These days, the entire idea of a television “limited series” feels like a total scam. From Big Little Lies and Mare of Easttown to The Flight Attendant and Squid Game, shows that were initially labeled as single-season stories are suddenly all coming back for more. At least some of them, like Freeform’s Cruel Summer, have sense enough to try to reinvent themselves as anthology series, aiming to at least tell different stories under a familiar banner without needing to dilute or rewrite what has come before.
HBO’s The White Lotus falls into that latter category, a drama that was clearly originally intended as a limited series, but that found new extended life thanks to widespread popular and critical acclaim (as well as a bunch of awards hardware). To be fair, at least this show does make a certain amount of sense as an anthology—obnoxious rich people are certainly a global phenomenon, with the sort of resources that mean new exotic locations and generally consequence-free living are only a simple swipe of an Amex Black Card away.
Much like Season 1, The White Lotus is two parts satire and one part murder mystery, with a story that once again tracks a group of wealthy (mostly) white people during a weeklong stay at a luxury resort. The setting has changed from Maui to Sicily, as have the bulk of the faces on screen (Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge is the series’ only returning cast member from Season 1), but the show maintains its bizarrely addictive balance between uncomfortable voyeurism, insanely beautiful travel porn, and scathing social commentary.
The new season’s first episode also once again opens with a mysterious death, though this time it’s an unidentified body floating in the ocean off the resort beach, whose discovery prompts the revelation from a staff member that “a few” more guests have also apparently somehow died at the property. In what way and how many are questions the rest of the season will have to answer, though given how generally unsatisfactory the death reveal turned out to be in Season 1, perhaps we’ll all be happier if we refrain from too many outlandish theories, despite the promise of a higher body count on this trip.
Unsurprisingly, the series’ ensemble cast remains impeccable throughout, even as the characters they play range from generally unlikable to objectively terrible. Ethan Spiller (Will Sharpe), newly wealthy after the sale of his tech company, arrive on a couples’ trip with his bro-y (and obscenely rich) former college roommate Cameron (Theo James) and his spouse Daphne (Meghann Fahy), whose constant touchy feely affection instantly Ethan’s wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) on edge. One of the season’s most interesting threads touches on how Ethan and Harper (both separately and together) are impacted by their sudden change in financial and social status, since both come from the sort of poor and marginalized backgrounds most of the guests at this resort would look down on.
Elsewhere, three generations of Di Grasso family men (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, and Adam DiMarco), all ostensibly in Sicily to explore their Italian heritage, but are haunted by the revelation of Dominic’s infidelity, something patriarch Bert sees as a natural part of marriage but which Dominc’s son Albie resents—if only because it means his mother and sister skipped the trip. For his part, Albie’s a relentlessly nice guy, and perhaps the closest to many of the performatively woke types we saw back in Season 1.
And then there’s Tanya, boosting her White Lotus membership status by visiting another property and bringing Season 1 boytoy turned husband (?!) Greg (Jon Gries) and unmotivated personal assistant Portia (Hayley Lu Richardson) along for the ride on what often feels like a completely different show. (It physically pains me to say that Coolidge’s arc, such as it is, is the series’ least narratively interesting, but that doesn’t make it any less true.)
Unlike Season 1, which poked at the ways immense wealth uncomfortably intersects with privilege, race, and class, The White Lotus is much more concerned with love and sex in its second season, and the corrosive impact that status and money can have on relationships of all kinds. True, there are still plenty of uncomfortable contrasts between the guests at this lush villa and the working-class locals whose job it is to serve them, but for most of the five episodes available to screen for critics (out of a total of seven), the traditional “help” is placed much more firmly in the background. Only a few even get names, and while resort manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) wears the same sort of brightly colored jackets her Maui predecessor Armand (Murray Bartlett) once did, she’s largely an afterthought, with only the vaguest sense of an arc of her own.
Instead, the show introduces a pair of young sex workers, Luci (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), local girls who try to scam money, free food, and access off of the rich guests. Through the first five episodes, most of the various “groups” within the story feel fairly siloed, and Luci and Mia are the only characters that really cross between them all. It probably should not surprise anyone that The White Lotus is not at all the sort of series that is in any way equipped to really tackle the complex issues surrounding sex work, and at least the show is self-aware enough not to really try. Instead, the girls’ business is used to shine an uncomfortable light on the way that money turns the entire idea of sex and love into a status symbol or just another commodity that can be bought, sold, or bartered away.
Perhaps its an affect of the more overtly romantic setting or simply the opening credits full of classical figures desperately embracing and depictions of gods disguised as animals having their way with human women, but The White Lotus Season 2 is wildly horny, full of hookups, infidelity, and drug-fueled parties where people generally treat one another like convenient sex objects. Jealousy and pettiness abound, as friends, partners, and family members manipulate and judge each other, all while keeping up the necessary public facade that everything between them is fine.
Sicily makes for a breathtaking setting, full of gorgeous ocean vistas, rocky crags, and volcanoes looming in the distance. Unlike the Hawaii resort, this White Lotus comes complete with a sense of history, with classic frescoes and sculptures around every corner, many of which are likely hundreds of years old. Its European location means that the guests are frequently able to jet to various nearby attractions in ways the Hawaiian location didn’t allow, and we see various characters outside the world of the resort itself, touring posh vineyards, visiting ancient villas, going to the opera in Palermo or partying on a megayacht. But while The White Lotus Season 2 is certainly gorgeous to look at, it falls a bit short once again as any sort of legitimate social commentary.
It’s obvious that these people are generally awful: spoiled, self-involved, and lacking the sort of basic self-awareness we often see in so many (generally American) travelers abroad. But beyond that, is there anything worth really saying about them, or the journey they’re on? Part of that will depend on whether the season manages to stick the landing in the final two episodes critics didn’t get to see, not simply in terms of which of these characters won’t make it out of Italy, but whether the show manages to have something meaningful to say about them before they do.
The White Lotus Season 2 premieres Sunday, October 30 on HBO and HBO Max.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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