“Arrivederci,” the finale of The White Lotus Season Two, was in many ways nothing like “Departures,” the conclusion to the first season of Mike White’s acidic comedy about One Percenters run amok on vacation.
Though both finales featured the death of a central character — last year it was Armond the contempt-filled resort manager, this time it’s Tanya the narcissistic heiress — and the bloody end of Jennifer Coolidge’s character was played much more for suspense than the Lotus employee’s excremental escapade in the Pineapple Suite. At times, “Arrivederci” bordered on Hitchcockian levels of dread over the question of whether she was imagining things, or if she was correct when she told the ship captain, “Please…these gays, they’re trying to murder me!” And where “Departures” ended with the resort guests happy and largely oblivious to the damage they had inflicted upon the resort staff, Season Two’s final image was of lower-class pals Lucia and Mia celebrating their newfound fortune, much of it acquired from the wealthy but gullible Albie Di Grasso.
Yet in the most important way, the two closing chapters felt very much of a piece. Where the episodes until now made for a largely disappointing sequel season, White at the end managed to recreate the delicate combination of tones and themes that had made the first season so special.
Start with Tanya, who turned out to be one of several corpses promised in the season-opening flash-forward. Coolidge was perhaps the biggest revelation of the first season, with White using her familiar hazy persona not only in the service of comedy, but genuine emotion. In previous episodes this year, Tanya was played almost entirely for laughs. Once “Departures” had revealed her apparent depths as affectations to be cast aside along with the people she uses, there was simply nothing more to be said about her as a character. She was back because White clearly loved writing for and directing Coolidge, and as an added link between the two seasons, but her scenes felt obligatory and less nuanced — and, worse, they also weren’t nearly as funny as she’d been in 2021. (The same could be said for Season Two as a whole.)
“Arrivederci” did not suddenly restore Tanya’s complexity. If anything, it sent her out as even more of a joke, since she dies of a head injury after foolishly trying to jump from Quentin’s yacht onto a dinghy, rather than looking for the ladder or stairs(*). But the air of real danger that White is able to conjure up around her — and, perhaps more importantly, in the scenes where Tanya’s beleaguered assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) starts to fear for both their lives — compensates for that. At its best, Season One found a way to mock its horrible guests while also sympathizing with them on some level. (Or, at least, it made us understand them.) In a similar fashion, this whole set-up, where Quentin (Tom Hollander) and his pals are planning to murder Tanya on behalf of her garbage husband Greg as a way around his prenup, is kind of ridiculous. (Why go to such elaborate lengths, and leave Portia as someone who could tell the authorities that shady things happened involving a man who is photographically linked to Quentin?) And there are moments in that story — not just the instantly meme-able line about the murderous gays, but Coolidge’s delivery of, “Well, he was kinda fuckin’ his uncle!” — that are as hilarious as anything White Lotus has ever done.
(*) As Tanya’s body first drifts underwater, White shoots her not unlike a signature image from his previous HBO series, Enlightened, where we saw Laura Dern’s character having a life-changing experience while swimming in the Pacific. Though Dern had cameoed in this season as the voice of Dom’s wife on the phone, when we see him in the finale looking at an image of the whole family, his wife looks nothing like Dern. Maybe White is saving her for a bigger, on-camera role in a future season?
Yet for the most part, those scenes felt scary and almost unbearably tense. That Tanya is able to make like John Wick and gun down three of her would-be assassins should seem silly. But White keeps our POV entirely on her terrified face — which is more expressive in that moment than it so often seems when she’s floating through life — as she keeps popping off rounds until she is finally safe. Do a murder-for-hire plot and a burst of gun violence entirely fit the tone of this show? That’s hard to say, even after two full seasons. But as a set piece, it was bravura in a way that much of this Sicilian jaunt had proven to be before now — simultaneously a thriller parody and the genuine article.
Previously, Season Two was mostly buoyed by the nightmarish couples getaway of Ethan (Will Sharpe), Harper (Aubrey Plaza), Cameron (Theo James), and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). The performances in that story were so strong — particularly by Plaza and Fahy — and the motivations of all four participants so slippery, that it felt engrossing even when other subplots were floundering. It remained a highlight in the finale, creating more questions than answers, but in a way that perfectly fit the themes of that subplot about the compromises that go into any relationship, even when you’re impossibly rich. By the end, we do not know for certain any of the following: 1.) Did Harper and Cameron actually sleep together, as Ethan assumes, or just kiss, as Harper insisted? 2.) If it was only the kiss, would Harper have wanted to sleep with Cameron if Ethan hadn’t knocked on the door when he did? 3.) Did Daphne and Ethan have revenge sex after he told her about his suspicions regarding their spouses? 4.) Is one of Daphne’s children actually the son of her personal trainer rather than her philandering husband?
We can make reasonable assumptions: the kid looks much more like the blonde trainer than he does Theo; the looks Ethan and Daphne were trading along the isthmus were not those of people looking to admire nature together. But the ambiguity made it more interesting than if White had spelled it all out(*). Whatever happened between Daphne and Ethan, the overall experience of the trip finally pulled him out of sexual neutral, leading to a passionate night with the lonely and frustrated Harper. And Daphne and Cameron’s unspoken agreements about their marriage — coupled with hints of pure sociopathy from Cameron — allow them to power through infidelities, brawls in the Ionian Sea, and whatever other bumps they hit.
(*) It helps that Meghann Fahy was sending out enough heat in that isthmus scene to melt a glacier, and also that she was able to say so much with the change of expression as Daphne absorbed what Ethan had just told her. Just a fantastic performance from Fahy, previously best known for Freeform’s The Bold Type.
Daphne’s philosophy that “We never really know what goes on in people’s minds, of what they do” doesn’t really apply to the season’s least successful corner, regarding the toxic masculinity of the Di Grasso men. Everyone behaves exactly as we would expect them to: Bert (F. Murray Abraham) proudly talks about how the family’s “Achilles Heel is an Achilles Cock.” Dom (Michael Imperioli) again tries to recommit to his wife, but can’t stop himself from gawking at a younger woman at the airport. And Albie (Adam DiMarco) is too caught up in his Good Guy fantasies to recognize that Lucia (Simona Tabasco) is scamming him. It’s all predictable and flat, with Abraham’s jubilant line deliveries providing that subplot’s only real life.
Where the resort staff last time around suffered badly (Armond worst of all), things largely work out okay this time around. Lucia makes a lot of money — not just from Albie, but from Cam finally paying her what he owed. Mia (Beatrice Grannò) lands a permanent job singing at the resort after having sex with Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore). It’s a transactional relationship, but also one both parties enter into openly and happily, as opposed to oily piano player Giuseppe (Federico Scribiani) trying to pressure Mia into going to bed with him in exchange for vague promises bout helping her career. Valentina shatters the hard shell she had built around herself, finally sleeping with another woman after a lonely and closeted life. It allows her to let go of her hopeless crush on Isabella (Eleonora Romandini) and invite Isabella’s boyfriend Rocco (Federico Ferrante) back to the front desk to work with her.
Meanwhile, there is at least some comeuppance for the non-servant characters. Quentin and two of his friends die, and while Greg may inherit Tanya’s fortune, the manner in which she died was messy enough to warrant a further investigation than if the killing had gone as planned. Albie loses 50,000 Euros of his father’s money, which is sand off a beach, but more importantly gets his conception of self badly punctured. Even Cam does not seem entirely impervious to what has happened on this trip, as he seems far less happy at the airport than the ex-roommate whom he had hoped to psychologically dominate once again.
It’s a satisfying inversion of how Season One functioned, and arguably a necessary one, as it would be hard to imagine coming back to this show year after year if it was always going to be about the guests blithely ruining the lives of the poorer people around them.
But even a memorably violent and sexy finale can’t entirely cover for the rest of the season’s flaws. A third season has already been announced, and Cameron makes reference to taking his “friends” to the Maldives next year. Moving past Tanya will definitely help, as White had nothing new to say about her, despite Coolidge’s comic genius. Can White recapture Season One’s perfect balance of satire and pathos? And, if not, can his ability to craft big moments like Tanya on the yacht, or Daphne and Ethan’s long walk, be enough to make The White Lotus a destination worth revisiting again and again?