Trading in its piña coladas for Aperol spritzes and stacked with an entirely new ensemble (save for the incomparable Jennifer Coolidge) HBO’s “The White Lotus” sets sail for Palermo. Returning again to chart the machinations and blunders of the ultra rich and those who get caught in their crosshairs, showrunner Mike White concocts a second season that scratches the patina off the modern la dolce vita with a hand every bit as deft and injurious to the leisure class.
On the boat are Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), her new husband and “BLM” (here, standing for Bureau of Land Management) higher-up Greg (Jon Gries) and her horrendously dressed Zoomer personal assistant Portia (Hayley Lu Richardson.) Joining them are Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Cameron (Theo James), old college friends with lucrative jobs in tech and finance, and their wives Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy).
The slowest moving of the show’s targets are the Di Grassos, who, without the supervision of the women in their lives, endeavor to explore their Sicilian heritage. Brief day trip to “The Godfather” filming location aside (rest in peace Apollonia Corleone), this exploration is almost entirely sexual in nature. During their first night in Italy, Dominic (Micheal Imperioli) rendezvous with Lucia (Simona Tabasco), a working class Sicily native who, alongside her friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò), is enticed by the thorny world of post-Web 2.0 sex work.
If season one took particular interest in modern intimations of colonialism, season two fixes on sexual politics — the transactional, messy and ambiguous. Accordingly, the show cleaves apart its male characters, even those who anoint themselves “feminists” and those who took one gender and women’s studies course at Stanford and now clumsily wield the verbiage of internet activism.
The latter offender, Albie Di Grasso (Adam DiMarco), has swiftly shaped up to be one of the more sinister figures staying at the hotel. His pursuit of Portia begins innocuously enough, at least until he tells her his type is “pretty wounded birds.” Later episodes continue to break open this nesting doll of progressively more unnerving courtship tactics.
Albie’s trajectory is interesting in that it reveals an attunement to the post-MeToo evolution of sexual politics, which has seen its succeses play out purely optically and in half measure. White labors to situate Albie as part of a paternalistic history, something visually punctuated by caustic musical jolts and the Fellini-esque way the camera often lingers on the contorted faces of statues adorning the hotel.
Another throughline of “The White Lotus” is the opacity of romantic and sexual relationships, both privately and publicly. The corporate world from which Cameron and Ethan hail negotiates business behind closed doors; most of what’s perceptible about it is arranged or contrived material in service of an edited version of reality. Their marriages adhere to this formula, too. Cameron and Daphne’s relationship is a strange triangulation of wealth, desire and deceit, and it’s suggested that this will be the logical progression of Ethan and Harper’s as well.
“The White Lotus” is tightly contained. Nothing gets pushed to the margins or tarnished by the tedium of polemic that so often afflicts other shows that set their ambitions similarly high. It would be just as easy for the show to garner the acclaim that it has thus far with a fraction of the ambiguity and tonal dexterity that it deploys. The fact that it doesn’t take the easy path allows it to surpass zeitgeist.
White is an expert at sustaining intrigue — to the point that this pursuit feels like its own art form. Each week, the curtain retracts, but never more than a hair. But this unraveled a little in the fourth episode, which upped the stakes just a little more. Perhaps the pressure valve is close to being released.