In the fourth episode of The White Lotus, Mike White’s masterful paean to the hideous side effects of privilege amongst the leisure class, Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a girlboss entrepreneur who has leaned in so far that she’s fallen over, takes a curious stance on the plight of the straight white man. Her son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), a recalcitrant sullen teen who would rather be anywhere but the paradise for which his parents are paying a healthy sum, is to be pitied, she thinks. The world is much harder for him now, as the old structures that privileged his comfort and his very existence threaten to topple. It’s hard to be a white man now, she reckons, because every other marginalized group has made their voices louder, in an attempt to effect real change. Where does that leave her precious son, her husband, and the white men she simply can’t hire? It’s clear that Nicole feels pity for the plight of her son—whose main damage seems to be an addiction to screen time and masturbating too much—but it is not entirely clear why.
The White Lotus is at its heart a study of the leisure class, framed against the backdrop of a lush Hawaiian resort where its guests pay good money to ensure a seamless, pleasant, and perfect vacation. Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is a heartbroken eccentric mourning her mother’s death and her own life; Shane Patton (Jake Lacy) and his new wife, Rachel (Alexandra D’Addario) are on a honeymoon from Hell; and the Mossbachers—Lean In feminist Nicole (Connie Britton), her sad husband Mark (Steve Zahn), and their children Quinn and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney)—hardly like each other any more than they like themselves. Despite each group’s different reasons for arriving at the White Lotus, it’s clear that the resort is meant to heal. The sickness that infects the characters is their privilege, of course, and how they wield its power. It would be the more interesting choice to center the show around Nicole Mossbacher, a proud CFO of a company evil for unspecified reasons, as the true villain, leaning into what I’m sure are unresolved feelings of irrelevancy as a white woman that she has not yet been able to articulate clearly. Nicole Mossbacher is a Karen, though she would never admit it out loud, and a generous interpretation of her speech in defense of her son’s social status as a white man is that she is slowly but surely coming to terms with her own. An entire show centered around the audacity of white women assuming that they are soon to be marginalized, just like the white men before them, is a show that frankly, feels too close to reality right now. But Mike White, one of the more idiosyncratic people working in television today, goes for the men, laying out the imagined plight of straight, white men who are contending with their own feelings of irrelevancy in a real way.
White male entitlement, a concept that feels a little toothless because of how easy it is to dismantle, is on full display in Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), a snotty, rich newlywed who assumes that the world should bend to his will. Shane’s beef with his entire life is that nothing is ever done right—the way he likes it, the way he wants it, and without having to ask for it. While the easy interpretation of Shane’s attitude towards Armond (Murray Bartlett), the hotel’s general manager, is that he is just a rich asshole, I think it’s deeper than that. Shane has always gotten his way, his entire life, operating on the understanding that as a rich, white man with little to no hardship, his responsibility in adulthood is to throw his weight around over imperceptible slights. The matter of the hotel room upgrade, which sends him into a near-apoplectic rage, is less about the quality of the room and more about the “principle”—an argument bandied about by pigheaded individuals convinced that there is a cosmic sense of justice that is constantly being violated in their presence. It’s clear that his entire existence has been buttery smooth, so much so that any inconvenience is cause for a tantrum. What’s brilliant about Shane is how despicable he is, but also, how familiar—one side of the coin, for which Mark Mossbacher is its opposite.
Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn) is an almost-endearing mess, the dutiful and long-suffering house husband to his wife, Nicole, who outshines him in every way. It is never quite clear what he is suffering from other than the pains of being a white man in 2021 and learning that the world is bigger than your limited and privileged experience. As Nicole’s husband, Mark is clearly emasculated by her considerable success. When he hears that his father lived a second life as a gay man and died not from cancer, as he believed, but from AIDS, he plunges into an existential crisis that feels commensurate to the severity of the news but is centered around himself. At first, it’s easy to feel a little sorry for Mark, which is all due to Steve Zahn’s hangdog, easy charm, as a kept man in the middle of a full-bore midlife crisis. But any lingering sympathy for Mark disappears during a tense dinner during the fourth episode of the show, where it becomes clear that the Mossbachers are so blinded by their own righteousness that they are incapable of seeing any other way but theirs.
By now, the irrelevancy white men and the things they say in protest are familiar, but in popular culture, they usually do not come from the mouths of men who look like Mark Mossbacher—liberal-leaning, upper-class men of means who are not, say, bemoaning the loss of jobs in a town in the Rust Belt. Mark is kitted out with everything he could possibly want or need, except for any sort of real direction or ambition, and so his quiet anger at being cast in a supporting role in the order of things is misdirected. Instead of being angry at the world for orienting itself around newer perspectives—or “re-centering the narrative” as Olivia, his daughter who worships at the altar of cynicism, puts it — his anger should really be towards himself. And yet, because narcissism is endemic to white men, whether they admit it or not, he is incapable of doing so. “I used to be the good guy in the room,” he says woefully at dinner, bemoaning a time when the ultimate act of bravery from a white man was to simply speak in the defense of someone other than himself. In the show’s penultimate episode, Mark, not Nicole, lays out the primary concern: “Nobody cedes their privilege,” he states during breakfast. “That’s absurd.”
The central issue here is not necessarily ceding the privilege but being aware of how it informs behavior. Unfortunately, nearly every vacationing character in The White Lotus lacks self-awareness, and watching their egos run unchecked is part of the show’s perverse delight. It’s not like we really need to hear about the myriad issues white men think they face in America, but, sometimes, it’s nice to be told what we already know.