What would salvation look like for someone caught in a hell that they mistake for heaven? This question is at the heart of HBO’s limited series, The White Lotus, about a group of wealthy, entitled guests and overworked employees at the Hawaiian luxury resort of the title.
In this layered and textured series, it is clear that the guests are in need of salvation, whether it be salvation from themselves, from others, or from societal expectations. The White Lotus is a scathing critique of our consumerist society and an examination of whether it is possible to escape from a world centered on capitalist consumerism.
Among the privileged guests, two characters stand out: Rachel Patton (Alexandra Daddario), a mediocre journalist on her honeymoon with her wealthy, self-absorbed husband; and Quinn Mossbacher (Fred Hechinger), a teenager addicted to electronics, on vacation with his wealthy, self-absorbed family. All the guests are obscenely rich, but Rachel and Quinn are dependent on the wealth of others. Rachel’s husband, Shane (Jake Lacy), is a trust-fund man-child, while Quinn’s mother, Nicole (Connie Britton), is the CFO of a search-engine company. The show takes place over the course of one week—a formative week for Rachel and Quinn.
When the series begins, Quinn is caught in the thrall of video games and social media, unwilling to explore the beauty of Hawaii that surrounds him. His parents beg him to put down his phone and enjoy his vacation, but life is so superficial and tense within his own family (his sister’s constant bullying; his mother’s need to control everything) that the online world seems a better alternative. When his devices are swept away at the beach, it feels like the end of the world, but instead Quinn is finally able to open his eyes and experience life.
Rachel, on the other hand, begins the show as the picture of wedded bliss. Yet as the week progresses, she learns more about herself and what she wants out of life, as well as the kind of person Shane really is. When she is offered a clickbait writing assignment, she gets a glimpse of herself as an independent woman with aspirations. Yet Shane ridicules her for even considering such a job and coerces her into declining it since they are on their honeymoon. He needs all of her attention on him, despite the fact that much of his time is spent not on Rachel but on torturing the hotel manager over a mistake regarding their room.
It is clear that the guests are in need of salvation.
In The Confessions, Augustine describes experiencing scripture anew after being shaken by a voice saying, “Take up and read.” He reads it as if for the first time: “. . . by a light as it were infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” This in-breaking of grace is the catalyst for Augustine’s conversion. It is the moment that changes everything for him, causing him to reconsider his entire life.
A similar moment breaks Quinn out of his way of living. In his defining scene, waves crash against the rocks, followed by a shot of the rising sunlight bursting through the clouds. As the camera locks onto Quinn’s face, a choral rendition of the popular Hawaiian hymn “Aloha ‘Oe” begins. He observes a group of indigenous islanders rowing onto the shore and marvels at the harmonious work of the rowers as they struggle against the sea in unified motion. The camera alternates between close-ups of Quinn’s face in childlike awe and a wide shot of the rowers themselves, establishing, quite literally, the dawn of Quinn’s revelation. Like Augustine, Quinn receives a radical moment of grace that breaks in dramatically from the outside.
We often expect grace to be like this—a rupture of insight—because these moments are easy to identify as important. Yet grace can also arrive in mundane moments, which prove to be equally revelatory. Mourning the life she imagined for herself as a journalist, Rachel mentions a desire to pursue charity work instead. Shane expects that Rachel will do what his mother, Kitty (Molly Shannon), does: throw fancy fundraisers. Kitty shows up to settle the room disagreement for her baby boy, teams up with Shane against Rachel, and laughs at the preposterous notion that Rachel would want to get a “limiting” job when she could “do so much more by being on boards and hosting events.” It is this moment when Rachel becomes infused with awareness. The camera lingers on her horrified face as she realizes she will always be an outsider among her frivolous new family. Another moment of awareness occurs when Kitty tells Rachel to “just be happy,” as if happiness were a switch she could simply turn on.
Rachel appears to take the first step on the road to salvation when she tells Shane she made a mistake by marrying him. Likewise, after befriending the rowers, Quinn tells his parents he is staying in Hawaii to embark on a rowing trip through Polynesia. But acknowledging your need for salvation is not the same as actually accepting that salvation. (Spoilers ahead.)
Quinn stands solid in his decision, confident that he is finally where he is meant to be. He tells his family, “Everything sucks at home. It’s all dead. . . . I wanna live!” On the soundtrack, we hear a choir singing, “Hallelujah, praise ye the Lord” as Quinn rows toward the sunrise. Rachel, however, is not so confident, ultimately rejecting a better, more fulfilling life and succumbing to the temptations of wealth and comfort. “I’ll be happy,” she tells Shane. “I promise.”
In juxtaposing these two similar stories with very different endings, The White Lotus shows that even while they were lost in consumerism and empty comfort, grace dawned on Rachel and Quinn, albeit in different ways. Rachel received a vision of the superficiality of her husband; Quinn recognized the beauty of the work of the rowers in concert with nature. Quinn chose to accept the gift of salvation offered to him, but Rachel rejected it, choosing to remain in her deceptive heaven. The White Lotus reminds us that salvation awaits if we can find the faith and courage to embrace it.