiful and inhospitable. “As yellow is always accompanied with light,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.” And the nights in Sicily suck all the yellow out, leaving an inky blue broken up only by the surf’s boiling froth. Copious pineapple imagery in Maui is replaced by artworks that hover behind resort guests in sinister fashion. The camera lingers on immobile faces and empty spaces, passes into them, encroaching its own uncompromising presence.
Despite the previous description, the show is not wholly, or even mostly, grim. There are palazzos and yachts and pools pristine as mirrors. This Italy is art imitating life, formed by fantasies of Monica Vitti and The Godfather. Like other satires of wealth and luxury, The White Lotus articulates the very promises it seeks to undermine, and it is hard to dissipate those kisses after they cloud the air. The tension is a counterbalance.
Take this example from the third episode: Cameron and Ethan soar over the water on rented jet skis. They were college roommates and have revived an old and unspoken rivalry for alpha status. The white finance bro and the newly wealthy Asian American coder carve up the sea and bask in golden afternoon light. The screen fades to black and alights on the arches of an old ruin. The flinty facade is tinted blue against the fading sky. Then — the shore, rocks presiding over a blanket of spume that coils back into an oncoming break.
There’s a sad desperation, rather than bliss, when Cameron drags Ethan into a hedonistic diversion with a whole bunch of drugs and Lucia and Mia, locals with their own games at play. The men are married but their wives are away. Cameron’s exclamation of “Let’s fun!” alternates with the rocky shore, the foam’s unsettled patterns. A high angle on a rocky outgrowth, hunched over like a creature awaiting its death. Turbid water scrapes at its sides. At the resort’s bar, the camera roves and sways as the partiers slosh their drinks. Ethan retreats into himself, the world falling further out of focus.
Like Armand’s bender in the first season (a general manager with an employee in his office, losing all inhibitions while waters creep onto the shore in red hue), the sea amplifies a sense of distortion and dissociation. Rather than appealing to us, these interstices coordinate a thirst for pleasure with self-oblivion and the indifference and largeness of the tide. Ethan slides to the ground, inert, as the party goes on in his suite. His disavowal can only be a disengagement with the world.
Waves crashing into rocks and lingering shots of artwork are some of the show’s most recognizable aesthetic choices. They stick with viewers, even prompting comments such as “if white lotus cut every scene of the waves crashing we’d prob have a full episode worth of plot” and “ok white lotus is kind of good but if i see one more scene of waves crashing into rocks i’m going to lose it!” or even a Reddit post titled “The symbolism is over the top” that bravely queries, “How many times do we need to see the waves crashing on the rocks. We get it.” And yet, these appeals imply that crashing waves are filler, something to break up time, or that they are symbolic stand-ins, referring to something other than themselves. The gloomy sea returns again and again in interstitial shots that are neither orienting devices nor insights to thought. Unlike the show’s typical establishing gestures, the jostling waters situate us nowhere. They are, instead, affective markers, pulling the show into a foreboding tide.
What is incontrovertible is that we would receive the show and its scenes differently if the waves were replaced by serene sunsets or foliage, or even if they were excised entirely. One might wonder whether Harper has ever spent a night staring at her ceiling and resorted to searching “calming waves” on YouTube. These waves are not those waves. Or, at least, they are not only those waves. These Sicilian waves are cousins to the waves in Big Little Lies and Broadchurch, harbingers or reminders of something dark. Other writers have called the sea in The White Lotus ominous and portentous; it recalls inevitability, unpredictability, “nature at its most violent yet also its most beautiful.” The English expat Quentin will tie the craggy shores to death more explicitly when he tells Tanya of the Isola Bella’s former owner: “[H]er body was found in a heap at the bottom of the rocks.”
The White Lotus’s tonal dancing depends on its underlying dread. Søren Kierkegaard famously approached anxiety, also called dread, as a relation to the future that is “fraught with possibility,” a dizziness of freedom, brought on by the open abyss of what may come. Paradoxically, in his journals, he connects anxiety to a presentiment that can “tempt a person to think that he is, as it were, predestined.”
Mike White said this after the first season:
[T]he world is too much with us, whether it’s the climate or our phones. […] You go to these places, [on] this hunt for escapism, but there’s this feeling of existential dread that permeates the experience. The waters are rising here, too. There’s no getting away from it all. There’s no mystery anymore.
There’s nowhere we can go where that feeling of existential dread won’t follow. Or, at least, no physical place. In the first season, the music conjures that feeling; in the second, it is literally the waters.
This sense of the world being too much with us is key to the way The White Lotus plays up political fissures for satirical effect. The show’s pairings distinguish between those overwhelmed by the state of the world, those insulated behind their walls of cash, and those concerned with more basic needs. Simply, the show’s most precarious characters have simpler aims than manifestos. And it is often the show’s younger characters who initiate ideological clashes — think of Olivia and Paula’s Tumblr politics in season one, or Portia’s malaise and Albie’s nice-guy gender wokeness in season two.
The show doesn’t resolve the gap between Olivia and her girlboss mother, or Albie and his “of a different generation” grandfather, but uses that impossible distance to stage tension and comedy. No one convinces anyone else, and instead they play covers of archetypal positions we’ve heard before. Olivia excoriates her mother for being CEO of a company that's part of the unraveling of the social fabric, and Nicole chides her daughter for a cynicism that never amounts to a politics. Albie calls out his nonno’s nostalgia for “the salad days of the patriarchy,” while Bert points out that elders have become “reminders of an offensive past everybody wants to forget.” Everyone has a point sometimes but never all the time.
Not all the show’s characters feel this existential dread. When they first arrive in Taormina, the two couples gather around spritzes on the resort’s cliffside terrace. Harper and Ethan look secure behind dark sunglasses, and Daphne and Cameron sit with their backs to the Ionian Sea. Cameron is in a habanero-colored polo, coordinated with the orange tinge of diluted Aperol and their Acqua Panna. For the newly wealthy couple, Cameron is part of this vacation’s diet. Harper is relieved to have found her Ambien. She, predictably enough, has trouble sleeping. Daphne and Cameron, who don’t vote, don’t read the news, and seem to have no political principles at all, sleep like babies. They subsist on voyeuristic reality TV and Ted Lasso, shows made to appeal to everyone and offend no one. They console themselves that it is not that bad, the world isn’t ending, and, even if it were, there’s nothing they can do.
Later, Harper and Ethan pat themselves on the back for not being immoral, ignorant rich people, like their companions. But propriety, or perhaps genuine interest, keeps them around. Though the ongoing global catastrophe that is racial capitalism might be on their mind, it’s just fuel for anxiety. They are not, after all, radicals — Ethan just sold a software company, and Harper is in employment law and thinking of maybe starting a foundation with the Hispanic Federation. So, all Harper’s conscience does is keep her up at night. Quinn’s frustration near the end of the first season echoes here: “What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit.”
In fact, Harper has trouble articulating what keeps her up: “I don’t know. Just everything that’s going on … in the world,” she says. And when asked to elaborate: “Oh, I don’t know. Just, the end of the world.” Ecological catastrophe, so many displaced peoples, the pandemic’s unequal distribution of death, the generally unfathomable structures doling out precarity in every corner of the world. These offspring of capitalist infestation are gestured to but not named. Calling to mind Anahid Nersessian’s allusion to a structure “so overwhelming in its magnitude that its opacity becomes the most telling evidence of its significance,” Harper’s vague pronouncements provide cover for an atmosphere of capitalist realist dread: that there is no alternative, that the end of the world is a conclusion foregone.
There is another telling moment in episode six. Portia seems to be changing her mind that what she really wants is a caveman who’s completely outside the discourse when she casually mentions to her escort/abductor Jack that “the world’s a fucked-up place” and “literally everything is falling apart.” Jack doesn’t agree, resorting to the capitalist realist proverb that the world might not be perfect but alternatives are worse. Naming these effects without the cause, as Portia and Harper do, leaves them as disembodied fantastical symptoms — the world falling apart for no apparent reason, with no culprit in sight. These disembodied phrasings also gloss over the reality that climate crisis and ecological catastrophe do not affect all people equally. They lament the loss of human control and ignore the fact that this rock will outlast us.
Ultimately, the show must underarticulate political analysis in order to fully lean into wishy-washy ambivalence. Is it anti-capital or just anti-these-people? Are these people gross or are they sexy? Are they turning Sicily into a The Godfather theme park, or do we need them to maintain our palazzos? Is this funny? Is this sad? The White Lotus wants it all, and at its best, it juggles tones like a tightrope artist. Shots of artwork on a wall could be ridiculous, but instead they stack tension. When Tanya is on the yacht, waiting for her final trip, awareness of what’s coming raises the stakes rather than dissipates them. The show is happy if we identify with Tanya, but it is confident that, one way or another, suspense gathers us in its tide.
Because, don’t forget: there’s a body floating in the sea.
A corpse introduces titillating stakes to a show that is otherwise primarily interested in the petty jostling of contemporary life. The scaffolding of murder permits the show to be read as a mystery, scoured for clues, the object of theories and forensic analysis aimed solely at one thing: guessing what comes next. In the first season, death is almost an overlay, a hook to snag viewers. But there is no way to tell the story of the second season without the violence that punctuates it. The dead body might be one engine that powers the foreboding energy of the show; it looms in the offing, lending credence to every threat. It’s what we know will happen without knowing who or why or how. Dread travels in words and waves, eventually reaching a shore where it must finally discharge. When death finally arrives with a splash, it ends the show, but it doesn’t dissipate the dread. The wave regathers.
In The White Lotus, nature is that which won’t be bought. Tanya saves her own life only to lose it. For a moment, she is preserved in the water, a perfect blue statue. The raging of wave versus rock is not anger but brutal indifference. Behind them, flares erupt from Mount Etna. Ultimately, the show recasts nature and time as its sources of portent, their forces inevitable and ever present. Absconding in a new hat and sunglasses is capitalism — the thing that makes an industry called tourism out of places that are too pretty, converting aesthetics, every relation, into a price. The thing subsuming everything under the logic of gain. But nature is the anvil against which humanity is battered.
Rising temperatures are already hurting Sicily’s food production, and rising sea levels will threaten the refineries and industrial plants on its east coast. All over the planet, beaches will erode, wetlands and other ecosystems will be inundated, salt water will contaminate aquifers and other sources of freshwater. Hurricanes will continue to intensify, with disproportionate devastation in already precarious communities. Nature is figured as the threat to mankind, rather than mankind a threat to nature. While the ocean’s power can be felt in moments of sudden violence, its usual force is a slow persistence. That it’s simultaneous. That it’s there. That it’s there.
For a show that’s not shy about sex, though, it is telling that The White Lotus never defines what goes on between Harper and Cameron or Ethan and Daphne. The latter tryst is lost to the Isola Bella, and the former is recreated only in Ethan’s imagination. Though Harper and Ethan look down on their companions’ frivolity, they are caught in their orbit. Cameron is perhaps the most stereotypical asshole in the show who sees it as his right to sate every appetite, including cheating on his wife and hitting on his friend’s wife. He whines when a colleague of his is fired for throwing yogurt at an assistant’s face. Ethan doesn’t disengage but descends to Cameron’s level, and Harper, finally exhausted about the lack of sexual desire in her marriage, gives in to Cameron’s attentions. Harper, who hates everything Cameron represents, kisses him and grabs his shirt and grabs his abs and moans in his ear.
Why do we desire what we hate, what we fear, what kills us? I don’t know. But I do know that moral objection doesn’t cancel out libidinal attachment like some sort of arithmetic. We can’t fight fantasy with fire. Anxiety is an ambivalence that takes form as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy.” It is one of the conditions of modern life.
There are almost no uncomplicated pleasures left. Everything is tainted. The national sport destroys men’s brains and bodies and we don’t quit it. If you watch the new Lord of the Rings show or buy kale, you’re filling Jeff Bezos’s wallet. The most global sports event of last year was built on hundreds of migrant worker deaths. Even that sentence is shameful, only possible with distance. We know better and it doesn’t stop us; it probably eggs us on. It’s kind of masochistic when you think about it. The smart entertainers know this; they play with this; they wink at us, or sneer; they implicate us and drag our shame to the fore. Manufactured ambivalence is one of the last remaining markers of quality TV.
And like a new cut of jeans, eating the rich is in. In 2009, Mark Fisher wrote: “What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.” This includes, as Fisher explains, even certain kinds of anti-capitalism. Even the most biting satire of class is bought and sold, and, in fact, may even contain our anxiety for us, performing an ironic anti-capitalism that provides a receptacle for laundering our bad feelings so we can wake up the next day and go to work. So, what does it mean that anti-capitalist art is en vogue? Eat the Rich is big enough to be a Netflix genre or collection on HBO Max, but mostly, these depictions that glamorize wealthy lifestyles only to put their subjects in their place at the end are new iterations of what Wendy Brown termed “class resentment without class consciousness or class analysis.”
The depressing part is that, rather than feel immobilized by the skewering, real-life rich people watch shows like The White Lotus and get ideas of where to go next. Maybe they feel bad for a second, but soon they are calling their travel agents. Haven’t you heard? Tourism to Sicily is up, up, up! “Some guests wanted to visit the Aeolian isles with a private helicopter and rent a yacht to Syracuse,” said General Manager Lorenzo Maraviglia of the real-life resort’s surge in interest, “which is only an hour’s drive away.” (Yachts, ferries, and other boats all feature in Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and even Loot, all from 2022. Rich people get on a boat to travel inefficiently, never relinquishing an ounce of comfort. In these movies and shows, rich people get on a boat, and that is when things start to go wrong. I tell myself: even the biggest gigayacht looks tiny in the ocean’s palm.) Rich people love a yacht, and moving pictures love making a yacht look good. Yeah, they can’t help it. They make everything look good, but especially if it costs oodles of money. I’m less interested in how rich people always manage to have selective hearing in cases of obvious satire than in what The White Lotus’s deadening vacations say about our undead desires for the trappings of wealth. (Our vacation would be different, you tell yourself. We would do it right. We wouldn’t just eat at the hotel restaurant every night. We would appreciate the art and architecture.)
It’s not that I want coherent politics from my TV shows as much as I’m interested in how these shows already accommodate our ambivalent negotiations between desire and politics. Instead of projecting a desire that promises to cradle us in nonambivalence, these shows manifest and navigate our mixed feelings for us. Is ambivalence just a way of having our anti-capitalist cake and eating at San Domenico’s Michelin-starred restaurant too?
Well, capitalism is coasting, happy to sell our anti-capitalism back to us. When rich people watch vacations gone wrong and laugh along, maybe they are not thinking of the rest of us. For all of its fun, The White Lotus is nothing without its music, without the Testa di Moro’s dead eyes, without sea working against rock. What can’t be left behind on a yacht. Their dread is a cinematic tension. The dread is also real. Maybe the consolation is this: mixed in with our desires for a Sicily that doesn’t exist, for the perfect plate of giant clams, for Theo James’s tanned abs, is a desire for it to be over, for something other than a deadening job, for new ways of relating, for the communal life we need, for a luxury that doesn’t kill.
Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago.
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