(Yes, There Will Be Spoilers)
Even as television has started to eclipse movies in the cultural conversation, we’ve become accustomed to disappointing endings. Even with beloved shows slightly disappointing finales (or at least polarizing ones), are practically the norm — Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost, Game of Thrones — the list goes on. These days if you can end a popular series without the fans sending you death threats or petitioning to remake the final season, you’ve succeeded.
The ending doesn’t necessarily make or break a show. Just as with an ex or a dead relative, we can choose to remember the better days if it serves us. Endings are hard, that’s just the nature of them. As Brian DePalma said, “Endings are tough. If you can get two or three great endings to your movies in a career, it’s a miracle.”
Last night’s The White Lotus finale on HBO Max gave us arguably the ultimate counter-example: a series that maybe didn’t become a classic until the ending. As Brian Cox’s fictionalized screenwriting guru Robert McKee lectures in Adaptation, “Wow them with the ending, and you’ve got yourself a hit.” Is this now true for television too?
All season, Mike White’s series (he wrote and directed all six episodes) bent genres. It was largely a farce-ish comedy of manners set at a fictional resort in Hawaii (it was filmed at the Four Seasons in Maui). Yet The White Lotus was always heavy on the drama, whether it was the long-suffering hotel manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett) repeatedly falling off the wagon and getting caught with his face in an underling’s ass (HBO’s second depiction of comedic analingus after Desie and Marni on Girls, if my math serves) or Paula (Brittany O’Grady) convincing her island boyfriend, Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) to rob her friend’s rich parents, and the ensuing fight scene.
In a lot of ways, The Sopranos is The White Lotus‘s closest analogue. A big part of the appeal of both is that every character is an asshole in his or her own special way, a kaleidoscope of assholes (in White Lotus‘s case both literal and metaphorical). White Lotus was heavy on contemporary politics, especially amongst the Mossbachers, and neither the smarmy Sheryl Sandberg-esque mom played by Connie Britton, her college lib know-it-all daughter played by Sydney Sweeney, or the rest of the family (clueless dad played by Steve Zahn, weirdo incel son played by Fred Hechinger, a tokenized friend of the fam Paula) ever came out seeming like the “winner” in any conversation. That’s a rare quality when political satires often start with the answer rather than the question and work backward to hector the dumbest viewer until they submit.
The White Lotus finale even gave us its first death scene, which, Sopranos-like, it treated with equal elements of comedy, tragedy, slapstick, and farce. Not since Pauly Walnuts walked through poison oak trying to kill Mikey Palmice or Tony beat Ralphie to death over a horse have we seen a death as perfectly staged and executed as Armond expiring from a stab wound to the chest in a hotel bathtub after spitefully shitting in a guest’s suitcase.
Yet The Sopranos was a “mob show,” at least in format if not entirely in practice. The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Eastbound and Down, Six Feet Under, Girls, even Succession and Mare of Easttown — usually with HBO shows we at least have a general idea of what kind of show we’re getting. With all those shows, we knew what “the hook” would be, so to speak.
White Lotus left things ambiguous almost to the end, refusing to be less than the sum of its disparate parts. It seemed to be a comedy, but it opened with a dead body. It actually wasn’t until last night’s finale that I even remembered the opening — the terminal yuppie, Shane Patton (played by Jake Lacy) watching a box marked “HUMAN REMAINS” being loaded into the cargo compartment of a Hawaiian Airlines plane. About the best thing any story can do is make you forget the elevator pitch, and in just six episodes Mike White had made me forget that White Lotus was ostensibly about a dead body. How long did it take Breaking Bad to outgrow being about a science teacher with cancer?
With the finale, White Lotus added suspense to its genre stew, adding foreshadowing (the pineapple knife) and dropping a few Agatha Christie-worthy red herrings along the way. Jon Gries, playing the new lover of Jennifer Coolidge’s messy space cadet, Tanya (Uncle Rico and Stifler’s Mom, how about that), had his third or fourth coughing fit, and even warned her about his unnamed “health issues,” saying “I could drop dead at any time,” just to put a finer point on it.
Would the body be Greg (Gries), one of the Mossbachers (the robbery, a canoeing or SCUBA accident or shark attack), Kai the gregarious safe robber, or a domestic incident involving the Pattons? White kept his options open right up until the very end when it turned out to be the pineapple knife after all. But only after an unforgettable sequence involving an open suitcase and multiple visible turds. What a gift! (Minor quibble: how are you going to show the turds falling with no visible pee? No one can poop without peeing, though I’d love to see that parlor trick).
White Lotus yet again shattered the myth of “likeability,” a forceful rebuke to every exec and studio note giver who has ever complained about there being “no one to root for.” None of these characters especially seemed like people you’d want to succeed or even necessarily to hang out with in real life (we call that “pulling a reverse Ted Lasso“). But it didn’t matter. Because that never matters, really. We don’t need “heroes” for a story to be compelling, just characters, fully fleshed out and recognizable in both their triumphs and their failings.
And in the end, White gave the happy ending (a sort of bittersweet and ironic one) to its most initially throwaway character — Quinn, the 16-year-old dirtbag incel, such an afterthought to everyone around him that his own family forces him to sleep outside. Fred Hechinger so perfectly embodied “creepy brother” that he was basically a sight gag.
Even after Armond bled out and Rachel locked herself back into what would surely be unfulfilling marriage (defying easy catharsis to the point that I was actually shouting at the TV), Quinn was the one who got to paddle out into the sunset. It was both a triumph and a tragedy, an ending and a beginning, the perfect bittersweet note for a show to go out on. “Good” or “bad,” Mike White wrote every character as if they mattered. He proved that it’s possible to do that even in a comedy, or a whodunnit; that it only makes the funny parts funnier and the sad parts sadder.