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The White Lotus Season 2 Needs Its Own Sydney Sweeney

Sweeney's character Olivia Mossbacher had a sneering derision that's largely missing from the Sicily-set season.
  • Sydney Sweeney in The White Lotus Season 1 (Photo: HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    Sydney Sweeney in The White Lotus Season 1 (Photo: HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    It’s curious that Mike White has described The White Lotus Season 2 as “a bedroom farce with teeth,” as the anthology’s sophomore run feels decidedly toothless. White’s emphasis on privileged characters lacking in self-awareness remains the same, but amid the shift from class issues to marital strife, the show’s once-biting satire has been muted. What Season 2 really needs is a character like Sydney Sweeney’s Olivia Mossbacher, who outwardly reflected viewers’ disdain for the trappings of wealth, even as she so clearly refused to live without them.

    Throughout Season 1, Olivia’s dominant characteristic is an unwavering belief that she’s superior to everyone around her, whether that’s her mother Nicole (Connie Britton), the CFO of a major tech company; her best friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), the one person of color in Olivia’s orbit; or newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), whom Olivia dresses down with an efficiency never before seen on television.

    Olivia wants to be seen as an ultra-progressive college student — she and Paula make conversation about the horrors of “neoliberal war hawks” and “neocons” at the dinner table — and as a result, much of her contempt is aimed at those who actively seek out wealth, like her mother or Rachel, who recently married loathsome rich boy Shane (Jake Lacy). That she benefits from her mother’s high-earning job and the privilege it affords their family is immaterial; what matters is that the act of striving appears desperate and, in her view, gross. “Making shit happen all the time is a compulsion,” Olivia tells Nicole, rejecting her mother’s attempt to teach her about hard work. “It staves off feelings of emptiness, or whatever.”

    In Olivia, viewers (and White) had someone in on the joke: someone who’s aware that these awful rich people and their material concerns are deserving of ridicule. Of course, Sweeney’s character doesn’t realize that her sense of superiority comes from her immense financial security. Ultimately, she aligns herself with the Mossbacher “tribe,” but a final shot of her reading Jacques Lacan’s “Écrits” (as Paula reads “Discourse on Colonialism” beside her) indicates she’s not done posing as an erudite, class-conscious thinker.

    Hypocritical though it may be, this undercurrent of sneering derision is largely missing from The White Lotus Season 2. Aubrey Plaza’s Harper Spiller, an employment lawyer, is intended to fill a similar role. She’s openly critical of her travel companions, Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne Babcock (Meghann Fahy), and their carefree, opulent lifestyle, but her main issue with them stems from their presentation as the “perfect” couple. “Daphne and Cameron never fight. If you never fight, then your relationship is not real,” she says to her husband Ethan (Will Sharpe). “They act like they’re on their honeymoon. They’re all over each other. But it’s bogus.”

    When Harper learns that Daphne and Cameron are engaged in a constant power struggle — “It’s like hide and seek. Keeps things interesting,” says Daphne — she can hardly contain her glee: This is the proof she needs that her marriage is better, her outlook on life more righteous. Harper may operate as if she has the moral high ground, but unlike Olivia, she needs to be convinced of her standing, an insecurity that makes her more relatable, yet less wickedly enthralling at the same time.

    It’s fine that White wants to move away from class warfare, but his male-versus-female focus lacks the edge that made Season 1 feel so explosive. Three episodes in, The White Lotus Season 2 feels like something Olivia Mossbacher would dismiss as overly referential to the wealthy, cis-het couples at its center — though she would probably still binge-watch it in secret, away from Paula’s withering stare.

    The White Lotus airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The White Lotus, HBO, Aubrey Plaza, Mike White, Sydney Sweeney