Early in the first episode of The White Lotus’ second season, a vacationer visiting Sicily inquires about the origins of a series of nearby hand-painted ceramic vases shaped like heads. It’s here that the concierge explains Testa di Moro, an artistic tradition based on a story about seduction, betrayal, and murder. He says that legend has it a local woman was seduced by a man, but in response to learning about his secret family, she cut off his head. The heads, then, become a decorative Chekhov’s gun looming over each episode of the show’s clever and compelling second season: a sign of a guillotine that we know will fall, even if we don’t know when or where.
That’s right: like the first season of The White Lotus, the show’s Sicily-set second season also involves some mysterious deaths. This time around, the first episode opens with the promise of someone dead in the ocean and a couple of other bodies to boot. But the dark comedy is less concerned with sustaining a steady stream of red herrings this time around and is all the better for it. Instead, creator and writer Mike White opts to let whatever violence is bound to occur boil over naturally, all while we’re too busy getting engrossed in a rich tapestry of interpersonal drama. Who cares who dies when there’s so much juicy stuff going down between the vacationers at this resort?
This year’s visitors aren’t nearly as vapid as their Hawaiian counterparts, but they’re each imperfect and often aimless nonetheless. Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is back with her new husband, and if she was fitfully hilarious before, now she’s just frustratingly wacky by design. In fact, several of the guests are purposely unbearable, but none more than Cameron (Theo James), a seemingly malevolent finance bro whose trip with wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), college roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe), and Ethan’s wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) is laced with a venomous undercurrent from the start.
There’s also a group of three men: an overly-flirty grandfather (F. Murray Abraham), a philandering father (Michael Imperioli), and an awkward but well-meaning college grad son (Adam DiMarco). The complex constellation of characters is completed by two local girls dabbling in sex work (Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco), one repressed and petty hotel manager (Sabrina Impacciatore), and Tanya’s oft-neglected assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Across the five episodes available for review, these groups rearrange themselves into different configurations, again and again, each loaded dynamic more intriguing than the last.
On the whole, The White Lotus season two seems less concerned with satirizing the wealthy – the presumable goal of its first season – than it does with exploring sex, power, and masculinity through an ever-shifting prism of perspectives. Many people at the Sicily resort are cheating, thinking about cheating, or trying to figure out what cheating means to them. There’s a sliding scale of desire on display in The White Lotus, and it goes from “guilt-inducing but technically moral” to “ill-advised and perhaps non-consensual” without ever making room for anything resembling truly carefree sexuality. Sex here is a transaction, a competition, a balm, a weapon, or a distraction, and the subtle scripts factor out each possible sexual equation in ways both unexpected and thrilling.
No matter how obtuse or off-track it gets, The White Lotus has a strong ineffable quality to it, a watchability that surely has something to do with its fantastic cast and utterly unique scripts. This season may have even more standout performances than the last one, from Tabasco’s perfectly employed flirtations to Richardson’s grounded portrayal of quarter-life malaise to Imperioli’s all-too-common sense of conflict as a man who wants to be seen as a better person without actually becoming one.
It’s the explosive foursome of the two married couples, though, that’s most captivating. Plaza’s proudly liberal buzzkill and Sharpe’s clenched-jaw peacemaker bounce off of Fahy’s Instagram-perfect housewife and James’ slyly sadistic alpha bro like bumper cars. It’s a joy to watch them rattle each others’ cages, and even if you think you know where their vacation from hell might land, the inevitable four-car pileup still feels like appointment television.
The White Lotus season two won’t be for everyone: it seems less overtly concerned with class and race than its predecessor and more empathetic than characters who would’ve been the butt of the joke the first go-round. It also, weirdly, seems to be committed to rewriting aspects of the first season. Several character dynamics, from the father-son relationship that’s laced with idle neuroses and disappointment to the two female best friends coming into their sexual power to the control freak manager, all mirror those that we already saw in the anthology series’ first season.
Yet, even with its softened satire and occasional redundancy, the allure of The White Lotus definitely remains, as confounding as it is intoxicating. Maybe the Testa di Moro isn’t just a harbinger for the characters themselves but also a sign for us as viewers: sometimes the most beguiling pieces of art can hide the most profound and messed-up truths, but other times, it’s okay if they just tell an exciting story. In season two, The White Lotus may be on track to do both.
The White Lotus season 2 debuts on HBO on Sunday, October 30th. Watch the season 2 trailer here.