‘The White Lotus’ Takes on the Wealthy’s Sexual Desires

The fictional White Lotus resort in Sicily is home to a collection of Testa di Moro, beautifully decorated vessels shaped like human heads made by local artisans. As a receptionist informs the newly arrived guests in the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus, the objects represent a tragic folktale: When Sicily was occupied by the Moors centuries ago, a young Moorish man seduced a Sicilian girl, but after she learned that he had a family back home, she beheaded him and used his skull as a vase. It’s a rather violent origin story for such ornate artwork, but the visitors casually brush this off. “It’s a warning to husbands, babe,” one quips sunnily to her spouse. “Screw around and you’ll end up in the garden!”

But the show itself isn’t so quick to ignore the pitch-black truths behind luxurious facades. Created by Mike White, The White Lotus became an unexpected hit for the way its first season skewered the wealthiest of the wealthy by combining absurd humor with sharp commentary on colonialism, racial politics, and class. The show followed an ensemble of one-percenters at the titular resort in Hawaii, observing how their privilege blinds them to reality and corrupts everyone around them, leading to conflicts, cruelty, and, eventually, violence. They can’t help but want more, more, more—so much so that even being in paradise doesn’t suffice.

Thanks to its runaway success—including 10 Emmy wins out of 20 nominations—The White Lotus, once billed as a limited series, has morphed into an anthology show. Season 2 takes place abroad, and with the shift away from America comes a change, too, in thematic focus. Down at the toe of Italy’s boot, lust hangs in the air. Male passersby leer at female guests roaming the streets around the hotel. Two local escorts, Lucia (played by Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), circle the grounds like sharks, seeking rich clients to seduce. Even Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), the lone leading character to return from the preceding season, is horny: She’s now married to Greg (Jon Gries), whom she met back in Hawaii, but their relationship has soured, and she’s desperate to keep his interest. Within the White Lotus, adultery abounds, couples engage in power plays, and flirtatious encounters occur among old friends and strangers alike. Money plays a constant role, an elephant in the bedroom. The rich have wandering eyes and intimate desires—and their wallets can satisfy only so much.

For the most part, the pivot from observing class and racial politics to sexual politics works in The White Lotus’s favor. Season 2 is as juicy as Season 1, but it’s not as caustic in its approach. White has said he wanted the new installment to have “an operatic feel” that would match (perhaps stereotypically) its Italian locale, and the story is certainly a lot soapier than before. There’s not just one corpse but multiple guests dead by the end of the week. The service workers play a minimal role this time around, leaving more screen time for the tourists’ twisted games. And there are sojourns away from the resort itself, placing the wealthy characters in new contexts, aboard yachts and in rented palazzos. These alterations contribute to a show that feels strangely familiar yet tantalizingly refreshing. This is still The White Lotus, just prodding the privileged from a new angle.

Besides, White’s greatest asset, his knack for writing vivid characters whose performative dialogue betrays their deepest insecurities, is still in full force. Aside from Tanya and her beleaguered assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), the brilliantly cast ensemble includes several parties tailor-made for uncomfortable situations. There’s Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe), a newly rich couple thanks to Ethan’s start-up, who are just getting their bearings on the tax bracket they’ve recently entered. They’re traveling with the finance bro Cameron (Theo James) and his cheery wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), who seem to live an Instagram-perfect life of vacations and not reading the news. Finally, there’s the Di Grasso family—grandpa Bert (F. Murray Abraham), dad Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and son Albie (Adam DiMarco)—who are ostensibly visiting the small town their family’s from but who are each distracted by love interests and sexual prospects.

Early episodes take time to set up the new ensemble, but the story doesn’t feel sluggish. Instead, every conversation yields a glimpse into how each character is miserable in his or her own way. White seems to take particular pleasure in illustrating the passive aggression flowing between the pair of married couples: Cameron is a model of machismo, Daphne is the daffy housewife who may or may not have voted in the last election, and Harper believes she sees right through them. She and Ethan are, after all, so much more in touch with what’s actually going on in the world. They’re giving much of their wealth to charities, because, she boasts, they’re “not materialistic.” And yet, Cameron and Daphne seem so chic, so in love. They’re certainly having more sex. What do they have that she and Ethan don’t?

The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as actual, unadulterated happiness. No one on The White Lotus lives a perfect life, and White takes care not to portray anyone as an outright villain; each character is shaped by the structures that allow them to thrive financially. The Di Grassos’ shared fragile masculinity is generational, molded by the entitlement that comes with their wealth. (Even Albie, the youngest and most disgusted by his father’s and grandfather’s open lusting after younger women, believes he respects his paramours when in reality he comes across as condescending.) Tanya is vulnerable and needy as ever, her money both taking her to places like Sicily and keeping her ensconced in her shrinking comfort zone. “It’s a good feeling when you realize someone has money,” she sighs to Portia. “Because then you don’t have to worry about them wanting yours.”

When it comes to affairs of the heart, then, the characters are doomed to forever question what’s real. Sex is transactional, as Lucia and Mia continually remind the ensemble. Stable marriages like Ethan and Harper’s get shaken up when a spouse strikes gold. The social circles in which the wealthy feel “safe” grow smaller and smaller, limiting their perspectives but heightening the stakes of every secret, forcing them into paying to keep up appearances. “I do what I want,” one character explains deep into the season about putting up with their partner’s habit of cheating, “so I’m not resentful.” In the end, the show suggests, everyone is alone. That may sound like too sympathetic a conclusion for The White Lotus to draw, but episode by episode, White turns up the heat so that no one emerges unscathed.

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