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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Chilling White Lotus Scene That Epitomized 2022

At the end of the year, it’s time for reflection. Often, in popular culture, this boils down to lists and essays. But rarely do those capture the smaller moments of joy. The meme that briefly dominated the group chat. The book passage you reread 10 times. The lyrics you couldn’t stop hearing in your head for just that one week. As this year comes to a close, there’s one such moment that, in its particular sneaky way, seems to capture something real about the way it felt to be alive in 2022.   

It came about 20 minutes into the sixth episode of the new season of HBO’s The White Lotus. At this point of the show Hayley Lu Richardson’s character Portia, an adrift American personal assistant seeking adventure, has spent a few episodes unexpectedly intertwined with Leo Woodall’s character Jack, an English charmer with a thirst for life and likely a drinking problem. Their patrons—the rich and/or allegedly rich Tanya and Quentin—are mingling elsewhere, and Portia and Jack are free to sit idly on a bench in the port of Cefalù and take in the scene. Children splash in the water. Waves lap. An achingly perfect blue sky hangs over it all. Jack is drinking a beer. Portia is eating a complicated-looking dessert. 

“Do you have any goals?” she asks. 

Jack laughs. “What? Goals?”


“What’s some of your goals?”

“I don’t know.” She pauses. “Be satisfied. Yeah. That’d be nice.”

“I think you just gotta live every day as it comes, d’you know what I mean?” he shoots back. “Like, that’s what I do, anyway. Who knows if we’re even gonna be here tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It’s very true. The world’s a fucked up place.” 

Jack scoffs. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Are you joking?”

“Pretty fucking good world, I’d say.”

“Literally everything’s falling apart.” 

It’s an echo of a sentiment at least one other character, Harper, shared earlier in the season. It feels most obviously wedded to climate change fatalism, but in that simple statement Portia could be referring to any number of things: fears over the erosion of democratic values in the US and abroad; the deadening effects of social media; the possibility that when the next pandemic comes humans will be just as poorly prepared as they were the first time. Emotionally, at least, she’s right. For large parts of 2022, it certainly felt like everything continued to fall apart. And here Jack gets a monologue. 

“You’d rather live in the Middle Ages then, would ya? When they were ripping each other to shreds, yeah? They were way worse than ISIS or any of them lot. It’s a fucking miracle anyone’s even left in Europe. What we’ve been doing is just fucking hacking each other to bits and burning each other at the stake. I’m ready for another beer.” 

He hops off the bench. Jangly hopeful music starts playing underneath him. “What I’m saying is, right, we’re fucking lucky, d’you know what I mean? We’re living in the best time in the history of the world—on the best fucking planet. If you can’t be satisfied living now, here, you’re never gonna be satisfied.” He stands directly in front of Portia, appealing to her. She laughs uneasily. “So let’s get pissed. Ay?” He grabs her by the hand. And off they go.

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Now! (Spoilers ahead.) By the end of the episode we learn Jack is not at all the happy-go-lucky fellow he posits to be and by the end of the season we learn he’s likely an abettor to an attempted murder. Maybe Mike White, the creator of The White Lotus, was purposefully wrongfooting us. Maybe he wanted viewers to feel like idiots if they fell for Jack’s pep talk. It’s certainly possible: A common take on White Lotus is that it’s riveting because all of its characters are awful. There’s no one to root for, just like the real world. But, in that moment, on that bench, it seems as though White believes Jack’s bullshit. 

After a long and stellar career mostly as a screenwriter of movie comedies, White is currently having his greatest career moment at 52-years-old. He’s made it clear in interviews that he doesn’t particularly judge his White Lotus characters, but instead feels a kinship. So, it might be naive, but it seems possible he’s speaking through Jack. Because here’s the thing: Portia’s right, but so is Jack. As Vox put it a few years back, in their calculatingly broad way: “Fewer people are dying from illness and violence than ever … Child labor is going down, and more and more children are growing up to have educated, happy, fulfilled lives … Fewer people than ever are forced to live in extreme poverty.” 

To say “things aren’t all bad” and then shrug is a cop-out, of course. The only reason things have gotten better is because someone somewhere pushed for them to get better. Without the American labor movement, we’d very much still have child labor. But watching Jack lean into his monologue in that moment—well, it feels good. It feels like a sincere attempt at positivity despite personal failings and huge and unending international collective trauma. Which made it feel very 2022. Because to feel hopeful in 2022, you also had to feel—at least a little bit—like an idiot. It’s a mess out there. But it’s also a pretty fucking good world, too.

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