As Our Latest Stay at The White Lotus Ends, Did Some People Learn Something?
Or: Is Mike White Sending Us A Message That A Lot of People Are Overlooking?
Well, the second season of The White Lotus has ended, and critics and fans are still talking about it. Very few series in recent years have lent themselves so deeply to analysis as The White Lotus has, perhaps because we seem to be trying to find out the hidden messages that grandmaster Mike White is sending from the beginning of each episode to try and parse out what he’s telling us with each character, scene and shot.
We’ve gone far past trying to figure out the opening tease of every season — who ends up dead? — and are now trying to find out the deeper meanings of every story. This season, we were trying to figure out what was really going on between Harper and Ethan and by extension Cameron and Daphne. Was there some deeper message between the images of the statues and the constant viewing of The Godfather? Was there some kind of subtext between the missions of the opera? And what happened between the two major couples in the season finale?
The one lesson that every critic and fans seems to have universally agreed on is simple: the rich and elite will never learn anything. They will come to these scenic vistas and find something to bitch about. They’ll be in the places with the best food in the world and eat at the buffet every day for breakfast. They will speak of self-improvement or wanting to be better and will just come away worse, if anything. Only the poor learn something from this, never the rich. That’s the message I got from several of the last reviews I’ve seen on the web.
Now I can’t speak to a degree on many of these issues mainly because I only saw five episodes of the second season. (I missed the middle two because of other obligations and ended up watching the finale not knowing all the details of what had come before.) But having seen both seasons of The White Lotus, I would like to file a minority report about a message that I think Mike White is trying to tell us. It may not be clear from the second season, but if you’ve seen both, it clearly seems to be there.
First of all, when we talk about the first season of The White Lotus there was no dispute who ‘won’ that series: Quinn Mosbacher, He started the series, basically living in his closet, glued to his phone, and eventually kicked out by his selfish sister and her ‘friend’ on to the beach. Over the next several episodes, he saw several majestic things that his family about the ocean and Hawaii that his family — and frankly, everybody else in the series — ignored. By the season finale, when everybody in the cast was showing the worst parts of themselves, Quinn alone seemed to have learned the truth of what he was experiencing. In the final minutes, he abandons his family at the airport (who crucially don’t even look for him) and in one of the last shots of the season, we see on a canoe, paddling with the natives, giving perhaps the one pure, unadorned smiles in the entire series.
Now before I get to how this fits to the second season, I’d like to mention something that seemed crucially omitted from so many of the analysis of that season. Many of the analysis drove the message home that none of the guests who stayed in Sicily learned anything or grew from this experience. Based on what I saw, it’s hard to argue that. But almost all of those same reviews seemed to ignore one major character — and given that she spent basically the entire season unwillingly joined at the hip with the one regular we knew going in, that’s especially bizarre. I’m speaking, of course, of Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), Tanya’s latest — and last — assistant.
It’s very hard to watch the entire series and not feel something resembling sympathy and empathy for Portia all the way through, which basically we don’t feel for any other character in either iteration so far. Yes, I realize there was a certain haplessness to much of her character throughout what I saw, and she kept making the same bad decision everyone else did. But unlike all of the characters, the reason for this was literally standing next to her the whole series. We knew going in what a monstrous character Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) was from the beginning and the fact that Tanya decided to bring her on what was her second honeymoon was fundamentally selfish and we got a very clear sense of just how badly she treated her. Some tried to badmouth Portia for not ‘enjoying’ a free trip to Sicily. I don’t think anyone who spent time with Tanya has anything resembling a good time, and Portia sure as hell as wasn’t. I got that from the tarot card reading sequence alone where Tanya promised Portia a reading, threw the soothsayer out when she didn’t like it (turns out Tanya’s should have listened to her) and then forced her to stay in the suite while she fell asleep. There are also those people who want to blame Portia for being dumb enough not to pursue a nice guy like Albie. I’d remind her that Tanya advised her to ‘stay away from emotionally unavailable people’ and then she ended up seeing Jack within minutes.
If Portia had a fault, it’s that she was too nice a person not to tell Tanya to go F-herself. She knew better than anyone just how horribly she treated her assistants well before she took the job, and she knew her only hope at some kind of advancement careerwise was to stay near to Tanya. Plus, despite everything Tanya put her through, Portia still had some degree of sympathy for her — we hear mention that Tanya was the subject of molestation by her father, and we all know how miserably her mother treated her. Considering that Portia knew all this and stuck with Tanya through much worse, I’d argue that her loyalty to her employee was not only worthy, but by the standards of The White Lotus, makes her a candidate for sainthood. People in this series treat their friends, family, and spouses miserably. What does a say that one of the better relationships in this series is that of an employee to an employer, who in typical Tanya fashion, never appreciated her?
This brings me to Albie (Adam DeMarco). Almost I’ve read about the DiGrassos is that they are basically all rotten men. While this is very clear of the paterfamilias Bert (F. Murray Abraham) and pretty clear for Dominic (Michael Imperioli) I had a harder time accepting that of Albie all the way through. I can get why so many viewers and critics would think that; on The White Lotus, everyone who claims to be virtuous is inevitably monstrous, so when Albie says he ’wants to be a good guy’ or at least ‘better than his dad’, why should we think that he will anything but worse? But apparently most of the contempt and disgust that we show for Albie is because he seems to be making the same mistakes his father and grandfather are: being used by Mia, the sex worker and one of the members of the cast who everyone agrees ‘won this season’.
Here I will speak gingerly because I haven’t seen the entire series so I don’t know for sure and am basing this more on episodic summaries. Unlike Albie, who is fooled because of his age, and Dominic, who at the start of the series claims to be addicted to sex and keeps sleeping with both women, Albie’s major sin is that he seems to be naïve and that he ends up falling for a con that Mia is pulling on him that she is being threatened by her ‘pimp’ and she needs money to get away. Albie then proceeds to ‘karmically’ blackmail his father for his affair with the same woman and promise he will make things better between him and his mother. Dominic does so, but it turns out Albie smoothed things over between his parents even before the payment was made.
To be clear, Albie is fooled by Mia, led by the DiGrasso ‘Achilles c — -” as Burt memorably puts in one of his final lines. And the general consensus by the critics is that Albie, like his father and grandfather, is doomed. They are based on the fact that one of the last scenes is of three generations of DiGrassos, all turning their simultaneously, to stare at the same pretty girl while waiting at the airport. All of this, however, seems to disregard what happens in the penultimate scene of the season.
Albie and Portia meet again in one of the gates. The conversation is initially awkward, but slowly becomes warm. Both acknowledge that they should have listened to the other about the flaws they pointed out about the women they pursued. Portia, after everything that has happened, is still worried about Tanya. (She still doesn’t know that her boss is dead.) Albie admits almost cheerfully that he got played. And in a symbolic act, both give each other their phone number.
I realize that many people will argue, even after this discussion, that Valentina and Mia still ‘won’ the season. (I’d say this victory has a big asterisk on it, which I’ll get to momentarily.) But it’s hard to look at the next to last scene and not feel optimism. Albie and Portia have walked away from their stay in Sicily just a bit wiser. Even better, both of them still clearly have the empathy and sympathy they claimed to at the beginning. Both have clearly made major mistakes, but unlike everyone else who stays at a White Lotus, it really seems that they have learned something from it.
I’d also like to argue that this victory is also a little purer than the ones Mia and Valentina have. True, both of the working class women managed to triumph over the rich, stupid men this week, and it’s hard to argue having spent so much time with these men, that most of them didn’t deserve to be fleeced. It does not change the fact that they did so by lying, cheating, blackmailing, and in the case of Valentina, almost killing one of these men. Even the critics who argue that these women are the victors do so under the heading that they do so by viewing the world of sex and money as a chess game rather than for love. You also wonder just how many times they have managed to do this exact thing every time the ferry shows up. They may have ‘won’ the season, but it’s hard to argue that they’re either better for it (except, at least momentarily, financially) or whether they’ve learned anything from it.
And that’s why I think that White is making a deliberate choice to show that scene of Portia and Albie at the end. It may not yet be his overriding theme for The White Lotus as an anthology yet (we don’t know anything about what Season 3 will be like) but it’s definitely one you can take away so far.
It’s crystal clear to this point that the wealthy will never appreciate anything — but maybe there’s hope for the next generation. Maybe it’s as enormous a decision as deciding to leave material goods behind to sail with native Hawaiians or as a subtle gesture as admit you made a mistake to a girl you kind of like, but either a way it’s the sign that the class you’re born into and the people who raise you are not necessarily your destiny. There are no guarantees — you could just as easily end up being an Olivia Mossbacher as you are a Quinn — but if we’ve learned anything from this series, it’s that there are no guarantees about anything in life. And doing the right thing may still end up hurting people — Paula’s decision to try and help a native Hawaiian led to him being arrested — but there’s also hope for virtue. The fact that Portia, despite being warned by Jack not to interfere, was still trying the last time we saw her to find out what happened to Tanya, shows that maybe virtue can’t be stomped out even after the worst of decisions.
Of course, we never know what lessons Mike White might try to tell us whenever we return for a third stay in a White Lotus. It is possible that he might completely change his methods again, depending on who shows up for the next season or if any characters from the second season (or hell, maybe even the first) end up at the next exotic locale. And we never know even know what kind of symbolism he’ll be using then. What I’m relatively sure of is that viewers and fellow critics will be delightfully enjoying every aspect of the series, trying to figure out what symbols and foreshadowing he’s been laying the groundwork for, and that quite a few of us will end up misreading the tea leaves anyway. (You may remember that in my rave for the second season I made it crystal clear that Tanya was the only character who was guaranteed to make it out alive. We all saw how wrong I was on that.) In that sense, the viewer is much like many of the guests at every White Lotus resort. We always enjoy it, but we never seem to learn the right lessons. That’s part of the fun.