There are many artistic downsides to dwindling attention spans, but televisual storytelling has also evolved as a result. Succession and Stranger Things pack so much into every episode that you're never distracted. The White Lotus also ascends to that multiplicity, blissfully unfurling its character-led stories without relying (too much) on a contrived, overarching plot.
Writer/director Mike White surpasses expectations for this second season, populated by so many unforgettable personalities – loosely connected by a five-star Sicilian resort with gorgeous views and grand, sun-soaked architecture. White flourishes in a near-Altmanesque abandon, dipping into these guests’ lives like a veritable pick 'n' mix of graduating tension, bubbling desire and thunderous jealousy.
Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Theo James and Meghann Fahy as Harper, Ethan, Cameron and Daphne. Photo: Sky/HBO
As with season one, The White Lotus begins with a body. One of this season’s central characters, Daphne (The Bold Type’s Meghann Fahy), swims into the sapphire Mediterranean and bobs into the heels of a floating corpse.
Cut to one week earlier with another familiar sight. The White Lotus staff – managed by the sexually repressed, authoritarian Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) – wave to their new guests, who approach by boat. These guests are your calamitous dramatis personae for the next seven weeks, somehow linked to a future death that becomes increasingly irrelevant as the series continues.
Firstly, there’s a contradictory quartet: couples Daphne and Cameron (Theo James) with Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza). The former live the wealthy lifestyle – clearly the kind of socialites who’ve been attractive and popular their entire lives, with reality and severity buried in the back of their clueless minds. The latter represent a snobby liberal elite, more introverted and passive-aggressive.
Plaza is perfect as Harper, who grows into the awkward, anxious MVP of the season: scathingly judgemental behind closed doors and, to Ethan’s growing annoyance, lacking much (if any) sexual appetite.
Michael Imperioli, Adam Di-Marco, F Murray Abraham, and Sabrina Impacciatore as Dominic, Albie, Bert and Valentina. Photo: Sky/HBO
Also stepping off the boat are three generations of Sicilian-descended men: grandfather Bert (F Murray Abraham), father Dominic (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli) and 20-something son Albie (Adam DiMarco). They gather at the resort as Dominic’s marriage is crumbling. Adultery is involved, but something worse happened – his working in Hollywood opens a potential #MeToo mystery.
It’s a fascinating saga, like instantaneous time travel: showing generational sexism through Burt, Dominic and even Albie’s methods of navigating women. This culminates in a moving monologue by Dominic in episode five, demonstrating how patriarchal mentalities spread, son by son. This plays into the entertaining friendship between sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and aspiring musician Mia (Beatrice Grannò), who weren’t on the boat but observe from afar – hoping to enter the glories of the resort.
Jon Griers and Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya and Greg. Photo: Sky/HBO
Then there’s Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and her despondent husband Greg (Jon Griers), the only returning characters from season one. Coolidge triumphantly resumes her role as an over-privileged yet tragic nightmare of an heiress. She’s desperate to please Greg, and she’s aggressively unsympathetic toward her young, adventure-driven assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) whom Albie has a thing for.
These characters are tied by intense frustrations around sex, love and intimacy. Although it’s easy to dismiss all of them for being lamentable, deplorable, and occasionally horrific, they’re also annoyingly likeable (except Cameron). Their plights mix into a beautifully crowded landscape, brimming with detail. As well as being a show that revels in the nuances of relationships, it’s also supremely sexy – the opulence of their surroundings only intensifies the pleasure.
White raises the stakes, the envy, and the secrecy, crafting the kind of drama you watch through your fingers while leaning closer. After viewing the five episodes available for review, this critic is gasping for more.
Notes on the season finale (spoilers!)
It’s a clichéd but rare talent: keeping the audience guessing. With a surfeit of detective dramas filling the TV schedules and streaming platforms, guessing the killer is an enjoyable staple – one that many are likely to solve before all is revealed. Mike White achieves something different in both seasons of The White Lotus: the body is the mystery.
The corpse in season two – discovered by Daphne (Meghann Fahy) in the opening scene – turns out to be… Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge)! A thrilling twist, though many eagle-eyed viewers guessed that result. This critic thought she’d survive, considering she's the only connection to season one.
Suspicious after seeing a framed photo of the eloquent Englishman Quentin (Tom Hollander) with her husband Greg (Jon Gries), she discovers the murderous scheme designed to take her millions. She shoots all ‘these gays’ and tries to escape the yacht via a smaller boat – leaping and missing and dying. There’s an element of humour to it, as much as sadness: a ridiculous way to die. White unfurls this with such obscure curiosity, only raising more questions. Why was Quentin so nice at the start? Why go through all this cultured rigmarole before killing her?
That atmosphere of lavish mystery and foggy truths spread to the other storylines. You’re never certain why the adventurous Essex boy Jack (Leo Woodall) is inescapably entangled with Quentin, his supposed uncle. Did Harper (Aubrey Plaza) do more than kiss Cameron (Theo James), as Ethan (Will Sharpe) initially suspected? Does Cameron know that Daphne’s kids might not be his? When Daphne and Ethan walk to an island together, do they actually have sex? We never see it, but the secret of whatever happened ignites a new energy into his relationship with Harper.
White avoids neatly tying these storylines, maintaining ambiguities and keeping the guessing game alive long after the episode finishes.
However, some characters have no mystery. The hotel manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) finds her sexual liberation as a gay woman, unlocked by Mia (Beatrice Grannò) in exchange for the latter’s regular seat as the restaurant musician. In the end, Mia walks off in victory with her sex worker best friend Lucia (Simona Tabasco) down a crowded Sicilian street.
Lucia, equally, gets what she wants from the naïve Di Grasso son Albie (Adam DiMarco) – a considerable exchange of funds by his father Dominic (Michael Imperioli), who seeks peace with his ex. In the end, Albie meets with Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) again at the airport. Portia knows that Tanya is dead, and she did nothing to stop it – contradicting her ennui and desire for adventure.
All of this is strangely satisfying in its dissatisfaction, enhancing unpredictability and moulding into a thoroughly tense and entertaining holiday.
Both seasons of The White Lotus are available on Sky Atlantic and NOW.
|What||The White Lotus season 2, Sky Atlantic review|
31 Oct 22 – 31 Oct 23, ON SKY ATLANTIC
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