'The White Lotus' asks: How much cringe can you stand?

Relationships splinter as the HBO comedy enters its home stretch

Michael Imperioli in season two of The White Lotus

Michael Imperioli in season two of The White Lotus

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Arriving at Quentin’s palatial villa in Palermo, Tanya philosophizes: “It’s a good feeling when you realize someone has money, because then you know they don’t want yours.” Leaving aside whether she’s right (we should have our doubts), she raises a good question: What do these people want from each other? Our vacationing families arrive with their interrelationships already negotiated, more or less. They believe they understand the contributions expected from each member sharing a life, even if some of those expectations are acknowledged only in the breach. In the last four days of White Lotus time, those understandings have broken down. 

We’ve now reached the most painful segment of a limited series of this kind, built around a tragic arc and spiraling consequences. How much cringing can viewers take? Ethan especially hits every wrong note in justifying himself to Harper. (“I kind of think you should feel good about this!”, he protests.) Albie slides headfirst in the other direction and lands in a torture chamber of naïveté and airy theory. Thinking he’s in a relationship with Lucia, he’s humiliated when she asks for money, but then recasts himself as her white knight with dreams of rescuing her from exploitation. 

Whether this works for viewers depends on their tolerance for these heightened morality plays, where motivations are readily apparent and the subtext of any utterance is barely veiled. But that’s the premise of the show. In a space of supposed relaxation and ease that is actually disorienting and liminal—a place of freedom where you are constantly watched, a place of hospitality that is no one’s home—these relationships have no comforting routines to fall back on. Every behavior is chosen, and every choice is irrevocable.

Sabrina Impacciatore in season two of The White Lotus

Sabrina Impacciatore in season two of The White Lotus

Fabio Lovino/HBO

The storylines this week are divided, with two taking place on trips away from the resort, and two stuck stubbornly within its confines. Harper uses the occasion of a wine-tasting tour to blow up the facade of both couples. She gulps down glass after glass, gets frisky with the sommelier, and asks provocative questions about everyone’s sexual experiences. All that seems to accomplish is to encourage Cameron to think she might be up for a threesome. Later that night, when she tries to come clean to Daphne about what she thinks happened in their absence, Harper only gets advice on how to live with a cheating husband. (“Maybe you should get a trainer.”) And in Palermo, Quentin seems genuinely moved by Tanya’s response to Puccini, but otherwise remains opaque as to his motives in whisking her off. When Tanya witnesses Jack having sex with “uncle Quentin” in the last shot of the episode, it likely signals a turning point—or an out-of-control skid—into the downward spiral destined to end with bodies washing up on the shore.

Back at the White Lotus, Valentina escalates her awkward pursuit of Isabella by banishing the flirtatious Rocco to the beach club, the better to monopolize her employee’s attention. Mia adroitly maneuvers her way behind the piano by offering her body to Valentina in turn; the manager doesn’t take her up on it, but allows herself to be flattered. And strangely, Dom, Bert, and Albie—the only group that arrived in the first episode with explicit plans to visit other parts of Sicily, to reconnect with their family heritage—stay within the resort’s walls once again, making the same tired rounds of buffets and dinner tables and pools and beaches. Albie has broken off to spend time with Lucia, much to Dom’s consternation, and the two older men accuse each other of ruining the next generation of men.

Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in season two of The White Lotus

Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in season two of The White Lotus

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Another divide that’s growing between groups of characters involves their motivations. Lucia and Mia talk openly about their goals, and pursue them straightforwardly with the sexual tools at their disposal. Valentina enacts her naked longing for Isabella with clumsy directness. But what do Quentin and his entourage of “high-end gays” (as Tanya puts it) want with the two women they’ve whisked off to their pleasure palace? The attention Quentin pays to Tanya is a strange mix of opaque and sincere, shallow and ominous.

Whatever the fallout from these secrets, lies, and defiant recriminations, Albie and Portia are likely to bear the brunt of it. For all that they’ve splintered off into separate encounters, they remain obsessed with the way the other fails to satisfy them. What do they want from each other? What we all want: Someone to reflect our best selves back to us. At the end of day five, these two are still staring into funhouse mirrors.

New episodes of The White Lotus air on HBO and appear on HBO Max Sunday nights at 8pm CT. Our weekly recaps run at 9pm CT.

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