Grab your microscope and your magnifying glass, because we really need to do a close read of the Godfather scene in "Bull Elephants," this week's episode of The White Lotus. In just a few sun-dappled minutes, it distills almost everything that makes this show wonderful, from its humor to its social commentary to its knack for finding the perfect costume piece.
In the scene, the Di Grasso family takes a day trip to visit the Sicilian locations where Francis Ford Coppola shot sections of The Godfather, including the famous bit where Michael Corleone's first wife Apollonia gets blown up by a car bomb. They bring along Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), partly because Albie (Adam DiMarco) has a crush on her and partly because Portia herself is eager to get away from Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge).
But from a certain perspective, the most significant member of the group is Dominic, since he's played by Michael Imperioli. It's such a cheeky move to bring a major cast member from The Sopranos to a location where the ultimate mafia movie was born. You can practically hear Mike White, creator of The White Lotus, giggling to himself.
White also notes how ludicrous it is to turn a film location into a tourist spot. He shows us visitors staring slack-jawed at clips of The Godfather playing on a gift shop television, flanked by tote bags and other tacky souvenirs. He lets the camera linger on the replica of a vintage car that's sitting near the cafe tables outside, complete with a mannequin to represent the soon-to-be-detonated Mrs. Corleone.
Places like this can be fun to visit, but when you step back and think about it, it really is funny to have a fake lady sitting in a sedan near a spot where people in cargo shorts are eating tiramisu. This recalls Tanya's obsession with transforming herself into Monica Vitti. We want to step inside movies so that we can escape from things, and we're willing to overlook a lot of malarkey in order to let that fantasy feel true.
Even more than fantasy, the entire episode is interested in the state of Western masculinity. The title "Bull Elephants" refers to a speech that Daphne (Meghann Fahy) makes about how she pities men, because even when they think they're doing something important, they're really just wandering around like lonely elephants without a herd. Right on cue, that speech is followed by a scene of Cameron (Theo James) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) riding jet skis together, making aggressive loops around each other like it’s some kind of aquatic fight ritual.
Albie makes a complementary thesis statement after his grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham) says The Godfather is the greatest American movie ever made. "It’s because you’re nostalgic for the salad days of the patriarchy," young Albie says. "Men love The Godfather because they feel emasculated by modern society. It's a fantasy about a time when they could go out and solve all their problems with violence and sleep with every woman, and then come home to their wife who doesn't ask them any questions and makes them pasta."
Because this is The White Lotus, we can't just accept this speech at face value. Albie has a point, sure, but he also spends the episode trying to be more aggressive with Portia, who has told him he has to be more direct. So even though he's understandably frustrated by his philandering dad and horny grandfather, he's also enacting the behaviors he tries to condemn. Thus, when Bert and Dominic tell him to pipe down with his shallow collegiate liberalism, they also have a point.
Things get even more complicated when this exchange gets contrasted with Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Daphne’s experience on a day trip. Daphne might pity men, but Harper feels understandably menaced by all the Sicilian guys who openly ogle her. White films her walking down a street that's got leering dudes on every corner and in every window, and their presence is suffocating.
At the Godfather site, the debate about the patriarchy is interrupted when Tanya calls Portia and demands that she come back to the hotel right away. In a visual coup de grace, Portia takes the call while she's standing in front of the car with the endangered mannequin wife. It's a shrewd way of noting that the women in this story can be as gruff with each other as the men, and there's added irony because Portia's wearing a shirt with pop-art photos of a woman's head on it. The photos look awfully similar to the mannequin, underscoring that Portia herself is caught up in a volatile situation.
Later that night, Portia also has to rebuff Albie's awkward attempts to come on to her by the pool. She eventually placates him by letting him walk her to her room, but before she leaves, she makes lingering eye contact with a hunky guest who's taking a swim. He's played by Leo Woodall, who has been announced as a recurring character this season, so we'll see if Portia tries to enact her own movie fantasies with him. Don't be surprised if they recreate a scene from Roman Holiday.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: The White Lotus, HBO, Adam DiMarco, Aubrey Plaza, F. Murray Abraham, Haley Lu Richardson, Jennifer Coolidge, Meghann Fahy, Michael Imperioli, Mike White, Theo James, Will Sharpe