'The White Lotus' winds down as the bodies pile up

From left, Will Sharpe as Ethan Spiller, Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller, Meghann Fahy as Daphne Sullivan and Theo James as Cameron Sullivan in HBO’s 'The White Lotus' season 2. Picture: HBO

From left, Will Sharpe as Ethan Spiller, Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller, Meghann Fahy as Daphne Sullivan and Theo James as Cameron Sullivan in HBO’s 'The White Lotus' season 2. Picture: HBO

Published Dec 12, 2022


Analysis by Travis M Andrews

(Warning: This piece contains many spoilers about the season finale of "The White Lotus.")

Like so many contemporary television shows, both seasons of Mike White's HBO series "The White Lotus" began with a dead body. (Multiple ones, this go-round.)

What makes White's Emmy-winning series stand out is how he immediately beguiles his viewers by not revealing the identity of the deceased nor the cause of death. Instead, both seasons immediately flash back to the beginning of a resort stay that ends in tragedy.

In lesser hands, the dead bodies might feel like a cynical carrot leading the viewer to the final episode. In White's, it becomes something of a joke on the state of so-called prestige TV in which seemingly every show has to revolve around a death while also creating a sense of tension in a show that can take its sweet time meandering in various directions.

Although the penultimate episode, "Abductions," shifted the show's tone from satire to horror as anxieties and suspicions consumed nearly every character, everyone was still breathing – leaving many viewers wondering how multiple people would die in a single episode that needed to wrap up several barely connected storylines.

And boy does White revel in keeping that a mystery. It takes 67 minutes of the 80-minute finale, titled "Arrivederci", for someone to die. But he makes up for it by leaving the audience with several bodies, instead of a measly one.

You might have guessed Tanya McQuoid-Hunt (Jennifer Coolidge) would have to kick the bucket, given that she was the only returning primary cast member from the first season whose story would probably grow stale if there does end up being a Season 3. You probably didn't guess that she'd die after going on a killing spree aboard a yacht (or that she's surprisingly adept with a pistol).

Wait, what?

As it turns out, the fan theories were right: When, in Episode 5, Quentin (Tom Hollander) asked Tanya if she'd die for beauty, he was being serious. He and his band of art-loving friends weren't the rich world travellers they claimed to be. Broke and desperate, they hatched a plan with Tanya's husband, Greg Hunt (Jon Gries), to lure her to Sicily and kill her in order to void their prenup and collect her riches.

Most of the finale centred on Tanya and her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) slowly realising what's happening, eventually leading to Tanya stuck on the yacht with her would-be murders. She finds a pistol and, fearing for her life, shoots several of them (stopping briefly to ask a presumably dying Quentin if Greg's having an affair). Then, in a death fully befitting the character, she trips over the yacht's railing while trying to board a smaller boat for her escape, hits her head, falls into the water and eventually drowns.

One of the pleasures of "The White Lotus" is the fact that, unlike the resort serving as its setting, it seems to have no real boundaries. White wrote and directed all seven episodes, and he thoroughly enjoys steering the ship into unexpected harbours. But, in some ways, the Tanya plotline felt like an entirely different show – not necessarily in a positive way, despite the many laughs it offered.

The character of Tanya strained credulity to some degree, such as when she finds a photo of Greg in Quentin's home and allows herself to be convinced it's of an acid-dropping cowboy fisherman named Steve. But the slow reveal and ensuing shoot-out would feel more at home in the types of shows White often seems to be mocking. Not to mention the fact that, in a piece of un-White-like writing, Tanya fully spells out what's happening: Greg "brought me to Sicily, and then he left so he'd have an alibi… They're going to do Greg's dirty work for him, so they can use my money to decorate their houses or some(thing)."

Far more compelling was the much more human, grounded plotline about married couples Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne Sullivan (Meghann Fahy) and Harper Spiller (Aubrey Plaza) and her husband and Cameron's college roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe) in which nothing is clear.

Earlier in the season Cameron has sex with a prostitute, while he and Ethan are having a guy's night out. Harper finds the condom wrapper on the couch in her and Ethan's bedroom, and grows convinced Ethan cheated on her – or something similar. Later, Ethan becomes convinced Harper had sex with Cameron as revenge. After repeated denials, she finally admits they kissed but insists nothing else happened – and it wouldn't matter anyway. "The real issue is you're not attracted to me anyway," she yells at him.

After fighting Cameron in the sea, a tricky feat if there ever was one, a broken Ethan happens upon Daphne on the beach and shares his suspicions. To his surprise, she isn't concerned. Not because she doesn't necessarily think their spouses cheated with each other, but because "We never really know what goes on in people's minds or what they do. You spend every second with somebody, there's still this part that's a mystery." And that, to her, is a turn-on, she suggests as she maybe seduces Ethan.

What makes the storyline so compelling is what little information we have. Did Harper and Cameron have sex? Did Ethan and Daphne? In the end, that's not really nearly as important as the psychological torture the characters administer to themselves. After they finally take a minute to breathe, to get out of their own heads, to see what they have – is when they finally feel alive. After all that, Ethan and Harper finally rekindle their dwindling sex life, breaking a Testa di Moro vase as they tear off each other's clothes.

One of the downsides of having such an excellent but large ensemble cast with so few episodes is how little time was left for the rest of the characters. In a fairly rushed conclusion to their story, Albie Di Grasso (Adam DiMarco) asks his dad for €50 000 to give Lucia (Simona Tabasco), the prostitute he's fallen for but who seems to have picked him for a dupe. His father points out as much, saying: "How are you gonna make it in life if you're this big a mark?"

He eventually convinces Dominic Di Grasso (Michael Imperioli), calling it a "karmic payment" to make up for all his dad's ills and by promising to try to urge his mother to take him back. He gets the money and Dominic seemingly gets his second (or third (or fourth)) chance with his estranged wife.

Nonetheless, "The White Lotus" remains something of a triumph. Most shows leave viewers either satisfied or a little exhausted by the end of their run, but it's difficult to imagine a fan who wouldn't have happily watched another seven episodes – maybe to follow the self-discovery of Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), find out if Giuseppe (Federico Scribani) lands a new gig or simply pal around Sicily with Rocco (Federico Ferrante) and Isabella (Eleonora Romandini).

Maybe we won't get to do all that, but given the sensation Season 2 has become – and the many Emmys it's likely to win – there's a pretty good chance we'll be staying at another White Lotus property soon, watching people learn that they can't escape themselves, no matter how hard they try.