How Knowledge, Secrets Become the Underrated Currency of Power in Pop Culture


Dec 1, 2022


Image Credit: HBO

This article contains spoilers for Season 2, episode 5 of The White Lotus.

Amid sharp critiques of wealth and privilege on screen, knowledge is emerging as a pivotal instrument of power in The White Lotus. “[A]t this resort, information is yet another form of power, so with every chaotic secret exposed, we’re watching the power dynamics shift more and more,” Tom Smyth wrote in Vulture, reviewing last Sunday’s episode, “That’s Amoré.”

The narratives of power residing in information — irrespective of how it plays out — has one running thread: people who are either sidelined, or believe they’ve been wronged, by those in positions of cultural and socio-economic power, are shown using it to make their voices heard in a world that is otherwise prone to ignoring them.

In other words: wealth and born-privileges have always defined who is positioned where in the social hierarchy; but just as this started becoming a tired trope, explorations of privilege in pop culture have begun subverting it — showing how the underdogs, whom we’ve come to pity, have a subversive kind of agency, and a currency of power of their own. How they trade in it turns the power dynamic on its head, demonstrating that even the most privileged aren’t invulnerable. They, too, are fragile constructs that are easy to destroy in this game of secrets.

With Harper (played by Aubrey Plaza) now aware of the dark secrets of everyone else she is on vacation with, we see her entire demeanor change from a wallflower to a kind of social puppeteer. As she enjoys steady sips of newly-acquired power, we see her getting progressively drunker, literally, too.

Another character, whose profession as a sex worker puts her far below the affluent guests on the social rung, suddenly finds her purse overflowing with the currency of information. Even as Lucia (played by Simona Tabasco) — seemingly — continues to struggle to recover dues, she holds power over Dominic (played by Michael Imperioli) and Cameron (played by Theo James) since she’s now aware of how desperate they are to prevent their respective son and wife from discovering their indiscretion. Perhaps, if fan theories about Cameron being broke are eventually confirmed, Lucia will have more information yet at her disposal to buy her way in at the grand table of twisted social games that most of the guests appear to be present at — knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly.

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Then, there’s Lucia’s friend, Mia. Played by Beatrice Grannò, Mia, too, had been struggling with her abject socio-economic poverty until the latest episode. But now, “in yet another example of knowledge being power, Mia has picked up on the fact that Valentina is gay and is able to use that to flirtatiously convince her to give her the gig,” Smyth adds. While Mia and Harper are already aware of the cards they now hold, and have begun using them to their advantage — be it in terms of advancing their career, or simply asserting their power over their peers. Lucia, however, appears to be holding onto her cards, at the moment.

But being aware of people’s secrets isn’t the only way to wield power on The White Lotus — or in other recent shows, for that matter. In Netflix’s latest season of The Crown, we see Princess Diana (played by Elizabeth Debicki) attempting to assume control of her narrative by publishing her secrets — and, by extension, that of the royal family — through a book written by Andrew Morton (played by actor Andrew Steele). The princess, here, trades away information — rather than holding on to it — in exchange for the power that public knowledge of her struggles affords her in the form of mass appeal.

In the recently released horror comedy, Wednesday, too, the power that knowledge can bring upon its possessors comes through. Wednesday and Morticia — played by Jenna Ortega and Cathrine Zeta-Jones, respectively — barter the information of a murder victim’s poisoning to strike a deal with the mayor and save their family from a trial for murder. Acknowledging the power that information affords one, the show leads us to suspect Dr. Valerie Kinbott (played by Riki Lindhome) of using her position as a mental health professional in a small town to uncover people’s secrets in order to manipulate them into carrying out her biddings. Soon, however, we learn that we had been misled — it wasn’t Dr. Kinbott who was seeking revenge by dealing in the currency of secrets. Instead, it was Laurel Gates (played by Christina Ricci). Gates was aware, though, that knowledge is power — so, in order to be the one to wield it, she’s willing to go to the extent of even killing an innocent child to safeguard her own secret.

At the same time, the ones who are comfortably settled in their positions of power — like Dominic from The White Lotus and Principal Larissa Weems (played by Gwendoline Christie) from Wednesday — are seen twitching uncomfortably at the very prospect of their deeply-guarded secrets becoming public, threatening to undermine the power they enjoy in the form of privilege and status.

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Perhaps, as the second season of The White Lotus — known for its witty commentary on privilege — rolls on, audiences will get an opportunity to witness more of the currency of secrets at play. Fans of the show suspect Daphne (played by Meghann Fahy) and Cameron executing an elaborate ploy to isolate Harper and Ethan (played by Will Sharpe), respectively, to get them to open up, and use their secrets against them — maybe, in exchange for their newfound wealth. “Maybe Daphne isolated Harper so that Cameron could lure Ethan into his trap… As many more fans pointed out, a financial scam could be in the works,” Esquire speculates.

Meanwhile, Smyth writes, “If Cameron successfully seduces Harper, he takes away all the power that she currently holds over him, because then he’d have dirt on her as well.”

Where exactly trading in secrets will lead the characters is anyone’s guess, at the moment. But information, as an equalizer, in a resort that is teeming with the rich and the spoilt, is certainly a narrative that puts on display an oft-ignored aspect of human behavior. And, in a way, also normalizes information as a currency most of us have dealt in at one point or another — instead of shrouding it in shadows as the makers of Game of Thrones had done through the character of Lord Varys.

By normalizing people dabbling in the game of secrets, though, both The White Lotus and Wednesday leave their viewers with a hearty meal for thought: can we truly ever know anyone completely? And, whenever someone opens up to us about any part of their lives, are they willingly giving us power over their lives in a grand display of vulnerability? Or, are they simply bartering information about themselves, hoping we’d do the same in exchange, tricking us into giving up our power to them?

In this age of information, the questions seem rather fitting.


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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