The flights have been booked, the bikinis and swim trunks have been packed, the group has assembled and you’re finally off to adventure. What could this vacation hold? Special memories? Family bonding? New friendships? What about… death?
“The White Lotus” has released two seasons in the past two years, each of which features a nearly entirely different cast. Beyond that, Season 1’s White Lotus hotel is set in Maui, Hawaii, whereas Season 2 takes place at a different White Lotus destination in Taormina, Sicily. The glimmering Jennifer Coolidge is the only primary performer to reprise her role for the second season, which causes each of the two seasons to possess entirely different plotlines.
However, the first episode of each season confirms that someone has died at the White Lotus over the course of the past week’s vacation. Writer and director Mike White (otherwise known as Ned Schneebly from the 2003 cinematic masterpiece “School of Rock”) tactfully grips the audience in this way and flashes back to the week prior, leaving us to ponder who could lose their life as the show plays out.
In a feature titled “Inside the Episode” that is shown at the end of each episode, White confirmed upon Season 2’s finale that he made Season 1 about money and Season 2 about sex. Although the cast, setting and plotlines are vastly different across the two, you can sense White’s craftsmanship in the stylistic choices of each season.
So since everyone’s talking about this show, and each season is nearly independent of the other, you may be asking yourself: which season of “The White Lotus” is better? Which one should be prioritized? I intend to lend advice for this very question.
Season 1’s guest list is populated by a married couple on their honeymoon, a family on vacation, and a solo woman. Members of the staff hold large roles in the story as well. The setting of this season at a resort in Hawai’i adds to the racial and economic thematics present this season. Colonialism and wealth disparity are darkly conveyed via storylines consisting of an array of oblivious and vindictive characters.
The importance of these stories and their strategically allegorical portrayals are not to be discounted. However, I found myself wanting to claw my eyes out as I watched the newlywed wife sink deeper and deeper into fear and despair, all the while failing to speak up against her spouse. His continual immaturity, entitlement and ignorance left me yelling “ASSHOLE!” at my screen for all six episodes. For God’s sake, he brought his own mother on his honeymoon.
In a clandestine affair between the family’s daughter’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and hotel employee Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), it is revealed that this White Lotus is a direct result of colonialism. The hotel displaced members of Kai’s family, but he is in a position in which he needs to keep working for them in order to make money. This story is unsurprising given the millions like it, both in Hawai’i and in nations across the world. The whole of America rests on stolen Native land.
Although this minor storyline calls major attention to this issue, the show was still filmed in Hawaii and lays host to gorgeous shots of underwater wonders and beach paradises. Given the over-tourism crisis that is harming Native Hawaiians and their environments, the show walks an artistic tightrope. Marie Claire writes, “Native Hawaiians have pointed out that the hotels receive preferential treatment compared to locals (see the July 2021 Maui water shortage where residents were fined for overuse but authorities turned a blind eye to the hotels).” Be wary of these truths if you, for some reason, come out of Season 1 wishing to visit. In fact, a broad social media movement has shown many Native Hawaiians urging tourists to stop coming altogether. I echo this notion.
HBO, per usual, doesn’t hold back with jaw-dropping sequences. Somehow both seasons feature a woman walking in on sex between two men, with one being at least double the age of his counterpart. In Season 1, this couple is an employer and his employee; in Season 2, the lovers are an alleged uncle and nephew. Episode 5 of Season 1 had me yelling in discomfort before, during, and after an unjust confrontation. Spoiler alert: white privilege and patriarchy reign victorious at the conclusion of the show. While there is value to this social commentary, as it accurately conveys reality, the torment of witnessing it on television is heavy. This is not a show that offers stories of Black or Indigenous joy.
I also felt that the pacing of Season 1 was rather slow. At times, scenes felt rather mundane and failed to advance the plot (or lack thereof). This could be another artistic choice, but it made the episodes harder to patiently complete.
Season 2 pivots to a less tense mood and environment. I even felt like I was on a relaxing vacation while watching it. Perhaps its thematics centering on sex made it more… well, sexy. Although questions surrounding the concept of infidelity filled nearly every plotline, the risks and deviant behaviors each character undertook did not warrant as much exasperation as the season prior. Humor seemed significantly more centralized and instrumental in each episode of Season 2.
Season 2’s guests include Tanya once again, her assistant, a group of older gay men, a motherland trip of three generations of Sicily-descended men, two scamming female prostitutes, and a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding, no partridge — only a tense set of two married couples.
The high caliber of film craftsmanship is consistent across each season. I admired the way that mystery clouded the married couples in Season 2, and we as viewers did not get to see every event that took place. This was effective in conveying the madness that progressed in Ethan (Will Sharpe), who mysteriously vanished at a time that suggested he, too, had partaken in an activity we did not see.
Both stars Aubrey Plaza and Theo James were factors in my motivation to begin watching the show, and their performances did not disappoint. The social commentary still weaves its way into this season, with comments like Harper (Aubrey Plaza) acknowledging that she and Ethan were Cameron’s (Theo James) and Daphne’s (Meghann Fahy) “white-passing diverse friends.” This political disparity between the couples persists as Harper and Daphne share discussions that exhibit two polar opposite experiences with womanhood.
No character is distinctly “good” or “bad” in either season. There are nuanced hidden strengths and weaknesses in every individual. The characters’ pride appears to hinder their ability to notice what we as viewers are able to uncover.
The answer to the question regarding which season of this excellent show to prioritize lies more in your individual preference. What are you looking for in your entertainment right now? If you wish to bear witness to art that may be painful and frustrating, but holds significant cultural commentary, Season 1 is for you. If you wish to relax and laugh at Jennifer Coolidge pleading for help because “these gays… they’re trying to murder me,” then Season 2 awaits.
“The White Lotus” is available to stream on HBO Max.
By Risa Bolash