She’s a supporting player in this season of The White Lotus, but Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is still part of an artistic dynasty. Let’s call them Mike White’s social misfits. In all his movies and TV shows, there are characters who simply can’t blend into the society around them. They violate decorum. They stun people into silent disbelief. Yet they just keep singing or screaming or bluntly assessing someone’s fashion sense.
More than anything, these characters emphasize how quickly the social contract can be ripped in half. That’s always been White’s theme. He’s curious about how easy it is to dismantle the veneer of respectable behavior. But unlike, say, Aeschylus, who turns hypocritical politeness into tragedy, White mines it for laughs. His social misfits are unsettling, but they’re often better spoken and more fearless than the cosseted community around them. So even if we’re more like the “normal” folks, we can root for the weirdos and their bull-in-a-china-shop vivacity.
That’s true of Dewey Finn (Jack Black), the burnout musician who scams his way into a teaching job in the 2003 film School of Rock. Everything he does serves his religious belief in rock music, to the point that nobody in an actual band wants to be around him. The only people who will listen to his sermons on Black Sabbath are the elementary school students in his classroom, and if this were a darker movie, he might turn them into a heavy metal cult. Instead, his faith in rocking out unlocks their creative potential. No wonder this is the only Mike White property to be adapted for Broadway: It lets the social misfit become the heartwarming hero.
But when they’re not heartwarming, White doesn’t punish them. At the end of Enlightened, the two-season HBO comedy he co-created in 2011, corporate whistleblower Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) exposes her corrupt company while alienating herself from everyone she knows. She’s so committed to her crusade that she shrieks at a woman holding a baby. She abuses self-empowerment language to manipulate her co-worker into stealing information. It’s easy to shield our eyes in horror. Yet when her bosses confront her for leaking their secrets to the press, she refuses to apologize. They call her a hysteric. They say she’s got fuzzy-headed idealistic notions that don’t apply to reality. She says she’s proud to care about something other than money and storms out of the room. Amy may destroy her life, but she finds her soul.
The same goes for Peggy Spade (Molly Shannon), the spiky center of the 2007 film Year of the Dog. She’s so invested in animal rights that she decides it’s a great idea to make children witness the horror of a slaughterhouse. That doesn’t make her popular, but her beliefs give her solace. Buck O’Brien, the obsessive protagonist of 2000’s Chuck & Buck, also finds a type of grace. Played by White himself, he spends the film fixated on sleeping with his straight best friend, which makes him say and do outlandish things. Eventually, though, he turns his obsession away from his buddy and toward his playwriting. It sets him free.
Over and over, then, White uses these characters to demonstrate that disrupting the social order is for the best. It makes people uncomfortable and can come with serious consequences, but in his world at least, it also results in a type of spiritual clarity. Maybe that’s another reason he writes comedies: He has faith.
This is all good news for Valentina, a Sicilian hotel manager who tears through The White Lotus with a breathtakingly brusque leadership style. In the season premiere, she learns a guest has drowned in the sea, and she reacts with relief that the Mediterranean isn’t hotel property. A few scenes later, she greets an elderly guest by telling him she’s shocked his old bones were strong enough to travel. In Episode 2, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) strolls up in a pink outfit and asks Valentina to guess who she’s impersonating. Valentina confidently says it’s Peppa Pig.
In this week’s episode, “In the Sandbox,” she applies her tactics to romance. When Dominic (Michael Imperioli) asks for advice on where to buy jewelry for his wife, she waves a hand in the air and tells him to wander around until he finds something he likes. She thinks she’s hidden her lack of interest behind a professional veneer, and when her employee Isabella (Eleanora Romandini) steps in with a recommendation, she doesn’t register that it’s a type of apology to Dominic. Instead, she gets turned on by Isabella’s knowledge of local boutiques, then goes to that store to buy her a gift.
But like all of Mike White’s social misfits, Valentina has principles. Specifically, she hates the patriarchy. We see her excoriate a man who hits on her while she’s trying to have her morning coffee, and we see her circle her male employees, daring them to treat women like objects. One could even argue that she insults the guests because she doesn’t think a woman should be deferential.
Whatever her motivations, Valentina is the obvious rough edge in this season’s ensemble. The other characters try to manipulate each other behind a veil of small talk and flattery. She doesn’t have time for that. And considering how often the show has presented the patriarchy in action, that’s probably a good approach. Chances are, Valentina’s commitment to her worldview will result in some kind of victory.
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.