HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’
a review of the Emmy-winning series
HBO’s “The White Lotus” is giving Netflix a run for their money. On Sept. 12, the limited series dominated at the 2022 Emmy Awards. According to Variety, HBO took home a total of 38 Emmys, 10 of those wins being from “The White Lotus.” Netflix took home the silver medal in the streaming service Olympics with a total of 26 Emmys, down from the 44 they picked up last year thanks to shows like “The Crown” and “The Queen’s Gambit.”
If you haven’t watched the award-winning first season of “The White Lotus,” PROCEED WITH CAUTION — this article has some critical spoilers! If you watched Season One and were left dumbfounded with the burning question, “Why would Rachel, portrayed by Alexandra Daddario, stay married to brat-ex-frat-boy Shane, portrayed by Jake Lacy?” then read on.
Season One of “The White Lotus” is full of humor and romance, Hawaiian beaches and sunsets, an alluring yet haunting soundtrack, and scandals and crimes, topped off with a satirical plot that reflects social issues such as privilege, economic and racial disparities, and gender and sexuality norms that pervade modern society. Among the romantic storylines emerges a newly wed couple, Rachel and Shane, a seemingly perfect match at first glance. The White Lotus Hotel Resort in Maui is the couple’s first stop on a stretch of dreamy locations that make up their luxurious honeymoon. But the honeymoon gradually sours when Rachel discovers that her husband isn’t truly in love with her.
Shane reveals his true nature to Rachel, which culminates in her utter disillusionment with their marriage; his stubborn tiffs with the Hotel Manager Armond, played by Murray Bartlett, over a hotel room booking error dominates his time and conversations with Rachel. Not only does Shane become obsessed with staying in the most expensive room in the resort that they originally booked, but he also flirts with college girls at the poolside and firmly puts down Rachel’s journalism career prospects. When Rachel says that she thinks sex is not the most important thing in a relationship, he retorts, “Well what is?” He even allows his doting mother Kitty, portrayed by Molly Shannon, to crash their honeymoon, permitting her to handle his relationship issues with Rachel on his behalf.
Shane fails as a romantic partner constantly, and by the beginning of the finale, Rachel says to Shane, “I think I made a mistake … getting married to you.” Evidently, she is on the brink of leaving him. Cue the cheers of hardcore feminists and diehard romantics everywhere.
But that cheering soon comes to an abrupt halt. In the finale, wide-eyed, Rachel is approached somewhat cautiously by Shane at the airport, departing from Hawaii.
What happens next is arguably the most disappointing “surprise” of the show. Rachel says to Shane with a dissociated, blank facial expression belying her words, “Everything’s fine … I’m happy, I promise. I’ll – I’ll be happy,” confirming that she has decided to stay with him.
For many viewers, Rachel’s final decision was comparable to the cliché horror movie scene featuring some woman walking around a dark and creaky house, with suspenseful and dark music building in the background as she reaches a door at the end of the hallway. The audience knows without a doubt that there is a monster behind it, but the woman opens the door leading to her unfortunate demise anyway, leaving us wondering why this hapless victim doesn’t just leave the creepy house.
Rachel’s decision disappointed many viewers. In fact, it has provoked a flood of articles and social media reactions. Why on earth would Rachel – or any woman – stay with such a self-obsessed, superficial, mama’s boy?
The consensus answer is simple: Rachel was in it for the money, or at least for the lifestyle that came along with being rich. This idea is nothing new, but viewers had higher expectations for Rachel.
This phenomenon is referred to as the “Faustian bargain of marriage,” where Rachel essentially trades her true love and her genuine happiness to be a trophy wife with a carefree lifestyle.
Creator Mike White confirmed this theory in various interviews, saying, “I always knew she’d go back to him,” in an interview with Vulture. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, White explained, “She wants to be able to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have the lifestyle and also have the power and the relationship … And I think by the end, she’s thinking maybe she can compromise.”
The concept of the “Faustian bargain” is similar to that of the “economic proposition” described succinctly in Amy March’s monologue from the 2019 remake of the film “Little Women,” which is based on the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. Florence Pugh, who portrayed March, was later nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role by the Academy in 2020. In the film, the monologue to romantic interest Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) critically points out the duality of marriage, which serves as a path and a barrier to a woman’s independence:
“As a woman, I have no way to make money … even if I had money … it would belong to my husband the minute we got married. If we had children, they would belong to him, not me … So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.”
But “Little Women” takes place in the mid-1800s. One would understandably conclude that in this day and age, the modern woman is liberated from all these past obstacles and could enjoy the freedom to marry for love rather than for money.
Rachel was not as trapped as the women of the mid-1800s, but she wound up in the same position as them.
This may explain why her choice is so disturbing to many viewers and women in particular. The idea that grim conditions of marriage are timeless for women is a horrifying thought indeed.
In the middle of Episode Six, Rachel confides to Natasha Rothwell’s Belinda who works at the hotel’s spa, saying, “I mean, I was always going to live life on my own terms … But, then, what I manifested is pretty mediocre … but, like, could I live with myself if I made this Faustian bargain where I just ended up being someone’s arm candy for the rest of my life?”
A post by a Reddit user makes some critical points to explain what pushed Rachel down her slippery slope: “No one had sympathy for her because she was beautiful. It was as if everyone felt that should be enough … you can see the box it put Rachel in.” Her physical beauty created a “double standard” where she couldn’t help how she was being perceived by others, yet their perception was far from reality.
The assumption that everything came easily to Rachel due to her appearance was false because as a result of it, her character and her life goals were completely ignored by those who were around her. If beauty is all you are judged by, it can ruin your sense of self. This surely was the root of many of Rachel’s troubles.
In the end, Rachel may have realized that she was beautiful before marrying Shane, but she only came to the realization that she was a failed journalist and her career prospects were low after confronting someone she wrote an article about during the vacation. In the conversation, the interviewee trashed Rachel’s article and her journalism skills.
Rachel was genuinely proud of a simple piece she had written. And she made the assumption that she would continue working as a journalist even after marrying Shane. But, as both Shane and his mother made painfully clear on their honeymoon, they’d rather have her parading around serving drinks at cocktail parties and just smiling and looking pretty, because what reason would she have to work another day in her life?
In an interview with Time Magazine, Daddario agreed that a fundamental connection between her character’s beauty and insecurities exists, which drives her to stay with Shane. “She is completely trapped. And I think that there’s this fear aspect. That self-doubt and insecurity, and sort of the repercussions of being told that she’s just hot her whole life, has just made her afraid that she doesn’t have anything else,” said Daddario said.
In the end, Rachel was in full control of her own decisions, with free will within her reach. After she weighed all her options and determined that Shane was her best bet in life, Rachel made the decision to return to him. Leading up to meeting Shane at the airport, Rachel at last fully understood what people thought about her and expected from her, and she caved into their perceptions.
But whether Rachel ever leaves Shane in the future will be left a mystery to fans everywhere who rooted for her independence, at least for the next season. Season Two will reveal an almost entirely new cast and plot. But the producers are considering bringing back some of the characters from Season One for Season Three, so fans might have the opportunity to explore Rachel and Shane’s ongoing storyline.
The second season jets off to Taormina, Sicily, at The Four Seasons San Domenico Palace, replacing the White Lotus Resort. The star-studded cast will include Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza as a couple vacationing with another couple, played by Theo James and Meghann Fahy, along with actors F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, Adam DiMarco, Tom Hollander, Haley Lu Richardson, and the returning Jennifer Coolidge. The first episode will premiere on HBO Oct. 1.
Season Two is standing on the shoulders of giants following Season One. Will the women in Season Two be another version of Rachel and make their own Faustian Bargains, or will they leave their romantic interests in the dust?