The White Lotus, Mike White’s show pitting the pristine beauty of the natural world against the ugliness of the people inhabiting it, returns with a singular fixation: Sex. The Baroque Italian frescoes of the opening credits depict, in succession, a man sucking a woman's exposed nipple, two sailors mid-blowjob, an orgy at a public fountain. Even the rape of princess Leda is reimagined as an act of eroticism, her with her head thrown back, eyes glazed over with pleasure. Over five of the seven episodes of season 2 screened for review, sex takes on many forms — a weapon, an addiction, a profession, a sin, an act to be endured. The lack of it becomes a symptom of a flatlining marriage. A promise to abstain from it bears the weight of a penance. Even with so many characters horny and eager to grind against each other, however, narrative friction is harder to come by. The initial episodes only simmer, their sparks dampened by bursts of self-seriousness, the sharp satirical bent of the first season somewhat muted. Stick around long enough though, and all that slow-building heat promises that by the end, someone will get burned.
It’s an inevitability teased by the opening flashforward sequence. Like the first season, which opened with the gravity of a dead body before ricocheting back into the frivolous concerns of one-percenters on vacation, season 2 points to multiple casualties. The stakes might be higher, but this season is much more sprawling and sensuous. If one of the critiques of the first season was that a show meant to snark at the wealthy’s idea of a getaway ended up romanticising it — remember Quinn (Fred Hechinger) rowing off into the sunset? — season 2 leans into the idea full tilt, replacing a scathing class critique with a focus on the seductive allure of wealth. Characters pop edibles at a charming cafe, race speedboats through the cerulean waters of the Ionian sea and traipse through the sunny streets of Sicily at leisure. Money can’t buy happiness, this season suggests, but it sure can secure a stunning view against which to drape yourself and cry.
All this is to say that the class conflict isn’t as pronounced as it was in the previous season and the characters aren’t as intent on skewering each other so much as stewing in their own resentment at first. The thematic shift from wealth to sex might seem abrupt, but this season gradually underscores how the pursuit of one is inextricably linked to the other. It’s in the underlying frisson between the Babcocks — Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy), who come from old money — and their friends, Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan Spiller (Ethan Sharpe), who recently made a windfall after the sale of his startup. It’s in the rot that’s seeped into the marriage between Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and Greg McQuoid-Hunt (Jon Gries), whose unequal sexual appetites reflect the imbalance in their economic statuses. She’s a millionaire with an iron-clad prenup, he has a job he must return to when the vacation ends. It’s also in three generations of the Di Grasso family: patriarch Bert (F Murray Abraham), son Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and grandson Albie (Adam DiMarco), all of whom find that their approach towards romantic relationships dovetail and diverge in discomfiting ways. It’s even in Tanya’s harried assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), whose selfishness becomes more apparent the longer she spends in the company of the upper class.
Throughout the season, relationships splinter, destroyed by overwork and dysfunction, criticism and disinterest. The women are either cold or clingy, the men are either cheats or chumps. The sharpest examination of how sexuality carries as much power as wealth comes from local escorts Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Granno), the source of much of the show’s effervescence and lightness. The way they scheme and plot to gain entrance to the inner circle of the wealthy and the unceremonious way they’re nudged towards the exit the next morning becomes a recurring comedic bit with a clever implication — they, better than anyone, know that sex is just another transaction.
Hotel manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is snarkier and not as simpering and subservient as the staff from the previous season, but the same can’t be said of the show itself. In season 1, a close-up of a man’s exposed, hairy testicles was The White Lotus’ way of humiliating a character already laid low by an inferiority complex. In season 2, a character’s recurring flatulence amounts to little more than an ineffectual punchline. The group’s flaws this time around are more likely to evoke an indulgent pat on the head from viewers, rather than any genuine desire to see them get their comeuppance. These are people who would step over a body on their way to dinner, but their casual cruelty isn’t examined as thoughtfully. Occasionally, one of them will say something cutting, but the show is content to move on, rather than prod at the bruise.
White repeatedly cuts to the churning sea but can’t summon the same tidal waves of desire or rage in his characters. A sense of tedium is reinforced through character arcs recycled from the first season — the cheating husband who assuages his guilt by buying his wife expensive jewellery, the queer hotel manager with a crush on a younger subordinate, best friends whose closeness chafes when it comes to their overlapping romantic pursuits. Some of the show’s most perceptive moments instead stem from what the camera observes, particularly during a montage of each couple’s bedrooms that discloses whether they lie together or apart.
“This is such a beautiful view. I wonder if anyone’s ever jumped from here,” says Tanya at one point, the sharp contrast of her sentences pinpointing what a show like The White Lotus does best — reveal the human volatility concealed within the bubble of insulated privilege. The end of episode 5 promises to shake up the status quo in a big way, and with two episodes left, it couldn’t have come soon enough. Having spent so long in the sunshine, it’s time for this season to finally embrace the darkness.