The following article contains spoilers for the second season of The White Lotus.
Jennifer Coolidge literally slayed.
HBO’s The White Lotus closed out its second season with some murders, a truly iconic death for the ages, and an emotional charcuterie board of grief, relief, and joy. Following in the heels of a star-making first season, Mike White’s dramatic comedy did what most shows have not achieved: a superior second season. The writing, perhaps with the benefit of having more time, is sharper. The structure of the season is flawless, the tension ratcheting up at just the right time. The relationships are more believably structured and the cinematography is more cinematic. The White Lotus‘ first season was good, but its second season is a masterpiece.
The series’ second outing is about many things: toxic masculinity, the barriers of class and gender norms, and yes, of course, Jennifer Coolidge doing cocaine at a gay Sicilian villa party before having sex with a well-hung Italian mafia stud. Throw in the drama of Italian operas and organic references to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Godfather and you have a winning combination. But it’s the performance element that the season absolutely nails – the performance of who we want to be, who we think we are, and what that says about who we actually are.
Albie (Adam DiMarco) performs as a white knight good boy because he’s convinced himself that that is who he is, and therefore he’s not his father (Michael Imperioli). Cameron (Theo James) performs bravado because that social capital is tying his entire life together. Burt (F. Murray Abraham) performs as a master of subtle adultery because he needs to convince himself that he didn’t hurt anyone in his family. Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannó) perform because that is their only ticket to improve their lives. And Daphne (an extraordinary Meghann Fahy) performs because, as she puts it, that’s how she takes control of her life and refuses to become a victim.
Albie’s performance leads him down a path where he leverages his own mother for the sake of a girl he met three days ago. That he’s asinine enough to get conned out of fifty thousand euros is just hilarious and honestly secondary to that betrayal. Cameron’s bravado leads him to what seems like a happy ending on the surface but the precariousness of his relationships could crumble apart at any minute. Burt can only maintain his life if he actively ignores reality, and what a lonely life that is. Daphne’s is perhaps the most complex performance, the kind where the performance is not just about maintaining her personal sense of continuity in the life that she has, but utilizing it to achieve interpersonal power.
The White Lotus has been cited as being cynical of both peoples’ ability to change and how they engage with their relationships, but I think that’s only partially true. Institutions and systems that constrain relationships seem to be the larger object of Mike White’s ire and in this season, particularly the institution of marriage and system of heteronormativity. Perhaps Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) would be much happier in an open marriage or in divorce. Perhaps Daphne’s and Cameron’s gamesmanship is healthy for them, even if we in the audience wonder why they just can’t be in an open or polyamorous relationship. Maybe Dominic will be able to change, but more gradually than he would like because it is difficult to let go of patterns that have defined a core part of you for so long.
Sex is a performance and so much of it is taboo. Gay sex is looked down upon. Transactional sex is looked down upon. Adultery is looked down upon, even if it happens with an understanding between the married spouses. Sex that breaks a narrow framework of vanilla, missionary between a man and a woman is not acceptable but that is anathema to the structures of human relationships for a lot of people. It’s what Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) conveys when she confesses to Mia that she’s never been with a woman. It’s the fear that Lucia references to Mia, the fear that in most stories, sex workers meet a horrific and tragic end. However, barring better social options, Lucia continues performing. Regardless of whether Lucia likes being a sex worker, which is totally possible, the fear of those stories coming true for her is still there.
Meghann Fahy’s Daphne conveys this season’s theme of performance in what may be the best thirty seconds of acting the year. When Ethan comes to her, she doesn’t know what he’s about to say, but she knows enough to know that he’s feeling a certain way. You can feel that instant change in her demeanor, where she conveys that she’s much more aware than most people think she is. Ethan conveys his suspicions and you see her processing and deciding on the best course of action in real time. A thousand different emotions coalesce across Meghann Fahy’s face and you know her entire process without her having uttered a single word. Then she turns around to Ethan and conveys that he should do what she does. He should find whatever ways he can to not feel like the victim of his own life. She beckons Ethan to what we presume is sex on an island in an invitation whose smile thinly veils an undercurrent of cold anger.
The difficulty of performance is being aware of it. Daphne’s self-awareness might be unmatched, but perhaps there was no one more in need of self-awareness than Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya. Portia’s (Haley Lu Richardson) phone call came too late, but all the flags were there for quite some time, even before all the cocaine. But Tanya, a profoundly self-absorbed person – who at her heart is truly lonely – didn’t see them. It’s what she told Portia: “When you are empty inside, with no direction, you end up in some crazy places.” She ends up taking out a cabal of gay mobsters in a hilarious shootout sequence before she meets her untimely end in the Ionian Sea. That she ignored the stairs to the right of her seems about right for the character, who could spontaneously bring to life a deep truth in the most nonchalant way.
The season comes to an end with Lucia and Mia waltzing through the town in pure joy, for a brief moment free from their performances. What they’re thinking, or who they really are, are not really the important questions. What’s important is that they’ve escaped the fates stories taught them were inevitable and achieved quite the opposite. What’s even more important than that is that they’re happy. Daphne’s words echo as the camera flies with joy over our two favorite Sicilian icons. Perhaps it’s all that we can do, whatever we can, not to feel like a victim in life. Maybe that’s enough to get us to the happiness we deserve in this life. And what is ultimately more important than that?
- God, the acting on this show. Be right back, throwing Emmy nominations at this entire cast.
- I cannot stop thinking about Daphne processing Ethan’s suspicions. It’s a scene that is going to stick with me for a very long time.
- Seeing Lucia and Mia walk together through the streets of that town was really emotional for me. There’s a tenderness and care there that was not expected from The White Lotus and I’m glad the show went beyond peoples’ expectations that it was simply going to be yet another lesson in tragedy for the marginalized.
- Valentina’s journey is something I want to go into more detail about but it moved me deeply and what a triumph of queer storytelling at a time when we really, really need it
- There’s so much more I want to say but I’ll revisit some of these thoughts swirling around in my head in more articles between now and when season 3 is a bit closer to our television screens.