In the second season of “The White Lotus,” a group of VIP guests float across a sparkling ocean towards their lavish five-star luxury resort — a paradise far, far away from the ugliness of the real world. In a week’s time, viewers quickly learn, at least one of the guests will be dead. While the resulting melodrama offers an entertaining visual spectacle, the show ultimately fails to justify why it revolves so closely around the opulent outer and insecure inner lives of its superrich white characters. Caution: spoilers ahead.
Directed by Mike White and released by HBO on October 30, 2022, Season 2 of “The White Lotus” features an ensemble cast of glamorous, yet unhappy white people, from Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a brittle, lonely, aging heiress, to Cameron (Theo James), a finance-bro, and his Pollyannaish wife Daphne (Megahnn Fahy), who are traveling with Cameron’s friend Ethan (Will Sharpe), a nerdy startup founder, and his cynical wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza). With almost a dozen guests in total, the show is focused more on the various relationship forms of wealthy people than on a single plot. Meanwhile, the air-tight murder mystery — which does not break open until the final episode — serves primarily as tense background music for the often sexual ruptures between the characters.
Set in a Sicilian resort town, the show’s portraiture of elite tourists is as richly detailed as their gorgeous setting. In particular, White has a talent for exposing the vulnerabilities of his characters to great comic or dramatic effect. Indeed, the central point made in the show may well be that, beneath their veneer of respectability, rich people can be simultaneously obsessed with the material, carnal world (for instance, by dysfunctionally trying to reproduce the perfect Instagram photo) and totally ignorant of reality. After Cameron and Daphne go partner-swapping with Ethan and Harper, for example, none of them actually confront the fact of their infidelity. Yet, the idea that rich people can often be shallow and deluded is not exactly new. It is a point that can be seen in the perfect bodies and homes of any wealthy, young person’s Instagram, and in the end, the show’s obsession with the trappings and sexual foibles of the richest one percent makes it into yet another deceptive thirst-trap.
In contrast, the portrayal of non-straight and non-wealthy characters in “The White Lotus” is crude. As a rule, poor people and gay people are denied the screen time and complexity granted to the straighter, wealthier guests at the show’s center. Notably, they are also portrayed as predators. Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the resort’s concierge, doubles as a repressed lesbian woman who preys on one of her employees, much like the creepy concierge in the first season. A group of local gay men Tanya meets at the hotel initially seem nice enough, but are later revealed to be out to get her money. Finally, the only poor locals featured in the show, Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Granno), are literal hustlers who set up an elaborate scam to steal 50,000 euros from one of the guests. Notably, we never see where Lucia and Mia actually live or any part of their lives outside of their interactions with the hotel’s guests; they exist only as plot devices for the rest of the cast. The insularity of the show, of course, may be meant to reflect the insularity of wealthy tourists. But the artistic value of producing yet another character study of straight rich white people has steep limits when their perspective already saturates our visual culture. Instead, to explain the popularity of shows like “The White Lotus,” we must admit that part of their appeal is that, no matter how much we dislike the characters, we also want to escape into their pretty reality.
“Well, you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful world than this,” Tanya declares halfway through “The White Lotus” while drinking wine in a sumptuous Sicilian villa. From where she sits, this is somehow a believable statement. Whatever happens to her, Tanya and the other rich characters in the show will always be surrounded by beauty. The rest of us, meanwhile, are left to stare into the images of their world beaming through our screens until this almost seems true for us, too.
Overall, “The White Lotus” Season 2 receives a 3.5/5 for its superficially attractive but ultimately deceptive narrative.
Editor’s Note: Leo Peters ’24 is an Associate News Editor for The Phillipian.
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