Reviewing The White Lotus’s first four episodes last year, I wrote in this magazine that the HBO dramedy was entertaining enough as a character study but lacked bite as a satire. Yes, the Hawaiian resort-set series appeared to mock late-model sexual orthodoxies, but what about a new-age “wellness” subplot that begged to be sneered at and wasn’t? Yes, the ultrawoke were (seemingly) skewered alongside the ultrarich, but could that “read” really be trusted given the blurring line between straight-faced leftist overreach and parody?
Other critics were less suspicious. Writing on his Substack, Andrew Sullivan declared The White Lotus to be “a [classically] liberal work of complexity and art” and praised its refusal to “reduce” its characters “to categories, classes, or identities.” The Washington Examiner’s own Seth Mandel tweeted that the show was “ostentatiously non-woke.” Having since watched the remainder of Season One and most of Season Two, I am forced not only to agree with these assessments but to go further. For all its subtlety, The White Lotus is the closest thing we have to a conservative prestige series. Moreover, its writing and acting are even better this go-round than before.
The White Lotus’s new season is set in Sicily and features a mostly fresh cast of eccentric vacationers. As in last year’s installments, much of the show’s delight comes from the surprising interplay of its characters as creator Mike White moves them about his gameboard. Ethan (Will Sharpe), a newly rich tech bro, is vacationing with his irritable wife, Harper (Aubrey Plaza), but must also navigate strange undercurrents from married friends Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). Though Hollywood mogul Dominic (Michael Imperioli) has recently divorced, his most pressing concerns are his father, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), and son Albie (Adam DiMarco), who represent, respectively, the lecherous and browbeaten poles of contemporary American manhood.
Elsewhere at the resort, complicated romances bloom. For Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Granno), local prostitutes with dreams of wealth, amore is both a currency and an occupational hazard, as when the more experienced of the pair develops an unremunerative crush on a guest. Though Portia (Haley Richardson), a beleaguered assistant to the pampered Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), is initially interested in Albie, she soon finds herself drawn to the decidedly brasher Jack (Leo Woodall), who may well be hiding intolerable secrets.
As with any ensemble of this size, the trick is in the characterization. Succeed, and audiences will keep the plotlines straight with no effort at all. Fail, and viewers will reach frustratedly for their remotes, rightly convinced that the problem is you, not them. Given this standard, The White Lotus benefits mightily from White’s facility with dialogue, a gift that rivals anyone else currently writing for the screen. When Harper complains that “everything going on in the world” is keeping her up at night, Daphne responds with such pitch-perfect bewilderment (“What do you mean? What’s going on?”) that we understand who she is in an instant. Something similar happens when the globe-trotting Tanya brags absurdly about her White Lotus “rewards” status (“I was a Petal, and I worked my way up to Blossom”). Soul-destroying materialism, meet your queen.
Notwithstanding White’s success with his pen, the series’s most distinguishing features may be its pacing and tone — elements that are, to put it bluntly, unlike any other show’s on television. For every incident of dramatic significance (e.g., Cameron strips naked in front of Harper), another is so astonishingly banal (e.g., Tanya and her husband bicker about cookies) that one hardly knows what to make of it. That White gives equal weight to both is part of the show’s wit: The rich really are different. Yet it is also true that The White Lotus is, at least in part, a mystery. At any given moment, it’s difficult to say who wants what, who’s conning whom, and which clues may end up cracking the entire plot wide open.
Like its first season, the show’s second outing begins with a dead body, then flashes back a week to the start of the trip. If the questions surrounding the corpse are not exactly front and center as the story unfolds, neither are they entirely forgotten. Might Tanya, the main recurring character from Season One, have stumbled into something dangerous with her friendship with the English expatriate Quentin (Tom Hollander)? And what about the two married couples, whose political variances slowly give way to a web of psychosexual intrigue? If White wants to be unkind, he will kill off Portia, whose normcore virtues have made her the season’s most likable character. After all, by abandoning gentle Albie for menacing Jack, Portia has sided with passion. In a show that means to send up contemporary appetites, that is not a particularly safe thing to do.
Still, it is in Portia’s story that The White Lotus’s refreshing ideology is most evident. Locked in a “progressive” culture as restrictive as any girdle, the young woman longs for a boy who is “totally ignorant of the discourse.” Stanford-educated Albie, who can ask for consent in any language but has the sex appeal of skim milk, is clearly not that man. Though Portia should like him — at least “he’s not nonbinary,” she grudgingly concedes — the heart wants what it wants. Never mind that her liaison with Jack will surely end in disaster. At least he has the nerve to kiss her properly.
Because conservative propaganda is no better than the liberal variety, it is to The White Lotus’s credit that it has zingers enough for all sides. Is it wrong, though, to suggest that pushback against the Left’s excesses is, at present, the more fruitful artistic ground? “Why is it always men who have the power?” a resentful Mia asks an exploitative acquaintance. His response: “If we didn’t, pretty girls like you wouldn’t get to skip to the front of the line.”
Is such a declaration tasteless, even crass? Absolutely. But like much else in HBO’s latest, it has the ring of truth.
Graham Hillard is the author of Wolf Intervals (Poiema Poetry Series) and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.