Hell is repetition. Hell is other people. Both maxims are on full display in writer and creator Mike White’s season 2 of White Lotus, the hit series that made us love laughing at entitled tourists having one hell of an infernal holiday.
“Hit” might just be an understatement. The series made a glorious sweep at last year’s Emmy Awards, bagging Best Limited Series and Best Writing for creator Mike White. Murray Bartlett (Armond) and Jennifer Coolidge laughed all the way home, gold statuettes in tow for their kick-ass performances.
Coolidge as the extremely self-absorbed and extremely rich Tanya McQuoid is back as the only recurring character from the previous season. It’s very cool that we get to see more of this half a billionaire character. And rightly so. The same person who declared in episode 5 of the previous season (in a rare display of incisive self-reflection) that “I’m a very needy person and I am deeply, deeply insecure” is now a…newlywed.
Having tied the knot with Greg (Jon Gries), the fellow American tourist she met in Maui last season, Tanya may now be a tad less self-absorbed, but she makes up for it by being twice as needy. All that odiously wheedling, achingly constant need for attention and affirmation? It’s now directed at clueless hubby Greg.
The newlyweds meet up at the five-star glory of the White Lotus in Sicily already heavy with baggage in tow: Tanya’s with the need to make their honeymoon the best one to rival her previous marriages, and Greg already drained and chomping at the bit from Tanya’s need for the whole affair to be just absolutely freaking perfect—he’s none too pleased either that Tanya has brought along her personal assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), just so someone’s on hand ala butler to iron out any kinks or have a tissue ready for crybaby Tanya.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The second season opens with death, just like the first season did. A body is found floating on the deep blue of the Ionic Sea right in front of the hotel, setting up the premise that, yeah, this all ends with someone croaking. White then rewinds to a week prior, and we are introduced to the main ensemble of our dramatis personae as they all travel by boat to the Sicily branch of the titular luxury resort hotel.
There’s two more groups other than the Tanya, Portia, and Greg trio.
One is led by Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller. She’s the picture perfect image of nouveau riche wife and reluctantly accepting it. Her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), has found true professional success of the current age by selling his company. They are accompanied to Italy by Ethan’s college roommate, Cameron (Theo James), and Cameron’s wife, Daphne (an absolutely on point Meghann Fahy) in what is supposed to be a victory lap vacay.
The other is a family of Italian-Americans, The Di Grassos. Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) as Hollywood producer Dominic Di Grasso is vacationing with his elderly father, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), and his son, Albie (Adam DiMarco) a new Stanford grad, to ostensibly explore their ancestral roots.
From there, the fun is in trying to figure out whose corpse ends up on the waters. It’s a constant, if grotesque, buzz at the back of the viewer’s head. See, at it’s heart this series is a whodunit. A murder mystery wrapped in a shiny, sparkly gift box, and tote bag crafted from the warp and weft of class and sexual need.
If White’s first season was all about the airheaded selfishness of the obscenely white and privileged, then the second season mostly tackles the malaise of the restless rich according to their repressed desire.
Under the Sicilian sun, everyone’s faults and flaws are laid bare but fortunately there is enough sex and adult fun to distract everyone from the mundanity of the human condition. Set against the sumptuous the Italian view, the dirty is available in any variety you’d want and didn’t know you wanted—one of the best moments here involves a British expat and his gay Sicilian friends.
The most obvious wantonness is epitomized by the local high-class prostitution duo of Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Granno). In fact, when the boat of American tourists arrive, the two size up every one of the men, playing a guessing game of who doesn’t have a significant other in tow (or even if, who might bite), or anyone they might successfully target.
In the vein of making your own hell through repetition and the iterative pattern of choosing the same people to share your gilded cage with, Aubrey Plaza leads the cast in quality thespianism. Harper is one of the only straight men aghast at the insipid frolicking and just can’t get into the spirit of wine, cheese, beach and repeat that her frenemies, The Sullivans, seem to naturally revel in. Neither Cameron or wife Daphne read the news and are of the opinion that voting “doesn’t matter.” Despite assurances from her husband that Cam’s just a harmless jock comfortable in his ignorance, Harper can’t help but wonder if she’s witnessing a crystal ball to her own (and her marriage’s) future. Thus, she’s trying to constantly assure herself that her and Ethan’s relationship is superior. While chomping on exquisite Biscotti di mandorla, she’s also trying to spot any flaws in The Sullivans’ seemingly perfect sex life and flawless smiles.
An easy correlation to Plaza’s Harper is previous season’s straight man Rachel (who was played by Alexandra D’Adario). Both women cannot fathom why they can’t just enjoy the riches and the fecklessness that goes along with it.
For one, Harper’s husband wasn’t a banal tech bro when they got married. Neither did he prefer porn to his IRL wife, but the baffling sexual changes when you become wealthy is part of the overarching commentary that Mike White is trying to essay here.
Unlike the first season, all the seething malcontent is up front. This makes for way less obvious Ha Ha moments. A natural side effect of this approach is that the pace lags at times, the threads loose and confusing, but White, who mostly wrote all the episodes himself, always recovers character development just when you feel your attention dropping off.
Much of the obvious comedy really stems from Lucia and Mia, the Sicilian whores working the five-star hotel's clients like remoras to Great Whites. Beatrice Granno and Simona Tabasco infuse much needed levity to the lewding and lethargy of the American tourists, helped along by the score of Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
While Fahny’s updated Stepford Wife Daphne is notably hilarious, Sabrina Impacciatore as the uptight hotel majordoma and micromanager Valentina is black comedy performance genius.
Unlike hotel manager Armond in the first season, Valentina doesn't feel that she needs to hide her angst at herding tourists and executing their implacably absurd wants with civility. Armond may have looked upon his Maui guests as sensitive children who just needed attention bombs like lollipops, but Valentina doesn’t have time for that bull. She spits out what she thinks, sans much filter, always simply backing off with an even, soothing tone and the promise of further luxury Italian style as guaranteed tourist tranquilizer.
We critics only received five out of the total seven episodes. But I can honestly say that I still have no clue who might have been killed in the end.
The misdirection and plot twists, especially from episode 4 onwards, are very well done. It’s frustrating enough that I can’t wait to watch everything again from episode 1, this time in full VFX and with correct color grading.
There's plenty of dark in this black comedy. Though certainly less LOL funny than the first season, I would say that if hell is indeed other people, then please let them be Italians. If hell is repetition, just put the Palermo coast on repeat and stick a cannoli in my corpse.
If anyone also happens to definitively figure out who the murderer and murderee are before the season finale, drop me an email.
“The White Lotus” season 2 is available to stream by October 30 (9:00-10:00pm ET/PT) on HBO and HBO GO.