The White Lotus stalls by focusing on the stagnant Mossbacher marriage in “Mysterious Monkeys” – The A.V. Club

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In another place, can you become another person? The American vernacular has an array of phrases that purposefully point out the difference between who we are before we go on a trip, who we are during, and who we are after. “Beach body,” as if our physical appearance is some kind of measure of our value. “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” as if our actions can ever be divorced from ourselves. And so far The White Lotus has played with these different transformative possibilities: Tanya, who hopes Hawaii can heal her grief; Shane and Rachel, who are starting their lives together now as a married unit; Mark, who thought that his non-cancer health results meant a fresh start. In “Mysterious Monkeys,” we see how false those expectations were as these characters seem more stuck—and more disconnected—than ever. Steve Zahn hooting and crawling toward his wife in some kind of animalistic display of sexual viability: Sir, what?

But there’s also a narrative imbalance in this episode, in particular with how we explore the lives of Armond and Belinda, that makes me wonder whether The White Lotus will, in its remaining three episodes, deliberately and purposefully spend as much time with the resort staff as it does with its guests. I don’t mean to flatten a classist critique here and say that the series should make the working-class Armond and Belinda heroes and the wealthy guests villains. To Mike White’s credit, the show is doing a fair job already showing how selfish some of these people are (cough, Shane) as a result of their wealth, and how vulnerable some of these people are (cough, Tanya) in spite of it.

My point more so is that the show has now positioned Armond and Shane as equal chaos agents, meeting each other tit for tat, and also configured Armond as an antagonist toward Olivia and Paula, who want their drugs back and who are increasingly disbelieving of Armond’s insistence that they haven’t been found. All we definitively know about Armond, though, is that he’s worked at the White Lotus for a while, was five years sober, and is gay. Is that enough to stand up to all the narrative twisting and turning the show is doing around him? Murray Bartlett is certainly chameleon-like, and that comes through in both his hitting-on-unsuspecting-guys scenes: during his cocksure confidence with Zahn’s Mark, in which his winking innuendo is mostly amusing, and then in that blunt proposition of employee Dillon (Lukas Gage), which is predatory from top to bottom. And sure, it’s enjoyable to watch someone finally be a thorn in the side of these (mostly) intolerable, spoiled people. But I wonder if the story can sustain Armond’s villainy long term, especially when the character’s slide into addiction and manic behavior is ultimately self-destructive. (Is it “gaslighting,” as Shane insists? I’m going to go with … no.)

So all that is a bit of a flaw in “Mysterious Monkeys,” as is what feels like repetition in Mark’s progression. On the one hand, Zahn is the guy to dig into the radical honesty that Mark’s character now adopts after learning about his father’s double life. He can say the most non sequitur lines with unexpected solemnity (“Leprosy is no joke”) and can self-effacingly, cluelessly ramble on without any sense of how self-involved he’s really being (“Just hold my nose and, like, suck it down as fast as I can, so I don’t gag,” when describing sex with wife Nicole). On the other hand, the destruction of Mark’s personal identity as a result of the reveal of his father’s sexual orientation, and his cynical belief that life is just one slog during which we are “driven by base instincts to create these hierarchies and hump each other,” seems like The White Lotus attempting to mirror Mark with his daughter Olivia, and present two different angles of a certain kind of privileged, naval-gazing worldview.

Olivia makes these grand critical assessments of everything and everyone, including her parents, but has no personality of her own outside of that dislike. Nu-Mark mimics her with his “honest” assessment of the world around him and his admittance that he’s basically checked out of his marriage, but has no personality of his own outside of that dislike. And although Nicole is very clearly an aggressive helicopter parent (that speech about her straight white son being a victim of sex shaming!), her character lacks a bit of dynamism, too. Overall, the Mossbacher-marriage stuff feels slightly stagnant three episodes in, and neither Connie Britton’s expectedly fabulous hair nor Zahn’s gameness has yet enlivened it.

“Mysterious Monkeys” begins with a secret: Paula has been hooking up with resort employee Kai, who Olivia saw her eyeing up at dinner, and Paula has been lying about it. (Again, my old ass asks: Are Paula and Olivia a couple and this is romantic jealousy, or are we dealing with a codependent-best-friends situation?) There’s an uncomfortable vibe all throughout the resort that morning: Olivia’s mistrust when she realizes Paula isn’t telling her the truth about Kai, Quinn’s anger when he wakes up to find that the ocean drenched his phone and tablet, Rachel’s exasperated look when Shane initiates morning sex. You know a few days into a vacation, when you’re tired, sunburnt, and running out of clean clothes, and you begin wondering when you can go home? Suddenly the guests we’re following at the White Lotus are in that headspace, although they’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world and are being waited on hand and foot. Must be nice!

We see that tension build in nearly every character pairing. Shane, ignoring that Rachel is still smarting over his dismissal of her career and more irritated that his new wife thinks he isn’t romantic, for some reason turns to Armond for advice, as if he hasn’t been putting forth very discernibly hostile vibes toward Armond this whole time. Armond, seizing the opportunity to screw over Shane, pairs them up on the same boat with Tanya, who has decided tonight is the night to spread her mother’s ashes in the water. Meanwhile, Tanya asks Belinda to accompany her, and I can’t quite tell if Tanya knows that her offer of funding Belinda’s wellness center has basically ensnared the White Lotus spa manager, but Jennifer Coolidge excels at the pregnant pause. If she waits just a little bit—just long enough to make the other person uncomfortable—chances are they’ll do what she wants. And so Belinda joins Tanya, who probably assumes that this ritual will be like her poolside dream: celebratory, freeing, tranquil.

In reality, it is agonizing from the moment that Tanya, in her Stevie Nicks mourning outfit, proclaims “I don’t want tonight to be a downer.” After that, the night falls off a cliff into Downerville, with Shane and Rachel increasingly panicking as Tanya tries to make small talk during dinner and then draws them into the ash-scattering ceremony, during which she unwittingly describes the overlaps she and her mother clearly share (“She took her money and she manipulated people with it”). And while Coolidge is delightful at chewing through this dialogue for maximum “Oh jeez, I’m so on edge I have to laugh or I’ll explode” effect, I also felt deeply for this character, for her brokenness, and for how enthralled she is by the specter of her mother’s expectations, judgments, and cruelties. She’s frozen by her mother’s death, but she was also frozen by her life. How does Tanya move on?

The same question applies to the Mossbacher children, I think. To Olivia, who stands a little too long and a little too obviously in front of Paula and Kai as they have sex (would a fancy resort really be so abandoned in the middle of the night? I am not rich, I do not know), and whose stride away from that scene suggests a very bad reaction indeed. How does she progress past what she clearly sees as a profound betrayal? And to Quinn, whose passionate insistence that he receive a replacement phone and tablet for the ones destroyed during his night on the beach results in him borrowing his parents’ phones, and then throwing one of them into the sand when porn fails to hold his interest. (Does the fact that it’s porn involving women have anything to do with his apathy?) If the only thing that is keeping Quinn interested in the world around him are its natural wonders—the whales, the waves—then maybe it’s worth asking how the teen moves on from his listlessness and, possibly, his depression. If you can become another person in another place, who will Quinn become?


Stray observations

  • I really could not have guessed that Jake Lacy would be so good at playing an unrepentant asshole, but his line deliveries of “I can’t wait to fuck in Tahiti” and “People have been coming for me my whole life” are pitch-perfect in terms of hate-ability. This man is really going to accuse Armond of gaslighting when he basically lied to Rachel’s face about flirting with Olivia and Paula? Come on, man.
  • Where might you recognize Lukas Gage from? Possibly Euphoria, American Vandal, or that viral clip of a director criticizing his apartment during a streaming audition and not being particularly thoughtful with his phrasing of “poor people.”
  • “That fucking place exploits you, Mom.” Belinda’s son sounds right!
  • The neoliberalism of “Your generation’s only sacred value, biting the hand that feeds you” is a lot.
  • Kudos to Sydney Sweeney for delivering both “Maybe he was just too embarrassed to ask Grandma to use a dildo on him” and “He could have still been butch, Dad” with a perfectly straight face. Get this woman on Saturday Night Live!
  • Please give Jennifer Coolidge an award for the highly affected way Tanya took those tiny sips of champagne on the boat.
  • Books this week: Olivia and Paula are reading Camille Paglia’s critical work Sexual Personae and Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth; Rachel is reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (also an HBO series!); and Shane is reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, which…sounds apt for that character.
  • Every episode of every TV show ever made should include Steve Zahn making a fart noise.

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