The White Lotus, Nine Perfect Strangers, and Old collectively capture the way our Hot Vaxx Summer has gone from a promise of carefree joy to a reality of woozy anxiety.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by HBO, Hulu and Universal Pictures
When life hands you a custom drink, best to assume that it’s been laced with drugs. That’s one of the lessons that Nine Perfect Strangers and Old have in common: The Hulu series, which is about a group of people who check into a swank wellness spa, and the M. Night Shyamalan movie, which is about a group of people vacationing at a swank getaway spot next to the beach that makes you old, begin the same way. Their characters are en route to a resort for some much-needed escape from the pressure of their everyday lives, and when they arrive, they’re welcomed with fruity beverages that, they’re told, have been tailored to their individual metabolic profiles or taste preferences. It’s a bespoke touch that’s meant to indicate high-end service, but that also manages to feel a little sinister even before the reveal that each glass has been doctored with an experimental treatment.
To be waited on, and to have your needs anticipated before they’re ever spoken out loud — that, we’ve been assured, is luxury. To be treated as an object of study, on the other hand, is less appealing, even if it amounts to the same thing. Luxury can be its own narcotic, with or without the added medication — a comparison The White Lotus makes explicit when Armond (Murray Bartlett), the manager of the swank hotel of the title, compares the guests to the lotus eaters, those figures out of Greek myth who do nothing but glut themselves on the lethargy-inducing fruit of their island’s trees. Mike White’s recently concluded HBO series also opens with an arrivals sequence, and while the resort’s VIPs are greeted with leis and towels rather than dosed libations, the way that Armond describes the service they provide makes it sound like drugs might as well be involved: Guests “get everything they want, but they don’t even know what they want, or what day it is, or where they are, or who we are, or what the fuck is going on.”
As if by some grand design, summer 2021 has repeatedly given us stories of high-end vacations gone wrong — sometimes really wrong, as in bodies crumbling in surprisingly gruesome ways, and other times just wrong in the sense of a healing retreat getting alarmingly sadistic, or some light murder. Call it resort horror, a mini-genre for this strange season in which the vibes have failed to cooperate, unacknowledged trauma has gotten in the way of attempts to have casual fun, the weather has been record-settingly rough, and the Delta variant has slowly eclipsed any hope of a return to normalcy.
Practically speaking, these fictional scenarios were born out of pandemic needs, with limited locations and ensemble casts that could go straight from quarantining in a hotel bubble to shooting in a facsimile of one in Byron Bay, the Dominican Republic, and Maui. They’re stories suited to COVID safety protocols, able to leave on-screen worlds looking underpopulated, an effect that works in favor of settings that are exclusive enclosures people have to shell out to enter — unless you’re a member of the staff, at which point you’re obliged to try to blend into the background anyway.
If the coronavirus exists in these fictional universes, it goes unmentioned, aside from Melissa McCarthy’s aside about social distancing in one scene in Nine Perfect Strangers. But it’s tempting to imagine, in all of these stories, that COVID is still raging outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of these luxury expanses, and that part of what’s paid for is the privilege to pretend it isn’t, as if at any moment, things could go all Masque of the Red Death 2021. They’re undeniably, mystifyingly compelling, though not especially good (even if The White Lotus, with its opulent masochism, has an undeniable anointment of prestige). They capture one of the feelings of this moment, of the way our Hot Vaxx Summer has gone from a promise of carefree joy to a reality of woozy anxiety, like a daiquiri that turns out to have been heavily doctored with ketamine. Through all of them runs an unease that feels born out of a suspicion that no one deserves to be indulging, not when things are still so bad for other people, and not when pleasure requires putting others who have no choice but to work at greater risk.
Old is the only literal horror story of the three, with its vacationing family of four joining some fellow guests for a day trip on which their lives start sprinting away from them. But Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus are also overshadowed by death from the start. In the former, Triquillum founder Masha, played by Nicole Kidman as some unholy cross between Goop and Galadriel, fields anonymous threats on her life that may or may not come from one of the new members in her exclusive program. The body being loaded onto a plane at the start of the latter clearly belongs to one of the characters we then flash back to meet. All three have the looks of glossy travel shows but the souls of an Agatha Christie whodunit, and the efficient characterizations of one as well — types rather than people, possessing some broad identity and then possibly a dark secret that comes out. Everyone in Old is defined by their profession, to the point where Gael García Bernal’s character draws a direct line, during a fight, between the tendency of his wife (Vicky Krieps) to dwell on the past and the fact that she works at a museum.
The characters in Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus are a little more dimensional, because they’re meant to generate sympathy or sneers rather than just being around to die, but motifs recur, anyway. Abbey Lee and Samara Weaving play identical-looking selfie-loving bombshells with plumped lips and auras of desperation in Old and Nine Perfect Strangers. Krieps’s character is shaken by a possible sign of cancer in Old, just as Steve Zahn is (in a slightly less dignified but also less grotesque fashion) in The White Lotus. There are couples on the verge of a split, and journalists fretting about how their careers and relationships fit together, and everyone ricochets off one another in their confined locations like actors doing an exercise. The shallowness almost seems like the point, especially after having spent such a long time learning to be wary of others and of shared spaces. If part of the allure here stems from the mild exoticism that has accrued around the spectacle of strangers being made to share close quarters, another part is watching them be just as bad at relating to one another as some of us may feel like we’ve become.
They don’t really relate well to viewers, either, which is the ultimate liberty offered by all three of these titles, and why they go down so easy: there’s very little need to care. These productions allow us into the glossy would-be sanctuaries without requiring us to relate to the attendees, either because they’re so floridly written (Nine Perfect Strangers), or because they’re just body-horror fodder (Old), or because they’re exquisite monsters of entitlement (The White Lotus). There’s simply no way to focus on the guests at a high-end holiday spot and have that framing feel neutral, not when the pandemic has thrown into starker relief than ever the divide between people working the service jobs that allow something like a resort to run, and the people able to afford those resorts — to afford the luxury that is to be served.
These tales of tourist torment free us from real feelings of complicity, even in Mike White’s acid-traced island drama, which invites its viewers to wallow in the oblivious awfulness of its guests while maintaining a comfortable distance from them. Whether accompanied by an attempt at class critique or not, these titles are all marked by a sense that their characters deserve whatever’s coming to them, rather than for us all, even when the twist is that there are ultimately no consequences to be had for those who can afford it. The drugged drink may be a plot twist, but there’s also a touch of this-is-what-you-get fantasy to the idea, a reminder that there’s no controlling everything, even on a plush getaway that promises just that.