The White Lotus season 2: Sex, death and apocalypse collide

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In Rome this summer, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, a strangely invigorating set of bone-encrusted tombs near Piazza Barberini. You enter the first room, and there are only human bones everywhere, elaborately arranged in geometric patterns on the floors, walls, and ceiling. The skeletal paintings are made from the remains of monks – 300 full carts – which were moved to the crypt when their living brothers moved to their new monastery in 1631.

Best of all, which I didn’t expect: the bones are hilarious. These Capuchins were having fun. Jaws and collar bones become appendages of small flying cranial creatures. Skeletons of monks sit around, seeming to laugh to themselves, all on purpose. Sure, it’s spooky, but it’s clunky too. It’s a challenge to stop taking yourself seriously. One day it will be you.

The point of all this, say the Capuchins, is not to frighten visitors, but to serve as an irony memento mori – life is short and fleeting and we are all meant to be skeletons in the ground, which is kind of a cosmic joke. It is a room with much of the enduring late medieval art, from Boccaccio Decameron to the works of Shakespeare, which must be read with an ever-present sense of background plague anxiety. And as with our most recent plague, Italy was one of the first places where the “black death” of the 14th century hit Europe. He wiped out half the inhabitants of the Sicilian towns.

Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Theo James and Meghann Fahy in The White Lotus.
Courtesy of Fabio Lovino/HBO

Sicily is also where series creator Mike White set the second season of The White Lotus, which I have to imagine is not an accident. The first season set aside (with varying degrees of success) the racial and class divisions that come with the lives of the very wealthy. But the second season is far more occupied with mortality — specifically, the restless ways humans try to forget about mortality in a time of apocalypse. Seeing this happen, all we can do is wince and giggle.

The opening credits of The White LotusThe first season of was modeled on wallpaper depicting exotic tropical scenes, fitting popular designs for its Hawaiian setting. The credits for the second season are inspired by Renaissance paintings and, if I’m not mistaken, depictions of the triumph of death. It was a favorite theme of European Renaissance artists, as the threat of apocalyptic plague was ever-present; to live was to think of dying. Might as well face up.

One famous, in particular, comes from Sicily, a fresco by an unknown artist around 1448 which now hangs on a wall in Palermo. In the giant painting, a group of people, including (according to the official description) “noble pleasure-seekers and elegant ladies”, are having fun, partying and hanging out near the Fountain of Youth, seemingly unaware that death – a giant skeleton on a giant skeletal horse – descends on them.

History echoes, and human nature never changes, and so The White LotusThe description of strangely resembles that of the fresco. ‘Noble pleasure-seekers and elegant ladies’, i.e. a group of wealthy Americans and Britons, traveled to a White Lotus resort in Sicily (apparently it’s a resort chain) to spend a week in the sun. The complex itself is located on cliffs overlooking the sea.

There are two wealthy young couples (Theo James and Meghann Fahy, and Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe) having a tense vacation. Three generations of Di Grasso men (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco) are vacationing in the conspicuous absence of female family members, for reasons that begin to unfold shortly after their arrival. And the opulent heiress Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) returns, accompanied by her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Two local girls – sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and aspiring singer Mia (Beatrice Granno) – also lurk around the White Lotus, and a slew of employees are led by harassed manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore).

In Greek mythology, lotus eaters were people who traveled to an island on which a lotus grew, ate it, and forgot everything and everyone off the island. At White Lotus Sicily, people have fun, make love and try to forget the outside world, to exclude all that is beyond the sun, their cocktails and maybe the pretty girl at the end from the bar.

The unconscious mythology of pleasure, implicit in the first season of the series, is more explicit in the second. Harper (Plaza), a fabulously uptight employment lawyer, remarks over breakfast at the start of the show that it’s so hard to enjoy a vacation with “everything going on in the world.” As her husband Ethan (Sharpe) nods, Daphne (Fahy) and Cameron (James) look confused. What does she mean, they ask? Oh, they try to avoid the news. It’s too depressing, and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. It’s so beautiful here. Let’s have a good time.

But recent events have a way of imposing themselves anyway, if only psychologically. Portia, Tanya’s assistant, can’t get over the discomfort of the last years of her life; as she puts it, she spent three years alone in her bedroom scrolling through the doom, mired in the miseries of “speech”. (Relatable.) She wants Direct, she tells Albie (DiMarco). Surely in the past, she muses, the world must have been full of experience and life, not just digital caves we crawl miserably through.

A young woman in a black dress looks across a fancy dinner table with pursed lips.

Place Aubrey at The White Lotus.
Courtesy of HBO

Well, she’s half right, but the past world was also full of death, and reminders of that are all around them. A key to watch this season of The White Lotus keep an eye out for the faces in the background. They are always watching: magnificent frescoes, busts and statues, or paintings hanging on the walls; the faces of the dead, of the mythical, of the martyrs, hovering around the fountains of youth under the gaze of Death. Eyes that never stop gazing at the living as they try to ignore existential fear and the knowledge that they are going to die, which for these characters – who have just experienced a world-shaking pandemic, even for the super rich – must be started way up.

This explains their desperation to have fun: fun sex, fun spritzes on the beach, fun shopping sprees, fun haters, “fun” mind games with each other. Like all of us, they are making up for lost time. Like few of us, they have the resources to shut out everything else — regardless of politics or student loans or who’s saying what on Twitter. Let’s go find some jet skis.

But the series makes it clear that death is never far from the mind, and part of that desperate search for pleasure is a reflex to walk away. memento mori. It’s a very funny sight, but it’s dark around the edges. From the start, it is clear that someone is going to die; it’s the white lotus motive, after all. The cliffs look terribly steep and dangerous. Discussions sometimes revolve around what is so important that you would die or kill for it. People periodically look at the faces on the walls. On several occasions, we surprise characters staring at the ocean in a way that suggests that, out of breath, they want to dive into it. This island seems to promise eternal happiness, but holidays always come to an end.

Apocalypse does not mean the end of the world; it is an unveiling, a revelation of the truth behind the facade. Having glimpsed the truth of mortality in the time of the plague, in any way, our vacationers do not wish to repeat the discovery. If money can keep death out, then they’ll spend it. But we know that this clifftop paradise can’t last forever, if only because one day the sea level will rise. And before that — maybe long before that, but who knows? – death lurks around the corner for everyone.

So you better watch this season of The White Lotus with our own apocalypse in mind – not, of course, that you can really push that knowledge away anyway. This raises a pressing question, however, with no great answer: is watching television to escape the world a bit like munching on the lotus? Isn’t a show like this – or one with dragons, or elves, or some hapless British football team, or whatever else we’re getting into these days – it just another attempt to forget that we are all going to die? Does it even really matter?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we should all go get a little skeleton and keep it leaning against the corner of the TV, where it can watch us all the time, smiling. In case.

The White Lotus premieres at 9 p.m. on HBO on October 30, with a total of seven episodes airing weekly on Sunday nights, then airing on HBO Max.

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