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Mike White on the Inevitable “Tragedy” of That Finale

In a wide-ranging interview, ‘The White Lotus’ creator breaks down the relationships at the core of Season 2, what may lie ahead for next season, and what he thinks of all those fan theories

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: The following interview is an excerpt from Tuesday’s episode of The Prestige TV Podcast, where Joanna Robinson interviewed White Lotus creator Mike White. To hear the full discussion, listen here. To hear Joanna’s, Mallory Rubin’s, and Bill Simmons’s thoughts on the show’s Season 2 finale, listen here.

Mike White, veteran contestant of Survivor and The Amazing Race, knows a thing or two about playing a game. But when it comes to the second season of his awards-friendly ratings juggernaut The White Lotus, it seems, a theory-addicted audience played itself. Season 2 ended not with a shocking twist or the fulfillment of the majority of convoluted fan theories, but with a gut-churning sprint toward the inevitable end of Jennifer Coolidge’s Emmy-winning character Tanya McQuoid-Hunt. Coolidge ended her two-season run with all the dramatic aplomb of an opera diva through the lens of a comedic actress who has spent the past two decades sharpening her portrayal of witless blonds to a lethal point. Like many a tragic soprano, she exited a stage littered with bodies. But unlike, say, Puccini’s Tosca, Tanya’s swan dive into the Ionian sea was closer to a pratfall.

That seemingly inherent contradiction in tone is something Mike White has shown himself the master of again and again. Speaking with The Ringer’s Prestige TV Podcast from Los Angeles on the Monday morning after the finale, White explained why smashing genres, motivations, and unlikely bedfellows together is what keeps him interested in his work. White, who says he has spent the bulk of his career making films and shows he can’t even get his family to watch, is “stupefied” to find himself on top of the TV world. But the canniness of White’s journey would make Survivor host Jeff Probst proud. The Enlightened creator has finally snared a massive TV audience by sprinkling in popular tropes. Dead bodies in the cold opens turned both seasons into unexpected whodunits, and White bumped up the sex appeal in Season 2 with a plot he likes to call “a bedroom farce with teeth.”

But one cannot craft an HBO Sunday-night hit with corpses and spouse swapping alone, and that’s where White’s career-long empathy for human frailty, keen observations on the wealthy class, and a willingness to inject his own personal heartbreak into the story of one week in the life of a luxury hotel come into play.


I have a lot of writer questions for you but I wanted to start with a directorial question about the final shoot-out and your decision to keep the camera on Tanya throughout.

My biggest fear of that whole thing was gonna be, you know, “Tanya gets a gun!” Like the campiness would be just too much, even for me. I have a tolerance for a little camp. I was just like, “How do we keep this feeling not goofy?” If we stay with her panic and her fear and her pain—or the terror of it—it would still feel like the show in a way. The more it became a shoot-’em-up, you know, you need to hear all the things that are going on, but it’s off camera and you’re just staying with her crazy face. It created its own suspense. Maybe it’s also because I’m not an experienced director with an action gun sequence and was just like: Let’s just play to my strengths as well.

Before the season premiered you told The Guardian that the character you most identify with this season is Quentin (Tom Hollander). Previously you named Armond (Murray Bartlett) as the Season 1 character you identify with. What should we think about these characters you identify with dying at the end of your seasons of television?

The reason I said I relate to Quentin is because I feel like I was doing to Jennifer what Quentin was doing to Tanya. I wanted to bring her to Italy. It was like, “Jennifer, what kind of things do you wanna do?” She’s like, “It’d be just great to be on a Vespa.” I mean, literally some of the dialogue that we used in the show. I want her to have this great sendoff. But I’m always heading to kill her. Let’s give her this bravura story line, she gets to do all these fun things in Italy and wear cool clothes, but then also there’s a part of me where I’m torturing her.

She has seasickness and she doesn’t like to be on boats. Both in the first season and second season she’s been on a boat. There are times when I’m like, “Am I her guardian angel, or am I her little devil?” It actually speaks to something I’m trying to get at a little bit with the story line in the show: gay men’s infatuations with certain kinds of women. I think there’s a little bit of sadism in it. Women that are classically divas for gay guys, like Judy Garland, they also like to see them suffer. There’s a pleasure to watching women’s pain, if it’s done in the right way: The idea of a woman who’s been disappointed in love and then she finds these great gay guys and she’s going to have this How Stella Got Her Groove Back moment, but they really are there to torture her.

So, anyway, it makes me sound like I am diabolical. Maybe I am. But as a director, I’m setting up this whole thing and it feels like Quentin was doing that too. He probably feels bad about, you know, killing her, so he’s going to justify it by giving her a big party, she’s gonna get laid and then … you know.

It feels like there’s that duality throughout the season where two things can be true inside any given character. Lucia can be scamming Albie, but also like Albie at the same time. How much do you see that inner conflict or contradiction as being an important part of the White Lotus characters?

I feel like that is maybe the best way to describe what I usually go for all the time. That’s what I like in a character, that sense of: You like them but do you like them? I guess people would say that is a defining characteristic of what I do. It’s not conscious, but if it feels too likable or too straightforward, it feels like something’s missing for me. At the same time, if it’s too biting or too gnarly, it feels wrong too. It has to have some sweet in there. It’s like you’re a chef and you want a complex taste.

I wanted to ask you about this idea of transactional sex that’s not just in the Mia and Lucia story line, but in Cameron and Daphne’s relationship and all over the place. Is there a way in which those transactional relationships are more honest than the sex that we see as “romantic”? Does romantic love even exist in the White Lotus universe?

I grew up, not to get too personal, witnessing women having their hearts broken a lot over and over—and in the case of someone very close to me, it was debilitating. Well, I’ll just tell you: My dad was gay, he was married to my mom, and then they divorced. My mom was so distraught and devastated, and then she realized that her whole relationship wasn’t what she thought it was. I’m kind of an anti-romantic. It’s good to love someone and attachment is inevitable, but there’s a lot of mythologizing around romance that can really work against you. The White Lotus gets into self-created problems.

These people are creating problems for themselves. They don’t really have problems. To me, romance is the definition of a self-created problem. You’ve decided to give up the power of your self-narrative to this idea. Maybe that’s cynical, but then it does make you go, like, “Well, there’s other ways to engage sexually and with other people.” This isn’t a pro-transactional-sex show, but what I like about Mia and Lucia is that they know what they want. They go and they get it. Compare that to Tanya where she’s so obsessive about Greg. I know women like this where they like to finger the wound. They like to live in the pain of it. They’re tragic people and that’s why, in this case, she has a tragic ending.

You mentioned the various ingredients you want to put in this particular recipe, and I think that the cynicism is balanced with something like the Mia and Lucia friendship, relationship, and partnership, which I find to be completely pure and beautiful. I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to end the season on them.

I like them because they know what they want, and they’re also there to help each other. They’re boosting each other, they’re supporting each other, they can lean on each other. Compare that to Tanya and Portia, where there’s all of this blame and projection, and also they live in this kind of haze of their own. What do they want? You have Tanya die, and then I felt like, “Let’s give Portia a little hope.” Then Mia and Lucia—if people take it literally, it’s like: “Go out and work as a sex worker.” [That] is not really what I’m saying. What I do appreciate about them is they have goals. They’re there to write their own story. I guess that’s my attitude when it comes to romance. It’s good to love people. We have to navigate sex and everything. But at the same time, keep writing your story. Don’t get confused, and don’t end up going down some wormhole in some romance and then losing your way for yourself.

That sounds like you’re describing Daphne, who has staunchly decided that she’s not the victim in this story. Cameron can get up to whatever he gets up to, but she’s taking control of what she can. She has that great line in the finale about not needing to know everything to love someone. I love that this season ends with Ethan and Harper being much more Cameron and Daphne than they were when they started. Is this about contentment and dishonesty? Is it about keeping those walls up a little bit and so finding some safety inside of a relationship?

I do kind of agree with Daphne. It’s colored by the fact that her husband is such a cad. He’s pretty extreme. But obviously, she’s made some kind of internal bargain that she is OK with. In general, we create the narratives of our relationships. We decide what importance to put on fidelity. If we’ve been betrayed, we tell the story of our relationships. Daphne just has a very strong sense of how she’s going to tell the narrative of her relationship. It’s not a relationship I would want, but if you’re gonna be in the relationship, figure out how to feel good about it. He can go and be the biggest sleaze, but she’s going to figure out a way to make that not feel painful.

As far as Ethan and Harper, I also think that’s true. When I was younger, there was this obsessive desire to feel like I’m totally in lockstep with my partner. There’s no gray area. It’s just this feeling of possession of the truth of what they do and their desire. I feel like that is a futile endeavor because you don’t even know yourself, let alone fully know somebody else. I’m not a relationship expert, for sure, so I’m not saying open relationships are healthier. But I do think maybe certain things you can let go. Maybe you could live in the mystery of something.

I wanted to ask you about the flip side of that, which is Portia and her A Room With a View fantasy of some Italian guy throwing her on the bed. Or Bert’s fantasy about a Sicilian homecoming. Or Tanya’s Monica Vitti fantasy. All these fantasies wind up having teeth to them that are dangerous—and in one case, lethal. What are you trying to say about the nature of fantasy here?

The pressure to live up to the fantasy is a source of pain and disappointment. That’s a truism. When you’re a dramatist, it’s so ripe. If you put Jennifer Coolidge on the back of a Vespa, there’s going to be a bug flying. It can’t just be the perfect day. To me the Bert idea is that, like, he’s probably been awful to women his whole life but still lives in this bubble of “my wife loved me, and I loved her, and everything’s great.” He thinks he’s going to have this family reunion, and even women who don’t know him from across the world are angry about something. And it undermines this delusion. It’s just fun to set characters up to have their bubbles burst.

I’ve spoken to some TV creators who get really stressed out about fan theories either because they don’t want anyone to accurately guess or because they don’t want people to have overblown, false expectations about how a season might wrap up. You’ve sort of stumbled backward into being the creator of an online theory show because you open each season with these dead bodies. Do fan theories stress you out? Do you enjoy them?

Well, this last week was crazy. I’ve just never experienced anything like it as far as realizing how people were crowdsourcing the clues to what’s gonna happen. This one does have high jinks. There is a plot with the Jennifer story line. What was funny is that people are so far ahead of it that they said, “Well, it’s not gonna be Tanya because it’s too obvious.” I was thinking the opposite, where I was like, “Are people gonna be able to put this all together?” Not only did they put it together, they’re way ahead of me. I think the internet allows that, so you have a lot of people who are like, “What was that picture?” We even had a note from HBO: “Should she pick it up and be like, ‘Greg?’” We’re just like, “Is this too unclear?” And then, no, everyone’s talking online, and they’ve already figured it out.

But it doesn’t stress me out. I mean, it’s flattering. To think that would actually happen is just so outside of anything I would’ve ever expected. I’m stupefied, is all I can say.

As you’re trying to calibrate how obvious or not to make things, are you also taking pleasure in planting little red herrings like having Ethan and Cameron fight in the water in the finale? You’re actively playing with audience expectations there.

When Quentin is watching Portia and Jack get in the car, at that point we know they’re evil. They’re trying to get her money. It was the same as the first season. I didn’t realize how much energy people were going to put into who was going to die. I didn’t think it was going to be obvious Tanya had died, but I felt like it was clear that was where that was headed. In my mind it was like an opera: You know the writing is on the wall, but there’s just a pleasure in watching the inexorable fate. I think everybody was overthinking. Ninety-five percent of the theories people were positing, I was like, “That would be a shocker!” But there’s no way that would feel earned or justified in this story. It would be a shocker, but it wouldn’t be satisfying, I don’t think.

If you’re aware of online fan theories, are you aware of this viral TikTok about a specific moment from your season of Survivor being the inspiration for The White Lotus?

You mean when Angela asked for a jacket? Yeah. I cannot say that that is the genesis of The White Lotus, but that was one of the great moments of my life.

I was refreshing myself on “jacketgate,” and I came across this interview where the owner of the jacket, Natalie, said, “Mike didn’t lead anything the entire time we were out there.” Is that an accurate read from her, or are you the kind of person who is good at leading while seeming not to in a game like Survivor?

Are you trying to bring back the Natalie versus Mike White beef?

No!

No, no, no, no. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. At that point in the game, when she was still in it, I had been in trouble. People had caught me looking for an idol. So I knew that I had to recalibrate my game. The way to do that was “I’m just here to have fun.” I intentionally became not a power player. Nothing to see here. So that was a strategy. She saw that as who I am, and that’s not really who I am. Natalie does not want to look weak. She does it all day long. My style, she doesn’t see it as leadership. She just sees it as: I’m probably just a weirdo. She likes expressions of strength, and that’s just not something that I do, even when I am in charge.

I was surprised to learn that you discovered the sex theme of this season after you found the location in Sicily. That’s such an interesting way to crack a season of television. With two seasons of the show under your belt, do you feel like you have a system now on how to craft a season of The White Lotus? Or are you eager to shake it up?

I think the show needs to not start to feel like a formula. It also goes against my ethos or my own writerly instincts. The reason it’s been hard for me to work in TV is because I like to blow things out. I don’t like returning all the characters to a status quo. I want it to feel creatively fresh for me. So what I love about this thing is that people are watching this and HBO is into it, and it’s just incumbent on me to make it cool. There’s so many things it can be. I have this much creative freedom; I want it to be inspired and feel fresh. There’s just an element which is maybe a week at a hotel or something, but beyond that it could be so many things. Going to a new place and getting inspired by a new place is just so cool and fun. This is my dream. I wanted to be a travel writer, too. So to go somewhere new and travel and not be in some soundstage in Burbank—the fact that we are now planning a scouting trip in Asia—makes this the perfect gig for me.

Now the pressure’s on. I never thought we would get the reaction we got for the first season. I’m just used to making things, and nobody shows up. I can’t even get my own family to watch it. I couldn’t get my family to watch Enlightened. I’m shocked by the amount of interest in the show. This season was even more than last season. Can I keep writing characters in situations that will get this kind of attention? I realized that I can’t look at it in those terms. I need to not chase that. I just want it to feel fresh more than I want it to be juicy or to have tons of people come up with theories online or whatever.

So you haven’t gone on your scouting trip to Asia yet, but you mentioned this idea of death and Eastern religion as something you’re thinking of. Why is that subject of particular interest to you?

We just did sex. I mean, it could change. I do think themes are helpful for this show because what is it really? A theme helps organize the ideas. So it feels like we do something that’s a little more, I don’t know, celestial than all the desires and horniness of Season 2.

Well, we’ll miss the horniness. Is there a moment from this season that you weren’t sure would land but ended up coming together?

I have this incredibly talented editor John Valerio, and he put together an editor’s cut of the finale and showed it to me. At the time our schedule was so gnarly because we’d eaten into a month of our postproduction because of COVID. And HBO really wanted us to make our date because we were after House of the Dragon. They didn’t want nothing to be after House of the Dragon. They were just like, “Please, get it out there.” So there’s no opportunity for any additional photography. So when I saw it, there were all these big swings that we took with Tanya’s story line and with the couples’ fight—this is a much more operatic story than I’m used to.

Like the moment with the couples at the very end and the dinner where Cameron makes the toast. There were so many conversations like, “Why would they sit with them?” The actors were confused. I just felt like we needed to have one last thing with them. Theo [James] really helped sell all of this. He’s like, “Harper, it’s really been great to get to know you properly,” and you see Aubrey’s reaction to it. That was one moment where we almost bailed on doing that whole scene. It beggars belief, maybe, but it is a cinematic moment that is just fun.

Thanks so much for the chat!

Thanks for talking about the show. Maybe there will still be horniness, thanks to you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.