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How ‘The White Lotus’ breaks all the norms of straight sex culture

In the second season of the popular HBO series, sexual desire bubbled and erupted just like Mount Etna.
Image: Tom Hollander in a still from White Lotus
The characters of "White Lotus" transgress ordinary boundaries of sex and prompt reflection on its meaning.Fabio Lovino / HBO

“I, too, am gay. Here, we are all gay. . . Everyone of us is gay. Everyone one of us.” So says Tommaso, an inscrutable yacht captain in the stunning finale of the second season of “The White Lotus.” Skipper Tommaso’s declaration seems to me to refer to more than the literal gay mafia he is ferrying around the coast of Sicily. I wonder if his remark in the Straits of Messina is an arrow aimed at straight culture’s most suffocating conceptions of sex, love and marriage. In this season, sexual desire, like the flaming Mount Etna (a recurring visual metaphor in The White Lotus), bubbles and erupts whenever it damn pleases.

Few directors make bad decisions look more visually compelling than Mike White.

Few directors make bad decisions look more visually compelling than Mike White. From drug-propelled assignations with prostitutes to “gloriously unapologetic” gay sex, White has a rare talent for making erotic trespass look like the fun that it undoubtedly is. That talent, alongside the ace cinematography, incredible acting and ingenious musical scoring (especially for those who understand Italian) explains why the HBO series is the buzziest show on television.

Given that the characters are trying to readjust to normal life after years of Covid isolation, perhaps they are helping us probe the new ground rules of sex and lust in a world reopened for erotic business.

Transgression not only looks good in White Lotus. It also has its own integrity and rationale. Nearly every character in Season Two violates standard codes of normal sexual ethics and proper romantic comportment. Fascinatingly, these lapses are not presented as thoughtless errors, arousal-based idiocies or destructive self-owns. On the contrary, the characters consciously and deliberately transgress and emerge from their epic fornications with self-knowledge, a deepened perspective and even grace.  

Valentina, the female manager of the luxury resort, at first crushes hard on a subordinate employee. Undaunted by that power differential — but happy to later upbraid a male colleague for doing exactly the same — Valentina ends up in bed with Mia, a singer and part-time prostitute who prefers men. 

This was White Lotus’ season of taboo adjacency. A father and son have separate assignations with Mia’s bestie, a sex worker named Lucia. Two successful Yale graduates attempt to drown one another in between suspected carnal encounters with one another’s wives. Tanya McQuoid-Hunt (depicted as a human cocktail of ditziness and cunning by Jennifer Coolidge) walks in on what we initially were led to believe was a “nephew” having some pretty hot sex with his “uncle.” 

The “ethos” that binds these characters may well have been articulated by Daphne Sullivan (played exquisitely by Meghann Fahy), wife of one of the Yale Venture Cap Bros. Fahy delivers the following monologue with elan, shortly after learning that her lecherous husband may have just cheated on her again:    

I mean, we never really know what goes on in people’s minds or what they do. Right? You spend every second with somebody. There’s still this part that’s a mystery. You know. You don’t have to know everything to love someone. A little mystery. It’s kind of sexy. I’m a mystery to myself, honestly. I surprise myself all the time. I think you just, you just . .. do whatever you have to do not to feel like a victim of life. You know? You just use your imagination.

Daphne sullivan in "White lotus"

"The White Lotus" features a lot of characters who, sexually speaking, follow Daphne’s advice; they do what they have to do. Our characters indulge their own lustful urges in order to avoid feeling like “victim[s] of life.” Whether this connects to Tommaso’s affirmation about everyone being gay, is what intrigues me.

Is the show championing one particular gay ethos (there are many, of course) over and against one particular (but pervasive) heteronormative one? Was Tommaso, in his conspicuous knitted white cap, pointing out that the characters on this show — be they male, female, straight, gay, bi — all abide by a less hypocritical, more carnal and infinitely more human moral compass? Such would be refreshing corrective to a majoritarian ethic of sexual repression, fidelity at any emotional cost, and dull romance.

Morally speaking, “doing the Daphne” works out pretty well for all and sundry. Aside from the four people who die, White Lotus abounds in happy endings. Those who do whatever they have to do end up in a good place. Propriety be damned. 

White Lotus abounds in happy endings. Those who do whatever they have to do end up in a good place. Propriety be damned.

The Stanford kid with his Gen Z sensibilities extracts a “karmic payment” of 50,000 euros from his dad in order to pay off Lucia’s debts to her (alleged) pimp. Reconciled with his father, the lad eventually admits “she played me.” His dad warned him, and he was right. No big deal though. He learned something.  

Valentina, the resort manager, comes to embrace her preferred sexual identity. In the process, she advances women in the arts by hiring Mia (who one night earlier had initiated her into same-sex eroticism) to play piano at the hotel bar. Even better, she fires crooner Giuseppe, a proponent of transactional sex with aspiring musicians, and a Sicilian #MeToo scandal waiting to happen. 

Jack, the false straight nephew, never performs the gruesome murder he was likely supposed to enact. Probably because he kind of digs Portia, the person he was maybe supposed to kill. Too, he hands her back her phone which he pilfered earlier in the day ("The White Lotus" elsewhere imparts a most valuable lesson: If you lose your phone, you die.)

There’s bliss and self-fulfillment all around. Our two adulterous power couples are last seen properly paired off in an airport and enjoying the tenderness of monogamous union. Sex workers Mia and Lucia find themselves at least 52,000 euros richer. We last glimpse them, arm-in-arm, joyously shopping for cool clothes while the music reminds us that “the best things in life are free.” Along the way, they fraternally hug their alleged pimp. If you defy sexual conventions, you not only avoid becoming a victim, you gain closure and even self-understanding. 

All of which brings us to Tanya McQuoid who meets her death after preemptively murdering three men. We should have seen some of this coming; any character whose movements are scored to Madame Butterfly’s “un bel dì vedremo” is likely to perish, as did Butterfly, alone and waiting in vain for some unreliable and shifty cad. In fact, there were so many allusions to Puccini’s opera in White Lotus that I half-expected to spot a uniformed Pinkerton sipping Negronis by the side of the infinity pool. 

Lost in the din of it all is the fact that Tanya was drugged and sexually assaulted the evening prior by a mafioso whose sexuality seems unknowable, but who was in on the scheme to relieve Tanya of her massive fortune. In the copious and usually excellent commentary on White Lotus (such as the Still Watching podcast where the stars of the show are expertly interviewed) this crime is oddly overlooked. 

Any character whose movements are scored to Madame Butterfly’s “un bel dì vedremo” is likely to perish, as did Butterfly, alone and waiting in vain for some unreliable and shifty cad.

Unlike other characters, Tanya doesn’t do what she has to do to avoid being a victim. Note the scene where she asks a dying man, “Was Greg having an affair? Tell me! I know you know.” Welcome to the downside of monogamy.

Tanya. Tanya! Listen to Mike White. It doesn’t matter if Greg was having a freaking affair. What matters is that you do what you have to do in order to avoid becoming Greg’s perpetual victim. In Mike White’s moral accounting, that, Tanya, is one of the few bad decisions one can actually make.

White teaches us that, post-plague, there are few rules in sex, relationships or even marriage other than never being a victim, or never wallowing in one’s victimization. Come to think of it, though, there’s one more rule: Don’t plot to kill people so that you can keep your garish palazzo. For that, you will likely be killed yourself, whether you are gay or not.