"The White Lotus" may inspire vacation fantasies, unless you see Belinda's point of view

Understanding this character's trials makes it odd to know this show is inspiring fantasies about resort escape

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 8, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Natasha Rothwell and Jennifer Coolidge in "The White Lotus" (Mario Perez/HBO)
Natasha Rothwell and Jennifer Coolidge in "The White Lotus" (Mario Perez/HBO)

If social media streams of consciousness tell us anything, "The White Lotus" may inspire a trend of all-inclusive resort bookings, pandemic lockdowns be damned. Each new episode brings a flurry of tweets expressing a yearning for beach vacations and blended cocktails, something I can only attribute to the assumption that people are watching the show with their televisions muted.

If they're coming to this conclusion after listening to resort customers drone on about their own self-importance, that's troubling. No sunset is beautiful enough to make me put up other guests' demented debates about privilege or loudly lamenting how hard white men have it. No beach has sand silky enough to risk navigating gaggles of solipsists committed to behaving like boors because the sea washes away all consequences.

But then, this perspective is colored by my absolute empathy for Belinda, the spa manager, and the sole character in whom I am invested. In a tragicomedy that pits guests against our patience and the hotel's irresponsible manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), whose sanity is crumbling before our eyes, Belinda is a woman caught in a nightmare that looks a lot like a dream.

This is the lot of every White Lotus employee, but Belinda has it worse than most. Where others serve food or clean up messes or guide guests from one attraction to the next, Belinda's job is to soothe and comfort the damaged and needy.

That Belinda is played by comedic actor Natasha Rothwell, who gives "Insecure" some of its finest moments, only makes me more inclined to be on her side. Belinda and Rothwell's "Insecure" party girl Kelli are night and day in terms of temperament; knowing them both only makes my soul hurt for Belinda even more.

This is because Kelli is everything Belinda can't be: free with her opinions, unable and unwilling to countenance bad behavior and gloriously all about herself. Belinda's job restricts her from being anything less than accommodating.

Her smile is warm, and only if you know everything she's going through can you notice the weight of exhaustion pulling at its corners, the desperate glimmer in her eyes that's silently shouting for aid or rescue. If her schedule is fully booked, as it is when she's introduced to the vampiric Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), she must cut into her own free time in the name of making this very important guest happy.

Tanya's entrenched sorrow makes that impossible. Even more sinister, though, is her magical thinking that hooks Belinda with flattery and the false hope of funding her own spa. From the first time Belinda treats Tanya in a session that's part cranial massage and part counseling session, she's doomed.

In dangling that carrot, Tanya makes a hostage of Belinda, forcing her to sacrifice her personal life in order to be this woman's friend – for the sake of forging a partnership, maybe, but probably just for the week.

This is absolutely depressing to witness, especially at a time when so many people in the service industry are lauded as heroes but treated like servants. Belinda has the added burden of being a Black woman and healer, working in a venue where guests are encouraged to unburden themselves of their worries and assured that it is the pleasure of the workers to pick up their trash. To Tanya, Belinda might as well be her psychological porter, except no amount of tips can compensate for the load that guest makes that the spa managers carry. . . and probably for nothing.

In Brenda I see every underappreciated restaurant server, flight attendant and, yes, massage therapist. All of these workers' livelihoods took a crippling hit during pandemic lockdown. Now that customers have returned, their forbearance and good manners haven't. Instead, people are taking out their pent up anxieties on the people trying to bring them relief, even in the smallest way possible.    

I want to send Belinda on a vacation, but where? Another paradise locale would remind her of the hell she commutes to every day. I want her to enjoy a month's worth of naps and peace, but how? The reason she puts up with Tanya at all is that she sees her as a chance to escape. Tanya radiates the kind of flakiness and instability that tells a sensible person that salvation is not going to come from her.

The White Lotus Hotel is absolutely gorgeous and exclusive enough to ensure that spending some time with its worst people is inevitable. On the other hand, that's part of the show's appeal. Besides figuring out who's in the casket teased in the series' opening scene and how that person gets there, we get to vacation with these guests from hell at a safe distance.

We can vicariously experience what it would be like to leave behind all the constraints of everyday living, including the obligation to observe social graces and treat others with consideration. Viewing the show in that light, I suppose I can understand why Mike White's characters are sending some people to travel sites looking for flight and hotel packages.

We're all dying to go on vacation, especially those of us who haven't gone much further from our homes than the grocery store or a few walks around the block during the past year and a half. We all want someone else to carry our troubles for a while. So if you succumb to the influence of "White Lotus," bon voyage I guess. My only request is that if you run into some version of Belinda, be gracious and grateful and tip her well.  It won't be enough to compensate for what she has to put up with, but at least it's something.

New episodes of "The White Lotus" premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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