WATCH CLOSELY: “The White Lotus” — Decadence and Dalliance
By Peg Aloi
The second season of The White Lotus is decidedly darker than the first, and the air of decadence and luxury is overshadowed by a disturbing aura of danger, even evil.
Following a highly successful and award-studded debut season, Mike White’s nastily funny, darkly disturbing, elegantly filmed series The White Lotus moves from Hawaii to Sicily for its second season. As of this writing, I have seen the first five episodes. There continues to be an abundance of grandiose mountain and seaside vistas, and plenty of gorgeous culturally specific music (last season’s indigenous Hawaiian music gives way to Italian opera and love songs). In the first scene, a guest at the luxurious White Lotus resort goes swimming and discovers a dead body floating next to her. As police investigate and hotel officials scramble to do damage control, it is discovered that there are several dead bodies in the water. The scene then flashes back to one week earlier, presumably to tell the story of how these deaths occurred.
Guests arrive by boat and are greeted by the hotel’s head concierge, Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore). There’s an immediate homage to the first season’s effervescent, efficient, and ultimately unstable head concierge Armond (the excellent Murray Bartlet). Valentina is wearing a hot pink two-piece suit identical to the one worn by Armond in his first scene. But Armond was often overly cheerful and obsequiously polite; Valentina is somewhat more cynical and judgmental, and harsher with her staff. There doesn’t appear to be a comparable staff member to last season’s Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the massage therapist who came close to receiving seed money to start her own spa from wealthy, flighty guest Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge). Tanya returns for the Sicilian season, now married to Greg (Jon Gries), a resort guest she met last season.
As the one character bridging the two seasons, Tanya embodies the show’s satirical skewering of people who have a lot of money but are not necessarily happy or fulfilled. Tanya is insecure, entitled, somewhat naïve, and often rude. She brings her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) along, which annoys husband Greg (who is also annoyed, apparently, about having to sign a prenup, and who needles Tanya about her overeating). Tanya insists that Portia stay in her room and be available at all times. Understandably, Portia questions her decision to remain in her job. Doing her best to hide from Tanya and Greg, she manages to sneak out for meals and makes a new friend in Albie (Adam Di Marco), a nice guy her age who’s at the resort on a family vacation with his father Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham). Albie’s parents are splitting up because Dominic is a sex addict: this is further complicated by two beautiful Italian prostitutes who are hanging out in the hotel. Lucia (Simona Tabasco) is a seasoned professional, but wants to find a rich husband so she can stop being a sex worker, while her best friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò) dreams of being a singer. The two are charming and wily, eventually getting Dominic to book rooms in their name so they can come and go as they please, while Valentina keeps a watchful eye on them. Albie is attracted to Portia, who seems to prefer the bad boy type. Meanwhile, Bert is busy trying to charm and flatter every young woman he meets.
There are also two young couples vacationing together: Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) were invited to join his former business colleague Cameron (Theo James) and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahey). Newly rich from selling his business, Ethan seems to disapprove of Cameron and Daphne’s selfish socialite ways, but does his best to be polite. Harper, on the other hand, is a socially conscious employment lawyer who is dismissive of the couple’s political apathy, finding Daphne to be shallow and Cameron to be a creepy alpha male. Meanwhile, Cameron and Daphne’s constant displays of affection are a grim reminder that Harper and Ethan rarely have sex anymore. The chemistry among these two couples is compelling to watch, thanks to razor-sharp performances. I’m particularly thrilled to see Will Sharpe, one of my favorite directors (Flowers, Black Pond, Landscapers, and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), playing opposite Aubrey Plaza, one of the most interesting actresses working now.
Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, including the actors who play deeply unlikable characters. I am very much enjoying Tom Hollander as Quentin, an eccentric Englishman who has retired to Tuscany and who takes a liking to Tanya. Beatrice Grannò’s singing is delightful, an intricate and inspired take on nightclub style crooning. Sabrina Impacciatore plays Valentina as a complex woman whose brusque exterior guards a sensitive interior. And then there’s the inimitable Coolidge, who invests Tanya with a fascinating balance of abandon and fear. She’s determined to create a romantic getaway with her husband, even planning an “Italian Dream” day. She wants to ride behind Greg on a rented Vespa, dressed like legendary actress Monica Vitti. Her gradually dawning realization that her new husband is less than devoted to her is both sad and predictable. Her willingness to become fast friends with Quentin, who fawns over what he calls Tanya’s glamorous style, is understandable. But the fifth episode ends with a shocking revelation — it remains to be seen how far Tanya will go for love and acceptance. This second season of The White Lotus is decidedly darker than the first, and the air of decadence and luxury is overshadowed by a disturbing aura of danger, even evil.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.