More Deadly Decadence in “The White Lotus”

A pair of lifeless legs, seen from knee to toe, floats just under the surface of the water on a tourist-packed beach in Italy, where the flutter of mammoth, turquoise-and-white umbrellas betrays the gentle breeze on shore. What follows could be a scene from “Jaws.” A young woman, catching sight of the horror, runs out of the waves and screams for help. The officious manager of a nearby five-star resort, the Sicilian outpost of the White Lotus chain, takes a stab at nonchalance: “The ocean is not hotel property. We can’t be liable for what happens in the Ionian Sea!” But the body is only the latest of several guests to turn up dead.

It’s a rote start, if an impeccably crafted one, to the second season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” a series that became a pop-cultural phenomenon last year for its fairly novel central theme—the class anxieties that can burst forth, “Alien”-like, when we shell out thousands of dollars to unwind—and for the sneering yet humane sensibility of the show’s creator, Mike White. So many dramas today kick off with a whodunnit—including “The White Lotus” ’s Emmy-fêted first season, set in Hawaii—that the most urgent question raised by the drifting cadaver relates not to murder but to franchising. How will White sustain our interest in the idling rich, especially as he reaches once more for the same character archetypes and social dynamics that lent Season 1 such zest?

Despite the change in location and a slew of new faces joining Jennifer Coolidge, who reprises her role as Tanya, an aging glamour-puss who can buy anything except a cure for her loneliness, the second season initially feels like a mere echo of the first. Here, again, is a boat ride to an exclusive luxury property, where guests are greeted by a choreographed display of hand waves by the brightly uniformed resort staff. Yet another wife (this time, played by Aubrey Plaza) begins to second-guess her marriage, a different hotel manager (Sabrina Impacciatore) melts down in a pique of sexual frustration, and a new batch of ugly souls fails to appreciate the eye-watering beauty before them. But the first five episodes suggest that White has undergone his own unclenching. The airless sociological fatalism of Season 1, which was matched by a claustrophobic production due to COVID-19 restrictions, gives way to a more mature drama, as well as a deeper exploration of how the characters’ class concerns converge with gendered angst. “Women are kinda depressing,” Tanya tells her young assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). “But it’s not their fault. They have a lot to be depressed about.”

Portia belongs the least at the White Lotus, though, like everyone else, she doesn’t seem much impressed by her opulent, cliffside surroundings. Her professional plight is one of the season’s strongest story lines: the amorphous nature of her outwardly cushy job means that she has to be anything and everything to Tanya, whose neediness is as much of a force of nature as the roiling sea below. Portia knows that her main responsibility is to keep Tanya company—her job is a more formal arrangement of the emotional support that Tanya sought last season from Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), a massage therapist at the hotel spa.

A living reminder of Tanya’s insecurities, Portia is resented by her boss’s husband, Greg (Jon Gries)—another character who has returned from Season 1. (Tanya and Greg met at the White Lotus in Maui.) Greg insists that Tanya send Portia home, not understanding why his wife has brought an assistant with them on vacation. But Portia, with no particular ambitions of her own, stays on out of pity for Tanya—a sacrifice that exacerbates her own quarter-life crisis. Richardson, who’s forged an indie-film career exuding rumpled sunniness in films like “Columbus” and “Support the Girls,” delivers perhaps her best performance to date, depicting the self-loathing that arises when one doesn’t, or can’t, leave a gig they know is sapping their will to live. Her character is another astute portrayal by White of a floundering sort of youthful disillusionment, where a keen awareness of the limitations of an older generation’s mores is only accompanied by a stark loss for a satisfying alternative.

The threat of sexual betrayal hangs over each room of the White Lotus Sicily, a former convent. Figurines of testa di moro, life-size sculptures of a Moor’s head cut off by his Sicilian mistress for failing to mention his wife and kids, dot the premises. Sad-eyed saints, too, leer from the walls. But the only one who seems to heed their gaze is Harper (Plaza), an employment attorney married to Ethan (Will Sharpe), a quiet, nerdy type who has recently sold his company for a large fortune, launching the couple into a much higher income bracket. The kind of woman for whom cynicism is only sensible, Harper is wary of the not-quite-friends who have joined them on vacation: Ethan’s college roommate Cameron (Theo James) and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), a ludicrously beautiful, extravagantly affectionate duo who seem to have been born to induce status anxiety in everyone around them.

Behind closed doors, Cameron, a boorish finance bro, is just as disdainful of Harper and her killjoy self-seriousness as she is of him. But he also can’t help coming on to her—less out of attraction than out of a reflexive competitiveness that has made him pursue any girl in whom Ethan has expressed interest since their college days. And yet the foursome’s most involving dilemma isn’t erotic but existential. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Harper until their stay at the White Lotus that wealth might change her husband, and that he in turn could expect her to accommodate his newfound entitlement. When Harper finally gets the confirmation she’s been seeking that Cameron and Daphne aren’t as perfectly aligned as they appear to be, she sees how integral money is to papering over their troubles. “You do what you have to do to make yourself feel better,” Daphne advises her. Fahy, who always shone a little brighter than the rest of the cast of “The Bold Type,” offers a tremendous moment here, as her character wills her eyes dead, practiced in her attempts to want a life of compromise.

A family fractured by marital faithlessness—perhaps a future version of Cameron and Daphne’s brood—makes up the season’s most compelling grouping. A multigenerational trio of Italian American men from Los Angeles make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to visit their ancestral homeland. But it’s quickly revealed that Dominic (Michael Imperioli) has been left by his unseen wife for his many dalliances, and that she has turned their daughter against him. Dominic blames his father, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), a philanderer in his own right, for neglecting to teach him how to treat women well. Dominic’s son, Albie (Adam DiMarco), a recent college graduate, informs them both that he has no interest in inheriting their issues with women. Armed with a newly minted Stanford degree, the grandson dismisses the older men’s fondness for the “Godfather” movies as nostalgia for a (more) violently patriarchal era.

But, in this gentler season, White saves the knottiest issues for earnest Albie, who is too “nice” to win over Portia. He soon becomes a mark for a high-end escort his age, Lucia (Simona Tabasco), who sees sex work as easy money and attempts to cajole her friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò) into working the White Lotus with her. A corrective to the first season’s depthless portrayal of the Native Hawaiian hospitality workforce, White’s matter-of-fact presentation of the role that sex work plays in the travel and leisure industries adds to this season’s fuller characterizations and gratifyingly untidy categories. In a bout of misplaced conscientiousness, Albie makes the mistake of presuming that Lucia must be a victim—and White cautions us from doing the same. There is a lot to be depressed about at the White Lotus, but not all of it is so straightforward. ♦

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