Spoilers ahead for The White Lotus Season 2 finale, “Arrivederci.”
For the past seven weeks, we at Primetimer — along with the rest of the internet — have speculated and theorized about who dies in The White Lotus Season 2. We now know the answer: Upon realizing that Quentin (Tom Hollander) and his fabulous gay friends are plotting her murder, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) mows them down one by one. Then, in an attempt to flee Quentin’s yacht, she slips, hitting her head on the dinghy below and drowning. It’s Tanya’s body that Daphne (Meghann Fahy) finds floating in the Ionian Sea in the opening moments of the premiere, a scene that hangs over the season like a black cloud.
But after watching all this play out in the Season 2 finale, “Arrivederci,” I was left with my own burning question: Does The White Lotus really need a death? What does killing off Tanya, a woman felled by her own clumsiness, add to the larger story about sexual politics, gender, and generational dynamics?
In Season 1, Armond’s (Murray Bartlett) death reinforces Mike White’s themes of class warfare. Of course it isn’t the body of a guest that’s wheeled onto the airplane, but that of White Lotus manager Armond, who lashes out after suffering days of abuse by Shane (Jake Lacy). Along with Tanya’s dismissal of Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and Paula’s (Brittany O’Grady) realization that the Mossbachers will always win, Armond’s accidental murder affirms the natural order between the rich, entitled guests and the resort employees serving them. Armond dies because he believes this dynamic might change — he believes that he could one day be a part of this elite world, rather than exist in service to it.
This time around, Tanya’s death, like the rest of her storyline, feels wholly disconnected from the drama playing out elsewhere at the resort. At first, it seems like her failing marriage to Greg (Jon Gries) will offer another example of a relationship gone wrong, so many of which are on display in Taormina. They have uncomfortable, unsatisfying sex; their romantic day out ends in an explosive argument; and Greg, clearly up to something suspicious, declares he has to leave Sicily for work reasons. Tanya is upset about Greg’s departure for about a day (long enough to hire a tarot card reader she deems “too negative”) but then she meets the party-loving gays, and her marital woes become a distant concern.
With the introduction of Quentin in Episode 4, “In the Sandbox,” The White Lotus splits into two different shows. One is a Palermo-set psychological thriller in which Tanya comes to realize that “these gays” are conspiring against her. The other is a character study set at the resort, where messy quadrangle Daphne, Cameron (Theo James), Harper (Aubrey Plaza), and Ethan (Will Sharpe) explore what makes a successful marriage (while exploring each other’s bodies), and three generations of Di Grasso men present different versions of masculinity, each more toxic than the last.
The latter story seems to be where White’s interest lies: The imagery surrounding these scenes is potent, and the interactions between the characters — like Daphne’s conversation with Ethan in the finale, or Dominic’s (Michael Imperioli) speech about inheriting a flawed worldview from Bert (F. Murray Abraham) — are some of the most consequential of the season, with masterful performances to boot.
Tanya’s half of the show, on the other hand, functions as a meme factory, not a place for serious self-reflection, and its tragicomic sensibility plays out in her death. To be sure, watching Tanya, her eyes blinded by tears, empty the clip on a luxury yacht is exhilarating, and it’s especially satisfying to see her outsmart the men who thought she’d be such an easy mark. But Tanya’s blaze of glory ends when she fails to negotiate her way between the two boats, falling into the dark sea below.
In HBO’s post-finale featurette, White emphasized the comedy of the scene, saying, “She just dies this derpy death, and it just felt like that’s just so Tanya.” The moment is so Tanya, but White’s phrasing reflects how unimportant her death is to the season as a whole. Tanya’s death is just another silly little moment in the life of a woman who was so often the butt of the joke.
Given the needlessness of Tanya’s death, and White’s seeming awareness of it, one can’t help but wonder if The White Lotus’ murder mystery is a concession he must make to get the show on the air. White has suggested as much during press for both the first and second seasons. “Had I only known if I’d put a dead body at the beginning of Enlightened, maybe people would’ve watched,” he recently said. “These kinds of hooks do actually get viewers.” This suspicion is only strengthened when considering the online discussion surrounding this season, which has focused primarily on the question of who kills who, rather than the show’s thorny investigation of marriage, infidelity, and victimhood. Clearly, these opening death scenes are bringing viewers in the door and sustaining them throughout seven episodes, but because Tanya exists in a different story altogether, true closure is hard to come by.
White has already discussed his plans for The White Lotus Season 3 — “A satirical and funny look at death and Eastern religion and spirituality,” he said in the featurette — but unless he can re-integrate the first-act death with the larger themes of the season, it’s worth revising the formula altogether. The creator has proven he can handle the demands of writing and directing a large ensemble of characters in crisis. Maybe it’s time to let their stories float to the surface — and allow them all to go home in one piece.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.