Mike White is well aware The White Lotus is not a murder mystery at heart. “You know, it’s such a trope at this point. All of these limited series where there’s a dead body at the beginning,” the writer and director told The New Yorker last month, shortly after his six-episode pandemic project premiered on HBO. “I was like, ‘You want your dead body? Here’s your dead body.’”
The quote makes the presence of a corpse sound perfunctory, even parodic. It’s true that, for most of The White Lotus’s run, it was easy to forget about the death teased in the series’ opening scene. The namesake resort is awash in existential dread, its guests’ immediate anxieties drowning out the impending calamity at the end of their stay. “Someone dies” is a vague proclamation; the withering contempt of two arrogant college students is a horror so visceral it radiates off the screen. By the season’s middle stretch, The White Lotus appeared downright disinterested in setting up a gory conclusion—it reached the point when you could wonder why White bothered to include one at all. Surely the seething resentment of the hotel’s staff could power the show on its own.
But in Sunday’s finale, The White Lotus proved its climax was much more than a cynical ploy for viewership or a sly wink at contemporaries like Mare of Easttown or Big Little Lies. The title of “Departures” is, of course, a double-entendre; most of the characters simply shuffle onto a plane, while one shuffles off this mortal coil. Yet the actual death is more than a pun, let alone an afterthought. It’s a perfect distillation of the show’s themes, one that would seem overdetermined if it didn’t sneak up on us. Like all the best twists, the death in The White Lotus feels shocking in the moment, but inevitable in retrospect. White didn’t try to hide the ball; in a telling choice, HBO shared the full season with critics in advance, while similar shows typically withhold the finale and its attendant reveals.
And so: It was loathsome rich kid Shane (Jake Lacy), in the Pineapple Suite, with a knife. In theory, Shane came to the White Lotus to celebrate his new marriage. In practice, he spent most of his honeymoon waging war on hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) in a mental showdown that turned fatally physical. It’s Armond who breaks into Shane’s room on a nihilistic bender; Armond who bleeds out in the luxurious bathtub; Armond whose remains fly on the same aircraft as his erstwhile charges. Not that they notice: he’s in the cargo hold while they’re in the cabin. Even in death, the server is an afterthought to the served.
Armond’s demise is tragic. It also clarifies what The White Lotus has to say about class, its central motif. From the moment Armond and his deputies don their game faces for a boatful of fresh arrivals, it’s clear The White Lotus shows a struggle between the privileged and the paid help. What isn’t clear is what the show sees as the inevitable outcome of said struggle. Until the very last minute, the prospect of flipping the power dynamic at play is dangled in front of hotel staff like some tantalizing carrot. Guest Paula (Brittany O’Grady) persuades her vacation fling Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), a Native Hawaiian, to raid the safe in the luxury suite where she’s staying. Masseuse Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) pitches potential benefactor Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) on her very own wellness center. And after trading barbs with Shane all week, Armond exacts his crude, if satisfying, revenge: He takes a dump in his open suitcase. But in the end, none of these gambits work out—for Armond least of all.
At first, The White Lotus appears to undermine the idea of vacation as a time for healing or escape. Even for the guests, paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Tanya carries with her a literal piece of emotional baggage: the ashes of her cruel, tyrannical mother, which she can’t bring herself to scatter. Paula’s hosts, the Mossbachers, are a wealthy family weighed down by workaholism, repression, and spoiled children. Shane is incapable of self-reflection, but Rachel quickly realizes her Prince Charming is more of an entitled toad. For a while, at least, the misery of The White Lotus is equal opportunity.
By the time the credits roll, though, almost every guest is better off, and every employee far worse. Bonded together by the trauma of the robbery, the Mossbachers rediscover their mojo, much to the horror of their daughter. Buoyed by Belinda’s pep talks, Tanya meets a man who loves her for the self-described “alcoholic lunatic” she is. And even after killing a man, Shane fails to meet any sort of comeuppance—in fact, it’s Rachel who comes crawling back to him, promising through tears she’ll do her best to be happy despite his gaping flaws. In Rachel’s own words, it’s a Faustian bargain, one she takes because even selling your soul to a douche in a Cornell hat is better than the unknown.
Compared to the workers who don’t have the luxury of leaving the White Lotus, the guests’ joy starts to look almost vampiric, as they receive boosts that come directly at their attendants’ expense. Kai briefly gets away with grand larceny, but he eventually loses both his job and his freedom, a steep price to pay for the Mossbachers’ rekindled romance. In Belinda’s case, the trade-off is especially explicit. After stringing Belinda along for days, Tanya lets her know that she can’t follow through. “I’m getting back into this pattern where I latch onto somebody and use my money to control them,” she explains. “The last thing I need in my life is another transactional relationship. It’s not healthy”—she pauses—“for me.” After praising Belinda for her empathy and skill, Tanya leaves her an envelope stuffed with cash. From the ashes of their relationship, Tanya gets a functional relationship for what’s likely the first time in her life. Belinda just gets a tip. Of course the dead body belongs to one of the staff. These people have already all but given their lives to the happiness of others; why not make it official?
As for Armond, the manager isn’t a martyr. The White Lotus is aware that power isn’t a one-way street; just because Armond is exploited doesn’t mean he can’t exploit. In the premiere, he fails to notice a new trainee is heavily pregnant until she goes into labor, and in the grips of a downward spiral, he starts to sexually proposition one of his underlings. The White Lotus may have shades of allegory, but it’s never a morality play—a nuance that, ironically, makes Armond’s downfall more heartbreaking for being partially self-imposed. Shane may be a prick, but when it comes to the dispute that started it all, he was technically right: Armond did book the wrong suite, and refused to back down rather than give Shane the latest in a lifelong series of wins. When Shane reflexively says “I’m sorry” when he sees what he’s done, it sounds like the first time he’s apologized for anything in his life.
The White Lotus doesn’t follow through as gracefully on all its central concerns. It’s fair to critique the show, as some critics did, for mirroring the myopia of its cast, especially on the subject of Hawaii’s racialized colonial past. Kai is the only Native Hawaiian character of consequence, and even then a relatively minor one, leaving the other characters to filter the topic through the lens of their own self-centered worldview. (Having Paula read Césaire at the airport is a nice touch that’s also indicative of the show’s dilettantish approach.) But with Armond’s death, The White Lotus puts a bloody bow on its main story before it skips town for a recently announced Season 2. Watching Belinda put her game face on for a fresh crop of customers, we cringe and yet understand. Those who try to break the cycle pay a steep price. Better to just smile and wave.