The second installment in Mike White’s anthology series about wealthy residents vacationing at the eponymous White Lotus resort is as stunning and painful as the first.
There is much to praise in season 2 of “The White Lotus”. The incredible soundtrack composed by Cristobal Tapia de Veer springs readily to mind. Then, there is the show’s powerhouse cast who manage to make even the most infuriating characters lovable by merit of their humanity. The three-act structure of each episode that follows its players from morning to midnight, expertly building tension day by day. The setting (this season, Sicily) which White treats as a character in its own right, with moody shots of the landscape that implies the land itself has its own plans for the main cast. The list goes on and on.
For someone who has been a fan of White since she was 13, “White Lotus” feels like the culmination of many of his works. From his 2007 directorial debut with “Year of the Dog”, about a lonely woman who goes off the rails following the death of her Beagle, Pencil, to his prematurely canceled show, “Enlightened”, about a delusional whistleblower from Riverside. Then, the infuriating “Beatriz at Dinner”, where a holistic healer ruins her wealthy employer’s dinner party by picking a fight with a billionaire with no regard for life.
In all four of these works, White deftly explores themes of power and privilege, sex, money, exploitation, death, and redemption. The most unifying thread throughout all these works, and the one that has been most perfectly articulated in “The White Lotus” though, is White’s meditation on the way that life has a tendency to disappoint us all.
In, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”, Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Extracted from an essay about murder in a droll suburban neighborhood in Southern California, the words have been printed on mugs, and canvas totes, and quoted without attribution in innumerable Instagram posts under pictures of well-oiled influencers lounging on white sand beaches; repeated so often that it is entirely divorced from its original meaning and source material.
Decontextualized, the quote is assumed to be a resounding affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit and the necessity of art to sustain life. And while it is true that Didion is acknowledging this necessity, the quote – the essay as a whole – serves as more of a darkly cynical comment on our collective and sometimes desperate attempts to try and order the unbidden chaos of our world into neat narratives. Or, as Didion continued: “to find the sermon in the suicide.”
In White’s Lotus, he allows his characters to tell the stories that they think they are occupying, and who they believe themselves to be, while deftly exposing them for who they really are, and the role that they actually play in their stories. White balances this unmasking with a great deal of compassion, allowing the characters to wallow in their disappointments before they retreat back into the self-protection of delusion.
The DiGrassio family (three generations of men who the patriarch describes as sharing an “Achilles’s cock,”), Tonya McQuoid, her assistant Portia, the gay men who first seduce and then attempt to murder Tonya, the Millennial couples reckoning with infidelity, the closeted hotel manager Valentina, and the story’s unlikely heroes Lucia and Mia, the escorts who exploit the DiGrassios, all struggle across the seven-episode arch to either make an uneasy truce with truth, or to find away to deny it altogether.
Audiences are accustomed, perhaps like the show’s characters, to being able to follow each thread in a story to its reasonable conclusion. This season is rife with moments that seem to be positively dripping with a deeper, more cosmic meaning that begs you to assume its end. For instance, fan-favorite Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge), who has been swept away and romanced by the men who intend to kill her for her fortune, is compared again and again with the tragic heroine in an Italian opera. But, Tonya doesn’t die for love like Madame Butterfly. Nor does she have a triumphant escape from the men who trapped her at sea.
Instead, she manages to kill them all with her eyes closed only to accidentally tumble head-first from the yacht onto the dinghy where she hits her head and drowns. The subversion of ultimate expectation, while simultaneously satisfying it by Tonya’s use of the literal Chekhov’s gun to almost escape is both satisfying and incredibly disappointing. In any other writer/director’s hands the moment would feel like a cop-out or a paltry attempt to surprise a modern audience that refuses to be surprised.
Similarly, the resolution, or lack thereof, in the story of Harper and Ethan and Cameron and Daphne, the young couples who traveled together to Sicily and may or may not have all cheated on their partners with each other, should leave the audience feeling desolate. Not only do all the couples seem to merrily sink back into married life without even the catharsis of confrontation, but they also make a toast to travel together again the following year. Even after Ethan tried to drown Cameron for pursuing his wife.
But as Bert DiGrassio tearfully tells his family after being rejected by their Sicilian relatives, “You always think there’s gonna be a homecoming. The embrace of a woman who tells you you’ve done alright. Well, there is no homecoming.” White refuses to neatly order his narrative in line with the expectations of either audience or character. He leaves so much room for disappointment, and in doing so he gives the characters space to do the most human thing in the world: deny it to protect themselves so that they can remain unchanged.
By the end of the series, one would hope that any one of the lusty DiGrassio boys would have learned literally anything by being confronted with the truth of their shared obsession with women. Instead, White lines all three of them in front of a sign for an airline called “EasyJet,” and lets the camera linger as all three of them pant at a gorgeous woman who passes them.
“The White Lotus” is disappointing but in being so it allows audiences to confront the stories that the characters tell themselves, and perhaps the stories that we tell ourselves, in order to live.
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