The White Lotus Season Two (HBOMax)
Written & Directed by Mike White
The first season of Mike White’s surprise HBO hit The White Lotus delivered an acerbic examination of the lives of the privileged while vacationing in another culture’s home. That setting was Hawaii, and the interactions between characters, both local and foreign, resulted in some pretty strong dark comedy about colonialism. For the second season, White drops all but one guest and switches the setting to a White Lotus resort in Taormina, Sicily. Once again, we have three sets of guests intermingling with the staff and local people, exploring ideas of ennui, sex, and alienation. The quality here does not skip a bit, but I did find that White was pulling his punches, being a little too gentle with the same people he would have skewered a year ago.
We begin with the discovery of a body in the waters of the resort’s beach and then jump back a week to see how things got to this point. Arriving at the White Lotus are three generations of Italian-Americans attempting to reconnect with their roots: elderly Bert (F. Murray Abraham), wealthy movie producer Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and recent college grad Albie (Adam DiMarco). Then there’s the duo of couples vacationing together. Ethan and Harper Spiller (Will Sharpe & Aubrey Plaza) have accepted the invitation from Ethan’s old college roommate Cameron (Theo James) to come to the resort with him and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy). Harper is very suspicious and thinks Cameron is attempting to rope Ethan into an investment due to her husband selling his company and coming into a large sum of money.
Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is back and now married to Greg (Jon Gries), the man she met in Hawaii. Unfortunately, Greg is clearly over Tanya, who can’t entirely accept the signals. Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), Tanya’s put-upon assistant, is told to stay close but invisible as her boss attempts to repair a broken marriage. And then there are the locals. Sabrina is the manager of this White Lotus and is wound quite tightly. She’s a lesbian who has never acted on those feelings and, as a result, has lived a very lonely life. And there’s Lucia & Mia (Simona Tabasco & Beatrice Grannò, respectively), a pair of Sicilian locals who use the White Lotus to do sex work and get a taste of the good life for a day or two.
Like in season one, Mike White is the core creative force writing and directing all seven episodes. The moving parts are very familiar. Wealthy people are put in increasingly intense & awkward situations that reveal things about themselves that they have been in denial over. Relationships are redefined or destroyed. The staff doesn’t scramble as much this time as we saw in Season One, which was a disappointment as that was my favorite thing from the first round. In that first season, the class critique was the main focus, and the relationship problems served to help highlight those ideas. This time around, class critique is disappointingly absent, so we spend most of our time pondering the nature of relationships & sex. The result is a far less exacting arc for the characters, and it concludes without many of the storylines feeling resolved. There just isn’t that pointed moment that wraps it up like before, which is a shame.
What makes this season worth watching are the artful visuals, White knows how to get what he wants from his cinematographer, and the performances, particularly from actors like Aubrey Plaza and Haley Lu Richardson. These actresses have impressed me a lot in the last five years. Richardson was a standout in Kogonada’s Columbus and After Yang. She threw a 180 at me with the criminally overlooked For the Girls. Here Richardson plays a young woman adrift, her entire life tied to a rich woman that is entirely out of her depth and may pull poor Portia down with her. The arc Portia goes on is one of the most engaging in the season, and I hope she gets even more high-profile work after this.
Plaza has just found her niche and is nailing it these days. This year alone, she played a fantastic supporting role in her husband’s picture lowkey dark comedy Spin Me Round. Her highlight was Emily the Criminal, a performance that should bring some high-quality scripts to her lap. Her performance as Harper in White Lotus is very nuanced; she goes through a roller coaster of emotions and doesn’t miss a beat. The season starts with her coldly withdrawn from the vacation fun, constantly sizing up Cameron. Then she’s thrown for a loop and made to feel lost, followed by suspicions that her husband has betrayed her trust. From there, things get wild between her and Ethan, making for one of the better parts of the season.
I was incredibly disappointed with the lack of good stories for the staff & locals. They aren’t poorly written but pale in comparison to season one. But the worst part of the season is the multi-generational men visiting their home country. Everything in their story arcs was a waste, and I never engaged with those subplots as much as others. The conversations about Dominic’s infidelity always felt shallow and never really led to a resolution where you feel like nothing was learned. This was the most egregious instance I found of White pulling his punches in a way he didn’t in season one. These characters were rife to be put through the wringer, and barely anything happened to them beyond losing some money.
If this had been season one, I would not have been too excited to tune in for the second round. However, that first season is so good that despite the flaws of this one, I will look forward to a third at least to see if White can recapture that magic. He’s stated that a third season is likely to be set in Asia and center on ideas of death & mortality, which is a good start. It will all depend on who he features and what he’s saying about them. I probably won’t be booking a return trip if it’s another kid-glove handling of privileged assholes.
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