Television

The White Lotus’ Most Tragic Death Was Actually a Triumph

The show’s most dysfunctional character went out on their own terms.

Meghann Fahy wearing a yellow bathing suit in a scene from The White Lotus.
Meghann Fahy in The White Lotus. Fabio Lovino/HBO

This article contains spoilers—big ones, huge—for the Season 2 finale of The White Lotus.

As we continue to sort through our feelings about the White Lotus finale, I’m left with one blazing conviction: Tanya won. Yes, the floating feet that Daphne bumps into in the first episode’s flash-forward turned out to be hers, but for a character so paranoid and gloriously dysfunctional, Tanya’s final act defies the regrets and anxieties she’s carried her whole life. She’s courageous. She’s competent! She shows true badassery, gunning down not just a Mafia killer but Quentin and Didier to boot. (Hugo, lucky fella, flings himself into the ocean to escape.) For once, she has a perfect understanding of the situation she’s in, and the paranoia that’s warped her her entire life turns out to be dead right. In other words, she was the star of her own tragic Italian opera—just not in the way Quentin intended.

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All season long, it’s been Daphne—the beautiful, upbeat, oft-cheated-upon wife of Cameron—who’s said she will do whatever she needs to do to not end up feeling like a victim. But it’s actually Tanya who refuses to be victimized. While it may feel as if her heroics don’t matter because she still drowned in the end, they matter deeply. Maybe only a creator like Mike White can make the death of an amazing character feel triumphant, but when she says, “You’ve got this, Tanya” and then falls to her death from Quentin’s yacht, it doesn’t feel like a defeat. It feels arbitrary, for sure, and a bit undignified that she drowns because climbing over a railing in high heels proves harder than shooting her way out of a deathtrap. And yet, nevertheless, she went out guns blazing.

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It’s a very different end than her assistant Portia has—she makes it out alive only because Jack, the fling whom she realizes is caught up in Quentin’s dark plot (and is most definitely not his nephew), decides to spare her. Portia is smart, and she understands that things are going sideways before Tanya does; she even manages to warn her boss. But unlike Tanya, she is denied agency, stuck in the car with a guy with neck tattoos whom she actually chose over Albie. Of all the characters on the show, only Portia has a storyline that creeps into Hitchcock territory, with a slow tilt from confusion to fear, emphasizing how quickly a situation can shift from safe to unsafe, especially for women.

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It’s legitimately scary, and a deep relief when Portia survives. But in the universe of the show, it feels deliberate that it’s Portia—who has suffered so much under Tanya’s dramatic swings that, at one point, she tells Albie, “If I murdered my boss, I could argue it was euthanasia”—who must be saved, while Tanya takes the wheel in her final moments.

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And what moments they are. Unlike the slow dread of Portia’s car ride, the truth bursts upon Tanya all at once. Since last week’s reveal that Quentin and her husband, Greg, knew each other from way back, there has been feverish speculation that Greg was setting her up to violate a lifestyle clause in her prenup—basically that by sleeping with Niccolò at Quentin’s drug-fueled party, she would forfeit part of her fortune to him in a divorce. But I never bought that. Tanya would never in a million years allow that into a legal document—she’s too paranoid and would figure that if she did ever cheat on Greg she’d have good reason to do so. No, the truth is much darker. The only way Greg gets the money is if she dies. And Quentin and his merry band of murderers are in on it because their moldering family estates all need money.

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Tanya puts the pieces together during Portia’s call, the yacht anchored tantalizingly close to shore, in one of the most compelling sequences of television I’ve ever seen. She staggers about, playing for time—one more glass of white wine, one more trip to the powder room. Her speech to the ship’s uncomprehending Italian-speaking captain that Quentin and “these gays” are planning to murder her for Greg “because he’s gonna pay them with my money so they can decorate their houses or some shit,” should alone earn Jennifer Coolidge another Emmy.

Meanwhile Quentin, played by the brilliant Tom Hollander, is all charming unflappability to Tanya’s rising panic. Even as you know he’s plotting her death, the guy feels fun to hang out with. So there’s a wicked satisfaction in watching him and his friends, including Niccolò with his rope and duct tape, underestimate Tanya, not quite able to believe she could be onto them. As she snatches Niccolò’s black murder bag and locks herself inside a stateroom, sobbing, the men crowd around outside; it’s clear they still think she can be handled. But Tanya does not go quietly. She blasts her way to freedom.

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Her death, minutes later, is still shocking, but it isn’t at anyone else’s hand. And it also isn’t for nothing. With Tanya leaving a trail of bodies behind, as well as a couple of survivors, it makes it far less likely Greg will get the money without some hard questions being asked. And although Portia is shaken and scared, she knows the Sicily trip was Greg’s idea, that he left abruptly in the middle of it, and that he knew Quentin. Once she is home, I have faith she’ll do the right thing, or at least be compelled to testify.

A lot has been made of Tonya’s final words to Quentin, not just because they’re devastatingly funny—“Is Greg having an affair?” she screams, as men are dead and dying around her—but also because they gesture at how much and yet how little Tanya’s fight for survival has changed her. It’s not that Greg is plotting to murder her that’s most upsetting; it’s that he might be cheating on her. While it feels as if Tanya is still wrapped up in her old insecurities, I’d argue the line’s genius is that it shows, to the very last, her being true to herself. She’s an absolute mess while she’s raining bullets on her would-be killers, but she’s also facing down her fear, not running from it or trying to smother it with money. Instead of the caricature of her that both Greg and Portia have bought into, she proves she is not helpless. In fact, her final surge of confidence may be what propels her over the railing—she actually thinks she can swing over and jump into the motorboat 20 feet below. Unlike Portia, who could have gotten out of the car but didn’t, Tanya acts. She believes she can do it. For a moment, so did we all.

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