Acclaimed series “The White Lotus” — which explores the lives of affluent guests in the playground of a sumptuous resort and the problems they run into while interacting with the locals and each other — was created by Mike White, who can be considered a maestro of cringe.
If there’s any doubt, one need only to peruse some of his impressive previous work, like “Enlightened” from a decade ago — in which Laura Dern played a well-meaning corporate employee whose lack of self-awareness is akin to a superpower. (“White Lotus” and “Enlightened” are from HBO, which like CNN is part of the same parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)
But with multiple Emmy-winning “Lotus,” White, who has said his own “threshold for awkwardness is very low,” has more than come into his own, drawing up withering portraits of amazing-on-paper hotel patrons who (sometimes) turn into low-key monsters as they try to escape their problems and relax while on vacation.
In honor of the impending close of shenanigans at The White Lotus in Sicily for the second season finale this weekend (don’t fret, another season is on the way, even though the show was initially meant to be a one-off limited series), here is a look back at the most cringy moments from Seasons 1 and 2, ranked in levels of crawl-out-of-skin awkwardness.
While some viewers were miffed that pregnant Lani (Jolene Purdy of “Donnie Darko” fame) was never again seen in the show’s first season after giving birth at the resort in the debut episode, the move highlighted just how transient and replaceable hotel staff and hospitality service providers can be perceived , which in turn widened the gulf even more between the entitled White Lotus guests and the staff doggedly trying to cater to them. Still, watching manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) forget Lani’s name multiple times — even after her water breaks in front of his reception desk — is one of the first slap-on-forehead moments of many in the series. (‘Honorable’ mention: Emmy-winner Bartlett’s off-the-wagon hotel manager gets major points for the last episode in the season as well, for an insane scatological act that ultimately is more just plain gross than it is cringeworthy).
Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is a woman whose navel-gazing knows absolutely no bounds, and it comes to a head when she embarks on a supremely awkward journey in Season 1 (she’s one of only two characters to be seen in both seasons) on a small boat with entitled Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) — who thought they would have the vessel to themselves for a romantic dinner (this pair, in fact, live through a panoply of cringy moments throughout the season, especially when Shane’s mother, played by White regular Molly Shannon, surprises the honeymooning couple with a bizarre visit). While the viewer can revel in Tanya’s wackadoodle display of emotions, the look on Jake’s face is enough to make one want to jump overboard.
Season 2 of the show introduced a crew of mostly new characters, with arguably the most awkward being Albie (Adam DiMarco) — a soft-spoken young man on a family trip with his father and grandfather. When he meets Portia (Haley Lu Richardson)— the put-upon personal assistant with a pretty dire outlook on her situation — he feels he’s hit the jackpot, at one point informing her that he’s attracted to “wounded birds”… which has the expected effect. Still, the pair try to cement their union largely because there isn’t anyone better around… that is, until the arrival of flirty Brit Jack (Leo Woodal), who whisks Portia to a party hut immediately adjacent to where ditched Albie dutifully waits for her with a saved chaise lounge. Cringe.
While there are two women-walking-in-on-male-sex scenes in the series — one in each season — it would be incorrect to term Tanya’s witnessing of Jack and his “uncle” Quentin (Tom Hollander) toward the end of Season 2 as cringeworthy, partially because she doesn’t get caught. But when wellness staffer Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and hotel guest Shane open the door to Armond’s office in Season 1 — and find him engaged in a very NSFW sex act with his subordinate Dillon (Lukas Gage), the cringiness is off the charts, because 1. they’re at work, and 2. in-recovery Armond is clearly spiraling here.
Sometimes it’s the smaller scenes that are the loudest in terms of ‘eeeek’ on the awkwardness scale. With White Lotus Sicily manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), White has beautifully constructed a driven and capable employer who nonetheless has quite a huge blindspot. Throughout the whole of Season 2, Valentina barks sharp commands at her male staff (and men at a nearby cafe as well), but when she sees her crush Isabella (Eleonora Romandini), her voice softens and her substantial guard comes down — so much so that she doesn’t realize how inappropriate it is to give her employee a gift of jewelry. The expression on Isabella’s face is all you need to want to turn off the TV and take a break.
Even though one could see it coming from a mile away, the way things turn out for Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) — after being urged to steal by Paula (Brittany O’Grady) to try and get out from under debt and not have to work for a company that in turn stole land from his ancestors — is equal parts cringe and heartbreakingly realistic. What’s worse is that while Kai’s life is ostensibly ruined, Paula gets to leave the mess she unwittingly created behind.
Part of what made Season 1 of “TWL” so remarkable was how it commented on differing class levels and the innate and almost automatic racism and elitism that occurs when they mix. Add Tanya’s particular brand of “alcoholic lunatic” narcissism (her words, not mine), and it makes for a trainwreck-level mess. The final exchange between Tanya and poor Belinda (again) — who had sent her a business proposal in good faith after Tanya dangled the idea of helping her launch her own wellness company — is perhaps the most devastating moment in the show. Tanya’s ability to look up and out of herself at this moment, just enough to be pathetically apologetic, is disappointing to say the least, while Belinda collapses in I-shoulda-known-better tears. “The last thing I need in my life is another transactional relationship,” says Tanya, while holding a thick envelope of cash in her purse, which she hands to Belinda to avoid too much guilt before walking out the door.