“Worthy service”: The Tempest-uousness of The White Lotus

Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus
Murray Bartlett. HBO’s The White Lotus. Photograph by Mario Perez/HBO

When HBO’s The White Lotus won a slew of Emmy Awards earlier this month, I decided to take another look at a show I had previously ignored — and suddenly beheld the wonder of what creator Mike White had accomplished: transforming William Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a darkly funny satire of the hospitality industry.

In The Tempest, Ariel is a magical sprite, bound to serve and increasingly frustrated by it, a situation  also endured by Armond, the harried manager of the titular Hawaiian resort The White Lotus. Ariel explains in his first scene how he not only orchestrated the tempest that brought visitors to their island, but how enthusiastically he does all of Prospero’s bidding, whether it be “to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curled clouds.” Armond similarly explains in his first scene that his role — and that of the entire staff at The White Lotus — is to cater to the newly arrived island guests, “especially the VIPS” on whom the series focuses, ensuring they “get everything they want, [even though] they don’t even know what they want — or what day it is, or where they are, or who we are.” That uncertainty about identity will become a dominant theme.

But Ariel and Armond both want out. Ariel is Prospero’s prisoner, having done him “worthy service,” and will finally gain his long-desired “liberty” in two days’ time. Armond is similarly a prisoner — not of a deposed Duke of Milan but of the many guests he must serve at the hotel — and the stress of his job is clearly getting to him. “What if I just can’t f***ing do this anymore,” he wonders aloud to a co-worker after particularly fraught encounters with guests and other staff members. Like Ariel, Armond longs for freedom and attains it, but unlike Ariel — in a textbook example of “be careful what you wish for” — it comes at a tragic price.

While Ariel is a magical creature, Armond’s magical powers seem to be his ability to smile in the faces of entitled guests and charmingly indulge all their requests, no matter how trivial. But in an escalating series of exchanges with one particularly spoiled man-child (who insists he hasn’t received the plush suite his mother paid for), Armond displays some of Ariel’s mischievousness. Murray Bartlett, the actor who plays Armond (and who just won a much-deserved Emmy for it) described the process of creating the role using Tempestuous imagery, saying there was “magic” in the connection between him and his character, and “a perfect storm” of conflicting temperaments between Armond and his most annoying guest.

Natasha Rothwell and Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus
Natasha Rothwell and Murray Bartlett. HBO’s The White Lotus. Photograph by Mario Perez/HBO

There’s something wonderfully contained about The White Lotus. Unlike other epic and sprawling miniseries, this six-episode character study feels surprisingly intimate, like the five acts of a Shakespeare play. And while there’s no actual storm, the sounds of wind, waves, and surf punctuate the proceedings, adding tension and underscoring the turbulence characters are going through. The camera also takes us out onto the water, sometimes placidly above “calm seas [and] auspicious gales” and sometimes roiling underneath the “sulfurous roaring [of] the most mighty Neptune.” The characters are never quite sure where they are.

Like Prospero’s daughter Miranda, the guests staying at The White Lotus also discover “brave new world[s]” that range from cathartic and freeing to sobering and complicated. Away from the responsibilities and restrictions of their own lives, every character discovers a fundamental truth about themselves. Sometimes this is a load lifted and a soul freed, other times it’s a dream dashed and a friendship destroyed. Everybody leaves the island changed.

Shakespeare’s later plays (including The Tempest) deal with fathers coming to terms with their roles as parents. The White Lotus is similarly invested in the parent/child dynamic, but with more weight given to the children. Almost every guest at the resort struggles with the memory (or the presence) of a parent or in-law in ways that are funny, painful, and moving, and most of them are happily able to reconcile, by series’ end, their complicated parental feelings.

Also like The Tempest, The White Lotus deals, not always satisfyingly, with the colonialism of white Europeans (and their descendants) exploiting an indigenous people and culture. Shakespeare’s Caliban from The Tempest becomes Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the very hotel that sits on the land his people once owned, serving the privileged guests (most of whom are white) and performing native dances for their dinnertime entertainment. Like Caliban, Kai interacts with two outsiders, two privileged college girls who, like the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, consume various mind-altering drugs and get Kai into serious life-changing trouble.

Caliban was enslaved by Prospero, and while there’s no single Prospero figure in The White Lotus, the exploitative colonizing force in the miniseries can be read as the hotel itself, or the wealthy guests who treat the staff horribly, or maybe even capitalism generally. But when Armond explains quite simply to one of his staff members the food chain of misuse and ill-treatment — “They exploit me. I exploit you.” — this Ariel figure sounds like Prospero himself.

To be clear: There is zero evidence Mike White intended The White Lotus to be a modern version of the The Tempest, but the resemblances between the two are fascinating, and I’m not the only one noticing them. The current production of The Tempest running at Shakespeare’s Globe in London through October 22, makes tentative nods to The White Lotus in its depiction of Caliban (not Ariel) “as a brutally overworked staff member” at an island resort.

One man wearing a tropical shirt with a Staff badge and a second man wearing a swimsuit
Ciaran O’Brien as Caliban and Ferdy Roberts as Prospero in The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photograph: Marc Brenner

At the end, as Armond falls farther off the wagon and realizes he’s about to be fired, one of his final lines is “I gotta go” — and go he does, in more ways than one. Ariel may be the basis for the memorable character of Armond, but even Shakespeare’s magical sprite never pooped in somebody’s suitcase.