The first season of The White Lotus—initially billed as the only season of The White Lotus—begins and ends with a corpse. Creator, writer, and director Mike White mined these life-or-death stakes for maximum contrast, holding them up against the petty squabbles among staff and guests at a Maui resort. More than suspense or dread, the looming death provided a kind of meta commentary: on the ultimate outcome of these characters’ class anxiety, and on the expectations of audiences more used to murder than the quiet agony of modern service work. White promised the sensational and delivered the all-too-real, a bait-and-switch with spectacular results.
The second season of The White Lotus, now retooled into an anthology, begins with multiple dead bodies. Given White’s self-aware streak, it’s fair to read this as a wink. (He’s a coastal elite with a vacation home in Hawai’i who made a show skewering coastal elites on vacation in Hawai’i.) As the follow-up to a surprise success, a COVID-era contingency plan that went on to sweep the Emmys, Sunday’s premiere comes weighted with expectation. Faced with a sequel’s imperative to go big or go home, White one-ups himself. A single act of manslaughter worked well enough. Here, have some more!
A whodunit isn’t the only thing this new chapter shares with its predecessor. We open at an idyllic location in less-than-idyllic company: this time, the seaside town of Taormina, Sicily, which hosts another outpost of the namesake resort. Among its newest crop of guests is Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), the same unhappy heiress who dumped her mother’s ashes in front of some horrified honeymooners. As he did in Maui, White intercuts the travelers’ angst with shots of roiling waves—a reminder of raw, elemental forces brewing beneath the surface of polite society, threatening to tear it apart.
But to establish itself as a separate story, this new one White Lotus infuses a fresh set of themes. White has billed these seven episodes, five of which were shared with critics in advance as “a bedroom farce with teeth.” On this particular holiday, jealousy, lust, and longing are as much a currency as the Euro. They’re what drive Tanya to keep clinging to her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries), although his early attraction has long since curdled into exasperated resentment. They’re what lead Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe)—newly rich after the sale of Ethan’s startup—to obsessively evaluate Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Cam (Theo James), the old-money acquaintances who invited them on a couples’ trip. They’re what unite three generations of Di Grasso men, in Italy to tour their ancestral home: Bert (F. Murray Abraham), an aging horndog; Dom (Michael Imperioli), a self-loathing lothario; and Albie (Adam DiMarco), a sensitive Stanford grad who wants to be a better man—or at least not an actively awful one.
The simplest spin on Season 2 is that The White Lotus has traded the class war for a battle of the sexes, but such a summary would miss the point. White knows that sex, like money, is a form of power, and that each is intimately bound up in the other. No characters know this better than Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), two Sicilian girls who dabble in sex work. Eager for opportunity, the girls ricochet among the guests, highlighting hypocrisies and exposing the transactional nature of all relationships, not just their own.
This season also complicates the binary of haves and have-nots, tracing the fault lines that separate even the paying customers. Tanya arrives with her assistant in tow as on-call emotional support; for Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), this luxury getaway is just another grind. Meanwhile, Ethan and Harper uneasily observe their now-peers. Ethan won’t admit he wants his former roommate’s approval, and Harper won’t admit she’s threatened by what wealth might bring. For everyone, status is a spectrum, not an either/or.
Mia and Lucia come off as a my fault from White, who faced criticism in Season 1 for privileging the, well, privileged over native Hawaiians, arguably reinforcing the colonial dynamic he sought to satirize. That limitation could be blamed on pandemic restrictions, which prevented the show from filming outside the Four Seasons property that served as its set. The White Lotus couldn’t follow the hotel workers home, a constraint White tried to use to his advantage: it’s meant to haunt us when employees—the woman who gives birth, the man who gets arrested—seem to fall off the face of the earth. But this time, The White Lotus can widen its lens. These girls have their own ambitions, and exist outside their illicit arrangements on hotel grounds. If Murray Bartlett’s resort manager Armond was the soul of Season 1, with his minor rebellion against the status quo, Mia and Lucia feel similarly central to Season 2. Hopefully, their attempts to get ahead have a happier ending.
Armond’s literal counterpart is Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), a woman every bit as unfiltered as Armond was obsequious. (Her idea of a warm welcome is telling Bert she’s impressed he’s even there: “It’s a long trip from Los Angeles and you’re quite old, no?”) Their personalities may be polar opposite, but as the season goes on, the managers’ plots start to converge. Valentina, too, is a middle-aged queer person with an inappropriate crush on an employee. Her story line is one of the few strands of Season 2 that feels needlessly repetitive. Tanya may be a carryover, but there’s a clear point to portraying her persistent unhappiness: Wherever you go, there you are, even when “there” is the land of sweet life Valentina brings more comedy and less pathos—although in this hall of heterosexual horrors, there’s an extra edge to her irritation with the guests.
White has said he tailored this season to its new setting. “Sicily can be very seductive,” one of his characters observes, and an early outline for a political conference didn’t quite match that vibe. The mess of hormones run amok spills over into structure: This season is looser and longer than the original, spinning out ever further as its characters lose their inhibitions. There’s more room for opera excursions and eye-popping villas, a gilded excess in opposition to self-restraint. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer once again sets the tone, presenting a dual remix of Season 1’s iconic theme—first as a Puccini riff, then as a club banger, with highbrow culture quickly crashing into low.
Holding this hurricane together is an emotional center of gravity. White is a writer fascinated by the same subjects, and often language, as online discourse. (Recall Sydney Sweeney’s bored college student explicitly inspired by niche podcasters.) With far more than 280 characters at his disposal, White revels in the nuance more ideological arguments lack. The White Lotus deals with deadly violence and broad slapstick, but it’s never better than when dwelling on a charged glance or a silent nod. All that summer sunshine tends to cast a shadow.