While The White Lotus’ first season undeniably gripped us with its skewering of the elite, its privileged tourists were sorely lacking in shades of grey. Within minutes of their arrival in Maui, it was pretty evident Shane was an entitled jackass, Kitty was the mother-in-law from hell and Olivia and Paula were the kind of mean girls you’d quite happily see fatally struck by falling coconuts. Almost every character was defined by a single trait that could place them neatly into the box of victim or villain. But after the five episodes (of seven) made available for us to review, it’s still unclear which category most of season two’s crew fall under.
An advantage of the anthology format currently dominating peak TV is that showrunners get the opportunity to right their wrongs. And in the year since the HBO dramedy became a word-of-mouth hit, creator Mike White appears to have rediscovered the nuances that made his earlier two-season-wonder Enlightened so compelling.
Sure, sole main returnee Tanya (Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge) is still a scatterbrained nightmare seemingly oblivious to everyone and everything outside her self-indulgent bubble. Her manic state is arguably heightened even further: see how she dismisses a tarot card reader for being too negative, for example. “I feel like if I murdered my boss, I could argue it was euthanasia,” Haley Lu Richardson’s poor beleaguered PA Portia quips as a result. And Theo James’ conceited financier Cameron might as well have ‘overgrown frat boy’ written on his head: he even uses the term ‘bro code’ following an evening of pill-popping and hookers with old college roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe). Yeah, he’s the worst.
Yet even these two archetypes are afforded at least some light and shade, with the former snapping out of her funk thanks to Tom Hollander’s worshipping gay clique (“You’re like a tragic heroine in a Puccini opera”) and the latter refusing (so far) to act on his obvious impulses towards Ethan’s wife.
It’s actually Harper who remains the show’s most intriguing character. As she’s proved in the likes of Parks and Recreation and Ingrid Goes West, Aubrey Plaza can knock out sardonic one-liners in her sleep. And while the razor-sharp script gives her plenty here too (“It’s hard to compete with slutty interns getting tripled banged for not listening to their bosses” she remarks to the group about her husband’s porn habit affecting their sex life), it also allows the actress to display her lesser-tapped vulnerability.
In other hands, Harper’s bathroom discovery of a condom wrapper would result in an instant slanging match with her hard-partying other half. But White lets Harper’s doubts and insecurities slowly bubble up to the surface before the inevitable confrontation occurs. And Plaza plays her new-moneyed lawyer so ambiguously you’re never quite sure whether she believes Ethan’s innocent (and true) version of events or is going to seek vengeance. A fifth episode tete-a-tete with Cameron’s wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), however, suggests she’ll choose option two, and with someone close to home too.
Daphne too has more layers than you’d expect from an Instagram-ready mum who takes great pride in her ignorance of the wider world. Her admittance about a lack of female friends, which explains her keenness to latch onto the unsociable Harper, proves there’s a sensitive soul beneath her superficial exterior. And the way she deals with her husband’s infidelities further proves she’s no dumb blonde either. It’s a relief to know Daphne isn’t one of the bodies floating in the sea in the teasing opening scene.
Then there’s Simona Tabasco’s Lucia and Beatrice Grannò’s Mia, the two local call girls whose behaviour runs the gamut from mischievous and strangely sweet to devious and near-manslaughter. Unlike chauvinistic grandpa Bert (F. Murray Abraham), the show doesn’t judge the pair by their profession. Instead, it makes them as fully-rounded as the hotel guests whose lives they disrupt. Mia is a particularly complex creation, resigning herself to tragedy one minute (“all whores are punished in the end”) and then pursuing a hopeful romance that doesn’t require any cash transactions the next.
The White Lotus may take aim squarely at the “salad days of patriarchy,” yet not all of the men on the island are reduced to boorish caricatures. While seemingly mismatched, you can understand how Harper was attracted to Ethan, that rare tech bro with a quietly charming disposition. And just wait until you see how late arrival Jack (Leo Woodall) – an Essex boy you could imagine being a regular at the Sugar Hut – subverts his ladies' man persona.
The three generations of Di Grassos, meanwhile, bring varying degrees of masculinity to the table. Middle man Dominic (Michael Imperioli) is fully aware he’s inherited some of his father’s womanizing traits. “You know I am the way I am because of you” he tells Bert during one of the show’s many heated dinnertime discussions. Still, he’s one of the few characters to treat Mia and Lucia with respect, while conversations with his Stanford graduate son suggests he’s keen to change his ways before reaching the status of dirty old man.
Albie (Adam DiMarco), on the other hand, is every wokerati-hater's worst nightmare, a politically-correct millennial prone to spouting theories such as “Men love The Godfather because they feel emasculated by modern society.” His heart seems in the right place but the phrase “it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for” still springs to mind.
It’s Albie’s first love interest, Portia, who asks one of the show’s most pressing questions. “Is everything boring? I just feel like there must have been a time when the world had more mystery.” The White Lotus’ welcome return certainly isn’t boring nor is it short on enigma, and this time around we’re not just talking about its whodunnit – all these extra shades are why the new season remains as one of the best HBO Max shows.
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