When I wrote my list of the top ten TV shows for the year 2022, I hadn’t yet seen the finale of the second, Italy-set season of “The White Lotus” — no one had. Which meant that I couldn’t credibly claim the show was in the hunt for the best of the year: After all, I didn’t know how it ended, and whether or not it stuck the landing.
The title went to another HBO series, “Euphoria,” a show whose flashy experimentalism conceals a deeply sentimental streak. You will find no greater admirer of “Euphoria” in the commentariat than me, I am certain. But were I to do it again, having finally seen the finale, my list would be topped by the Sicilian outing of “The White Lotus,” a show that does the precise reverse trick: Concealing within classical craftsmanship a blackhearted and at times frightening cynicism.
Leave it to show creator Mike White to raise the stakes from the show’s Hawaii-set first season. Then, the series felt both rewarding and, with its hosts-versus-guests format, impossible to replicate without wearing thin. (After all, “Westworld” had already worked through this idea in futuristic-metaphor form, one season too many.) Instead, White has now created what is — in conjunction with Todd Field’s film “Tár,” which launched in theaters some weeks before the new season began airing — one of the first great works of screen art about the politics of sex to air in the years after the #MeToo movement began.
Let’s begin with the common thread between the seasons, Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid. In her first season, Tanya moved along a recursive journey from A to somewhere between A and B and then back again: She edged ever so slightly outside of herself in order to begin to show compassion to a hotel staffer, then remembered she was rich and didn’t have to. It was a complete story, but it achieves a sort of comic sublimity in having been flipped, and a tragedy in flipping once more. Tanya is, first, pursued by a coterie of gay men, who provide her drugs and sex with an eligible friend; after they sequester her on a just-for-fun(-right?) boat trip, she comes to believe they have designs on her wealth and capacities for violence. And then she murders them in a brutal spree before falling to her accidental death, off the edge of the boat.
I’d had great sympathy for Tanya in the first season, for all the ways she was human, including her ability to be dreadful to the staff. She’s certainly not easy on her assistant in this season, played by the excellent Haley Lu Richardson. And visiting the set in Sicily to interview Coolidge, simultaneously exhilarated and worn, gave me yet more insight into the ways in which Tanya is a sort of extractive collaboration between writer and star — one in which White assigns to Coolidge more than she thinks she can handle, and she soars every time. (For more on this, read my profile of Coolidge from earlier this year.) I can think of little higher praise to give Coolidge than that her expression and mien as she went to murder the men she had come to believe were going to kill her were equal in intensity to Natalie Portman’s final scenes in “Black Swan”; unlike those, though, they were preceded by several scenes of genuine comedy. And Coolidge made it all seem continuous.
And here I run the risk of doing what I think White is using metaphor to chastise: The gay men seeking to extract everything of value from Coolidge’s character while claiming to flatter her look a lot like “White Lotus” fans praising the character actress’ iconic performance. Suffice it to say that it is a rare satisfaction to see a performer top a career high, and that Coolidge’s depiction of lost delusion in the face of desire slotted neatly into a season in which very little, for other characters, came easily.
How remarkable it is that the only truly happy characters were the ones who had given up on thinking things through! Tanya is no one’s idea of a philosopher, but her unhappiness bloomed when given time and space to think; by contrast, Meghann Fahy’s and Theo James’ Daphne and Cameron were remarkable depictions of the unexamined life being the only one worth living. (Fahy, in particular, had a stunning moment in the finale in which she made the case, to Will Sharpe’s Ethan, for embracing a blindness even to the origins of one’s own desires.) Their smooth-brained pursuit of pleasure for its sake amplified the crises elsewhere, including among their vacation partners. Ethan’s and Harper’s (Aubrey Plaza’s) storyline struck me as somewhat one-note throughout the series — a TV gloss on “Eyes Wide Shut” without the clever shifts in tone or the masquerade ball, as both went on a protracted dark night of the libido. And the story even ended the same way, with their having realized there was little left to do but find one another once more. And yet ambiguities only raised in the final episode, of just what Cameron meant to Harper and (particularly) Daphne to Ethan complicated the picture, made it hazier.
Something hung over the whole season; pristinely shot in some of the most gorgeous physical spaces I’ve ever clapped eyes on, it stank of a certain funk. I mean that as a compliment. Mike White can make a harsh joke work, as when three generations of incorrigible men, all of them magnets on the sexual marketplace in the sense that they’re easy marks, turn to check out a crop-topped woman while in line for a discount-airline flight out of Sicily. It’s that it’s EasyJet that they’re waiting for that really makes it sting — or, if one were to think about it for more than a punny second, it’s that not one of the three have learned a thing from their time abroad, or in their whole lives.
The show seemed to arise out of the most productive sort of creative bad mood, one in which White was primed to interrogate not just our dinner-party politics but those of our bedrooms, too. That places it in fascinating opposition to “The White Lotus” 1, which, though filmed in high COVID under lockdown conditions, ended in a sort of bizarre coda of conditional optimism, as a misfit scion of privilege broke free, for a moment, and paddled out to the wilds of the open ocean. Here, a reverse journey happens: Having successfully scammed the Di Grasso family (F. Murray Abraham, but mainly Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco), the ambitious sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her best friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò) strut through town, tens of thousands of euros richer. They have successfully weaponized Imperioli’s guilt and DiMarco’s naivete, ricocheting around family dynamics and resulting in a massive payday. They’ve made it from the wilderness into — for at least a glimmering moment — the heart of society, all thanks to their ability to adapt to other people’s desires.
It’s a startling, frank ending, especially when looking at the piece as a whole. Daphne and Cameron ended where they started, because they’ll never think to change; Ethan and Harper got physically closer as a result of shattering their relationship; the Di Grassos came to understand that they will never trust one another again; Tanya didn’t just fail to find herself once again, she is dead. The only characters to advance, to improve their situation, are the ones cynically focused on seeing the gameboard at every moment. To stop and ponder matters of the heart is what gets you into trouble every time. It’s a chilly message. But, at a moment in which sexual mores seem perpetually to be shimmering in and out of view, in which sex panics and libertinism seem to coexist ever more uneasily, it’s perhaps only the strategist who gets anything out of it. Were it not for the painful, beautiful humanity White wrote into each of them, one might wonder why any of the other characters played the game at all.
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