The White Lotus is a lot of things: a social satire, a bedroom farce, a tragi-comedy. But it is not, nor has it ever been, a whodunnit. The deaths, introduced at the top of each season, are never the main thrust of the story, as they are in Knives Out, See How They Run, and Death on the Nile. Even when these deaths occur, they’re treated more as afterthoughts or a tawdry source of gossip among the surviving guests.
Still, the show’s fans love to play detective.
From week to week, viewers theorize relentlessly about the show, picking apart who is going to die and at whose hand. If you search for The White Lotus online, you’ll find scores of articles and TikToks breaking down fan theories and minute details that may just be a clue.
On the one hand, you can’t blame the theorizers: Both seasons of The White Lotus open with the revelation that someone has died. It’s only natural to be curious about what happened. However, so much of the conversation about The White Lotus stems from theories about murder instead of the actual meat of the show. The interpersonal drama between the very privileged and those who service them and the transactional nature of sex and relationships almost get lost in the discussions of who could have killed whom. Does this theory-centric way of experiencing a series enhance or detract from our understanding of it?
What is it about The White Lotus that makes it so prone to theories?
Credit: Fabio Lovino / HBO
In The White Lotus, the deaths that kick off each season are a hook to lure us in more than anything else, a way to promise, “Welcome to the show, anything can happen.” Even creator Mike White admitted that the inclusion of dead bodies at the start of each season was less a way of establishing a murder mystery and more a means to send up a common cliché in limited series.
“It’s such a trope at this point. All of these limited series where there’s a dead body at the beginning,” White said in a 2021 interview with The New Yorker. “I was, like, ‘You want your dead body? Here’s your dead body.'”
Of course, if you give an audience a dead body, they’ll want to investigate it. If you give an audience a cast of characters who seem ready to snap at each other’s throats, that desire for investigation doubles — nay, triples.
The tantalizing tease of a dead body is how we get fan theories ranging from “Daphne murdered Cameron and staged discovering his body so she has an alibi” to “Albie accidentally kills Lucia’s pimp, Alessio.” It’s not as if the final reveal of “Greg is trying to have Tanya murdered for her money” is any less crazy. At least the show supports that through Tanya’s discovery of the cowboy photo of Greg and Quentin, and through menacing scenes of Tanya partying with her devious new friends. But some fan theories are simply not rooted in the text of the show.
In the case of Albie and Alessio, we know right from the start that the victims are guests. Alessio is not a guest, so he’s out of contention. With Daphne as the could-be killer, things get more complicated; you can always argue that someone can be pushed to murder. But based on Season 1 of The White Lotus, the show is more interested in playing with unhappy accidents than carefully executed murder.
Does the desire to theorize ever outweigh the show itself?
Credit: Fabio Lovino / HBO
Coming up with theories scratches that part of our brains that wants to be right about everything. It’s easy to crave predicting the show’s outcome from the get-go, and sometimes that craving means doubling down on the tiniest details to confirm your own theories — like a characters’ tattoos, background art pieces, or establishing shots.
There seems to be a sense among White Lotus fans, and among online fandom in general, that everything you see on screen is a code just waiting to be cracked. But the truth is that so many of these “hints” are actually craft choices that help build the mood and subtext of the show. When Tanya and Quentin discuss the opera Madama Butterfly, that’s not some “hidden” clue. We’re meant to draw a connection between Tanya and the opera’s title character, whose husband leaves her to remarry in America, much like Greg might do to Tanya. The comparison positions Tanya as a tragic figure in the center of her own opera.
Then, there are the many establishing shots of the closed door between Daphne and Cameron and Ethan and Harper’s room. These are not part of a conspiracy: It’s a choice the White Lotus team has made to prime us for the inevitable moment when the door is left open after Harper and Cameron supposedly hook up. Right from the first episode, when Harper questions why they even have the door there, The White Lotus has wired us to pay attention to the door. A closed door is established as the norm, so when it’s open, we immediately understand that something is off.
Moments like these can most certainly be viewed as foreshadowing and clues, but that’s not all they are. They are elements that very deliberately combine to develop character, establish tone, and further the show’s ever-twisty storylines. To see them solely as the means to justify a theory is reductive: not just a reduction of the show itself, but also a reduction of the work that went into it.
With the Season 2 finale, The White Lotus may have rendered its viewers’ own theories irrelevant.
Credit: Fabio Lovino / HBO
By the Season 2 finale, many White Lotus viewers had caught on to the fact that Quentin and Greg were plotting together against Tanya. The finale confirms all those suspicions with the realization that they fully plan on murdering her. But there is absolutely no way you could have predicted the exact details of Tanya’s ultimate demise — and The White Lotus wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just like Armond’s death in Season 1, Tanya’s death is an extremely unfortunate accident. She manages to dispatch her captors herself — but is unable to descend safely to the escape dinghy. One slip on a yacht rail and she finds herself tumbling into the Ionian sea — accompanied by an extra-upsetting thunk of her head on the boat.
In the end, Tanya’s killer is none other than gravity and her own mistake. Her murder was plotted, but the chaos of The White Lotus rendered all that careful planning irrelevant. In fact, the finale of The White Lotus treated many of our own burning questions as irrelevant: Did Harper and Ethan cheat on each other with Cameron and Daphne? We’ll never find out for sure. And who was Greg having an affair with? The White Lotus may understand the question, but it certainly won’t respond to it. It’s a show that sets up a tower of red herrings, only to bring it all crashing down with a deadly accident — an audacious move for a series that prompts so much speculation.
With both seasons of The White Lotus so far, White has proven to be an expert in toying with audiences, especially when it comes to setting up murder mysteries that aren’t actually murder mysteries. But now that we expect Season 3 of The White Lotus not to be a whodunnit, what are the chances White does a full 180 and gives us his own version of an Agatha Christie tale?
Even if he did, knowing White, he’d have some twists up his sleeve — and he’d never fully play into fans’ expectations. Remember, this is the man who brought back fan-favorite Tanya only to kill her! He’s a wild card. And whether The White Lotus Season 3 embraces or eschews the murder mystery angle, we’re sure to be in for another equally wild ride.