At this point, if you haven’t engaged with the genius of actor, writer, and director Mike White, we have to wonder, where have you been? The White Lotus, his critically acclaimed social drama, has captured the attention of audiences across the nation, sparking discourse about the things that matter in life: Gen-Z nihilism, economic inequity, the politics of vacationing on stolen land, and Steve Zahn.
The creator also expertly dangled a quiet mystery from the very beginning of The White Lotus’ first scene: someone at the Hawaiian resort would die. It was just a matter of figuring out which character would experience the tropical vacation from hell. Who would it be? The meek and naive Rachel (Alexandra Daddario)? Mark Mossbacher and his cancerous testicles? The man with the cough, who sweeps the bereaved Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) off her feet? Or maybe it would be Tanya herself, who says, “I’ve had a lot of treatments over the years, but death is the last immersive experience I haven’t tried.” Could she be foreshadowing her own demise?
Turns out, all of the above were just red herrings. There’s no doubt this trip was hellish, for both hotel staff and guests, but in a society as unfair as the one we see on screen in The White Lotus, those who work at the bottom could never win. Rachel and Shane’s marriage may be falling apart, but neither of them wind up dead. The Mossbachers will probably just go back to their picture perfect life. Tanya has made peace with death—but will travel the world with her new lover, and Quinn has nearly achieved nirvana in the form of a canoe and an oar.
Those who get the shortest end of the stick are the hotel staff—Belinda’s (Natasha Rothwell) career dreams won’t be financially supported by a rich white benefactor, and Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) will probably go to jail. But the worst fate is reserved for Armond (Murray Bartlett), the increasingly disgruntled hotel manager.
Armond does not get the chance to narrowly escape death. His final scene turns up the laughs only to come to a screeching halt: in a shocking turn of events, the character, hellbent on acting out his final act of revenge against the horrible hotel guest who made it his personal mission to get him fired, is (accidentally?) stabbed by Shane with a pineapple knife. Below, Bartlett opens up about starring in the most harrowing five minutes of television this year, whether or not he knew who would die at The White Lotus from the start, and his initial thoughts on Armond’s scatalogical revenge.
Did you know from the beginning that Armond would die?
I didn’t when I signed up to do the job because I’d only read the first script. I was shocked when I first read it! I didn’t see it coming. I feel like it’s a mixed bag, from what I hear, of who people think [will die], but I hope people are surprised because it was a great shock for me.
Before you knew it would be Armond, who was your guess?
I switched along the way. I wasn’t sure, but I certainly went for the ride of not knowing, or wondering if it was this or that person. It’s such a great thread that Mike White has put through the whole thing. There’s so much great stuff in this show with themes and character, but to also have this suspense thread running through it is brilliant. It hooks you.
Were you given any opportunity to share your input with Mike on how Armond might move, behave, or talk from the beginning?
Absolutely. The character was incredibly rich on the page. It’s all in the script. I auditioned with my flavor of what I felt made sense for Armond, and then we just played. What I loved about working with Mike is that there wasn’t a lot of intellectualizing, we just tried different things and played. We’d never worked together before and because of Covid, there was no meeting beforehand. We got to Hawaii and dove in, which was a little terrifying in the beginning, but then you realize Mike is incredibly kind, fun, and creative.
Armond totally unravels over the course of six episodes, but you’re rooting for him to make it to the end. Could you relate to him at all?
I connected to the character very strongly. There are parts of me in Armond, and parts of Armond in me. I’ve met a number of characters along the way in my life that reminded me of him so I had a few reference points. I worked in hospitality when I was starting out as an actor, so I had my own experiences of being with really obnoxious customers, or customers that treat you like a servant. I think we can all relate to being completely frustrated, to feel like you’re losing it. We all go through that at some point—maybe not to the extent that Armond does—but that was not hard for me to tap into. [Laughs.]
The show has been praised for its sharp satire of the chaos we are experiencing in the world right now and the faulty systems that let things spin out of control. How did that impact your portrayal of someone who is, in the ecosystem of the show, on the bottom rungs of the ladder?
Shooting this in the middle of a pandemic with a very divisive election and political system, and the intensity of what’s happening in the environment—it’s a lot. Most people I talk to feel incredibly overwhelmed. This show is, in many ways, a microcosm of our society that’s not equal, and there are rich and powerful people at the top, many of whom don’t care about people. There are some who do, thank god. But that system can never really work. When you’re valuing some people over others, it’s never going to make everyone happy.
That’s what we see in this show, and Armond is a casualty of that, even as he plays into it and is not kind to some people under him at different times. I carry those overwhelmed feelings of being a person in the world right now, and it’s not hard to apply that to this character. This end that he meets, I think he’s not an everyman but he’s the representative of the part that can’t cope with this system anymore, completely goes off the rails, and eventually dies. We all feel the metaphor, particularly in the past few years.
There isn’t really a delicate way to say this, but we have to talk about Armond excreting in Shane’s suitcase right before he dies. What was going through your head the moment you read that scene?
[Laughs.] Mike White is so brilliant because he will go there—he will take the intentions of a character and follow them right through to the extreme. Armond has addiction issues and is completely high in this moment, but he follows through with what he feels. He’s expressing that frustration in the most shocking, intense way. There’s something horrifying, satisfying, and completely uncomfortable about that. In a way, it’s no different than the shitty way these characters are treated. The way that any of the guests treat people, the way Tanya treats Belinda. Armond’s final moment is extreme, but so are all of the other moments with these people walking all over each other.
After the guests leave and Armond’s body is shipped away on the plane, what do you imagine happens to Shane?
I think he probably doesn’t know how to deal with it and is free falling for a moment. Then he gets his wife back and will probably go on and forget about it, and continue to be a privileged, rich, white guy. [Laughs.] That’s the brilliance of the ending of this show. Like, when they got back together, I was like, what?! I didn’t like it. But that’s brilliant, because they’re going to be fine—well, she’ll be miserable, and he’ll be oblivious. But they’ll get away with it and move on, while all these other people beneath them are left damaged or broken. I think there is a moment of reckoning for him, but I would guess that he doesn’t lean into it, and he just snaps back to his privileged existence.
The White Lotus has been renewed for another season. Could Armond come back as a ghost and haunt the next batch of horrible guests?
[Laughs.] That’s what I’ll be pitching. But I have no idea, I know as much as you in terms of that stuff. Why don’t you send in an anonymous letter pitching me as a ghost, and I will back it up?
What’s your most treasured memory from working together with this cast, and with Mike White, on location in Hawaii?
It’s hard to pick one moment. I woke up every morning and looked out my window at palm trees and almost cried with joy. [Laughs.] It just seemed so unlikely, I didn’t think any of us would be working for a while. It was a very surreal, dreamlike experience. Most afternoons at sunset, we couldn’t leave the resort but we could go to the beach where we were staying. The cast and crew would go down to swim after sunset in this beautiful twilight with warm water. You could put your head under the water and hear whales. There was a pandemic going on, and that intense election, and here we were with this super talented group of lovely people, talking about how lucky we were. It was unbelievable.