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The White Lotus Is a Horror Movie in a Sex Farce's Clothing

Don't be fooled by the butts and infidelity; there is something dark at play.
  • The White Lotus (HBO)
    The White Lotus (HBO)

    Over the course of the second season of The White Lotus, we've been presented with the show's now-customary arched-eyebrow take on wealth and status along with a lot more sex than we got in Season 1. After these last few episodes full of bedrooms and butts, it can be easy to forget that the season kicked off with a corpse floating in the water and news of other resort guests turning up dead as well. Yes, we're watching a wry comedy about sexual jealousy, but sexual jealousy and murder go hand-in-hand. Just ask Desdemona. Or Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction.

    There's been something sinister afoot at The White Lotus' Sicilian location from the very beginning, from the artwork to the opening credits to the soundtrack. And while Season 1 also kicked off with a mysterious dead body, Season 2 has invested in horror imagery in a way the previous outing didn't, and it's been one of this installment's best through lines. It's given the visual presentation of Season 2 as much importance as the writing and the characterizations, especially if you've been watching closely.

    This all started right in the season premiere “Ciao,” as Ethan (Will Sharpe), Harper (Aubrey Plaza), Cameron (Theo James), and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) toured their adjoining rooms, taking in the rather unsettling artwork. The one recurring statue, the Testa di Moro, came with a story, as related rather succinctly by their porter: "A Moor came here a long time ago and seduced a local girl. But then she found out he had a wife and children back home. So because he lied to her, she cut his head off." Daphne's reaction — "It's a warning to husbands, babe: screw around and you'll end up buried in the garden." — sparked speculation as to who might end up dead in the water, but it also set the stage for the creeping threat of vengeful murder that has lurked all season.

    Our quartet of (un?)happily married hotties weren't the only ones to notice the artwork. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) was so unsettled by the faces on the sculptures staring down at her that she violently threw Greg (Jon Gries) off of her while they were having sex. This was only the first glimpse at their quickly deteriorating marriage, and while it's clear things were already not great for Tanya and Greg before Sicily, you have to wonder whether the vibes around this monument to sexual revenge worked as an accelerant.

    The looming specter of horror is present in the show's opening credits, which have been rightfully praised and examined for their inherent horniness. But again, we say, look at what's lurking behind all that horniness.

    Once the beat drops in that delicious opening theme music, the imagery gets sexier but also more violent. Birds attacking other birds. A villa on fire. A sinister-looking monkey riding a sinister-looking goat. At one point a man, clearly stabbed and dripping blood, tumbles down some stairs, and in the next frame we see a woman holding a bloody dagger. Mike White's screen credit is displayed over a shot of marble ruins and a sculpture of a headless torso.

    The White Lotus (HBO)

    As in any good horror movie, there are portents of the massacre to come everywhere. "All whores are punished in the end," says one character, which already sounds sinister but becomes even more foreboding when you know there will eventually be corpses. The same can be said for Quentin's (Tom Hollander) story of the palazzo at Isola Bella, where a wealthy older woman was found in a heap at the bottom of the rocks. That story obviously makes you worried for Tanya, but by this point she already seems quite haunted by something at the resort. The night she overheard Greg talking clandestinely on the phone with (we're left to assume) another woman, she's only awake because she was startled by some creepy vibe in her room. Similarly, in the palazzo with Quentin and the gays, Tanya is startled awake in the middle of the night.

    The shock of Tanya discovering Quentin on all fours being serviced by his hot young "nephew" is the part that got everybody talking, to the point where we maybe brushed past the horror-movie aesthetics of Tanya wandering through this dark and creepy dwelling, overstuffed with artwork that seems to be staring at her. Mike White's camera distorts the dimensions of the rooms and hallways as she wanders. This place is unsafe. Tanya is not safe.

    White's done a marvelous job all season with the aesthetics in large and small ways, down to the omnipresent Aperol spritzes in cocktail glasses in nearly every scene involving Cameron, Daphne, Ethan, and Harper. It's exactly the kind of trendy drink these four would favor on vacation in Sicily, yes, but in the frame of a scene, the drinks are an almost violent jolt of blood-orange color against an otherwise idyllic and romantic background. Something sinister awaits these people, and the signs are everywhere.

    Theo James, Meghann Fahy (HBO)

    Whether any of these dark portents end up pointing to the identity of who turns up dead (or the people by whose hand they might die) remains to be seen. But as we approach the finale, don't expect these visual markers of the horror lurking in the margins to become any less apparent. Mike White has crafted what he has called "a bedroom farce with teeth" for this season. More and more those teeth seem to be dripping with blood.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The White Lotus, Aubrey Plaza, Jennifer Coolidge, Meghann Fahy, Mike White, Theo James, Will Sharpe