On Screen: A New Cast Makes The White Lotus’s Unexpected Second Season Work

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

Welcome back to On Screen, The Augur Bit’s television and film review column. This time, I’ll be talking about the first two episodes of the newest season of HBO’s The White Lotus.

Written and directed by Mike White, the first season of The White Lotus takes place entirely in a fictional Hawaiian hotel of the same name. It follows three different groups of travelers as they interact with each other and the hotel staff over one weeklong stay. The pilot season was both dramatic and comedic, and also commented on class politics. While it was originally billed as a one-season miniseries, the show was a hit among audiences and critics alike, bringing home five Emmy Awards, and HBO greenlit a second season, which is currently being aired on HBO Max.

Going into the second season, I was worried: Because The White Lotus was created under the assumption that it would be a one-season show, every storyline felt conclusive by the end of the six-episode first season. The idea of another season seemed more like a cash grab than an artistic vision. So far, though, the new season appears to be more than just a commercial venture for White and HBO. Key to the success of season two of The White Lotus is the fact that it’s an anthology series: Instead of going back to Hawaii with the same three groups of travelers, this season finds a brand new cast—except for Jennifer Coolidge’s character Tanya, and Tanya’s husband, who were in season one—at a new White Lotus resort in Italy. White isn’t awkwardly trying to continue finished stories, but rather creating new ones.

Thematically, the second season is also very different from the first. Whereas in season one, White was interested in exploring class politics, in the new season he’s much more focused on social dynamics, specifically between romantic couples. 

Season two follows three groups of American travelers: First is the aforementioned Tanya and her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries), who appear to be much less happy in their relationship than they were in season one. Greg is acting distant, constantly criticizing Tanya and having hushed conversations on the phone. Of the three storylines, Tanya and Greg’s is the least interesting in the season’s first two episodes; it feels to me like Coolidge was brought back because of the popularity she garnered in season one, not because her character’s story needed to continue. 

The next group of travelers includes a pair of married couples: newly wealthy Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe), and Ethan’s college friend Cameron (Theo James) and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), both born into rich families, who invited Harper and Ethan on the trip. Harper quickly becomes thrown off by the seeming lack of problems in Cameron and Daphne’s marriage, and she spends most of the trip judging Cameron and Daphne and comparing them to herself and Ethan. Plaza’s performance as Harper is great—she’s intriguing and sympathetic while also clearly difficult to deal with for her fellow vacationers.

The third group of travelers includes three generations of men in an Italian-American family seeking to connect with their heritage. The grandfather, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), can’t stop flirting with every woman he meets; the father, Dominic (Michael Imperioli), has a wife who won’t speak to him after he cheated on her; and the son, Albie (Adam DiMarco), is trying to break his family’s pattern of men who have unhealthy relationships with women. At its best, the storyline is an interesting look at familial and generational dynamics, but not every scene with this group is as gripping as those starring Harper, perhaps because the group doesn’t have  a clearly identifiable main character. The second season, for the most part, really lives and dies with Plaza’s character so far. 

White’s writing and directing shine throughout the first two episodes. The dialogue, like in season one, is natural and fun, with quick conversations that often feel like a chess game between characters. The power balance between characters is constantly shifting—Tanya, for example, is extremely demanding of her assistant, but once her husband joins a scene, she’s on the defensive. White’s characters aren’t black and white: They’re good sometimes and bad others, making for a morally ambiguous cast that leaves viewers unsure of who to root for. 

The White Lotus is also a murder mystery. In the opening scene of season two, Daphne finds multiple bodies floating in the ocean at the end of the three groups’ trips. Most shows that begin with a flash-forward to a dead body become entirely centered around the murder. However, The White Lotus is filled with so many fascinating, standalone stories that viewers can forget that there’s even a mystery. It’s an impressive feat.

The first two episodes of The White Lotus’s second season are exactly what the show needed in order to continue: They’re new and intriguing while maintaining the same witty, engaging writing from season one. The show isn’t relying on the first season’s success—it’s continuing to forge a fresh and exciting path.

My rating: 8/10