TWhen you stay at The White Lotus in Sicily, the fictional hotel at the center of the second season of the HBO show, you feel exposed. Caught alone, several characters meet the gazes of Renaissance-style murals. Each room contains a statue of a man’s head that, as a hotel employee explains, honors a Sicilian legend of a decapitated seducer. A disguised door connects the rooms of two married couples. The visual motif of the first season of The White Lotus, set in a Hawaiian resort, was rotting fruit in the title sequence, tropical leaves crawling across the bedspreads, the stench of moral corrosion – but the second season is more powerful: wandering eyes , backdoor arrangements, creeping lust.
As in the first, the second season, again written and directed by Mike White, begins with a dead body (several, actually) and then jumps back a week. But the real mystery is how confused the erotic web will become. Sex is both undertow and tidal wave: suggested at a glance; debated at the dinner table between three generations of DiGrasso men (F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, and Adam DiMarco); bared by Cameron (Theo James) to his roommate Harper’s (Aubrey Plaza) uptight wife in a bathing suit ripe for internet chatter; sold by local sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her friend, aspiring singer Mia (Beatrice Grannò).
The fourth episode (of seven), which aired on Sunday, featured both marriages – Harper to Ethan (Will Sharpe), who only got rich after selling his business, and Cameron to Daphne (Meghann Fahy), always wealthy on basic from Cameron’s sketchy finance job – are tense. Lucia and Mia visited four rooms. Characters in a chain of attractions that come from Albie (DiMarco) kiss on opposite sides of the bar. These characters want to feel alive, and to live, at least in the Italian sun, is to be horny.
Which, thank goodness. I, too, would like to feel alive when I flee to television, and there are very few programs on TV that do sex well. As in: performances in which sex is seen both as an expression of power, as sexiness and the accompanying emotions – jealousy, lust, desire – as a currency to be earned and enjoyed. While the first season of The White Lotus was a merry-go-round of use and getting used to that put everyone at risk — a bleak, if darkly funny take on life — with explicit nods to colonialism, the second season pares down transactional relationships to the most basic and personal. What are humans but a mess of hormones and needs, inhibitions and drives?
It’s a smart game. The first season was a jagged dissection of class, a show that squeezed the most out of HBO’s prestige micro-genre of rich people miserable/terrible and landed at the right time. The White Lotus was a pandemic gamble—a show shot entirely in one location over six weeks—that premiered after an isolated year in which many whites felt compelled to question their status. The first season was cathartically fluent in the self-soothing language of privilege, how a certain class of people articulate a worldview that justifies both their wealth and their sense of resentment.
The second season re-understands that feelings > facts are the key to understanding most human behavior, and again fits the times. “I feel like I’m just sitting at home, scrolling doom on my phone for the past three years,” says Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), the assistant dragged to Italy by eternally grieving heiress Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge, the only holdover from Season 1). Ordered to stay in her room, she craves an escape from “discourse” in the form of something “real.” It’s both cliché and not – who doesn’t want to have a good time after all this?
Many shows have nudity or sex; many more shows have a strong pull to pull viewers through episodes (it doesn’t take much). Few shows shake their viewers and characters with desire. HBO’s Industry, like The White Lotus, sees eroticism through sex as reciprocal power transactions, though it’s almost entirely rooted in the dynamics of a cutthroat workplace (a London-based bank). Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, a follow-up to the success of their 2020 Rooney show Normal People (which hit for taking sex seriously as a form of communication), was seething with too much undeserved desire. The same goes for Hulu’s Tell Me Lies, which aimed for the heat of self-defeating desire and landed just warm enough.
White has accurately described the second season as a “bedroom farce with teeth”. You don’t have to target the status anxieties of wealthy white hotel guests directly to pierce them. Harper thinks she’s better than the vaguely Republican Cameron and Daphne, but won’t admit she feels threatened by their apparent happiness. Di Grasso patriarch Bert (Abraham) is an unabashed hornhound whose displays of virility—not-so-discreet affairs, frank talk of masturbation over dinner—horrified his progeny. Dom’s (Imperioli) absent wife makes it clear in a scathing phone call that she dislikes him, for reasons that make clear his acquisition of Lucia. Albie is determined to be different from his father, but still gets entangled with Lucia.
Lucia and Mia, two Sicilian women who are neither resort staff nor official guests, can be read as White’s correction for season one criticism that the show underrepresented Native Hawaiians, arguably replicating the colonialist dynamic he was trying to puncture. Without both the thorny context of a Hawaiian resort and pandemic movie restrictions, Lucia and Mia bounce in and out of the hotel, loosening inhibitions and exposing hypocrisy. The two are both the most idealistic – Lucia dreams of going to LA, Mia of becoming a professional singer – and the most pragmatic. Sex is money, access and opportunity; drugs are a tool; the work is sometimes tedious but above all fun; every relationship is a transaction. It’s nice, Mia notes in the fourth episode, to know exactly what you’re getting into.
But it’s also fun to forget. At least until the bodies start falling, the Italian version of The White Lotus leads more envy into his cursed paradise. The mouth-watering breakfast buffets, the beach clubs, spritzes, drugs, sex – it all seems like a more honeyed trap than the first time, even though the waves crashing against the cliffs portend darkness ahead. The White Lotus may have been less explicitly trained in wealth privileges this season, but he’s no less keen on desire and his delusions.