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Spoilers for The White Lotus season 2 ahead.
The White Lotus giveth, and The White Lotus taketh away. From the first moments of the acclaimed HBO series’ sophomore season, we knew we’d be saying goodbye forever to one—if not multiple—favorite characters by the time the Dec. 11 finale rolled around. It was only ever a question of how they’d end their vacation: in first class, or in a casket? After weeks of fan theorizing, showrunner Mike White effectively delivered a rollicking banger of a send-off—and with it, a surprisingly thought-provoking meditation on desire, and our general lack of control over its whims.
Episode 7, “Arrivederci,” begins with the neurotic devices of a jealous mind. Ethan knows his wife is acting strangely, and that his former college roommate, Cameron, has a notorious “mimetic desire,” always seeking that which others claim first. Might Cameron have slept with Harper, taking advantage of the latter’s anger following Cameron and Ethan’s drug-fueled binge a few episodes ago? Ethan pictures his wife and his friend having sex in bed beside him, even as, in reality, he watches Harper sleep peacefully. Ethan finds he can’t trust Harper, but nor can he trust his own imagination.
Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, similar resentments are left unspoken between Cameron and his wife. As Daphne consoles her children via FaceTime, she calls for Cameron to come talk them back to sleep, and, in the bathroom, Cameron’s face darkens with something like agitation. He layers on the charm when he finally swoops in to fill the iPhone screen, but the close-up on his face is too lengthy to be coincidental. It seems all but confirmed that Cameron knows his eldest son is not actually his biological child, but Daphne’s trainer’s, a byproduct of their relationship’s unorthodox sexual schemes.
The other heterosexual relationships in this series aren’t fairing much better. Albie, halfway in love with Lucia after only a few nights together, wants to save another “wounded, pretty bird” and asks his father for 50,000 euros to do so. Dominic balks at the idea, less thanks to the amount as to whom it’s for. (Remember, Albie still has no idea his father slept with the same woman.) But Albie pulls a trick out of dear old Dad’s own manipulative playbook: He deems the cost a “karmic payment,” and promises he’ll put a good word in with his mother about Dom’s supposed repentance and reformation. The thought of getting clean with his wife—without having to actually do the work of changing his behavior—proves too delicious for Dom to deny. He forks the cash over to Lucia, who slips quietly out of Albie’s room the next morning with only a slightly remorseful, sweet smile. Later, we watch her embrace Alessio, her supposed pimp, who turns out to be her clever accomplice. If there can ever be a real winner in these games, this season it’s Lucia.
Portia, on the other hand, is ready to swear off the Sicilian adventures she supposedly longed for on arrival. When she wakes beside a hungover Jack, whose endearing Essex accent has overplayed its hand, she searches desperately for her missing phone and spirals further when she learns Jack does not exist on Instagram. Only after multiple episodes is she finally seeing the red flags planted at every milestone of her and Jack’s days-long dalliance. She needs to get back to her boss, Tanya, in Palermo, but Tanya is still in the embrace of “the gays,” led by Quentin, who promises to take her back to Taormina now that the cocaine high has worn off. Before they can leave, she steals one last glance at the photograph she spotted the night before in Quentin’s palazzo, the one featuring a man who looks inconspicuously like her husband. Sure enough, a second look confirms the image of a younger version of Greg with a younger version of Quentin, though Quentin denies it when he strolls into the room. That’s “Steve,” not Greg, he insists. “Haven’t spoken to him in decades.”
At breakfast, an ignorant tirade by Cameron prompts Harper to finally call him out as an “idiot,” which gives Ethan all the evidence he needs to conclude they hooked up. He confronts her in their hotel room, and slowly, reluctantly, Harper spills the truth: Okay, yes, she and Cameron did flirt, and yes, they did come up from the pool with the intention of hooking up. But they only kissed before Ethan interrupted their affair. It was nothing. It meant nothing. It was stupid.
Maybe, but Ethan isn’t convinced. The timelines don’t add up. And one thing is obvious, which is that Cameron took the spotlight of his “mimetic desire” and shined it directly on Harper. Furious, Ethan stalks his former roommate out into the ocean, where the two drag each other underwater in a twisted display of male dominance. Ethan gets one last punch in before wresting himself away, and Cameron strokes his jaw with the satisfaction and amusement of the criminally entitled.
But there’s still one variable in this equation: Daphne. Back on land, the perfectly put-together SAHM calls Ethan to her side, consoling him with her gentle eyes and generous spray of freckles. After her affectionate nudging, he shares what’s torturing him: that something might have happened between Harper and Cameron. What that “something” was, he leaves for Daphne to interpret.
For a moment, Daphne’s face loses its careful veneer of control. She looks surprised, then hurt, then, slowly, conspiratorial. Finally, she shrugs, her brows settling. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” she tells him. “I mean, we never really know what goes on in people’s minds or what they do, right? You spend every second with somebody and there’s still this part that’s a mystery. You don’t have to know everything to love someone.”
But it’s her final piece of advice that seems to stick with Ethan most: “You just do whatever you have to do to not to feel like a victim of life.” Together, they saunter over to Isola Bella, the island just off the coast, and the slow-motion camerawork heavily implies they do more than take in the sights.
At dinner, the two couples sit together for one last meal (despite Ethan and Harper’s attempts at eating alone), and Cameron toasts their friendship while Daphne teases next year’s trip to the Maldives. When Ethan and Harper return to their hotel room, the spark of Ethan’s ambiguous encounter with Daphne is still burning hot, and he and his wife finally have sex. Good for them, I think?!
On the boat back to Taormina, Tanya gets away from Quentin and the gang long enough to field a call from Portia, who’s stolen Jack’s phone in order to warn her boss of his suspicious behavior. She explains what Jack drunkenly admitted last night: that Quentin has no money, but he’s expecting a “giant windfall” soon. And from a delightful line delivery only Jennifer Coolidge could pull off, Portia learns Jack “was kinda fucking his uncle.” Together, Tanya and Portia connect the dots, and realize Jack and his “uncle” are working together with Greg to kill Tanya and collect her prenup payment. Tanya turns immediately wary of “the gays,” and particularly of her lover Niccoló, who plans to ferry her back to Taormina from the yacht.
She has other plans. After stalling during a languid dinner, Tanya races into the yacht’s guest bedroom and snags Niccoló’s bag, in which she discovers rope, duct tape, and—gasp—a gun. As the gays bang on the door, she starts to sob, and closes her eyes as she squeezes the trigger. Then she pulls it again. And again. After shooting Quentin, she begs him to tell the truth of Greg’s involvement in the plot: Was he unfaithful? Did he want her dead? But Quentin can’t speak; he’s leaking blood onto the yacht’s gleaming white floor, and Tanya knows she needs to escape the crime scene. Distraught, she attempts to climb over the rail and jump into Niccoló’s boat, but—in perhaps the most fitting of Tanya’s maneuvers yet—she loses her grip on the rail and flails forward, knocking her head against the rail and plunging into the ocean headfirst. The water around her does not stir, and we intuitively know her body will be the one Daphne discovers the next morning.
Sure enough, Tanya is revealed as this season’s victim, with a handful of the gays accompanying her to the morgue. But that doesn’t mean her storyline is finished. As White revealed in a post-finale interview, Greg is still out there, and Portia made it to the airport safely enough to exchange numbers with Albie pre-departure. There will be enough questions surrounding Tanya’s death that it’s unlikely either of them will escape an investigation un-ensnared. Might one or both of them appear again in season 3, and if so, how might what they know play a factor in next season’s murder mystery?
To learn that, we’ll have to wait for the next installment. In the meantime, we’re left with The White Lotus season 2’s intentionally fluid messaging around desire, and its capability to trap us and set us free. It’d be tempting to interpret Cameron and Daphne as the season’s shining example of a so-called “healthy” relationship, but their mind games and barely concealed secrets speak to an incoming implosion. Even if they navigate these hurdles unscathed as a couple, we can already see how such lies might wreak havoc in the lives of their children. Daphne and Cam’s lack of inhibition might rescue their marriage—or at least their sense of selfhood—but it traps their family and friends in a cycle of resentment and mind games. Meanwhile, Ethan and Harper’s obsessive possessiveness traps them, to the point that they can’t recognize their desire for each other unless it’s been reflected in the eyes of another.
The other characters have their own tortured relationships with desire. There’s the chronically depressed Portia, forever unsatisfied spiritually, mentally and physically, even in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. She initially eschews the quiet comfort of Albie for the “adventure” of Jack, only to return to Albie when the former proves to be an equally disappointing as a romantic partner. Then there’s Tanya, whose unmitigated need for validation might be her single most driving trait as a character. She desires nothing more than to be desired herself, which is exactly how she almost ends up in Niccoló’s grasp.
Of course, there’s also the Di Grasso men, whose desires fall in line with their respective generations. Bert, the eldest, is an unabashed if charming chauvinist who makes no attempts to conceal what he wants from women. Dominic is more subtle, but also more insidious, as he lies and cheats and pays in order to conceal but never change his irksome yearnings. Finally, there’s Albie, who has managed to convince himself that his own desires are not natural, nor are they loathsome, but in fact—when executed properly—they are noble. Remember, he’s a feminist. When Lucia plays him, he’s smart enough to not be surprised, but nor does he rethink his approach when next Portia offers up her cell number. And so the cycle continues.
Finally, we’re left with Mia and Lucia, the Italian sex workers who might be the only characters whose desires this season remained purely practical. Mia wanted to sing. Lucia wanted enough money to live her life freely. They both got what they wanted by taking advantage of the guests’s furiously screwed-up longings and jealousies. In the end, they were not the women of the Sicilian testa di moro legend, in which a traveler falls in love with a Sicilian girl, only for her to cut off his head when she learns he has a family back home. Instead, they are the women who carried on the tradition of these ceramic vases: taking what was once a symbol of betrayal and turning it into a thing of beauty.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.