Dissecting the Themes of The White Lotus Season 2

When I reviewed the first season of The White Lotus in the summer of 2021, I wrote about trying to figure out exactly what the show was as I watched it. It was a new show, and I wasn’t sure where it was going. All I knew was that I liked it. And after I finished the season, the main thing it had me thinking about was white privilege. To me, it was a satire of white privilege through the lens of customer service, which I thought was such a ripe territory for comedy. That’s not to assert that that’s the only takeaway you can draw from it, or indeed the correct one. It’s just the takeaway that I had. Series creator Mike White described the first season’s theme as “money”, and I’ve seen others describe it as “class” or “greed”. Of course, white privilege, money, class, and greed are all themes that overlap, and they’re all in there for sure. It’s just that white privilege is what struck me the most.

And so, when I sat down to write my review, I framed my analysis around white privilege by listing each of the guests and writing about the ways each of their character arcs explored that theme. It was an enjoyable exercise, but I didn’t think much about it after the review was published.

I didn’t see many people discussing the show, either online or in my personal life, and my post didn’t get many views. It was understandable- this was a new show after all. But now The White Lotus isn’t new anymore. The show’s second season aired in fall 2022, and this time around it really seemed to have permeated the popular culture. Everywhere I looked, there were memes, hot takes, and predictions. All of a sudden, my review for the first season started to get a lot of traffic.

-Spoilers Ahead-

I was excited for the new season and I loved the idea of The White Lotus being an anthology where each season takes place at a different location of the same luxury hotel chain. After all, the Hawaiian setting of the first season was so important to the story, and I love stories that can’t be disconnected from their setting. Sicily, rich with its own mythology, evokes something completely different to Hawaii in the popular imagination. Whereas Hawaii was used to explore neocolonialist attitudes, Sicily instead conjures up operatic melodramas defined by sexual politics. Secrets, lust, jealousy, guilt, and sin. A land in equal parts seductive and dangerous. The violent history of conquest, assassinations, piracy, slavery, and organized crime is reflected by the violence of the geography itself; a jagged coastline of sheer cliffs and a rugged interior of sloping hillsides, all in the menacing shadow of the Mt. Etna volcano. There seems an untold number of locales ideal for illicit acts, be it murder or infidelity, in the island’s secluded coves, in the long shadows of olive trees, in its narrow streets, in its craggy headlands overgrown with densely-packed, exotic foliage. Sicily is claimed to be the “most conquered” island in the world, whose bloody history stretches all the way from the Punic Wars to the Cosa Nostra. A place where you can never tell where myth ends and truth begins. It’s this aspect- it’s ambiguous mixture of myth, peril, and secrecy- that’s encapsulated by the recurring image of Taormina’s Isola Bella, the tiny islet that resembles in every way a miniature Sicily. But we’ll get to that later.

Just as I did with the show’s first season, I’m not going to attempt to cover everything. There are so many ways of dissecting the second season of The White Lotus, and so many talking points, that this post would end up being close to 30,000 words long if I were to review it in its totality. I prefer a focused approach that speaks to my personal experience of watching it. What struck me most about the first season was its treatment of white privilege, so I dissected the characters through that lens and that lens alone. This time, I’m going to do the same through what I felt was the dominant theme of season two: sexual politics. Which- as hopefully will become clear- is not the same as just “sex”.


The sexual politics of anxiety

I’m gonna start with Harper because I feel like she’s as close to a protagonist or POV character as we get with The White Lotus. When the season begins it feels like we’re seeing things through her eyes. For starters, she’s new to the world of wealth that The White Lotus hotel chain represents and is therefore closer to us, the viewers. She’s uptight, anxious, and insecure in contrast to the extroverted, carefree, and hyperactive nature of Daphne and Cameron. This builds empathy with the audience and we start to identify with Harper, experiencing the world of Daphne and Cameron alongside her. This is intentional, I think. When Daphne and Cameron remark that they don’t keep up with the news, we’re meant to roll our eyes alongside Harper. The show wants us to form an image of who Cameron and Daphne are before showing us that the truth of their lives- as it always is- is more nuanced.

Harper immediately makes an assumption about them- that they’re shallow, inauthentic, and emotionally vacuous. She does this, we soon learn, to make herself feel better about her own relationship. It’s the classic scenario that two couples hanging out will inevitably compare their relationships, each forming an image of the other couple’s intimacy according to their own insecurities. In the show, this inevitable act of comparison is further intensified by the physical geometry of their hotel suites. A thin wall is the only thing that separates the two beds of the couples. Beds, the ultimate symbolic domain of a couple’s intimacy, are here positioned as close as they can possibly be without giving either couple a clear view of the other’s lived reality. It ensures that the comparison will be looming over them for the whole trip. And to further symbolize the blurring of the couples’ intimate lives and the breach of privacy, we have the adjoining door connecting the two hotel suites, which serves as a Chekhov’s Gun for Harper’s later infidelity.

At first, Harper is the person most distressed by this door. She wants a clear and inviolable boundary that keeps the Sullivans’ world separate from her own. As far as she’s concerned, she and Ethan aren’t like the Sullivans and she doesn’t want to be like them. But why is Harper threatened by Cameron and Daphne? Harper is desperate to convince herself that their playfulness is insincere, and must be a sign that underneath, the Sullivans’ relationship is hollow. She has to believe this because of the way the Sullivans’ affectionate behavior shines a light on her own sexless relationship. It’s important to establish here that just because the Spiller’s marriage is sexless, that doesn’t mean it’s loveless. Ethan and Harper love each other, and their relationship itself is never in question. Love, in fact, isn’t a theme at all in The White Lotus season two. It’s all about sex.

And it’s an important distinction to make in my opinion. Harper and Ethan love each other, but the spark of physical attraction is gone. While next door the Sullivans wrestle and banter, the Spillers sit stiffly upright in bed, a wide space between them, reading glasses on as they’re absorbed in their books rather than each other, with nary so much as a dry, chaste kiss on the cheek before going to sleep. Harper doesn’t want Ethan to tell her that he loves her- she wants him to tell her she’s beautiful. While a sexless marriage can be a symptom of a loveless one, it isn’t necessarily so. One can exist without the other, whether it’s two people that don’t love each other anymore that still have an active sex life, or two people that don’t have sex but love each other deeply and are happy with the way things are. It all depends on the root cause. And in the case of the Spillers, it’s clear that the cause isn’t a diminished libido. If Ethan simply didn’t have much of a sex drive, I don’t think it would bother Harper that much. It certainly wouldn’t make her cripplingly anxious. But Harper can see that Ethan’s libido is very much intact, as she finds him furiously masturbating whilst watching porn on his laptop. This then makes her feel as though she is the reason for their sexless marriage, and Ethan does nothing to assuage this self-doubt when he rebuffs her advances. Harper’s anxiety is no doubt influenced by larger forces- that sense one gets in their thirties of no longer being truly young anymore, the way women are conditioned in our culture to try to stay beautiful, the way pop culture encourages us to fret about how much sex we’re having, et cetera.

Harper furthermore feels like a protagonist in that she’s inducted into the art of sexual politics by Daphne. She realizes that the only way she can get Ethan to pay attention to her is by making him jealous, and I can’t help but feel that the reason she hooks up with Cameron is because she senses that he and Ethan aren’t, in fact, as different from one another as she previously assumed. It’s left up to interpretation what exactly happened between Harper and Cameron, but I don’t think it matters. We know for sure that something happened, and whether that something was “just a kiss” or something more doesn’t matter- the impact on Ethan and Harper’s relationship is the same. I don’t think viewers should be going on deep dives of “What Really Happened Between Harper and Cameron?”. If the specifics of their sexual encounter were relevant, it would have been included in the show. What viewers should be asking- what the show wants us to ask- is more abstract. And that is: where does a relationship go from here? I think what you draw from the ending of Harper and Ethan’s storyline is up to you. Personally, I didn’t watch the revival of the Spillers’ sex life as a happy ending. I’m not sure if we’re meant to take it a certain way to be honest. It seemed to me that they had rediscovered what they wanted, but at the cost of something else, and it’s left ambiguous as to whether this trade-off will make them happy in the long term.


The sexual politics of jealousy

I think it’s telling that when the season begins, it’s Harper that seems distressed by the adjoining door while Ethan seems comfortable with it, and yet by the end of the season, it’s actually Harper that fires Chekhov’s Gun (fulfilling the promise of the door) and it’s Ethan that’s most tormented at the idea of it being used. In this way, I see Ethan’s character arc as the consequences of his inability to let go of his competitive obsession with Cameron. Despite doing very well for himself since leaving education all those years ago- establishing a successful career in the tech industry and marrying a nice person that evidently loves him- Ethan is still not satisfied. As much as his life on the outside has changed, internally he’s still Cameron’s college roommate.

He’s still emasculated by Cameron, even after not seeing him for years, and he doesn’t feel like he can be truly happy until he has definitively reversed that. I don’t think Ethan is consciously thinking these things at all- I imagine that when Cameron reached out to him and they reconnected, when they then organized the vacation together, that Ethan felt happy. My take is that over the course of the vacation, Ethan gradually becomes aware of his resentment of Cameron. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of people having a significant person from their formative years (be it a sibling, a teacher, a coach, a bully, a first love, an unrequited crush, a rival, or indeed a roommate) that maintains power over them long after the relationship has expired. I think Ethan probably jumped at the chance to renew his old relationship with Cameron, because deep down he still longs to be able to outcompete him somehow.

This seems most apparent in the scene where Ethan and Cameron are playing chicken with the jet skis in episode 3. Both men are exactly where they want to be- no women around and focused solely on competing with each other. Neither man has moved on since his youth. Cameron enjoys habitually outcompeting other men to feel powerful, and Ethan yearns to be able to outcompete Cameron as he was never able to in college. It’s as though Ethan’s entrepreneurial success isn’t a means to move forward to somewhere new, but rather the means with which he can return to his past and rewrite the narrative that makes him feel small.

Nonetheless, Ethan does not like to think of himself as being anything like Cameron. He, more than anyone, resents Cameron’s infidelity. But despite being aware of exactly who Cameron is, Ethan jumps at the chance to reconnect with him, because he can’t let him go. The shadow of his college roommate will maintain a hold on him forever, unless he can somehow reverse his inferiority complex. The tragedy of Ethan Spiller is that in doing this, he becomes the very person he despises. By the end of the season, he has both reignited his sex life with Harper and reversed his inferiority complex with Cameron. On the surface, it’s exactly what he could have wanted. But like all classic tragedies, the success comes at an unexpected cost. To feel like he has definitively outcompeted him, Ethan has to do to Cameron what Cameron has always done to him- that is to say, cuckold him. While the two men might appear different at the beginning of the season, it becomes apparent that their treatment of women is the same. For them, women are objects that reflect their own status as men- objects to be acquired and conquered. Neither man is truly focused on his wife at all. They are far more focused on each other. Ethan’s sexual failures in college made him feel like less of a man, and when Harper confesses to having a sexual encounter with Cameron, Ethan feels that sharp sense of humiliation once again. His reaction isn’t to reflect on what this means for his marriage, but rather to obsess over what this means for his manhood. It illustrates well how “Nice Guys” and nerds are governed by the same patriarchal forces as their more assertive and brutish counterparts, and that under these forces, their sense of self-esteem is inextricably attached to the women they are able to control. Ethan engages in a sexual encounter with Daphne, which he sees as undermining Cameron’s control over her, and which ultimately restores his sense of manhood.

However, by cuckolding Cameron, he establishes a precedent for infidelity in his own marriage; opening a door that can’t be closed again. It doesn’t matter that Ethan isn’t a cheater by nature; nature or conditioning, the end result is just the same. We know this because it echoes Daphne’s past. Daphne never wanted a life of adultery. But after discovering Cameron’s own infidelity, she seeks a sexual relationship with her personal trainer. I imagine that she didn’t just go out and sleep with this guy as soon as she learned her husband was unfaithful. More likely, it happened in increments and escalated from there. No doubt, she told herself in the beginning that she wasn’t that type of person. But she became that type of person, and I think we’re meant to take that as an implication that Ethan and Harper will gradually become that kind of person too.

My interpretation of the Spillers’ ending is that, were Ethan to have rejected the opportunity to let Cameron back into his life, then there’s a good chance he and Harper would have stayed faithful to each other. That’s not to say things would have been perfect, as they still would have had to confront their diminished physical attraction for one another, but it would have been different. It’s Cameron- and the sexual power over Ethan that he has- that ultimately awakens something in the Spillers that, on its own, would have in all likelihood remained dormant.


The sexual politics of empowerment

Daphne ended up being one of the most fascinating characters of the season for me, and perhaps the character who embodies the theme of sexual politics more than anyone. I thought that Meghann Fahy did such an incredible job, especially in that scene right at the end where we get a close up of her face as Ethan tells her that something happened between Harper and Cameron. This scene is very important, as it tells us so much about Daphne and her relationship with Cameron. Chiefly, that it’s nuanced. The Sullivan’s marriage is neither loveless nor sexless. They have great chemistry and obviously enjoy each other’s company. And yet, despite all of this, they habitually cheat on each other. They don’t have an open relationship, as I’ve seen some commenters mistakenly claim, because an open relationship requires consent. There’s no evidence that Cameron is aware of his wife’s infidelity, and given the way he embodies patriarchal values in the show (which historically have had double standards regarding sexual agency), I very much doubt he’d be cool with it.

My reading is that when Cameron is focused on his wife and kids, he’s a great partner and father. I think he probably swept Daphne off her feet when they first met, and that in the beginning of their relationship things seemed too good to be true. I think when Cameron’s around, he makes his family feel like he’s fully present, that there’s no space for anything else in his world except them. But when he’s not home, I bet he’s not thinking about Daphne or the kids at all. I think of him as someone that sees only what’s right in front of him, and that it doesn’t even occur to him that Daphne could have a sex life that doesn’t involve him. Given all of the commentary on the competitive, prideful nature of masculinity in the show, I think Cameron would take his wife’s infidelity as a very painful wound to his ego. Whilst The White Lotus doesn’t excuse the misdeeds of its male characters, it does imply that they are, to some extent, imprisoned by the patriarchal mindset.

Daphne, however, is driven by different sociological forces. What’s so interesting about Daphne is that she’s aware of Cameron’s infidelity, is hurt by it, but loves him nonetheless. The banter and public displays of affection aren’t fake, as Harper was desperate to believe. But the Sullivans’ relationship is far from perfect. There is pain- but it coexists with genuine love and genuine happiness. That’s what makes it so nuanced. Daphne even gives us a rationale for her marriage, arguing that you don’t have to know someone completely in order to love them. She’s accepted that there’s a part of Cameron’s world that doesn’t involve her, and counteracted this by creating a world for herself that doesn’t involve him.

Whether Daphne’s rationale is healthy is a matter of debate. A darker reading of her character could interpret her behavior as being demonstrative of the psychoanalytical concept of “avoidance coping”. I’m pretty confident that Daphne is not a cheater by nature, and that all she ever wanted was a monogamous relationship with Cameron; that, unlike him, she never wanted anything more than their life together. So perhaps, in this darker reading, she puts his infidelity out of mind as much as possible, and only has sex with her personal trainer when Cameron does something that compromises that perfect image. Perhaps having sex with her personal trainer doesn’t make her happy at all, but she does it because she’s mirroring her husband’s behavior. In this reading, Daphne is convincing herself that she’s happy, that mirroring his misdeeds ensures their relationship’s functionality, and that the reason she suggests Harper get herself a “trainer” is that she hopes that it will make her own relationship feel more normal if Harper does so too. Alternatively, a more charitable reading of Daphne’s rationale is that she isn’t in denial, and that despite the way Cameron’s indiscretions hurt her, she has simply weighed up that on balance she would still be happier with him than without him. Given Daphne’s interesting speech in episode 3 that she “feels sorry for men”, implying that they can’t escape their patriarchal conditioning (which also echoes Bert’s “Achilles’ Cock” joke), it could be that she believes his pursuit of other women to be a byproduct of his masculinity. In this reading, Daphne wholeheartedly believes that Cameron loves her as much as he is capable of loving anyone, and that the idea of strict monogamy is an unnatural fantasy. In this reading, she treats his infidelity as a license to explore sexual adventures that would otherwise have remained benign curiosities for her, and these encounters give her a sense of agency and ownership over her life.

Either way, it’s clear that Daphne has decided she would rather live with Cameron (despite the hurt) than without him. She could easily find a monogamous relationship with someone else if she wanted to- but she doesn’t want to. She’s not trapped in her marriage in any way, and there’s no indication whatsoever that she’s afraid of Cameron, or that he is anything but a loving partner when he’s actually around. It’s very much her conscious, purposeful decision to stay with him, and in the end we are left to assume that Daphne’s life will remain unchanged; a series of peaks and troughs as her otherwise happy marriage is punctuated by instances of emotional pain. Whether or not you believe Daphne’s rationale is emotionally healthy, it’s clear that having sex with her trainer is a way of ensuring that she’s not a passive trophy wife in the wake of her husband’s infidelity. There is empowerment in the fact that she’s not simply waiting for him to come home when he’s out there doing whatever he likes. In this sense, she avoids living the life of Bert Di Grasso’s late wife.

When Ethan informs her that Cameron and Harper had a sexual encounter, you can tell from Daphne’s expression that the pain she feels is a familiar one. She’s not shocked. She takes a moment to swallow the pain before taking action. If we take the darker version of her rationale, she initiates a sexual encounter with Ethan to ensure that his marriage with Harper resembles her own, rather than the marriage she wishes she had. It puts me in mind of the bully at school that knows that smoking is bad for him, so he forces the other kid to smoke too because he doesn’t want to be alone in his self-destruction. He knowingly and bitterly spreads a bad habit because it hurts him to see the other kid’s life in order. If we take the more sympathetic version of Daphne’s rationale however, then she initiates a sexual encounter with Ethan because she pities him the way she pities all men, and genuinely believes that she can ease his pain. In this scenario, having sex with other people relieves the pain of being cheated on, and she wants to teach Ethan the power of this relief. Once again, I’m puzzled when I see sensationalist headlines such as “What REALLY Happened Between Ethan and Daphne?”. Even though we don’t see what takes place on Isola Bella, we have enough contextual clues to figure it out ourselves. It disappoints me when audiences want plot events spelled out for them, because it can only result in media lacking in any kind of subtlety. Sometimes it’s much more powerful not to show a certain event taking place, and The White Lotus is a show that trusts in the intelligence of its viewers. I don’t think anyone’s under the impression that Ethan and Daphne went there to trade Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and so the lack of viable alternatives means that visual clarification isn’t necessary. I think viewers engage with the overarching themes much more when a story allows them to use their imagination to put the pieces together. You become an active participant in the story, rather than a passive observer that’s spoon-fed a plot’s events.

For Daphne, sex is the means by which she reverses an unequal power dynamic. This is encapsulated no better than by the reveal that she’s having Cameron raise the offspring of the man she cuckolded him with, something that’s hinted at by the fresco of the two babies in Meghann Fahy’s title card.


The sexual politics of power

There are characters like Albie, Harper, and Valentina to whom we get a sense of their inner lives. They’re dynamic and three-dimensional. Then there are characters like Greg, Isabella, and Giuseppe whose inner lives are closed off to us, but who are there to serve a function in the plot. Cameron falls into the latter category. He’s an important character narratively speaking, but he’s a character that I’d wager most viewers never felt very close to. We get precious little insight into his perspective, and he doesn’t have any kind of arc. But he’s important because he’s the catalyst for everything that happens in the Spiller-Sullivan storyline.

He’s the one that reaches out to Ethan and suggests the vacation. He’s the one that makes sexual overtures towards Harper, that she later reciprocates. And he’s the one who determines Ethan and Daphne’s sexual politics; their values, motivations, and actions all being reactions to Cameron’s misdeeds.

I see Cameron as a sharklike persona with an insatiable appetite for consumption. Whether it’s money, sex, or material luxury, he can never get enough. His focus is always on acquiring more, and he goes about his pursuits with the ease of one who has never been excluded. Given our lack of information about Cameron’s past, we have free reign to imagine what factors conditioned him into this persona that’s never content and always focused on what he doesn’t have. He’s not old enough to be a Gekko-esque yuppie and he’s not young enough to have been shaped by manosphere podcasts, so I choose to believe that Cameron is actually a reaction to a patriarchal father figure that embodied or espoused traditional views of the masculine ideal. Perhaps someone like Bert Di Grasso.

But whereas Bert Di Grasso’s late wife was left disempowered and broken by her husband’s infidelity, the same is not true for Cameron’s. Cameron uses sex to exercise power over others, but the truth is that he doesn’t have the power over his life that he thinks he has. It’s heavily implied that his two kids were actually fathered by Daphne’s personal trainer. Daphne has the power to reveal this anytime she pleases, perhaps if he hurts her in a way that she judges to be too much, and in so doing she would completely undermine any claim he has to that traditional sense of masculine pride. Daphne is empowered because she knows she has that nuclear option at her disposal if ever she needs it.

I think it’s clear that Cameron is completely unaware of this. The interesting dark look he has while brushing his teeth in the final episode is reflective of something else though. It implies that he finds domestic life boring and exhausting, which would explain better why he feels an added need to feel powerful when on vacation. It could be implied that Cameron and Ethan are both still boys at heart- that they long to be out chasing thrills and outcompeting one another to escape for a while the inexorable march of middle age. Let me know in the comments if you interpreted his subtle frown another way, as it is easily Cameron’s most fascinating scene.

Despite being confronted several times by Harper and Ethan, and having referenced workplace harassment complaints against him, Cameron never seems to reflect on his behavior. In the season finale the consequences of his actions literally hit him in the face, but we’re given no indication of any character development on his part. You would think almost being drowned by your friend whilst on vacation together would be cause for some reflection, but he just shrugs it off as a normal hazard of his lifestyle and makes a toast about what a sick trip it was.

To me, Cameron embodies the sexual politics of power. It’s not so much sex in and of itself, but the acquisition of sex- just like the acquisition of money, a successful hunt- that makes him feel powerful. And it’s the chase and subsequent catch that makes him feel truly alive.


The sexual politics of loneliness

Like all of the characters in this season, sexual politics plays a significant role in Tanya’s arc. And what’s interesting about Tanya is that her arc seems to continue where it left off in season one, where it tied into themes of white privilege and social class. Tanya’s far and away the wealthiest character in The White Lotus, and easily the most selfish. Both seasons show how being born into a life of obscene wealth has facilitated this persona that’s neurotic, oblivious, and completely lacking in empathy. But while she’s self-centered, she’s not malicious. Tanya’s neither a good person nor a bad person, and it would be an insult to the show’s writers to view her through that lens. What I love about the show- and both seasons did this- is that it gives us little insights into the factors that made its characters the way they are. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but it helps us understand them and even sympathize with them. And Tanya (despite her treatment of Belinda in season one) is a sympathetic character. We can see that she’s desperate for affection, but her wealth seems to be a barrier to achieving meaningful connection. People look at her and see a dollar sign.

At the end of season one, she’s so excited when Greg enters her life and shows her all this interest and affection. But, as we know now, he wasn’t really interested in her as a person. It’s the sad truth that her profile is such that this seems to be an inevitable pattern- she’s so rich that people can’t not see her family name. Tanya’s someone whose material wealth is offset by her emotional poverty- and season two does a great job of getting us to sympathize with this loneliness. She’s never had to struggle for anything, and therefore she has this childlike naivety that contrasts with the street-smarts of characters like Lucia. This leaves her vulnerable to people that want to exploit her, as she’s so desperate for affection that she is easily charmed. We see it in season one with Greg and in season two with Quentin.

My first prediction was that Quentin was charming her in order to get funding for his villa, and that the purpose of this arc would be to facilitate Tanya’s realization that she was a prisoner of her wealth, unable to achieve true intimacy. My second prediction (after the reveal of the old photo of Greg at the villa) was that Quentin was trying to get evidence of Tanya being unfaithful, and that this would help Greg get a hold of her fortune during divorce proceedings. Ultimately, it’s revealed that the plan is for Quentin to have Tanya assassinated by the mafia, which would then allow Greg to inherit her vast wealth. That makes perfect sense, but what didn’t make sense to me was why they didn’t just kill Tanya on the initial boat ride to Palermo. Why go through the rigmarole of taking her to the opera, throwing her a lavish party, and seducing her? In retrospect it’s like Greg asked them to give her a lovely send-off to ease his guilt about having her whacked. Possibly the presence of Portia had something to do with it, but I don’t see why they would have any qualms about capping her too. It’s left up to interpretation as to whether Jack was meant to kill Portia, or perhaps drive her to a location where the mafia would kill her instead. Either way, I don’t think she complicates things too much. Let me know in the comments if you think I missed something here or if you can think of a rationale for Quentin going about things the way he did.

As I said, I didn’t necessarily expect the dead body to be Tanya until the reveal of Greg’s photo at Quentin’s villa, but in retrospect I can see that the signs were there right from the beginning. There’s Tanya’s vision of being surrounded by men with “effeminate hairstyles” among whom Greg is standing with “shark eyes”, the tarot reader that warns her she’ll kill herself, the many paintings depicting female martyrs, the fact that she dresses as the deceased 1960s icon Monica Vitti (suggesting she’s past her time), the way Quentin likens her to “a tragic heroine in a Puccini opera”, Quentin’s story about the wealthy Swedish matriarch that gets murdered by the mafia after refusing to sell her villa on Isola Bella, the fact that in the last episode Tanya is wearing the same outfit as the mannequin of Apollonia Corleone we see in episode 3, the fresco in the opening credits depicting a boat sailing toward a burning villa (foreshadowing the boat taking Tanya toward danger). I think Tanya’s death is both tragic and fitting. It pays off what Tanya said in season one about death being “the last immersive experience” she has yet to try. And it’s tragic because she died as she lived- defined by her wealth. In the end her wealth kills her and she dies alone.

Sex, in Tanya’s storyline, is used as a means to catch her off-guard. She feels sure that Greg is cheating, and just like with the Spillers and the Sullivans, this sets a precedent for infidelity in the marriage. Tanya’s loneliness and need for sexual validation makes her an easy target for Quentin, who disarms her with an “extremely well-hung heterosexual”. Once again, Tanya is excited at the idea of being seen and valued as a person, and once again they’re not looking at her or valuing her as a person at all. She’s a dollar sign to them. Tanya’s tragic fate as the passive “doll” (to use her own word) left in the wake of men’s wolfish desires is foreshadowed by the fresco that appears by Jennifer Coolidge’s name in the opening titles. We see a lonesome woman trapped in a tower, being pulled through a window by a chained monkey. Apparently, chained monkeys are a trope used throughout art history to symbolize “men entrapped within their own sexual desire”. This absolutely rings true for Tanya’s plotline, be it the orgiastic hedonism of the Palermo villa or the fact that Quentin is a slave to his unrequited love for Greg. It also reflects the metaphorical “Achilles Cock” we see in the men of the other plotlines, such as Cameron, Albie, and Dominic.

For Tanya, sex represents her desire for meaningful connection, which is ultimately exploited by the men around her and leads to her demise.


The sexual politics of escapism

For Portia, sex represents an escape from hyperreality and a yearning for real connection. When I say “real connection” here, I’m not referring to a deep connection, like love or something, I’m just referring to a connection that feels natural. Portia, by her own admission, is chronically-online. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital world has functioned as a stand-in for the real one, and this has taken a toll on her mental health. Portia is a relatable character for a lot of us; a lack of human contact and an excess of internet usage has left her feeling confused, depressed, and hollow. I can certainly relate to that hollowness a lot- after seeing the real world in the form of news stories, social media posts, or online comments for so long, you begin to feel less real yourself. You get a sense that real life is happening out there somewhere, and that’s where you should be, rather than scrolling through other people’s Instagram posts or horrific news stories in your room. Portia wants to unplug from the digital world and return to the pre-pandemic one. And if you think about it, sex is the ultimate way to do that.

Sex- and everything that goes with it- is the exact inverse of being online. Where one sees you engaging with life vicariously, getting a curated impression of other people’s experiences, interacting only with usernames and avatars, the other sees you engaging directly with other people in a way that’s natural, physiological, and without any hyperreal artifice. The internet adds layers of artifice over the truth, whereas sex is the act that sees us the most vulnerable and unrefined. Portia, put simply, just wants to feel alive again. She doesn’t like her job, but it ends up providing her with an opportunity for a social media detox with a trip to Sicily. Who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to go to Sicily after being stuck indoors during a global pandemic?

When we understand Portia’s need for an escape, it makes sense why she rejects Albie in favor of Jack. In Albie she sees a reminder of the digital world she’s trying to escape. Firstly, his language (just like the language of social media) is very curated; it’s articulate but unnatural. Secondly, he speaks in absolute terms, such as his telling remark “I refuse to have a bad relationship with women”. This reflects the way online discourse tends towards a black-and-white worldview- because it’s taking place in the abstract world of hyperreality, and the real world, the world where theory becomes practice, is nuanced. Thirdly, his chosen conversation topics include subjects like gender politics and societal issues, which remind Portia of the online world she is trying to escape. In contrast, Jack comes across as a lot more authentic. His language feels less rehearsed and he doesn’t seem to be adjusting his personality for her. The takeaway here isn’t the common misconception that being nice is bad, and therefore that its opposite- being mean- is good. It’s that Albie’s “niceness” comes across as inauthentic. And what I mean by that isn’t that Albie is knowingly deceiving Portia, or even that he isn’t a nice person. It’s that the energy he gives off is too reactive- constantly maintaining eye contact, always smiling, nodding at everything she says, being overly-deferential- and this conveys that he is seeking something from Portia. More often than not, people can tell if someone’s not being transparent, and women are used to men trying to say all the “right” things because they want to have sex with them.

Jack doesn’t hide his sexual interest in Portia, but unlike Albie he doesn’t seem as if he’s seeking her approval. He gives the impression of being grounded in his own energy and saying what’s on his mind, which conveys a strong sense of self-confidence. Of course, we later learn that Jack is a male escort that’s been specifically tasked by Quentin to distract Portia. So while he isn’t actually being genuine, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he seems genuine. Jack carries a detached air about him that Albie does not, and exploits this to great effect. Put simply, Jack is better at playing the game of sexual politics. But that makes sense- whereas Albie is a naïve college student from a wealthy family, Jack is a streetwise escort whose lifestyle (just like Lucia and Mia’s) is based on a mastery of sexual politics.

We know that Portia was predisposed to picking Jack from the scene earlier in the season where she’s having dinner with Albie and she outlines the type of guy she’s looking for. Portia outright friendzones Albie by describing someone that’s pointedly not like him, saying she’s looking for someone that’s completely disengaged from “the discourse”. This, we have to remember, is reflective of Portia’s post-pandemic state of mind. She’s not looking for a long-term partner. She’s someone that’s spent a long time feeling isolated, miserable, and- above all- bored. Therefore, she’s looking for a heady summer fling. She wants to get lost in the present and escape from the depressing issues of the modern world, something that everyone is entitled to. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the serious and sophisticated issues that Albie brings up in conversation, it’s that she’s had those issues pumped into her head 24/7 from social media during the pandemic, and she wants to use Sicily to unplug from them for a while. In that sense, there is a parallel between Portia and Tanya in that they both willingly give themselves over to this intoxicating Sicilian fantasy (albeit for different reasons). Jack represents this fantasy to Portia, being someone who seems completely disengaged from the world at large, who seems as much a part of Sicily as the olive trees and the hot sun. In that way he’s just the last part of the summer vacation fantasy checklist, not a real person so much as a generic hunk. He’s everything that the post-pandemic Portia needs him to be in that moment: playful, impulsive, and roguish. He has a rough edge to him that contrasts with Albie’s carefully-affected persona. I think there might be something in there about the innate folly of chasing perfection. Of course, you can try and smooth those rough edges as best you can, but real perfection does not- can never- exist in a human being, and so despite trying so damn hard, Albie’s imperfections rise to the surface nonetheless.

Portia’s plotline, just like Tanya’s, sees her gradual awakening to the hollowness of the fantasy. After initially being swept off her feet by Jack, she begins to cool off after spending more time with him. The fantasy, just like all fantasies, cannot last forever, and as she begins to pick up on Jack’s lived reality, she detaches from her vacation mindset. We see this in the scene where they are talking at the Palermo harborside and Portia’s mind returns to the world at large, initiating the kind of conversation Albie so often did earlier in the season. Jack displays a lack of curiosity in world issues, opting instead to focus on the here and now. At the time, this is meant to show that despite their initial electric chemistry, the two of them aren’t a match for the long-term. But in retrospect, this scene takes on a kind of poignancy, as we realize that Jack’s philosophy of living moment-to-moment in the continuous pursuit of thrills and sensual pleasures is actually the product of a general unhappiness. Jack is in many ways a dark contrast to Lucia; he plies the same trade but does so from a position of weakness rather than power. The details are left vague, but we know that Jack’s lifestyle doesn’t bring him the agency that it does Lucia, and by all accounts he looks trapped by it. So he takes risks, lives indulgently, and doesn’t waste time thinking about sociopolitical issues. In that way, Jack is a part of Sicily, but not metaphorically as the generic hunk of Portia’s “Hot Girl Summer” fantasy, but in a far more literal sense, as he is seemingly unable to find a way out of its organized crime scene.

Just as Lucia uses sex to fool Albie, so too does Jack to fool Portia. And so, Portia ends the season in much the same place as Albie- ruing her naivety.

Bert, Dominic, & Albie Di Grasso

The sexual politics of masculinity

The Di Grasso men could be a whole blog post in and of themselves. I’ve grouped them together in this section because of the way their relationships with sex are tied inextricably to their sense of masculinity. Internally, each of the Di Grasso men is a reaction to his father’s treatment of women, but how this is expressed externally is reflective of the prevailing cultural attitudes of their respective generations.

Bert represents a pre-feminist masculinity that’s very much been left behind by our modern ideas about gender roles. He belongs to a time wherein those roles were fixed, where men and women had very distinct expectations about how to behave, and where there was no discourse about said expectations. The legal system was such that women were made very dependent on men, and therefore had no leverage to call upon when mistreated by them. Given the longevity of the patriarchal framework, Bert likely saw his concept of masculinity as natural and immutable, in that “boys will be boys” kinda mindset. So he went about life sleeping with any woman that took his fancy, while his wife suffered in silence. We can infer from his comments that his womanizing behavior was a part of his “nature”, that is: the nature of all men. He likely never thought about the impact on his wife’s mental health; like all the men before him, he expected her to be there for him and when he came home.

Dominic, on the other hand, represents the subtler masculinity of Generation X. He would have grown up alongside women with a much greater sense of agency, who- in the wake of the sociopolitical movements of the 60s and 70s- would have had new expectations regarding relationships. Unlike Dominic’s mother, these women would have had much greater bargaining power, and therefore boundaries he would have learned to accept. Therefore, Dominic is a lot more savvy in his approach to women, even though he repeats his father’s womanizing behavior. Unlike Bert, Dominic seems to consider his words, and tries to maintain a clean image in public. He’s quite an interesting character because his actions don’t align with his words. It’s like there’s a conflict between his overall, long-term desires and his moment-to-moment, short-term desires- the same way the things we really want can get displaced by the things we want right now. He hates that he isn’t the man he wants to be, and yet he can’t seem to help himself around women. Like the chained monkey in Jennifer’s Coolidge’s title card, he’s entrapped by his sexual desires. Dominic himself believes that his philandering behavior is pathological- and blames his sex addiction on the poor example that Bert showed him growing up. My reading is that he probably repressed how much he resented the way Bert treated his mother, and only in the wake of hurting his own wife has become conscious of it. I get the feeling that when we meet Dominic in the show, he’s in a phase where he’s actually reflecting on his actions for the first time now that his life is seemingly falling apart. Of the three Di Grasso men, Dominic seems the most troubled yet the most self-aware.

As for Albie, he too is a reaction to his father’s mistreatment of women, and the way this reaction manifests is also informed by the era in which he grew up. Albie represents a sect of Generation Z men that are characterized by a need to define themselves in contrast to “toxic masculinity” and the kind of men held to account in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Unlike his father and grandfather’s generations, Albie has grown up in a time where there is an unprecedented amount of discourse on gender roles. So not only is he well-informed- in a way that Dominic and Bert never were- but Albie feels a deep, personal investment in the #MeToo discourse. As we know, the single most important fact about Albie’s character is his relationship with his mother- whom we never see, but nonetheless casts a shadow over the whole season. Albie sees the suffering of his mother in the suffering of other women, be it the stories he reads online, the discussions he has with the women in his life, or perhaps the classes he takes at college. Whereas Dominic was unable to protect his mother from Bert’s misdeeds (most likely due to the greater deference shown to one’s elders in his time, and also perhaps the greater prevalence of physical punishment), Albie belongs to an era where it is much more common to challenge one’s parents. We know that Albie is so affected by his mother’s suffering that he ends up projecting it onto every woman he meets. When he confesses to Portia that he’s drawn to “wounded birds”, he’s essentially saying that whenever he sees a woman in some kind of distress, it becomes another chance to save his mother. His Oedipus Complex ties nicely into the many allusions to Greek tragedy in the show, as he (along with the likes of Ethan and Tanya) completes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how does all this play out in the show? Bert and Dominic don’t have much in the way of character development, which is a shame since F. Murray Abraham and Michael Imperioli are both such incredible actors. They exist largely as foils for Albie. Just as with the first season, The White Lotus doesn’t see its characters change all that much. Many of them don’t learn the lessons they should, despite the way their week of disequilibrium reflects their flaws back at them. Aside from the thematic purpose this serves, it’s also a simple necessity of the fact that we have a large cast of characters and the time that passes in-universe is no more than a week. When I think back to significant events in my own life, I know it took me a long time to internalize the lessons they had for me. So while I didn’t expect a major character transformation for either Bert or Dominic, I just wish they hadn’t faded from the plot as the season went on.

I believe that with the Di Grassos, we the audience are meant to think about the various ways they are alike and unlike at the same time. They’re not quite the same, but there is a generational through-line. All three men seem obsessed with women in a way that’s inextricable from their sense of masculinity. Their sense of manhood is very much dependent on the validation of women. Even Bert, who we know exerted power over women throughout his life, is nonetheless subject to the power that women have over him emotionally. We see this in the scene where he tearfully explains that at the end of the day, all men long for “the embrace of a woman” that “tells you you’ve done alright”. That’s the validation the Di Grassos need, which women can convey to them in various ways. This seems to be echoed by Albie’s need for Portia, Lucia, and his mother to see him as a good person, as distinctly unlike the men who hurt them. As for Dominic, he seems to get this validation from being a good husband to his wife and a good father to his daughter. With them having cut him off for his philandering behavior, he doesn’t have that validating “embrace” Bert describes that he can go home to. Many commentators have drawn parallels between Bert’s speech to nostos– the theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature, as exemplified by The Odyssey. This is further reflected by the genealogical homecoming the Di Grasso men attempt which ultimately ends in failure. The three Sicilian women they meet (each of which mirroring them in age) deny them the welcome befitting Greek heroes returning home from the Trojan War. This too, is mired in sex. The homecoming is the climax, and the rejection of the “embrace” Bert longed for is an act of castration against the Di Grasso men. And that’s because the Di Grasso men aren’t heroes- they’re real people whose treatment of women has real consequences.

One gets the sense that for the Di Grassos, they cannot feel like men unless women make them feel like men. And they are forever chasing that validation, which more often than not comes in the form of sex. And when I say sex (as well as the other references to it in this post), I’m not just referring to the physical act of intercourse- but everything that goes with it. Experiences can be sexual without containing the act itself. For example, with Bert, it usually takes the form of flirtatious conversation. The scene where he is deeply moved by Mia’s piano playing is very much a sexual experience for him, and you can definitely think of that scene as being analogous to the one where Lucia gives Albie a blowjob. In both cases, they feel validated as men. They feel seen, they feel powerful, and they feel like they’re not alone. The White Lotus illustrates well that just as women can be exploited or mistreated by men, they have it within them to reverse the power dynamic.

I really enjoyed these characters and thought they were fascinating to watch. I would say Albie was the most interesting character in the season for me, and certainly the one I thought most about. It would be a great disservice to Mike White to reduce Albie to terms like “creep” or “toxic”. To do so would be to repeat Albie’s chronically-online mistakes of viewing the world in absolute terms. More than anything, he’s just naïve. His awkward comments about “refusing” to have a bad relationship with women and being “drawn to wounded birds” are the result of trying too hard to convince Portia that he’s a good person, when he should simply try to be a good person in his actions. You can’t control the perception that people have of you- ultimately they are going to write that narrative themselves. But trying to do so is such a fundamentally human impulse, and one that is so characteristic of young people. That’s why he’s sympathetic. Portia herself isn’t creeped out by him- she just finds his approach clumsy. But those kinds of social blunders are somewhat endemic to young people who don’t know yet how to be themselves, and I’m always sympathetic to flawed young characters in coming-of-age narratives. Cognitive dissonance is a real thing- and Albie is a fascinating example of that. He chastises his father for trying to buy his mother’s affections with a piece of expensive jewelry, but later begs him for a casual $50k so that he can “save” Lucia (essentially buying affection himself). In offering to persuade his mother to give Dominic another chance, he throws her under the bus- and fails to live up to his own standards. He’s someone I could imagine writing a dissertation on how to be a good male feminist and getting an A+, but doesn’t realize that theoretical understanding doesn’t translate to practical allyship.

Like Oedipus, everything he does feels foreordained- from hurting his mother to being blinded by his own sexual urges. By the end of the trip he shows himself to be more like his father and grandfather than he imagines, despite his best efforts to define himself against them.

Lucia & Mia

The sexual politics of ambition

Lucia and Mia are two of the biggest winners from this season, and sexual politics is the key to their success. There is a lot of confusion and misinterpretation among the characters of The White Lotus; be it Albie trying to figure out what Portia wants, Valentina misinterpreting Isabella’s friendliness, or Ethan and Harper constantly failing to understand one another. Lucia and Mia, however, are the two characters that best understand what drives those around them. In many ways they’re the opposite of Tanya; far from being absorbed in their own selfish concerns, they pay attention to the people around them, get a reading on their emotional lives, and exploit this to their advantage. For Lucia and Mia, sexual politics is a means to self-possession. Only through empathizing with others can they manifest a life on their own terms.

They understand the power of their own sexuality and leverage that power to secure the life they want. Sex as a transaction is a major theme of the season, and nowhere is this theme more evident than in the storylines of Lucia and Mia. Nothing that Dominic, Albie, or Valentina says or does comes as a surprise to them. They have no doubt seen or heard it before. Whether it’s the need to be seen, the need to feel powerful, or the need to connect, they understand the desires of men and women intimately. Sexual politics is very much a part of their day-to-day lives.

That’s not to say that there’s no nuance to their character arcs, however. Mia’s primary objective is to secure a career as a singer- but that doesn’t mean she sleeps with Valentina begrudgingly. By all accounts she seems to empathize with her and appears genuinely happy to help her. When Giuseppe offers to help Mia earlier, Mia doesn’t jump blindly at the opportunity. She is careful to make the transaction on her own terms. Be it Giuseppe or Valentina, Mia pays close attention to them and gets an accurate reading on their desires before she acts.

As for Lucia, while she obviously does scam Albie, it’s clear that she struggles with the ethics of her actions. Before she even hooks up with Albie, we see her wrestling with the morality of her lifestyle in the middle of the season. She’s good at what she does because she knows how to make her clients feel like the version of themselves they’ve always wanted to be- but it’s clear in this scene that this takes a toll on her. And when she does successfully scam Albie, her attitude isn’t “lmao fuck you, got mine!”. Her empathy is genuine, even though the scam takes precedence. When she leaves Albie for the final time, having been wired the $50k, you can see in her eyes as she looks back at him that she does care for him. I like when characters in a story are self-aware, especially when they feel two conflicting emotions at the same time. It’s true to real life. With Cameron and Dominic, the transaction is straightforward- Lucia becomes who they need her to be, makes them feel big, and they go their separate ways. With Albie, the performance- whilst still, ultimately, a performance- produces a genuine connection. Albie has a lot of obvious flaws, but he’s not undeserving of sympathy. And I think at her heart, Lucia is a very empathetic person, which makes her so well-rounded rather than being a simple con artist.

Ultimately, for Lucia and Mia, sexual politics is a means to an end. Whether it’s tapping into Dominic’s sex addiction, Albie’s savior complex, or Valentina’s sexual repression, they use sex strategically to redress the gender and economic inequalities that they face.


The sexual politics of transformation

Last but certainly not least, we have Valentina, who probably gets the biggest happy ending of the show (no pun intended). When the show starts, Valentina is a cold, unfriendly, emotionally-unavailable workaholic. We soon learn that her guarded nature is a reflection of her closeted homosexuality. She bitterly resents the happiness of others because it shines a light on what she feels is missing from her own life. As long as she can micromanage her employees into following a strict sense of professionalism, chastising them for having any semblance of fun, then she doesn’t have to confront her own loneliness. Or so she believes.

Although it’s Mia that helps Valentina to overcome her sexual repression, it’s Isabella that begins that process. Isabella- much like Cameron and Greg- serves an important narrative function as the instigator of the plot’s events. She sets things in motion for Valentina with nothing more than her relentless friendliness. Unlike the other employees, Isabella chooses to ignore Valentina’s frosty demeanor. For the first time, Valentina feels seen. Even though it becomes clear that Isabella isn’t available as sexual partner, she allows Valentina to imagine a world where she’s happy. Though initially dejected when she finds out that Isabella’s friendliness is platonic, Valentina is nonetheless on a course toward manifesting her own happiness, and this experiment in daring to dream with Isabella gives her the conviction to accept Mia’s offer.

Isabella doesn’t know it, but she’s helped Valentina achieve happiness. Between Isabella and Mia’s efforts, Valentina feels valued. Having experienced the companionship she craved for so long, she no longer resents it in others. It’s implied at the end that Valentina has become a better person and that the hotel will now become a happier working environment. I know Mia and Lucia have happy endings too, but I don’t think anyone has a more satisfactory conclusion than Valentina.

For Valentina, sex is a gateway to becoming the person she’s always wanted to be.

3 Replies to “Dissecting the Themes of The White Lotus Season 2”

    1. Thank you! I worked hard on this one, so I really appreciate that 🙂


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