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White Lotus Season 2 review: trouble in a new paradise

With a new season come new stakes: this time we’re promised the HBO hit series will end with multiple deaths.

The return of White Lotus is part of HBO’s guiding principle, that lightning can – just maybe – strike the same place twice.

Mike White’s HBO miniseries was one of the biggest hits of 2021. Set on an exclusive Hawaiian resort, we follow three groups of wealthy tourists and the beleaguered staff of the White Lotus.

White is a master of black comedy, staging excruciating dialogue that shows the privilege and cruelty of his characters. Over six episodes, the cracks in their superficial smiles become fissures. With the promise of a mysterious death looming at the end of the week, every White Lotus character was carefully constructed to be so loathsome that we were left begging the seas will rise and take them all.

Part of the pleasure of White Lotus was its terminus. Like many of the characters, we have to repeat to ourselves it’s only one more week with these insufferably accurate caricatures of wealth. The six hour-long episodes were an ordeal: only the promise that one of them would die could keep you gritting your teeth at their perfect veneers.

And now it’s time for more trouble in a new paradise.

Sicilia per sempre

This year we’re off to Sicily with an almost-new cast.

With a new season come new stakes: this time we’re promised the week will end with multiple deaths. The last season had excruciatingly slow pacing. Everyone – including the audience – had a strong motive motive to kill everyone else by the first episode. This time around, the guests are mercifully less loathsome, which makes it more exciting.

Episode one weaves a complex web between our key players, promising plenty of drama and intrigue. We first meet manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), a taskmaster like her late predecessor Armond (Murray Bartlett).

Unlike the sycophantic front that drove Armond to madness, Valentina is backhanded with the guests and vitriolic with the staff. She’s in a cat-and-mouse game with fellow local Lucia (Simona Tabasco), a sex worker sneaking around to meet a client. Lucia’s pouting friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò) gets roped in, but it’s not clear yet how their threads will be woven into the narrative.

Last season’s hotel employees Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) were the most tragic characters, embroiled in and exploited by the fantasy of wealth, so Lucia and Mia might be set up in similar ways.

Enter Aubrey

Aubrey Plaza plays our viewpoint character Harper, typecast as her group’s sad-sack. Harper and her boyfriend Ethan (Will Sharpe) are on a double-date holiday with Ethan’s old roommate Cameron (Theo James) and his partner Daphne (Megann Fahey) – it’s Daphne who discovers the body in the opening flash-forward.

Daphne’s obsession with true crime could spell danger, but there’s a more immediate problem. Sparks fly between Harper and Cameron: they’re both domineering personalities, but whether that conflict will be erotic or violent remains to be seen. Ethan’s such a pushover that he’s not interested in competing for Harper’s attention: he trusts her contempt for Cameron and Daphne.

Ethan floats the idea that having conservative friends makes them well-rounded, but Harper states the first series’ subtext aloud: ‘I think we’re their diverse friends. Their white-passing diverse friends.’

Meanwhile, three generations of men are traveling to connect with their Sicilian heritage. F. Murray Abraham’s Bert is a geriatric flirt who seems too obvious as the future corpse. In one of the most memorable scenes, we overhear his son Dominic (Michael Imperioli) having a vitriolic breakup. Grandson Albie (Adam DiMarco) initiates a romance with Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), who’s tagged along as assistant to our returning heiress heroine Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge).

Heads, you lose

Last year’s whirlwind affair between Tanya and Greg (Jon Gries) can’t quite weather the change in location. Their chemistry worked when Greg could roll with Tanya’s volatility, but now he’s lashing out with lies and criticisms: we all know Greg is the dead weight she needs to drop, but we’ll see if Tanya can figure that out.

Fortunately, White Lotus doesn’t let the beautiful people overpower the beautiful location. Patient establishing shots stage Sicily like a painting: a flat surface where time stands still. This season’s motif features ceramic faces, representing local folklore about a lothario beheaded by his lover.

The gaudy severed heads have local significance, and the camera lingers on them whenever a conflict is left unresolved – which is often. It’s a promise of the violence to come, and an allegory for the hollow beauty of the guests and staff. The shift from the opening Renaissance-style frescos into the Gothic imagery of churches at night make for one of the subtler metaphors.

But just in case we missed that, Harper spells it out for us: ‘We’re all entertaining each other while the world burns, right?’

The White Lotus is currently streaming on Binge.