This year, there was a suspicious abundance of media about an assortment of elites arriving onto an island only to experience a ghastly murder (see The Menu, Glass Onion, & Triangle of Sadness). Nevertheless, when HBO aired the second season of their critically acclaimed anthology series, The White Lotus, in October, it was nothing short of groundbreaking. Like the first installment, Season 2 begins with the discovery of an unknown body at a new White Lotus luxury resort location, before cataloging the chaotic experiences of the uber-rich guests in the week leading up to the tragedy.
The show satirizes the grievances of the ultra-wealthy, with incorrect room reservations and unusual spa treatments getting a melodramatic focus akin to combat warfare. The characters proceed to interact accordingly, engaging in relevant yet absurd political discourse and continuously proving their own disillusion. While the first season took place in tropical Hawaii, Season 2 travels to the beautiful Sicilian cliffside city of Taormina, with rocky beaches and gorgeous plazas lining the Mediterranean coast for the guests to flutter about like flies on a golden carcass.
The inimitable icon Jennifer Coolidge reprises her role as the eccentric, oft-oblivious heiress Tanya, whose ditsy demeanor and various out-of-pocket remarks cement her as a character for the ages. The legendary comedic timing of the actress, paired with the increasingly ridiculous situations Tanya is placed in by showrunner Mike White, is worth the watch alone. Her journey this season takes us on her honeymoon with Greg, the bachelor she met all-too-conveniently during the first season, and her quirky yet ungrounded personal assistant Portia tags along.
Also vacationing are four new-money millennials on a couples’ trip: tech bro investors and former college roommates Ethan and Cameron, along with their wives Harper and Daphne. The sardonic Harper (portrayed by deadpan genius Aubrey Plaza) struggles to relax in paradise, while Cameron’s wife Daphne projects a clueless housewife persona. Three generations of men in the Sicilian-American Di Grassi family—antiquated grandfather Bert, middle-aged movie producer Dominic, and recent Stanford graduate Albie—round off the cast of hotel guests. The local Italians include shrewd hotel manager Valentina and sex workers Lucia and Mia, whose company Dominic pays for during the weeklong trip.
Unlike the show’s first season, which dealt with themes of money, class, and colonialism, the second season focuses mainly on the power dynamics of gender and sexuality. For instance, the Di Grassi family represents the ways each generation of men exerts patriarchal dominance. Dominic cheats on his wife, who is already attempting to divorce him for past infidelity; Bert outwardly harasses the young women around him, while Dominic attempts to keep his transgressions private. Albie, on the other hand, represents a new self-seeking generation of men; keenly aware of modern feminist discourse, he believes his “nice guy” persona entitles him to the affection of women his father and grandfather gracelessly demand to access.
The couples’ trip also presents complicated dynamics present in committed, heterosexual relationships. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Cameron and Daphne are revealed to sustain their seemingly perfect marriage through a complex system of deception, engaging in affairs to not feel that the other has gotten the better of them. Daphne even subtly confides to Harper that her own children are not Cameron’s, but rather from a personal trainer whom she sleeps with to not feel like a victim of Cameron’s sexual chauvinism. Though not equal in their debauchery, the vacationing men spend a drug-filled night with Lucia and Mia, and Harper becomes similarly suspicious of Ethan’s fidelity. Eventually, both Ethan and Harper betray the other through suspected cheating, garnering the leverage necessary to give themselves peace of mind, yet becoming just as disingenuous as Cameron and Daphne in the process.
The gender relationships are nuanced and explore the ways in which both men and women utilize their sex to manipulate others. The White Lotus has always begged the question: what does social power look like, and how do those with power exert it to get what they want? Vacations exist to forget about the issues of the real world; we check in to luxury hotels at exotic locations in order to check out from the harsh and often droll realities of modernity. But, as the hotel guests quickly discover, it is impossible to fully escape social chaos and the roles we each play in both creating and sustaining it.
This season’s most riveting narrative, however, focuses on Tanya. The unsuspecting socialite finds herself at the center of an elaborate scheme as her newlywed husband orchestrates a group of local European gay men to murder her in a conspiracy to access her vast fortune. Throughout the endeavor, she vocally laments her life, empathizing with the theatrics of a doomed Puccini heroine, but her fate is quite the opposite. After surviving the “evil gays” by massacring them on their yacht, she unceremoniously bumps her head on a liferaft by jumping off the boat in an attempt to escape, completely ignoring the ladder next to her and drowning in the Sicilian Bay.
Despite several omens hinting at her demise, her death was a shock to audiences who never thought it possible that Jennifer Coolidge would depart from the series as the sole returning performer. But truly, Tanya’s exit is perfectly apt for her character, triumphantly beating the odds to survive a calculated assassination attempt only to be slain by her own rash ineptitude. This is the primary thematic aim of The White Lotus: showcasing the consequences of the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and pointing out the irony of their hedonistic ignorance against the backdrop of the most beautiful and visited locations on Earth. It is these same people who are running our companies, controlling our money, and making our decisions—a cabal of the Lotus-eaters, drunk off the recreation of their own power.
The White Lotus is slated to return for Season 3, and showrunners promise to focus on themes of health, death, wellness, and Eastern spirituality. With a new location and ensemble cast, the show will no doubt continue to earn its place as one of the most poignant and memorable television miniseries of all time.
Everett Bonner is a senior in the SFS studying International Politics with minors in International Development and Japanese. He is an Executive Editor of the INDY.