Spoiler alert: This article discusses, in detail, the White Lotus season 2 finale. If you’ve yet to watch that, do yourself a favor and don’t read this.
“How was Palermo?” Albie (Adam DiMarco) wants to know, in the penultimate scene of the White Lotus season 2 finale, when he runs into Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) at the airport on their way out of Italy. “Not great,” she deadpans. Even though she’s yet to have her worst fears about Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) confirmed, it’s an understatement for the ages.
It also makes you wonder how this tragic vacation might’ve gone differently if things had worked out between her and Albie—two sheepish dupes who finally exchange phone numbers in the season’s final minutes—when they first met. He might never have let Lucia (Simona Tabasco) con him—or his father Dominic (Michael Imperioli), the original mark—into giving her €50,000. Dominic might never have convinced Albie to run interference with his mom, apparently saving a marriage that she probably should’ve ended long ago. Portia might not have spent her last day in Sicily afraid for her life, because she wouldn’t have fallen for Jack (Leo Woodall), the earthy pseudo-nephew, lover, and henchman of “high-end gay” fortune hunter Quentin (Tom Hollander). Which would’ve made it tough for Quentin to get Tanya alone on a yacht with a bag containing half the murder weapons from Clue.
Sure, it’s ultimately Madama McQuoid who kills the gays, not the other way around. But in true self-sabotaging style—and taking full advantage of Coolidge’s unmatched physical-comedy prowess—Tanya manages to shoot her way out of the trap, only to end up in a watery grave of her own making. So central was this character to two excellent seasons of Mike White’s luxury-resort misery-fest that her death was unfathomable to just about everyone (including yours truly) publicly hazarding guesses as to who the corpses in Sunday’s finale would be. In retrospect, it seems fitting that a season about love as a delusion would end by shocking viewers who ignored what our own eyes told us about Tanya’s fate because we adored her.
In fact, the only eyes that seemed to observe much of anything at the Sicilian Lotus were inanimate. A Renaissance painting of St. Sebastian, that creepy fresco from the title sequence, those macabre Testa di Moro statues peeking out from every corner—they were all watching the guests’ every misguided move. Yet the characters themselves couldn’t seem to see anything clearly, least of all the far-from-ideal objects of their affection. Just about everyone got scammed, from Tanya and Portia and the Di Grassos to Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), who’s crushed again when newly hired lounge singer Mia (Beatrice Grannò) confirms their obviously transactional relationship as such, to the two young couples constantly performing romance and jealousy for each other’s benefit. And it all happens because everyone is too busy projecting their own selfish desires and insecurities on each other to fix a critical gaze on their own delusions.
The Di Grasso men are a particularly sad case. Dominic essentially has to bribe a sex worker he personally hired to keep his family from falling apart. Watching Lucia exit with the cash while she thinks he’s sleeping, Albie finally grows up a little. Now that his feminist facade has been shattered by a genuine gold digger, he’s ogling hot girls at the airport right along with his dad and grandpa. Speaking of poor Bert (F. Murray Abraham), his big blow came in episode 6, when he discovered that the Di Grasso women of Sicily had no interest in forming a loving bond with a man who’d missed his chance to do right by the Di Grasso women of America.
That’s not to say there aren’t characters who come out of the season better off than they were going into it. Mia got her gig and Lucia got her money; that final shot, in which the two best friends skip off together to make immoderate purchases, might be the closest thing White will ever give us to a happy ending. Jealous Ethan (Will Sharpe) and exasperated Harper (Aubrey Plaza) have rekindled their romance by allowing their insecurities to transform them into unfaithful, game-playing rich people like Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). The latter couple is no worse for the wear because their marriage has always been a farce.
And then, lest we forget, there’s Greg (Jon Gries), whose money-motivated deceptions in the honeymoon suite makes Lucia’s scheme look quaint by comparison. We don’t see what becomes of him once Tanya’s body is pulled out of the sea—probably because it’s so easy to guess his fate. His little Double Indemnity gambit works out even better than (as far as we know) he anticipated. Not only does he inherit Tanya’s hundreds of millions, but he doesn’t even have to share them with Quentin and company.
Of course, given the pessimism White’s shown us about love under heteronormative patriarchy, it’s the middle-aged white guy with two smitten, relatively vulnerable admirers wrapped around his finger who comes out on top. Meanwhile, Quentin might be too dastardly to mourn, but it’s worth noting that he dies, and gets a bunch of his friends killed, doing dirty work for a straight guy. That makes Tanya this modern-day opera’s one true tragic heroine. Doomed by her very existence as a lonely, self-conscious single woman of a certain age with a certain astronomical bank balance, she gets her dramatic, if also supremely klutzy, underwater death scene. Season 3 won’t be the same without her. (Does she have a twin sister Coolidge could play? Maybe season 3 can take place at the White Lotus in purgatory?) But would we want to keep coming back if The White Lotus didn’t manage to shock us every time? Like Cam and Daphne and Ethan and Harper, the show needs an element of uncertainty to keep the spark alive.
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