If there’s one thing The White Lotus is sure to make you ponder, it’s the number of murders that can be committed at a luxury resort before anybody steps in to explore.
Or you’ll simply shrug your investigative worries off. After all, one of the main themes of The White Lotus is the ability of the rich to get away with anything; in this season, they try their hand at murder.
The first season of The White Lotus became a runaway hit for its sharp satire of the rich, combining humor with pointed commentary on race, class, and modern colonialism. Following a group of one–percenters staying at a fictional luxury resort called the White Lotus in Hawaii and the staff that had to clean up their messes, creator Mike White turned this show into more than just an upstairs–downstairs comedy. This is a testament to White’s unrelenting focus to showcase how the privilege of the wealthy makes them self–obsessed, cruel, corrupted, and endlessly greedy. Even paradise isn’t enough.
This new season transports us from the White Lotus resort in Hawaii to the sweaty and sexy beaches of Sicily. The cast (except for Jennifer Coolidge’s returning character Tanya, and her new husband) is brand new. Haley Lu Richardson appears as Portia, Tanya’s frazzled personal assistant. Theo James and Meghann Fahy, who play married couple Cameron and Daphne, are on vacation with old friends: Will Sharpe’s Ethan and Aubrey Plaza’s Harper. The simmering resentments between both couples propel these new episodes into their most deliciously uncomfortable places. F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco play three generations of men in one family; Bert, Dominic, and Albie Di Grasso. Sabrina Impacciatore is Valentina, the manager, although White mostly drops the staff as major characters in this season. Instead, he introduces us to Lucia and Mia (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò), two young Sicilians who hang around engaging in part–time sex work and a full–time charm offensive on the men of the resort. Their addition fills in a blank spot of the last season, which explored how the rich corrupt everything around them, yet didn’t touch on the role of sex work in these glossy paradises.
This injection of sex is very intentional, as there’s much more than just murder going on at this new resort. The new theme of this show is sex. Who’s got it, who wants it, and who might kill because of it.
This thematic change mostly works. The switch from racial and class politics to sexual politics matches the heightened, soapy tone of the new season. White said that he wanted this season to feel like “an opera,” in service of its new Italian setting, and he’s certainly achieved some elements of dramatic Italian operas. Namely, their body count. There was one corpse on a beach in season one, and now we have several floating in the water.
But this new tone doesn’t work everywhere; our returning main character, Coolidge’s Tanya, feels sadly out of place. Where last season Tanya’s gaudiness made her efforts to grieve and find genuine connection feel honest, she is much more one–note this time around. It may be a blessing just to get Coolidge’s presence on our screens, but it's a disappointment to watch Tanya fall from the high point of the first season to the low point of the second.
It could simply be that Tanya doesn’t fit the new, sinister tone White has created in the show’s second season. The camera swirls around its targets like a shark, and the threat of sexual betrayal hangs in the air. Statues of testa di moro (which helpful White Lotus staff explain are traditional sculptures of a man’s head cut off by his mistress for failing to mention his actual family) lurk around every corner.
Without the perspective of the staff looking back at their guests, we inevitably fall back on the ways that the rich antagonize each other. White seems to especially enjoy the jealousy and aggression that pings between the young married couples. Aubrey Plaza’s Harper derides the other pair as shallow and ridiculous. Cameron is a pillar of toxic masculinity and Daphne is an airhead who doesn’t know how to vote. Harper believes she’s pinned them perfectly. Isn't she more in touch with the world? Haven’t she and Ethan donated money to charity? Aren’t Cameron and Daphne so materialistic, she sneers throughout the series.
It’s fair to say that Plaza is the standout performance, pouring bitterness, arrogance, and envy into her role; Harper is unable to stomach the simple fact that Daphne and Cameron are happier than she and Ethan are (and that their sex life is definitely more fulfilling).
Every single conversation in the pilot reveals more shades of misery. The extremely talented Hailey Lu Richardson has a minor role here as Portia, but she steals every scene she’s in as her anxious desires break a complacent surface. Familial arguments between the men of the Di Grasso family underscore a lurking misogyny: the older men are entitled and predatory; the younger son is a classic “nice guy.” White’s talent at writing performative dialogue excels. Not a conversation passes without hints of what these horrible people really want. And the question of what the rich want is the least simple thing in this show.
As so many characters mention, sex is transactional. “It’s a good feeling when you realize someone has money. Because then you don’t have to worry about them wanting yours,” Tanya laments. Whether you’ve got it or not, money is sex.
Ultimately, this new season pivots to sex to suggest that the true tragedy of these ultra–rich people is that they can never know anything real: not real desire, real love, not even real hate. It’s all just another product that money can buy.