Review: The White Lotus Explores the Misery of Wealth

The HBO series features what Ayn Rand would call "second-handers."


The characters in The White Lotus are all obsessed with getting what they want. Or at least getting what they think other people want.

The second season of the HBO drama repeats the format of the first with a different set of characters and a different setting. Over seven episodes, we watch guests at a luxury Sicilian resort being their worst selves while pretending they're happy. Infidelity and interpersonal intrigue abound. The knowledge that one of these characters is doomed to die keeps everything pleasingly tense.

Rich people being miserable in the lap of luxury naturally lends itself to explorations of wealth's ennui and its roots. White Lotus' writers walk a fine line of being explicit about that theme while never being too heavy-handed.

The show does try to get somewhat intellectual about its characters' psychological compulsions. One accuses another of "mimetic desire"—the concept from philosopher René Girard that our desires aren't authentically our own. Rather, he suggests, we want what we think will earn us others' praise, admiration, or jealousy.

That's the academic gloss on the idea, popular among a segment of the nationalist right these days. Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, long before Girard, had a much more straightforward term for these people: "second-handers." Rather than pursue greatness or even satisfaction on their own terms, their ends are all taken "second-hand" from what others want.

White Lotus is critical of people who pursue their authentic desires as well. For all the sex and drugs, there's a conservative undercurrent to the show. The constant, long-held, low-angle shots of church spires and staring Testa di Moro statues do more than remind viewers they're in Sicily. It's a reminder that God is always watching your sins.