The White Lotus was one of the breakout shows of 2021, a Hawaiian odyssey that was part scathing social satire and part travelogue for a populace longing for escapism after a year of pandemic isolation. In season one, creator Mike White took his audience to Maui and the five-star Four Seasons Resort, where we watched characters ranging from borderline awful to truly loathsome mix and mingle in paradise. That season deals primarily with class and privilege, utilizing an upstairs-downstairs format that divides the storytelling between the guests who staff the resort and the tourists who people its luxurious rooms. Season two takes us to Taormina, Sicily, and the five-star San Domenico Palace, where wealth takes a backseat to sexual politics.


Mike White again writes and directs all episodes, of which there are seven this time around (five were provided for review). We also begin again with the premise that someone has died at the resort—or in this case, “a few” someones. The first episode introduces the specter of death and then rewinds one week to the arrival of a new batch of guests at the seaside resort where Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) rules the front desk with an iron fist and an acid tongue. She’s the manager of the San Domenico, but she lacks Armond’s polished smile and ingratiating manners. This season is less concerned with the dynamics of guests and staff, though, so Valentina is largely present to deal with a couple of interlopers at her resort, local girls Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò). Lucia is a sex worker contracted with one of the guests, and Mia is her friend, an aspiring singer Lucia is trying to sell on the life. It’s all very Kit and Vivian. 

The new guests are a pair of young couples sharing a vacation: blithely oblivious Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and her finance bro husband, Cameron (Theo James), and newly minted rich guy Ethan (Will Sharpe) and his wife, power lawyer Harper (Aubrey Plaza); as well as three generations of Di Grasso men exploring their Sicilian roots: patriarch Bert (F. Murray Abraham), his son, Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and his son, Albie (Adam DiMarco). Also, Jennifer Coolidge returns as Tanya McQuoid, who is now married to coughing tourist, Greg (Jon Gries). They’re on a romantic getaway, but Tanya brought her assistant, the beleaguered Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). In typical White Lotus fashion, all these people are immediately miserable upon arrival in beautiful sun-drenched Sicily. (Except maybe Daphne and Cameron. They are terrible people, insulated by their wealth from real-world problems, which they further by not watching or reading the news, or reading period, as Harper points out.)


There are still tensions of class and wealth in White Lotus, but the driving factor here is sex and intimacy. Harper feels superior to Daphne and Cameron because she and Ethan are engaged citizens of the world, but they’re also not as in synch as Daphne and Cameron, nor do they enjoy a similarly fulfilling sex life (or any sex life). Daphne and Cameron are awful, but they see each other clearly and don’t have any illusions except those they choose to maintain and preserve their union, such as Daphne’s willful blindness toward Cameron’s affairs. They are arguably the worst people at San Domenico, but they are also the only ones having regular, fulfilling sex and who seem to enjoy their lives together, mind games and all. Harper and Ethan, meanwhile, are totally out of step and their sexless marriage seems headed for divorce. 

When it comes to social satire, White hasn’t lost his touch, and The White Lotus continues to offer plenty of caustic observations about the horrors of rich white people abroad. But regarding the sexual politics at play, White is less acute, and even seems a bit Puritanical in his observations of straight relationships (missing from the equation are queer relationships, which is one of the more obvious holes in White’s otherwise tightly constructed story). White, an out bisexual, seems scornful of straight relationships but also walks right into stereotypical assumptions of hetero dynamics. There are some intriguing setups—Greg appears to be cheating on, maybe even plotting against, Tanya—but White doesn’t seem interested in exploring sexual mores outside hetero norms.


For instance, Portia and Albie form a connection on day one, but Portia is emotionally bankrupt, drained by Tanya’ incessant demands and neediness. All she wants is a fling, some good sex to recharge her batteries before returning to Tanya. Albie, though, is paralyzed by the fear of becoming like his father and grandfather, and he takes modern sensibilities so far he can hardly touch Portia in even the most platonic way without flinching first. White pokes fun at this, like, Oh, these kids today, they’ve ruined sex for themselves! But really, Albie longs for intimacy, not sex. What White does not observe is the small tragedy of two people meeting and simply being unable to fulfill one another in the moment. Albie isn’t missing his chance with Portia because he’s a “nice guy”, even as White writes him on the edge of going full fedora-bro, but because he simply cannot give Portia the anonymous sex she wants, because he himself wants a deeper connection. 

Like Portia and Albie falling into the nice guy/withholding bitch binary, across the board White Lotus characters don’t stray far from such guidelines. Lucia and Mia are willing to use sex to further their goals, but in the end, they cannot escape typical Catholic guilt and bow to the Madonna/whore complex. Bert is a borderline caricature of a horny old goat, it’s only Abraham’s inherent grace as an actor and the suggestion of cognitive decline that makes the character more than a cartoon. And the portrayal of local Sicilians is even worse, all the men are rampantly horny and the women their un/willing prey. One of the only interesting things White does this season is imbue Valentina with the exact kind of pressuring tactics she despises in men and make her blind to her own faults. 


The seaside setting once again gives White plenty of opportunity to insert beauty shots of the roiling sea, the tempest below the beautiful surface. He also gets to include Mount Etna, a live volcano, suggesting the constant threat of ruinous explosion in these people’s lives. But through five episodes, White’s observations of (hetero) sex are rote and unimaginative, and he does not plumb the awful depths of his characters with the same thoroughness as he did previously. In Hawaii, the terrible people were drawn fully, revealing how truly poisonous wealth and privilege are to the human experience. In Sicily, the terrible people are just terrible, they’re paper dolls on which to pin boring ideas of sexual mores in the 21st century. The White Lotus, while still a pleasure to watch from a schadenfreude standpoint, feels significantly defanged the second time around.

The White Lotus airs Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Max.