The second season of HBO’s The White Lotus was never going to be warm and fuzzy, but it’s so chilly in its outlook on relationships it makes the eat-the-rich satire of the first season feel almost like a rom-com. Part of this is the gaping hole left by the absence of Murray Bartlett’s first-season turn as the hotel manager Armond, which gave the show its heart, and part of it is the new season’s focus on masculinity in crisis. For all the brutal ways the series forces us to reckon with an emergency for men, there is another emergency going on for its women. What they really need, I keep thinking, is not a romantic partner, but a friend.
Over the first five episodes, we’ve seen sex in marriage, sex for money, infidelity, flings, affairs, and marriage with no sex at all, but not one single healthy human connection. But if White Lotus is positively arctic in its view of sexual relationships between men and women, it’s pretty frosty when it comes to friendship between women, too. The fourth episode trots out at least four separate dismissive mentions of female friendship, drawing on all the different fictions propping up the idea that women don’t like other women. They’re fake, they’re not fun, they backstab, they’re in competition with one another for men—the seasons may change, but this list stays the same. The fact that these tired ideas hew more closely to a male point of view on female friendship than that of any human woman I’ve ever met is probably the point.
Nowhere is this clearer than between Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy), the two 30-something wives who are vacationing with their husbands in Sicily and whose conversation focuses primarily on the men they are married to. Daphne is the golden wife who raises the kids, is the size of a Twizzler despite having two toddlers, and doesn’t browbeat her husband like Harper, the labor rights lawyer (in the show’s universe, shorthand for being a buzzkill), who is adjusting to a new reality after her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), makes a fortune selling his company.
If Harper is supposed to be the tough-as-nails thinking woman’s woman and Daphne the sun-kissed Cool Girl, the show remains neutral about which worldview leads to a healthier partnership. Harper is in a faithful marriage; Daphne is in a happier one, even though her husband, the finance bro Cameron (Theo James), cheats on her. And while the show lifts up clichés, it also subverts them—Daphne is no dummy, and in some ways more pragmatic than Harper, whose acid tongue covers for a deep vulnerability.
These ladies don’t trust each other, but they still embark upon a pantomime of female friendship—on a girls trip, Daphne buys Harper a dress, while Harper attempts to say nice things to her, as if acting out a script. But in a twist, Daphne confesses something that, for a moment, gives the charade the contours of a real friendship, revealing that Cameron cheats on her, and in response, she does what she needs to do to not feel like a victim. Shocked that she’s been so honest, a sobered-up Daphne backtracks the next morning, explaining that she doesn’t really have female friends, because women are always jealous or talking trash behind your back. Harper later relays this to Ethan in triumph—“I’m basically her best friend now,” she says, with a contemptuous snap, but you can’t help wondering how many real friends Harper has rattling around back home.
For a show this sophisticated, leaning this hard into a stereotype this tired about women feels intentional, as if even in friendship women cannot escape the male gaze. The super wealthy, blazingly dysfunctional Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge)—the only returning character from Season 1 —explains that it’s hard to be close with women because they’re drippy. (Never was there a woman who needed a friend more.) Later, she makes a reference to Belinda, the hotel spa manager from the first season whom she manipulated by dangling the promise of helping her launch her own spa, and then dropped, unbothered by the casual devastation she left behind. “These women can be witchy,” she tells her assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). “Maybe she put a curse on me.” That’s the only way she can view female friendship—as transactional and spiteful.
These ridiculous, shopworn notions about female friendship make me want to reach out and shake these ladies until their dangly earrings fly off. Forget about sex, forget about romantic partnerships—life is an absolute wasteland, a windswept frozen tundra, without female friendship. The original Sex and the City has its detractors, but it deserves credit, forever and ever, for radically positioning friendship, not romantic partnership, as the center of the show. It was a series about sex that passed the Bechdel test every single time. In the famous episode where Carrie calls Samantha to help her remove her diaphragm after it gets stuck, women mulled over one of the great questions of sisterhood: Do you have someone you can call in that kind of situation? I guarantee you Harper and Daphne do not. I feel more distressed that these women have no one to call, no one to laugh with, than I do about the sad state of heterosexual affairs the show depicts.
There is one exception to The White Lotus’ embargo on female friendship, and it’s Mia (Beatrice Grannò) and Lucia (Simona Tabasco), two young Italian women who clearly have each other’s backs. They’re the only two women on the show who genuinely enjoy each other’s company—maybe even the only two people. And their shenanigans—trying to pretend they’re guests at a fancy hotel, running from the uptight hotel manager, stashing their bags in hilarious places—perfectly capture the feeling of 20-something friendship, where you could push a boundary because you felt invincible. So it absolutely kills me that the strongest evidence of their bond is that Lucia, an escort who finds clients at the hotel, convinces Mia to become one too, in order to advance her singing career. To see the affection they have for each other lead to Mia having sex for money and favors feels pretty nihilistic.
To be clear, the show also takes a pretty dim view of male friendship. Cameron and Ethan, college buddies who are testing their new dynamic now that both have struck it rich, keep up a friendly, bro-y patter, but there’s no actual affection there. When they were college buddies, Cameron was the alpha to Ethan’s nice guy, not as smart as his friend but more successful with women. As Cameron feels the ground between them shifting, he does the most obvious and worst thing you can do in a friendship—he makes a pass at Harper. Say what you will about the ladies: No one is making a play for the other’s husband.
It’s the kind of infuriating, crazy situation that, for Harper, practically requires an emergency dial to a friend. A glorious, salty, loyal friend who could skewer Cam while also giving Harper advice on how to bring life back to her own marriage. Instead, Harper just swats Cameron’s hand away and sits, stone faced, holding it all in. Harper has many challenges right now—in her marriage, in trying to navigate her new life, and with her own coping mechanism. But her biggest one may be that she has no one to laugh with. And that’s a cold world indeed.