A large part of the idea of The White Lotus I had in my mind, from the first season, came from its location. When the second season moved to Italy and brought with it an ensemble of new characters, it took me a moment to warm up to them. The familiar music and similarly stylistic title cards helped, but the cleverest move was to bring back Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid for an encore because that gave viewers someone to (ironically) associate themselves with right from the get go. Tanya was the hint of familiarity we needed to tie together two otherwise different seasons of a brilliant show.
Season 2 didn’t always feel like The White Lotus from the first season. Its themes are different, its characters radically so, and whenever you feel you recognise a plot device from the previous season the story goes on to prove you wrong. But every time the leitmotif played it served as a reminder that we were, in fact, watching more of the same farcical comedy we so loved back in Hawaii.
On a personal note, it was sheer pleasure for me to recognise the hotel used for filming The White Lotus as the same one used in Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece L’avventura. (Speaking of Antonioni, if you have not watched Blow up, do yourself a favour and watch it right away.) But there is another nod to Antonioni that excited me even more: in The White Lotus is a scene where Harper (Aubrey Plaza) is waiting for her friend and seemingly starts being surrounded and leered at by a number of men on the street and balconies everywhere around her. This is a shot-by-shot remake of the same incident in Antonioni’s L’avventura, another incredible work of art with character development and pretty much no plot—just like The White Lotus. (Remember this scene with men staring as ‘the male gaze’ because we will come back to it presently.) Yet another nod to L’avventura is Jennifer Coolidge’s character wanting to ride around on a Vespa like Monica Vitti, the star of Antonioni’s film.
Mike White was never a director. He was and is a writer, and that shines through the second season of The White Lotus. In terms of direction the second season feels flatter than the first, but the writing remains unparalleled. The visual language gets repetitive with every episode but the story takes enough of the limelight on itself to more than salvage this show. The backward gush of waves against the sandy caverns near La Isola Bella was a nice touch, though.
Once you get to know them, the characters in the second season are arguably more colourful than in the first, often becoming less subtle and considerably more mainstream. This was a welcome change that helped establish the ‘formula’ of The White Lotus without cornering it into a stereotype. And the formula works beautifully.
If season one was all about race and wealth, the second season is all about sex and… wealth. Money, senseless richness (“50,000 euros is nothing to you.”) and detachment from reality all form a critical part of the show and its formula. A lot of shows try to outdo themselves with the sequel and fail miserably. But what Mike White gets right with this show is the reason viewers come back to watch it: we want more of the same, not something unrecognisably different. The second season of The White Lotus strikes a masterful balance between novelty and familiarity.
The cast of the second season is also more of an ensemble than the last: Jennifer Coolidge comes back of course, but we are now introduced to the Di Grasso family—played by the Oscar/Golden Globe/BAFTA-winning F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus, Scarface, The Grand Budapest Hotel etc.), Michael Imperioli (Goodfellas, The Sopranos as screenwriter)—and the raunchy young foursome played by Theo James, Will Sharpe, Meghan Fahhy and the talented Aubrey Plaza whose acting prowess made her character irritatingly difficult to tolerate.
The Di Grassos are bunch of men pretty much representing the patriarchy, flying in to Sicily to find their roots only to get thrown out of a house full of women just when they finally believe they have found what they came from.
Another stand out trope is Mike White going out of his way to shun the male gaze that so common in films for the exact opposite. He freely undresses every male character on screen, making the viewer question where their discomfort is coming from when we have gotten so used to the same thing happening to women on screen for decades now. Thankfully, any fear of vulgarity may be tossed aside because the script and the light keeps everything tasteful.
Along these lines, Mr White also does well to leave things unsaid too, when, for example, Aubrey Plaza’s character struggles with doubts about her husband’s potential infidelity and then her husband’s character (played by Will Sharpe) struggles with similar questions about his wife’s infidelity, but in the end Sharpe and Megan Fahhy’s characters walk away into La Isola Bella but we never find out for sure if anything happened between them. The viewers are now left wondering about these characters’ infidelity.
Despite the show going on to make a couple of other homages to The Godfather, its very first discussion of the film feels like a let down. When Albie Di Grasso disses Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning film as a celebration of male patriarchy, he is making his lack of depth clear to everyone at the table (possibly including Haley Lu Richardson’s character Portia who says nothing against the film but is later seen wearing a T-shirt with the film plastered on it). However, the Di Grasso men failing to discuss The Godfather with any depth either makes it clear that the entire family is alike: they see The Godfather in their image, not for what it is.
The Godfather is not a celebration of the patriarchy. In fact, it is nothing close to it. The specific scene which is referenced in The White Lotus sees Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) break as a human being and, till then the only person uninterested in participating in the criminal organisation, sees himself shredded as a human and pulled into the underworld with disastrous consequences. It is a fallout of everyone and everything in the name of the family as Pacino’s character rises to the head of the Corleone crime family, a shrewd, calculative tactician with eyes that can kill. The Godfather is not a celebration of the rise of Michael Corleone as he takes on the mantle of The Godfather. It is a mourning of the fall of Michael Corleone whose life is taken away from him and whose choices break nearly everything and everyone in his life. The Di Grassos’ failure to separate the nuances in the film is utterly on point for who they themselves are: patriarchal womanisers in every questionable way.
This scene is one of my favourites in The White Lotus because anyone who thinks this is a discussion of The Godfather is missing the point entirely.
If the first season of The White Lotus was all about rich people leaving devastation in their wake, the second season is all about rich people being so detached from reality that nearly everyone around them is able to deceive them. The second season is a blanket triumph for everyone in touch with reality. There is a particularly vicious, in-your-face show of this when the manager of The White Lotus looks at Tanya, who believes she looks like Monica Vitti, and remarks about her resemblance to Peppa Pig.
Be it The Godfather or L’avventura, Mike White’s decision to bring in so many films further ties into the theme of the second season: detachment from reality and getting lost in magical worlds of the imagination. Everyone wants to replicate something they’ve watched in the films, go somewhere they’ve seen, be something they thing looks pretty, go somewhere they can escape (like the two women who end up spending a night at a magical palazzo to cope with their realities of having partners who sleep around). None of the guests ever spent time with themselves. The second season of The White Lotus is all about beauty detached from reality and fuelled by insane wealth. Meanwhile reality triumphs.