Join or Sign In

Sign in to customize your TV listings

Continue with Facebook Continue with email

By joining TV Guide, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

The White Lotus Season 2 Review: Mike White's Biting Satire Still Delivers, With Some Reservations

The HBO series (mostly) finds amore in Sicily

Allison Picurro
Will Sharpe, Aubrey Plaza, Meghann Fahy, and Theo James, The White Lotus

Will Sharpe, Aubrey Plaza, Meghann Fahy, and Theo James, The White Lotus


It's fitting that Season 2 of The White Lotus, a series that understands how easily everyday oddities and domestic squabbles can morph into mini horror stories, premieres Oct. 30, the day before Halloween. In its first multiple-Emmy-winning outing, Mike White's tragicomedy explored the sinister nature of tourism as colonization, and its follow-up season narrows the focus to the demons that live within people's relationships. The challenge with any runaway hit is always figuring out what comes next, and while The White Lotus very much continues to succeed at being The White Lotus, its second season lacks some of the thrilling luster that turned the first into appointment viewing.

In any case, new themes call for a new setting. In Season 2, the HBO series moves from Hawaii to Italy, where new (and a couple of old) characters are posted up at the Sicilian arm of the White Lotus' upscale resort chain. If anything is certain, it's that there is always some absolute bullsh-- going on at these hotels, whose gorgeous exteriors provide a hiding place for the innumerable evils lurking within. This time, there's not just one unidentified dead body introduced within the first few moments of the premiere episode, but multiple. Still, deciphering the mystery of the murder(s) has never been what makes this series worth watching, since everything leading up to it is always so much more compelling.

One of the best things about Season 1 was how utterly unpredictable everything was; the audience never had any idea what was coming next, and the series amped up the stress minute by minute with its Robert Altman-esque dance of overlapping storylines. This season, that tension still reveals itself in other ways, though it's not as acute, and, quite honestly, it's easy to forget that everything we see is a precursor to people dying. The corpses teased in the opening scene actually start to feel like afterthoughts as the season pushes forward (HBO provided five out of seven total episodes to critics). This is largely due to the fact that viewers have already been through this in the first season, but it's also because of how easy it is to get absorbed in the deliciously messy dynamics White, who again acts as the season's sole writer and director, is playing with.

Among them are this season's obligatory unhappy family, composed of three generations of perpetually bickering men (played by F. Murray AbrahamMichael Imperioli, and Adam DiMarco) who are there, in theory, to connect with their Italian roots. There's also a pair of vacationing married couples, including the always uncomfortable Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), who are newly wealthy after the sale of Ethan's tech company. They were invited to join Ethan's already rich college buddy Cameron (Theo James) and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), on their trip, and it's immediately clear that they don't know each other very well at all. The only returning player is Jennifer Coolidge's flighty, teetering, vulnerable-to-a-fault Tanya McQuoid, who has brought her harried assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) along on what was supposed to be a romantic getaway with Greg (Jon Gries), her beau from Season 1.


The White Lotus


  • No one writes dialogue like Mike White
  • The cast is outstanding
  • The twisty relationship dynamics are delicious
  • It's still very much The White Lotus


  • It's lacking the unexpectedness of Season 1
  • The new characters aren't as strong as you want them to be

It's a lot, but one of White's talents is managing a big, entangled ensemble, and it's fun to watch the inventive ways he finds to tie them all together. Sometimes it's as simple as Dom (Imperioli) and Tanya having a miserable drink at the same bar, or as complicated as the two local girls, sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò), who drift around the hotel and involve themselves in everyone else's drama.

The most compelling dynamic of the season is easily the increasingly psychosexual foursome made up of Harper, Ethan, Cameron, and Daphne. You can tell White had a blast writing and directing all of their highly charged scenes, which buzz with ominous anxiety that he highlights with lingering shots of the actors' expressions. Is Harper's automatic distaste toward Cameron and Daphne founded, or does she simply begrudge them for their blissful obliviousness? Are Cameron and Daphne actually just there to have fun with their new friends, or are they resentful of Ethan and Harper entering their tax bracket? Do they all just want to sleep with each other? It's a true old(ish) money vs. new money story, bolstered by the fact that Harper and Ethan are both biracial, while Cameron and Daphne are both white.

Interestingly, White chose to push the upstairs-downstairs commentary that presided over Season 1 by the wayside in favor of probing relationship issues, like the divide between masculine and feminine, the ways jealousy eats at people, and how manipulation can be used as a defense tactic. That might be in response to some of the strongest criticisms he received during Season 1 about the ways in which the show made a story of classism and privilege palatable to white viewers by centering whiteness in the narrative, or it might not. White and his collaborators are immensely talented, which means that the series functions just fine even when it's not concerned with acting as a class satire, but losing those built-in stakes deprives Season 2 of the edge that made Season 1 so exciting. It's maybe unfair to compare them this much, but for a show that set such a high bar the first time around, the issues feel especially glaring.

The good news is that White is still a master of writing dialogue, and it's still such a pleasure to hear his words delivered by a cast of outstanding actors. Even when they're saying things that are alternately ridiculous and cringe-worthy ("I'm a feminist," Dom, a man who is constantly disrespecting women, sincerely tells his son in an early scene; "I don't watch Ted Lasso," Harper says, with the disgust of someone who just swallowed spoiled food, in another), the comedy comes from how fully believable every word is.

In more good news, the actors are, indeed, outstanding. It's no surprise to see Coolidge eating up every moment of her screen time, but Plaza, Fahy, Imperioli, James, Tabasco, and Sabrina Impacciatore are all doing distinct, fascinating work, even when their characters are slightly lacking. You can almost see the shape of them imprinted over last season's characters, like switching outfits on a paper doll: James' Cameron is this season's answer to Jake Lacy's accidental murderer Shane, and Impacciatore's no-nonsense hotel manager Valentina steps in for Murray Bartlett's Armond (who, by the way, is impossible not to miss; the show almost isn't the same without him). Tanya may not feel as fully realized as she once did, but no one is going to complain about more Jennifer Coolidge — especially when, in a loopy, meta turn of events, she meets a boisterous group of gay men who immediately worship her, in all of her perpetual yearning.

The White Lotus is at its best in moments like this, when White really allows himself to head in unexpected directions. That go-for-broke energy is reinforced by the eerie presence of religious Italian art that decorates the hotel, as well as the way White's camera holds on shots of the teste di moro, ceramic vases painted to look like heads that stem from an Italian legend about a woman who beheaded her lover. The characters are being haunted by this imagery; a couple of them realize, but most are too absorbed in their own lives to pay it any mind.

It might be something of a metaphor for the season as a whole, which is in the unenviable position of being haunted by the ghost of its first. There are so many elements about this season that make it better than the majority of shows on TV right now — not limited to the writing and the acting, but the sweeping cinematography and pitch-perfect soundtrack as well (the new theme song might actually be better than the original) — but when you know how good The White Lotus can be, why would you want to accept anything less?

Premieres: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max
Who's in it: Jennifer Coolidge, Aubrey Plaza, Theo James, Michael Imperioli, F. Murray Abraham, Haley Lu Richardson, Tom Hollander, Meghann Fahy, Sabrina Impacciatore
Who's behind it: Mike White
For fans of: The White Lotus Season 1, religious imagery
How many episodes we watched: 5 of 7