Depending on how you looked at it, the success of “The White Lotus” Season 1 was either a blessing or a curse. For fans of Mike White’s cult series “Enlightened,” it felt like a second chance for the writer-director’s work to get the attention it deserved; to be more than a niche, unseen series that HBO would pull the plug on. But for those who believed HBO should’ve left another hit limited series in “Big Little Lies” firmly in the limited series realm (instead of following up with a disappointing second season), it felt like “The White Lotus” — which was billed as a limited series and competed as such at the Emmys — was tempting fate.
Luckily, “The White Lotus” Season 2 is an unequivocal success.
Now, for those who believed the show was just poor little rich people with problems, that opinion surely won’t change with this second season which takes place in Italy. It remains poor little rich people — and the poorer, less rich people that they use — with problems story, plus another murder mystery component. But “The White Lotus” Season 2 is a sprawling, more epic sequel, interweaving the week-long vacation lives of its latest poor little rich people in a way that’s arguably even more impressive than the first.
Technically, the glue connecting both seasons is the location, as this season takes place at the White Lotus Resort in Sicily, Italy, and recent Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge returning as Tanya (Jon Gries also returns as Mike, Tanya’s now -husband.) But like with the first season, White creates characters with a familiarity that makes these out-of-touch vacationers wildly compelling. Perhaps, even more than in the first season, they’re more archetypes than “real” people; but it’s how White plays with these archetypes that makes them so interesting. And, all in their own different ways, sad.
White has said in interviews that this season is inspired by the sexual jealousy and sexual politics of men and women, with the inspiration stemming from the ceramic “Testa di Moro” vases — vases that are present all throughout “The White Lotus” Season 2 — he’d seen in Sicily. While there was sex in the first season, Season 2 is undeniably sexy, from the location to the characters to their situation they find themselves.
Despite finding someone who seemingly loves and desires her and married her in Mike (they’re on a couples vacation in Sicily here, after all), Tanya is even more miserable than she was in the first season, when she was in mourning. This misery trickles down to Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), Tanya’s assistant who is having a quarter-life crisis (at best; a mental breakdown at worst) while working for her. The other focal guests at the White Lotus include the Di Grassos — Dominic (Michael Imperioli), his elderly father Bert (F. Murray Abraham), and his college grad son Albie (Adam DiMarco), in Sicily to find their roots — and two clashing married pairs on an awkward couples trip: Harper (Aubrey Plaza) & Ethan (Will Sharper) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) & Cameron (Theo James).
Like with the first season, the ensemble remains an interesting case study of who the audience is supposed to sympathize for, if anyone at all. Tanya remains an eye-catching showstopper, as miserable and clueless as the series continues to show her to be. Because of Coolidge’s likeability and how sad Tanya is and can be, there’s a desire to feel for her, but then there’s the constant reminders of her flakiness, her immaturity, and her belief that things should be sugarcoated for her just because she’s rich.
As Harper, Aubrey Plaza plays a character who is even described as a “shrew” at one point (among other things), but it’s interesting to see how and why she reacts the way she does and to try and figure just how in the right or in the wrong she is do so. Harper often feels like the lone character in the couples trip quartet who seems to be acknowledging just how bizarre things are. Cameron and Daphne are in their own wealthy bubble, with Cameron especially being a bad guy, and Ethan is trying to keep up, as he and Harper are newly wealthy. But “The White Lotus” manages not to make her the “hero,” nor does it really make anyone the hero, as Plaza delivers an impressively complex performance — it truly feels like she’s laughing in the face of those who thought, due to “Parks and Recreation,” that she could only do one thing.
And the Di Grassos are interesting because of the series’ take on masculinity and accountability throughout three generations. Imperioli’s Dominic is easily the character the audience is supposed to point to as the “bad guy,” but there’s also DiMarco’s Albie, the sensitive son, progressively coming across as more of a “Nice Guy” than just a nice guy, with choice bits of dialogue that often feel like they came right out of a college feminism textbook.
One of the major criticisms of “The White Lotus” Season 1 was its depiction of Native Hawaiian characters; though it tracked with the self-centered and self-involved nature of the guests, it was something that White acknowledged he’d had to consider after the show came out. This second season seems to include more of the local Italian perspective, both with the hotel employees and local girls, but it doesn’t quite “make up” for how the first season went. The class dynamics are there, but any racial dynamics this season come only from the couples trip story. But more importantly, the “local girls” — Mia (Beatrice Grannò) and Lucia (Simona Tabasco) — are a couple of sex workers. That’s probably not the Sicilian experience, though it does keep in line with this season’s more sexual-based storytelling and the experiences and reactions that certain characters staying at this White Lotus would have with that in mind.
There’s also more of a voyeurism to this season too, treating and shooting these characters like the art that fills Italy (White directed every episode). It’s something that’s especially noticeable early on when it comes to Lucia and Mia, but also something White uses in his directing style to silently judge these characters just as much as the audience surely is.
It’s also there to show the temptation of this season, which is really what wraps you into the story. The temptation of Italy, the temptation of the locals and the guests of the White Lotus, the temptation of wealth, the temptation of decadence. To circle back to the murder mystery, it’s all seemingly enough to kill for. Which is to say, Mike White has done it again.
“The White Lotus” Season 2 premieres Sunday, Oct. 30 on HBO at 9 p.m. ET and is streaming on HBO Max at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.