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Forgiveness

Ethan's Failed Apology in "The White Lotus"

A bad outcome from a subpar "sorry."

Key points

  • A good apology is sincere, acknowledges the mistake, and doesn't include justifications, defensiveness, or turning the blame.
  • Metacommunication—inflection of our voice, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language—communicates if we are being sincere.
  • When you passively participate in decision-making, you still need to face the consequences of those decisions.
Brett Jordan/Unsplash
Source: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

Spoiler Alert: This post will discuss examples and plots from season 2 of The White Lotus. If you haven't seen it, you may want to watch it first and read this after.

In both seasons of the popular HBO show The White Lotus, a group of wealthy strangers arrives by boat at a luxurious resort chain of the same name. In season one, the resort is in Hawaii; in the current season, the vacationers are in Sicily. Strangers interact during their time at the resort as we slowly discover the complexities of their personalities and relationships. Both seasons also feature a murder, and viewers are left guessing who dies and how they are killed until the very last episode.

The Reason for the Apology

As you may remember from this post, Ethan (Will Sharpe) had a debaucherous night with his ex-college roommate and psuedo-friend Cameron (Theo James) that included copious amounts of alcohol, the club drug Molly (Ecstasy), and a late-night party in their hotel rooms with two local sex workers. Cameron left a condom wrapper on the sofa in Ethan's hotel room, which Ethan's wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) found upon her return after being away for the night.

After a day of sleuthing and giving Ethan several opportunities to disclose the truth, Harper leaves the condom wrapper on the sink in their hotel bathroom. In the morning, Ethan goes into the bathroom and discovers the wrapper.

The Conversation Starts Poorly

Instead of immediately coming clean, Ethan still tries to cover up the truth. He asks Harper what the wrapper is doing there and where it came from, acting as though he has no clue. Maybe he didn't realize Cameron used condoms when he slept with someone on Ethan's sofa, but that seems doubtful.

Harper doesn't let up and Ethan starts to tell the truth. Slowly. Little tidbits of the truth, and only when Harper asks him specific questions. He makes her play detective instead of volunteering the full story.

Yes, it is weird that Cameron was having sex with women in his room, but he was so drunk he didn't realize it. Oh, and he was also high on Molly; that's why he didn't stop it. And sure, one of the women kissed him (Ethan), but he "freaked out" and stopped it.

His attempts to make himself seem innocent and downplay the night of hedonism only make it sound worse.

The Apology Finally Arrives

After Harper pokes and prods for information, and is clearly upset by what happened that night, Ethan offers a half-hearted apology. He may say the words "I'm sorry," but it sure doesn't feel like he means them. Here's why:

  • His inflection (the pitch and tone of his voice) indicates annoyance instead of sincerity. His eyes also express frustration. Words aren't enough; the metacommunication matters, too.
  • He doesn't take responsibility for the inappropriateness of his actions. He doesn't acknowledge that his behavior crossed their relationship's boundaries.
  • He turns the tables and insists that Harper should actually be happy about this since he didn't cheat when he had such an easy opportunity to do so. This is gaslighting: denying Harper's experience, convincing her that she should feel differently, and attempting to make her feel badly for her original emotional response.
  • He invalidates her feelings and tells her to not make this a big deal, as if she is overreacting to something very minor.
  • And, for the kicker, he admits he didn't tell her the truth sooner because he was prioritizing keeping Cameron's confidence over being honest in his relationship. This might be the most hurtful part of all for Harper, who is shocked that Ethan would put "bro code" above their marriage.

Harper is hurt, as she should be. Ethan's actions were unacceptable and his "apology" only made it worse.

The Fallout

Ethan's ineffective apology leaves Harper feeling shut down, dismissed, unheard, and even more hurt. But she's not one to quietly take it. When they go wine tasting with Cameron and Daphne (Meghann Fahy), Harper lets loose, asking Cameron and Ethan if they've ever had a threesome together. Ethan is embarrassed or annoyed, and meekly asks her to stop, but quickly gives up when she insists on continuing the conversation.

At the end of the night, Harper opens up to Daphne about her concerns that the men were unfaithful and is met with Daphne's same response from the previous episode: Do what you need to so that you're not resentful. Hire an attractive personal trainer you can sleep with, too, and that way you won't hate Ethan for cheating. This resolution might work for Daphne in her marriage, but it doesn't sound like a good option for Harper and Ethan.

What Ethan Should Have Done

As soon as Ethan saw the condom wrapper in the bathroom, he should have come clean. He should have sat down on the bed next to Harper and told her absolutely everything. He should have listened to her feelings and validated them. He should have said things like:

  • "You have every right to be upset. I really messed up and broke your trust. I would be angry too."
  • "I should have said no to Cameron but I was swept up in the moment. I can't believe I let things get so out of hand."
  • "I should have told you what happened right away and I'm so sorry for not being honest yesterday. I was hoping you wouldn't find out because I knew it would hurt you, but that was the wrong call. You deserved to know the truth."

Next, Ethan should have said: "Forget those two; we need to spend the day together, just you and me. What happened really rocked our marriage and we don't need their influence right now. You're my priority and I don't care if they're hurt or confused about why we're not hanging out with them. I want to work on repairing this mistake and earning back your trust."

Then Ethan should have told Cameron that Harper knows the full story and that he's spending the day with his wife, instead of pretending everything's fine while drinking at a winery.

Being Passive Doesn't Mean Avoiding Consequences

In a matter of a vacation, Ethan has become a different husband. At the start of the season, he is a kind, gentle, infinitely patient partner. He tries to soften Harper's harsh assessment of Cameron and Daphne, while staying on her side. One night with Cameron turns Ethan into a stereotypical rich, uncaring husband.

However, what hasn't changed is Ethan's passivity. He is loathe to take a stand if it will lead to conflict, whether with friends or with his wife. He avoids arguments and tries to keep the peace, at the expense of his marriage.

Why didn't he have a more serious conversation with Harper asking her to stop being a harsh judge of his friend? Why didn't he say "absolutely not" to Cameron ordering another round of drinks, or to taking Molly, or to letting the orgy occur in his hotel room?

Ethan does not make his own decisions and thus he does take responsibility for them, either. But he's learning that even if he isn't actively participating in these choices, he still suffers the consequences for them. Ethan needs to accept more responsibility for his actions and start intentionally making choices that fit his values and goals, instead of letting others steer him.

References

White, M (Creator). (2021-2022.) The White Lotus [TV Series]. HBO.

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