The first season of The White Lotus didn’t appear to set things up for a return visit. Who would go back to a hotel where the promise of paradise was offset by suitcase defecation, staged jewel heists and accidental murder by pineapple knife? Though as proven by Big Little Lies, HBO bosses are quite happy to stretch out a self-contained single season should the ratings and awards follow. And the buzz surrounding Mike White’s sun-drenched social satire was so loud, a follow-up was greenlit before its final episode had even aired – but by then, it had already cemented itself as one of the best HBO Max shows.
Thankfully, unlike the Reese Witherspoon-led mystery, The White Lotus’ sequel isn’t interested in drawing every last bit of mileage out of a story that had essentially already reached its denouement. With the titular five-star hotel part of an international chain, the series is free to follow an almost entirely different bunch of walking testaments to the idea money can’t buy happiness, and in a brand new, yet still envy-inducing, location too: now the action is centred amid the breath-taking volcanic landscapes and cerulean Mediterranean waters of Sicily.
Admittedly, White doesn’t stray too far from the compelling original. There’s a young married couple (Aubrey Plaza’s Harper and Will Sharpe’s Ethan) so disparate you wonder how they even made it past their first date; an anally retentive hotel manager (Sabrina Impacciatore’s Valentina) with an uncanny ability to put a foot in their mouth; and two Molly-popping girls (Beatrice Grannò's Mia and Simona Tabasco's Lucia) who revel in passing judgement on the hotel’s clientele. He even brings back Emmy-winner Jennifer Coolidge’s brilliantly unhinged Tanya and the husband she bagged back in Hawaii (Jon Gries’ Greg) to cause more hysterical chaos.
Most notably, the opening scene suggests at least one character isn’t making it out alive – instead of a coffin being carried onto a plane, it’s a corpse floating in the sea – before flashing back to seven days earlier. White obviously has a formula and he’s going to stick to it. Still, at least it’s a winning one, as once again the show leaves you constantly guessing about, and fully invested in, which of the dysfunctional cast ends up swimming with the fishes. And there’s enough of a twist on its more familiar beats to prevent The White Lotus feeling like a lazy retread.
Harper and Ethan’s relationship, for example, is more nuanced than that of their first season counterparts. Sure, the former often appears to have picked up the baton of passive-aggressive jerk from Jake Lacy’s Shane, allowing Plaza to draw on her trademark caustic sarcasm in the process. But she’s also much more willing to accept and change her faults, and there’s something almost endearing about her obvious discomfort at becoming a bona fide one-percenter (“We’re LARPing as rich people”).
And while Tanya is still bulldozing her way through people’s lives – this time around it’s Haley Lu Richardson’s poor PA Portia forced to cater to her every deranged whim – Greg is no longer the charming mystery man with a terminal illness but an in-remission gaslighter who chastises her over eating too many macarons.
Whereas the first season was more interested in tackling themes of white privilege and colonialism, its second shifts its gaze towards gender and sexual politics. White was heavily influenced by the ceramic vases known as the teste di moro, a mainstay of the Sicilian region based on the legend of a young maiden who decapitated her married lover in a jealous rage: they are conveniently placed here throughout. And judging from the first two episodes, in particular, there are plenty of men who could potentially suffer the same fate.
None more so than Ethan’s former college roommate Cameron (Theo James having quite the eventful year after his self-fellating turn in The Time Traveller’s Wife), a douchebag financier whose marriage to the skittish Daphne (Meghann Fahy) looks picture-perfect on the surface. However, various awkward encounters with Harper – most of which occur during a state of undress – imply that both his bromance and marriage are about to be blown wide apart.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic, though, involves the Di Grassos, a three-generational family who’ve travelled to the island on an ancestry mission. Bert (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham) is a slightly lecherous grandfather who hasn’t quite grasped society has moved on since the 1970s, while son Dominic (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli) is a philandering film producer recovering from a bitter split with the help of a local call girl.
Grandson Albie (Adam DiMarco), on the other hand, is a chivalrous college graduate clearly embarrassed by his family’s political incorrectness. However, could there be something darker lurking behind his forceful brand of male feminism (“I refuse to have a bad relationship with women” he tells love interest Portia, someone initially impressed but then turned off by his apparent niceness)?
As with its predecessor, and pretty much all of White’s creations (see Chuck and Buck, the hugely underrated Enlightened), The White Lotus’ second season isn’t afraid to make feel viewers uncomfortable. It's a good job the stunning scenery is largely shown during the musical stings as you'll end up watching most of the conversations through your fingers, whether it's Harper's amazement at how the other half live (“You guys don't take sleeping pills?”), the Di Grassos sharing a little too much information about their masturbatory habits, or pretty much anytime Tanya and Greg share the screen (watch out for the former really letting loose in a hilarious dinner table meltdown). If Nathan Fielder is the master of real-life cringe comedy, then White is the master of the fictional.
Occasionally, the script is a little too on-the-nose. “Italy is just so romantic. You’re gonna die," Daphne tells two holidaymakers in the first shot shortly before swimming into a dead body. And just in case you didn't get all the ceramic-based subtext, Bert also watches the scene in The Godfather where Al Pacino is told, "In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.” Still, the first season wasn't showered with Emmys and Golden Globes for its subtlety.
Indeed, at a time when the nights are drawing in and we're all relying on our sweater collection to keep warm, The White Lotus remains the perfect form of escapism. It looks exquisite, sounds great (its eclectic score incorporates everything from Renaissance music to bossa nova) and is a welcome reminder that many rich people lead hideously vapid lives.
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