In a culture that likes to take sides, The White Lotus hates everybody

Adam DiMarco, Aubrey Plaza, Haley Lu Richardson
From left, Adam DiMarco, Aubrey Plaza and Haley Lu Richardson, cast members in “The White Lotus,” pose together at the season two premiere of the HBO series, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, at Goya Studios in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

In a culture that likes to take sides, The White Lotus hates everybody

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If you haven’t yet watched The White Lotus, now would be a good time to start. Both seasons of the HBO comedy-drama are now streaming in full, with the second season having just wrapped up its run on Sunday. Unlike the many series that Netflix drops all at once, HBO Max shows cleverly bide their time, releasing weekly and generating a cultural conversation for months. This has certainly contributed to The White Lotus’s stranglehold on pop culture. But there’s so much more to it than that.

The show has been universally praised by reviewers, and this season was nominated for four Golden Globes. All of this might lead you to expect that The White Lotus must be full of social justice commentary and eat-the-rich themes. And yet, the woke and the unwoke are all up for critique.

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In both seasons, the show begins with the introduction of a murder: Someone has been killed at a White Lotus resort, and it will take us half a dozen episodes to find out whodunit. But rather than a detective thriller, The White Lotus is more like an extended commentary on human nature and its consequences. You may want at least some of the main characters, who range from despicable to merely selfish and naive, to face a dramatic ending. But for the most part, the characters simply go out not with a bang but a whimper. (If you don’t want spoilers, read on at your own peril.)

In the latest season, a collection of rich strangers appear at the White Lotus hotel in Sicily, where they deal with their rich-people problems amid the gorgeous Italian landscape. Among the guests are two couples vacationing together, Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Cameron (Theo James) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe). There’s the Sicilian-American family looking for a “homecoming”: grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham), father Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and son Albie (Adam DiMarco). And, reappearing from season one, there’s the iconic heiress Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge).

The first time we see the two couples, they are making an awkward champagne toast as they land at the hotel. They seem to have a tense, ego-based relationship: We learn that Cameron and Ethan went to college together, and although Cameron has the looks, Ethan has the brains — and a recent financial windfall from selling his startup.

Cameron has always wanted what Ethan has, including now, his wife. A no-nonsense employment lawyer, Harper is initially repelled by Cameron’s advances. He’s brash and scoffs at #MeToo and admits he doesn’t pay attention to the news. But when a lie from Ethan begins an unbridgeable rift between him and Harper, she reveals herself to be no better than the callous upper-class elites she disdains.

The most interesting (and disturbing) dynamic in the season comes from the three generations of Di Grassos: Bert, Michael, and Albie. Bert and Michael are serial cheaters, the kind of men who are easy to lampoon and frame as upholders of toxic masculinity. And yet Bert and Michael have their sympathetic moments. And Albie, the feminist ally and crusher of the patriarchy, has a dark side. In one scene, the Stanford-educated Gen Zer lays into his grandfather, telling him, “You’re nostalgic for the salad days of the patriarchy,” before adding, “Gender is a construct. It’s created.” But despite having the “right” politics, Albie is weak and easily manipulated.

When the sex-addicted Michael brings hookers into his hotel room, he soon pays the price, both figuratively and literally. One of them pretends to fall in love with Albie, also sleeping with him and eventually conning the family out of 50,000 euros. It’s Albie’s white knight mentality that allows him to succumb to what he thinks is a damsel in distress. Really, she’s just playing his ego.

In a powerful, brief shot near the end of the show, Bert, Michael, and Albie stand in line before boarding their flight home. An attractive young woman walks by, and all three of the men, each still assured of his own gentlemanliness, gawk at her as she passes.

There’s so much more to this show that would take much more space to discuss. But suffice it to say that if you can get past the typical HBO levels of nudity, The White Lotus has a lot to offer. And while it may be uncomfortable to watch at times, those moments get at the heart of the often unintended consequences of people’s self-centered actions.

Incisive, witty, and often laugh-out-loud funny (thank you, Jennifer Coolidge), The White Lotus manages to be a prestige show that skewers the woke and the unwoke alike. It’s not really about politics, anyway. It’s about human nature.

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