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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

TikTok's Low-Level Analysis of 'The White Lotus' Is Breaking My Brain

If you’re a TikTok creator and are explaining something in the show as “actually, on purpose!” then I beg you to look up the definition of “subtext.”

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Just as Tanya McQuoid needs constant coddling, or Portia has Poshmark notifications set up for “Y2K Delia’s matching set,” I, too, have a weakness: devouring recaps of The White Lotus the moment after an episode airs. If it’s 10:01 p.m. EST and I’m not confirming everything I just watched go down at HBO’s hottest Sicilian resort, call the coroner. It means Theo James’ prosthetic schlong has killed me. I love indulging in a recap of Mike White’s storytelling, and the labyrinth of power plays in the Emmy-award-winning show lends itself particularly well to that sort of deep dive.

My negroni sbagliato of choice is Vanity Fair’s “Still Watching” podcast, but I’m known to venture onto Twitter and TikTok to see what the Lotus-heads are chirping about. (For the record—I agree, it’s insane these rich Americans aren’t leaving the hotel restaurant.) But there is a disconcerting trend I’ve witnessed in my summary-spelunking that I feel obligated to speak about: The White Lotus has given way to the wackiest, Easter-egg-pilled, low-level Tiktok analyses I’ve ever seen. One video broke down that when Quentin “said he loved a straight guy he could never be with, he was basically saying ‘I love straight guys.’” Yes. Correct. “Did you notice at the beginning of the episode they intentionally show you the door closed?” another asks. Honestly, no, I didn’t notice but also that isn’t a “clue”—it’s just setting the scene.

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Look, there’s no way to talk about this without coming across as an elitist hater—but I didn’t go to a liberal arts college and major in Renaissance Women Poets to be of the people. If you’re a creator on TikTok and are explaining something in The White Lotus as “not a coincidence” or “actually, on purpose!” then I beg you to run to your closest dictionary and look up the definition of “subtext.”

Characters don’t dress in certain clothes by accident. There is a job called “costume designer,” and these people work to create a sartorial backstory and identity for each person on screen. If Ethan tells his wife he isn’t gaslighting her but is, in fact, gaslighting her, that isn’t “not a coincidence”—it’s called “character development,” which tends to “drive the plot.” Sure, sometimes a character going underwater or staring at a bird might be foreshadowing, but narratives also have visual themes and employ metaphors. They are also—and get out your tinfoil hat for this one—on an island! So there’s going to be water and birds. My brain is melting having to type this out. Like, I am truly left wondering if people have ever watched narrative television before, or if this is their first foray past 90-second social media clips.

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There is plenty of good literary and film analysis happening on TikTok (just look at the wildfire that #BookTok sparked), but there is also an excess of what I’m calling the Taylor-Swiftication of show dissection—and White Lotus is its number one victim. Why bring our “anti-hero” girly into this? For as long as she’s been making music, starting at her country roots, Swift has been infamous for scattering Easter eggs (and driving Swifties insane) that hint at forthcoming songs or projects. They appear in everything from album liner notes to her clothing options to posts she’s liked on Tumblr. Most recently, in the lead-up to Swift’s Midnights release, she posted TikToks of her sometimes answering a telephone upside down—which served as a hint as to which songs would be singles. These particular Easter eggs sowed enough chaos to make people storm the Ticketmaster offices January 6 style. The Swift Cinematic Universe has seemed to make everyone believe that everything is a hint or a clue to unlock. The public has been Easter-egg-pilled.

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On Monday, my friend Alise sent me a TikTok with a title card that read (spoiler), “Why I think Greg & Quentin are working together to kill Tanya for her money.” She snidely followed up, “because Quentin has a photo of the two of them together in his bedroom at the palazzo. Next.” Coming to that conclusion isn’t a radical fan theory you’ve concocted; it is the natural assumption anyone would make by watching the show. Spoiler alert: Events and details unfold as a story progresses. Character subtext reveals itself as more important as the stakes grow. It is what makes a story...satisfying. As my same friend joked, “You know those green eyes Gatsby keeps mentioning? Fitzgerald actually meant something by that…”

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This sort of maniacal treasure-hunting might work as a PR stunt, but you’re going to tire yourself out doing it for a television thriller. The whole point of the latter is for mystery and intrigue to build, for characters to have ulterior motives, and for things to not be what they seem. And sure, the show is crafted to offer up little morsels of memes to those of us terminally online. I have to assume that when Mike White has Tanya say, “These are some high-class gays,” he knows it’s going to end up in an Evan Ross Katz Instagram recap carousel. And whatever! That’s fun!

But the way this widening corner of the internet is consuming and churning out pet theories about the show like it’s a Rubik’s Cube and they’ll win a $10 Starbucks gift card if they solve it first strips away the viewing pleasure. If you try to just allow the themes of a show to wash over you instead of ravenously collecting every breadcrumb, it will feel more satisfying. You can trust that you’re in good visual storytelling hands. There’s no urgency to dismantle the bomb before it’s scheduled to go off.