In Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion — A Knives Out Mystery, Edward Norton plays the role of Miles Bron, a tech billionaire entrepreneur. Bron is an ambitious megalomaniac, numbed by wealth and hubris — in one scene, he is strumming Blackbird on the guitar Paul McCartney originally used to create the song, before chucking it away carelessly on the sand. The highly paid fitness instructor he engages for online sessions for guests at his private island happens to be Serena Williams. He’s that wealthy.
Deluded by success and adulation, he is trapped in the pursuit of an elusive high that mere power, money and dopamine cannot service. “I want to be responsible for something that gets talked about in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Forever,” he proclaims to his cozy coterie of equally vain, but significantly less powerful, and hence subservient friends. Another character in the film evocatively describes Bron’s bunch as ‘shitheads’. Bron, depicted with relish by Norton, holds more than a passing resemblance to a real-world billionaire with a similar name. Glass Onion was shot before the Twitter acquisition soap opera played out, but it would be naive to attribute this resemblance to coincidence.
Bron is not the only character in current pop culture who is wealthy, powerful and eminently hate-able. HBO’s White Lotus completed its second season late last year. The show builds on its first-season premise of assembling a parade of the delightfully depraved one-percenters for a weeklong holiday at an exotic resort, where characters unravel in a plume of bubbly, bluster and blood. Jennifer Coolidge plays Tanya - a neurotic middle-aged woman too wealthy and self-centred for meaningful human connections. Coolidge won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the vacuous millionaire, who at one stage in the show is glad to be invited to a party by people richer than her since that means they aren’t after her for her money.
Earlier in the year, Succession completed a third season, featuring members of the super-rich Roy family comically back-stabbing each other in an effort to land the throne of the aging media-mogul patriarch who just won’t die. And a couple of years back, there was the massively successful Schitt’s Creek, another show built around the problems of a spoiled rich family suddenly encountering bankruptcy.
There’s something about the times in which we are living that has given rise to the Hate-worthy, Incorrigible, Vile and Execrable Scion. Let’s call them "hives", for convenience. Hives are characterised by loose purse-strings and looser morals; transactional relationships and a penchant for throwing money at problems in the hope that they would go away.
The first notable appearance of hives in pop culture was in the 90s, when Seinfeld became a runaway hit. The central characters in Seinfeld weren’t wealthy, but were upwardly mobile and exhibited every other classic symptom of the hive. Back then, centering a show around unlikeable people was a novelty, a gamble even. Over nine seasons and 180 super-successful episodes, Seinfeld’s prickly set of characters would go on to become its calling card. Fans didn’t root for their favourite characters, as much as root for karma and comeuppance to catch up with them, and deliver cosmic and comic justice. Seinfeld is a marvelously well-written show, with set-ups, punchlines and characters that have aged remarkably well into the era of wokeness. But one of the reasons for its success is that it caricatured its central characters enough to ‘other’ them sufficiently, and for their flaws to not feel personal.
Three decades hence, the tables may have turned slightly. The hives of 2022 — a list that includes Norton’s Miles Bron and his shitheads, Kieran Culkin’s Roman Roy in Succession, Coolidge’s Tanya, and Theo James’ Cam in White Lotus 2 — are not as distant from us as we may like to believe. Sure, their bank balances may have a few more zeroes, and their other-worldly airs may make them feel removed from our honest, upright lives. But as we binge-watch their lives on our smart home entertainment systems, from the comfort of our air-conditioned living rooms, late into our weekend — and increasingly weekday — nights, the line of separation does blur. We, the consumers of popcorn pop culture are far closer to the hives than we are to the opposite end of the spectrum. The fact that hives have become a staple, recurring theme in produced content in the 2020s, is an uneasy reminder of what being upwardly mobile in these times means.
In Glass Onion, Bron invites his super-rich friends for a lavish holiday on his private beach. Those friends, despite being wealthy in their own right, fawningly bow down to Bron’s immeasurable power over them. They owe their successes to his largesse, and these are friendships born out of convenience, not intimacy. The limited edition invite to this party, where he is about to stage a mock murder mystery, is a massive, ornate puzzle box made up of several clues that need to be solved in sequence. Bron’s holiday invite is an annual affair, and with every passing year, he is compelled to do one better and not dish out the same-old, same-old. Hiring an online instructor for exclusive fitness sessions for your guests — neat! But hiring Serena Williams to be that fitness instructor? Well, wow!
Who among us hasn’t felt the pressure to host a bigger, better party than the Joneses when we invite our friends over, because we obsess about what it says about us?
In White Lotus, Cam has invited his newly-turned-rich entrepreneur friend Ethan and his wife Harper to a holiday in Sicily. It is revealed during the course of the show (minor spoiler alerts) that Cam’s ulterior motive here is to get Ethan to invest into his own company.
Who among us doesn’t try to angle similarly for favours from a wealthy friend?
White Lotus’ most interesting character is Harper, Ethan’s wife, played convincingly well by Aubrey Plaza. Harper is the stand-in for the audience through the show, clearly uneasy in the vapid and show-boaty company of the hives. The neatest trick played by the show is how, over the course of the season, Harper traverses a character arc that takes us from siding with her, to eventually looking at her with the same judgemental lens she — and we — reserves for Cam.
As the credits roll on these wonderful works of art, it may be time to turn that lens onto ourselves, and observe what we may have become. After all, pop culture, like all art, holds a mirror to society, and the chasm between the hives and the hive-nots may not be as big as we’d like to think.