The Erudite, Absurd White Lotus Finale

Even for a show that has seemed dubious about human nature, Season 2 ended on a cynical note.

Jennifer Coolidge's Tanya sits surrounded by her luggage in a scene from "The White Lotus"
Fabio Lovino / HBO

This article contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of The White Lotus.

In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air last week, the writer and director Mike White suggested that his hit HBO series The White Lotus had less in common with most prestige TV dramas than with the network shows of his youth: Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Laverne & Shirley. I appreciate his lack of pomposity, but this is total stronzata, as one of the artichoke-wielding di Grasso women might say. The White Lotus, across its two seasons, has been thrilling precisely because of how deftly it pairs high art with low humor: Aimé Césaire and shitting in a suitcase, mimetic desire and cowabunga tattoos, Monica Vitti and Peppa Pig. White might be playing to the peanut gallery, but he knows there’s more to his work than memes.

Season 2 of The White Lotus, in particular, felt like an aggregation of different source materials, many as fascinatingly cerebral as they were delightfully familiar. I spent an hour or so last week falling down the rabbit hole of the credit sequence alone, which paired each actor’s name with a mocked-up fresco winking at their character (Tom Hollander’s name appeared next to Bacchus, befitting his character’s hedonist tendencies; Simona Tabasco’s by a cat with a bird, recalling the alluring Lucia; Theo James’s with a close-up of David’s sculpted penis, suiting the priapic Cameron). Over the season’s seven episodes, the show juxtaposed American innocents and decadent Europeans, bringing to mind Henry James and Graham Greene, but also Patricia Highsmith and Elena Ferrante. It alluded to Sicilian lore, operatic tragedy, and Greek mythology. (Hollander’s Quentin at one point asked Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya whether her assistant had been transported by Hades to the underworld yet, a throwaway line that came to seem more sinister over time.) In the third episode, White staged a meticulous re-creation of a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura with Aubrey Plaza’s Harper in the role of Vitti’s Claudia, cornered and uneasy amid a mob of male scrutiny.

Laverne & Shirley could never. (Nor should it have tried, truly.) This isn’t to say I didn’t have quibbles with Season 2, including the questions of why Lucia and Mia, the sex worker and the wannabe pianist, seemed physically stuck at the hotel, sleeping on sun loungers instead of going home; why every guest at the White Lotus went to Sicily—Sicily!—only to eat all their meals in the same anemic on-site restaurant; and what happened to Tanya in the finale. But shows that offer this many layers of gratification, from the visual to the intellectual to the sheer jokes, as Leo Woodall’s Jack might say, are impossible not to appreciate. Week by week, The White Lotus achieved what only HBO series, Taylor Swift album drops, and Florence Pugh’s Instagram seem to be able to manage these days: taking over the discourse and leaving very few unsatisfied.

Consider Tanya for a minute. There was something charmingly Merchant Ivory about her traveling to Europe for a doomed liaison with a feckless lover, her younger, behatted companion in tow. When the finale revealed that it was Tanya whose body was discovered floating in the water in the opening scenes of the first episode, the moment was both shocking and obvious. As indelible a presence as Tanya has been on the show since she shuffled into a Hawaiian resort with a confused expression and a truly mind-bending collection of kaftans, her fate seemed to be foreshadowed throughout the season. Remember the fortune teller whom Tanya ushered out of the room for her “negative” vibe, even as the distressed woman seemed to be noticing something alarming in the cards? Or how Tanya wept at Madama Butterfly, whose lead character sees her own tragic outcome sealed by a callous lover in thrall to his selfish desires? Or Tanya’s offhand comment to her assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), that she appreciated Quentin because the way he flaunted his apparent wealth made her trust that he wasn’t after hers?

Tanya craved a cinematic experience in Sicily, and she got one. Unfortunately, her arc was less La Dolce Vita and more the spoof comedy Mafia!—having frantically shot a boatful of duplicitous aesthetes who’d been quietly plotting her demise, she tumbled to her watery death after seeming to not understand how ladders work. It was, as White said in an HBO featurette following the episode, a very “derp-y” death for a character who often found simple things more perplexing than most. Meanwhile, Jack, the muscle-bound Essex boy charged with distracting (and possibly doing away with) Portia while Tanya was being dealt with, dropped her on an empty street by the airport instead, his COCK baseball cap seeming to linger unnervingly in one’s memory like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.

As for the rest of the Americans, they ended up basically right where they began: the three di Grasso men ogling a serene girl in a crop top at the airport; Portia exchanging numbers with the youngest in the clan, Albie (each seeming as sociopathically unconcerned about the experiences of the past week as the other); the vacationers Cameron and Daphne ignoring the parts of their marriage that don’t please them and focusing on being rich, hot, and happy. The rest—Daphne’s freckles; Cameron’s winks; the debatable parentage of their white-haired children; Ethan following Daphne, like Eurydice after Orpheus, to an undetermined assignation—was washed out to sea in a surprisingly happy ending. (Even Mia and Lucia walked down a busy shopping street arm in arm, jubilant in floral dresses, waving at the notably nonviolent Alessio, just as they had in the first episode.)

Ethan and Harper seemed content, too, their stale marriage revived by the intrigue and potential infidelity that returned them to each other. The question The White Lotus seemed to proffer over its second season was: Is truth preferable to fantasy? The mimetic theory of desire, referenced by Ethan to explain his friend Cameron’s pathological pursuit of any girl Ethan liked, suggests that human beings desire things not because they personally crave them but because other people do. What persuades us to want isn’t our own assessment of something’s value, but our assessment of how others will value it. Daphne—beautiful, be-freckled, apparently able to process betrayal in less time than it takes most people to draw a breath—seemed to derive pleasure from staging tableaus of happiness, an influencer to the core. By contrast, sullen and stiff Harper seemed happy only when her suspicion that everyone else was faking it was proved right. The faker she herself got over the course of the season—the more feminine her dresses and performative her behavior—the more her marriage improved in the end.

It was a cynical outcome for a show that often seems dubious about human nature. What is travel in the age of Instagram if not mimetic desire with airline miles? The impulse to follow in the footsteps of high-status people, emulating their experiences and then, by sharing, being emulated in turn? In trying to transform her marriage into a fantasy, complete with scooter rides and cigarettes and spaghetti with clams, Tanya sealed her fate. We should, The White Lotus says, be careful with our desires, as sun-dappled and spritz-filled as these one-percenter trips seem to be. There’s a reason each season begins and ends with a body count.