Television

The White Lotus’ Mystery Isn’t Whodunit. It’s Why They’re Not Having Any Fun Doing It.

The HBO series’ characters are in thrall to their primal urges, but get no pleasure from giving in.

Two women in tight, sparkly dresses stand at a hotel bar.
Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco on The White Lotus. Fabio Lovino/HBO

If you want to explore the theme of desire with a capital D—and I mean really dig into its primitive, propulsive force within the history of human life—set the second season of your glossy HBO drama in the shadow of an active volcano.

Consider Sicily. The locale is working well for Mike White, who perches Season 2 of The White Lotus, his darkly comic travelogue of human vanity and vice, atop a seaside cliff kitty-corner to Mount Etna, which does double duty as Instagram-worthy scenery and Jungian-style symbolism. The resort’s interior represents just one more element of thematic continuity. All those teste di moro staring in shocked surprise, artful reminders of what happens when you let your penis take the wheel. You lose your head.

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“Men are so disappointing,” sighs Mia (Beatrice Grannó), a local gal who has absorbed her civics lesson well.

Four episodes in, the sex lives of the guests at the White Lotus Sicily hardly contradict the complex, often grimly comic picture. Mostly, it just completes the series’ fusion of desire and destructiveness. Everyone, from clueless Albie (Adam DiMarco) to lonely Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), is thrashing out some internal battle between head and groin. Episode 4 brings this mostly losing battle into high relief, particularly among the series’ youth ambassadors. It’s fair to say 20-somethings Portia and Albie are new at this ancient drama, which may be why they fall prey to a pair of old hands: laddish British hanger-on Jack (Leo Woodall) and hardscrabble hotel escort Lucia (Simona Tabasco). This duo adeptly and intuitively understand how to manipulate desire for personal gain.

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At the start of the episode, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) still worries she’s morally obligated to give Albie a “chance,” despite their palpable lack of spark. It’s a resonant torment for any living woman: the sense that your lack of interest in a decent bore is a moral failing, and your desire to have great noncommittal sex with a guy you desire is an issue requiring analysis.

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Anxiety is the defining feature of Albie and Portia’s disconnected connection, which may explain why neither is feeling a rumble below the belt. The duo is all up in their own heads to an extreme degree, an inverse of that pesky Moor, not bumping uglies as they secretly want to but burdening each other with their existential anxieties. Portia has FOMO for life. She’s sick of “the Discourse,” and her phone, the locus of all that high-minded talk, which seems to fade with wifi connectivity. She’s just a gal standing in front of a rumbling mountain on a seaside cliff asking to get “thrown around by a hot Italian guy.” Is that so much to ask?

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Albie is a lukewarm Italian-American guy similarly riven by fear of the Discourse. He worries about falling into a misogynistic white male miasma like his father, Dom (Michael Imperioli), a lech, or his nonno Bert (F. Murray Abraham), a perv of the old school. Albie went to Stanford, for god’s sake. He doesn’t want to be mistaken for the kind of sexist meathead who idol-worships Michael Corleone or gets pulled around by his belt buckle like Sonny. “I refuse to have a bad relationship with women,” he tells Portia over a candlelit dinner. It’s the kind of statement even a doormat might hesitate to make, but Albie seems to think it’s akin to flirting.

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By contrast, “naughty Jack” lays out his intentions (rather than his anxieties) at dinner with Portia and the gang. I “put on fresh underwear for you,” he tells her. It’s an F-Boy Island–type line that has no doubt been slurred in bars around the world. Albie may have a BA from Stanford, but Jack is DTF.

When the quartet—Albie and Lucia and Portia and Jack — meets inadvertently at the bar, Portia and Albie behave awkwardly. Their desires embarrass them and they’re all up in their heads again. Jack and Lucia prod them back into their fleshly desires, teaching them this can be a game, too, as long as you want to play. “You clearly want to make him jealous, so let’s make him jealous,” Jack says, leaning over and kissing Portia. As Albie indicates he wants to exit with some dignity, Lucia puts him straight: “Don’t let her win,” she says, kissing him.

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The match is set. The novices have lost their heads. Portia has gone and torn up her lottery ticket for the chance at an orgasm, and Albie will—unknowingly yet ecstatically—receive a master-class blowjob from his dad’s sloppy secondi. (He also doesn’t realize that, as she was by his father, Lucia expects to be paid for her services.)

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Speaking of playing desire games, that’s exactly what our quartet of 30-something marrieds have been up to since they got on the flight to Italy. Everyone has been trying to gloss over the discernible lack of amity between the couples by playing nice. Cameron (Theo James), however, can’t resist playing dirty. He drops his pants in front of his ex-roomie’s wife, his massive penis unfurling like a silk tie, simply to let her know how her husband stacks up. Later, he tries to corrupt his pal, luring him into cheating on Harper with Mia and Lucia. (Unfortunately for Cameron, Ethan doesn’t bite. He prefers sex with his laptop—maybe Cameron should have just hidden Ethan’s power cord?)

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No angel herself, Harper’s (Aubrey Plaza) agenda has mostly involved proving that the grimly sexless dynamic between her and husband Ethan (Will Sharpe)—friends with no benefits—is infinitely superior to the obviously performed chemistry between Cameron and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy).

After Daphne bares her soul about Theo’s infidelities, Harper is convinced she’s won. “Compared to them, we are fine,” she triumphantly declares to a still hungover Ethan. But her discovery of a spent condom wrapper in their hotel room ends the victory dance. This is incontrovertible evidence that not only is she not having any sex, but she’s not in control of her husband either. She’s a victim of her marriage, a role Daphne, who has her own ways of messing with her husband’s head, refuses to perform.

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Cameron and Daphne may not read the news or vote or do much more than fuck, shop, and compete, but they are better at this game than Harper and Ethan. They’re a perfect match: Jack and Lucia, but with money. Harper is suddenly reckless and indiscreet, no longer willing to play nice, and Cameron finds Harper’s destructive side a turn-on. Stay tuned.

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Don’t look to the boomers, Dom and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), for consolation. They’re struggling too. Tanya’s a fantasist who wants to be viewed as a glamorous continental object of desire like Monica Vitti, but comes off more like Peppa Pig to Valentina, who rather ominously adds: “Monica Vitti is dead.” Only the crew of Eurotrash grifters—Quentin (Tom Hollander), Matteo (Francesco Zecca), and Jack, et al.—cater to Tanya’s vanity. Though it’s early days, these guys seem like players of an entirely new caliber.

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Dom’s not a fantasist, he’s just a narcissist. The way he shuts down Lucia on that first night when she tries to talk to him about her dream of going to Los Angeles reveals how little time he has for others, for even basic intimacy. Neither head nor heart, he’s just a dick.  He doesn’t even want to interrogate himself, choosing instead to lay the blame for his conduct at the loafered feet of his elderly father.

Which brings us to Bert, our ancient horny toad, who consistently refuses to countenance Dom’s delusions or Albie’s innocence about human nature. Nonno may be farting and flirting his way through his golden years, but he’s still animated by desire— better still, he knows it, which is the most self-awareness from a character we’ve been granted. “I’m still a man. I get older and older, but the women I desire remain young. Natural,” he tells his disbelieving son and grandson in the first episode. “You can relate to that, right?”

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Albie can’t stomach the idea of an old man’s desire. “It’s undignified,” he says.

Bert replies: “It’s a penis! It isn’t a sunset.”

Bert’s enduring boner for life, despite the havoc it’s caused in his own family through the generations, is the flawed human reality he’s trying to reassert as common to him, his son and grandson—some connective tissue they share, like the Sicilian roots they’ve come to dig up. Neither Dom nor Albie appear willing to see the connection. It’s too bad, though it may just mean they’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and come to Bert-like self-awareness too late. Because a penis isn’t a sunset. And you can sing “That’s Amore” till they run out of pasta in Italy, but human desire isn’t a high-minded ideal. It’s a primitive, propulsive force subject to pressures and chemical reactions over time. Like an active volcano.

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