Review: ‘The White Lotus’ and the Pains of Working in Service

Review: ‘The White Lotus’ and the Pains of Working in Service


On Sunday, HBO Now released the finale of The White Lotus, Mike White’s irreverent-yet-poignant series about the machinations and dramas of a luxury hotel in Hawaii. [Spoilers to follow.]

As it turned out, the box of human remains being carted onto the airplane in the first moments of the premiere was never really the point of the series. After six deeply uncomfortable episodes offering a look into the lives and miseries of the uber-wealthy and the people expected to wait on them, what emerged was a narrative about power and privilege: Who has it, who doesn’t, and what happens when those without it try to claim some.

Everyone at the White Lotus has their own personal problems that are — to them, at least — all consuming and deeply important. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), is grieving the death of her emotionally abusive but very rich mother; Mark (Steve Zahn) and Nicole (Connie Britton) are long-married parents trying to reconnect following an infidelity; newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) is realizing quickly that her marriage to perpetually spoiled Shane (Jake Lacy), was maybe a mistake. Shane, for his part, becomes entangled in a feud of almost Tom and Jerry-level proportions with the hotel’s manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), leading them both to behave in ways they never previously could imagine.

But it’s Armond and his staff’s unraveling that provide the most compelling moments in The White Lotus. Through their trials, it’s revealed how the seemingly effortless glitz and glamour that make this luxury hotel come to life aren’t effortless at all. What the wealthy take for granted comes at the cost of the workers’ ambitions and sanity. The series comes to offer a strangely accurate and intimate look into both the way that service industry workers are treated, and how they cope (or not) with being consistently treated as subhuman or props by people who earn more money in a week than they’ll ever see in a lifetime.

There’s no character that makes that more evident than Armond who, at the beginning of the series, boasts five years of sobriety. Throughout the series he is harangued by Shane, who didn’t end up in the room he booked and spends an incredible amount of energy complaining about it throughout his stay. He hunts Armond relentlessly, demanding additional perks to make up for the room switcheroo. In a satisfying moment of retaliation, Armond books Shane and Rachel on what they think will be a romantic dinner cruise until the delightfully unhinged Tanya shows up with plans to spread her dead mother’s ashes across the water and expects them to participate as she melts down both hilariously and painfully.

Armond’s sly move is familiar to real-life service industry workers who’ve longed and occasionally managed to score their own petty victories over customers with unreasonable demands. We’ve all heard the trope about servers and fast food workers spitting in food to exact revenge, but the real revenge comes in much quieter ways. It happens when a guest’s name “accidentally” doesn’t make it onto the books at a hot new restaurant, or they end up shoved in the back corner of the dining room after demanding the “best table in the house” on a last-minute reservation.

Whether at a fancy resort or Michelin-starred restaurant or even McDonald’s, working in an establishment where “the customer is always right” comes with an incredible amount of pressure. In the real world, workers in these industries are more prone to substance use and mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety disorders are rampant. Working in these environments creates a demand for catharsis, and that’s exactly why it’s no surprise that the workers at the White Lotus choose to blow off steam in a truly wide range of debauched ways, including analingus and snorting ketamine in the manager’s office.

Driven to the edge, Armond inevitably succumbs to his baser instincts. He steals a backpack full of drugs from two teen guests, and breaks his five year sobriety streak with their powders and pills. He takes delight in infuriating Shane, who grows increasingly enraged as Armond blows off his complaints, gives him a fake phone number for the manager above him, and perhaps most egregiously to Shane, refuses to acknowledge the “injustice” he has perpetrated in putting Shane in the wrong room.

Completely blasted out of his mind on the drugs, Armond gets his final revenge in the form of two of his own turds dropped directly onto the blue (likely cashmere) sweater sitting in Shane’s suitcase. It’s a real moment of triumph for Armond, who knows that he’s getting fired after Shane out-maneuvers him. He likely doesn’t anticipate what happens next — that Shane would stab him thinking he’s a burglar —but the look of pure, ecstatic bliss on his face as he dies indicates that, at least in one way, Armond was satisfied with the way that his story ended. Armond’s death is, ultimately, a tragedy, but The White Lotus doesn’t quite play it that way — he never had to confront the consequences of his hedonistic, multi-day bender, and perhaps more importantly, never had to smile and swallow his own disgust to wait on people like Shane ever again. As White told Vulture, “It came to me in a flash that [Armond’s] final act of retribution, of the put-upon existence he has serving these privileged people, was to take a crap in their bag, and that would be his last act, an operatic end for him.”

But Armond’s victory over Shane is pyrrhic. It is pure catharsis at the expense of his life, the kind of hedonistic spiral-out that Anthony Bourdain might have written about in Kitchen Confidential. We can imagine that he dies happy in that bathtub because he is completely zooted on drugs, not because he has achieved any kind of real win over a guy like Shane, who is able to leave the island without facing consequences for stabbing a man to death in the middle of his hotel room.

After a year of begging people to wear masks indoors and facing actual assault from customers who don’t have any interest in complying with public health rules, it’s not difficult to imagine that many workers in the service industry are, as my colleague Dayna Evans put it, “just one douchebag away from burning the place to the ground,” or at least shitting in somebody’s suitcase. The White Lotus is, amid all its interpersonal jockeying and uncomfortable jokes, a stark reminder of the disparities that exist between the ultra-wealthy and those who cater to their every whim.

It is also, unfortunately, an indictment of what we demand from service industry workers, and the damaging ways in which those workers cope with that stress. We don’t just ask them to make our drinks, we ask them to listen to our problems and really care about them. We demand that people abuse their bodies, schlepping heavy pots and burning their skin on hot ovens, for as little as $2.13 an hour, sans health insurance. Is it any wonder, then, that our collective inability to treat those who serve us dinner and book our hotel rooms as human beings deserving of dignity comes at such an incredibly high cost?

Already renewed for a second season, there’s no telling what White has up his sleeve next for the guests — and surviving staff — of the White Lotus or if he plans to return at all. Maybe we’ll find out that Kai, the handsome Hawaiian dancer who’s charged with theft after stealing Nicole’s $75,000 bracelet at the anti-colonialist urging of her daughter’s friend Paula, escapes unscathed. Or that long-suffering spa worker Belinda finds another wealthy patroness to fund the holistic wellness center she wants to open in return for Belinda’s good listening skills. More likely, though, everything will have turned over. As White said in his Vulture interview, “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…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.”

This too echoes the reality of the service industry where turnover is high and workers, until recently, at least, have been disposable. For many diners, a server often only exists to when they’re serving, a line cook only exists when they’re cooking your meal. They’re also “interchangeable helpers,” whose humanity is only seen — though rarely considered — when they fuck something up. In season two, will we find these characters in the same place or worse off than they were before? Or will it be a whole new cast of helpers gearing up for a busy week of serving insufferably spoiled adults? If White decides to shake up the setting, he should maybe consider a restaurant.



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