Television

The White Lotus Left Us With a Bigger Mystery Than the One It Started With

And the key to understanding it may be this classic movie.

Meghann Fahy and Will Sharpe on The White Lotus.
Meghann Fahy and Will Sharpe on The White Lotus. Fabio Lovino/HBO

Management advises: This article contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of The White Lotus.

While it wasn’t as obsessed with tipping its hat to classic cinema as Master of None’s voyage to Italy was, The White Lotus’ second season did drop one major homage, to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 movie L’Avventura. The scene in which a woman walks through a Sicilian courtyard and is menacingly leered at by a gathering crowd of men was re-created in the same location and reenacted shot for shot, with Aubrey Plaza standing in for the iconic Monica Vitti. Such cinephilic gestures aren’t usually part of the show’s universe, and its morbid satire could hardly be further in tone from Antonioni’s elegant austerity. But the reference turns out to have set the stage for both the season’s thematic resolution and the denouement of its plot, and helps explain what we’re meant to take away from its many open endings.

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First, the plot. In L’Avventura, Vitti plays Claudia, who joins her friend Anna and Anna’s boyfriend on a yachting jaunt in the Mediterranean. During a brief stop on the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily, Anna disappears and is never seen again. As she and Anna’s boyfriend search for Anna, who it’s speculated may have died by suicide, they develop an attraction to each other and eventually have sex, although Claudia is consumed with feelings of betrayal toward her missing friend. Eventually the two end up in Taormina, future home of the White Lotus Sicily, staring wordlessly at Mount Etna as they share a futile attempt at emotional connection.

The White Lotus ends up also being about a woman who disappears, and although Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) tries to doll herself up as Monica Vitti, she’s swiftly disabused of that notion. It’s Plaza’s Harper who gets the charged looks in that L’Avventura pastiche and Tanya who ends up disappearing off a boat, even if it doesn’t take that long for her body to be found. And mysterious happenings on an island are critical to the ending. Uncertain whether their spouses have had sex but knowing for sure that they came close, Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) walk across the low-tide sand to Isola Bella, disappearing into the forest as the camera watches from a distance. What goes on there we’ll never know.

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In a press conference at Cannes, Antonioni famously proclaimed that L’Avventura proceeded from the fact that “Eros is sick” and humanity was in the grip of a “rigid and stereotyped morality.” For all of their intellectual ideas and formal majesty, Antonioni’s movies have endured in part because of—not to put too fine a point on it—the extreme hotness of their leading actors. But even in a movie like Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, with actors as unspeakably gorgeous as Vitti and Alain Delon, sex brings no hint of joy or release. It’s just a pebble tossed into a bottomless well of despair.

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On The White Lotus, Eros isn’t just sick but pretty near dead. (At best, it’s lagging way behind Thanatos.) Everyone is hot to trot, but they can’t seem to get on the same page, sexually speaking. The only people who seem to reliably get each other off are Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne, whose mutual desire is stoked by a volatile mixture of jealousy and anger. Daphne is fairly certain her husband cheats on her, but she chooses not to know for sure and evens the score by spending his money—as well as just maybe tricking him into raising the child she’s had with her personal trainer.

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White, however, has some ideas about how to fix matters, and it starts with making that morality less rigid. In the finale, tensions between the season’s two married couples come to a head as Ethan, whom Harper suspects of having had sex with a prostitute while she was away for the night with Daphne, comes to suspect Harper of having had sex with Cameron. We know Harper’s suspicions are wrong—although merely standing by while Cameron has sex with two prostitutes in his and Harper’s room doesn’t make Ethan entirely innocent either—and Harper doesn’t seem like the type to sneak off with the boneheaded Cameron, whom she obviously loathes. But the shift from her customary passive aggression to open hostility—she calls Cameron “an idiot” over breakfast—sets Ethan on edge, and he presses Harper until she confesses: The two did get drunk, and they did go back to their rooms, and they did kiss. That, Harper says, was that, but Ethan can’t be sure, and not even an alpha-male sock to Cameron’s jaw puts his mind at ease.

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Daphne has some experience in these matters, and she gives Ethan the same advice she gave Harper: Do whatever you need to do to feel as if you’re even. (Given Harper’s improved mood when she tells Ethan she’s going back to get her hat, it seems as if that advice might have even worked for her.) But as Daphne gazes out at the ocean, a little while before she’ll find Tanya’s body floating in it, she has more words for Ethan, which get to the heart of what the season is about:

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Maybe something happened. I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I mean, we never really know what goes on in people’s minds or what they do, right? You spend every second with somebody, and there’s still this part that’s a mystery. You know? You don’t have to know everything to love someone.

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And then the two of them disappear into Isola Bella, and what happens next is a mystery to everyone, including us.

The White Lotus finale answers plenty of questions, including the big one set up by the season’s first few minutes: Who died? (Tanya, as well as a bunch of “these gays.”) We find out that Lucia (Simona Tabasco) was definitely playing Albie (Adam DiMarco) and the man who played the part of the pimp she needed 50,000 Euros to escape is just a doorman at a nearby hotel. But the biggest question, of whether or not any of these people are going to be OK, remains open-ended. Ethan and Harper are smiling the last time we see them, having just had sex for the first time in ages, although whether either will be able to maintain their newfound tolerance for mystery is hard to say. Daphne is her usual unfazed self, but Cameron is scowling and distant, perhaps because he’s aware of his wife’s little island jaunt and not fond of being on the receiving end of marital uncertainty for a change. Dominic (Michael Imperioli) finally gets his estranged wife to pick up the phone, but all he gets is a promise to talk when he’s back in L.A.—the faintest possible ray of hope. And Albie and Portia (Haley Lu Richardson)? Having both been tricked by sex workers, they’re ready for something a little less exciting: each other. The fumbling way they exchange phone numbers doesn’t exactly scream chemistry, but who can say? Not knowing whom you’ll click with is part of the mystery too.

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It’s telling that the season’s two predictions of Tanya’s future both get it half-right. In the first episode, she abruptly breaks off sex with her husband, Greg (Jon Gries), because she’s “disassociating,” having a vision of “men with effeminate hairstyles” and Greg with “eyes like shark eyes, just completely dead.” Two episodes later, a fortuneteller warns her that Greg is having an affair and, in untranslated Italian, that “madness will drive you to suicide.” The men with effeminate hairstyles do indeed show up, and her husband really does turn out to be a bit of a shark, but it’s Tanya who ends up floating in the water with dead eyes. And while we don’t know if Greg is cheating on her, we know that Tanya’s preoccupied with that question even after she’s discovered he hired people to kill her for her money—tragically, they are too full of the bullets she’s just pumped into them to answer—which does seem like a kind of madness, perhaps even enough to distract her when she makes her slip-and-fall plunge off the boat and kills herself. The future isn’t exactly unknowable, but worrying too much about it can get you killed or, in the case of the season’s core couples, keep you from enjoying the company of your extremely good-looking spouse.

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White isn’t necessarily using his premium cable show to argue for polyamory or open marriages, but he does seem to be suggesting that monogamy is inherently doomed, especially if it claims dominion over another’s inner life and not just their actions. You don’t have to let your partner sleep with someone else, but you can’t expect them not to want to, and if you can’t handle the answers, there’s nothing wrong with not asking the questions. Mystery, Daphne tells Ethan, can even be a little sexy. You just have to find someone with the same tolerance for leaving mysteries unsolved.

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