The White Lotus’s explosive season finale, explained

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This article contains spoilers for the season finale of the second season of The White Lotus.

For the last week, White Lotus fans have been losing sleep in stressful anticipation of the series’s season finale and the answer to the show’s ultimate question: Which White Lotus hotel guests are gonna die?

And in Sunday’s finale, we got our answer.

Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) met her watery demise in the season finale, as did practically a full yacht’s worth of conspiring gay men.

As episode six hinted at, new friend Quentin (Tom Hollander) and Tanya’s husband Greg (Jon Gries) had a relationship — Tanya picked up (a poorly photoshopped) photo of the two in Quentin’s bedroom. We never find out what exactly that relationship is, but Tanya — after a frantic call from the subtly abducted Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) — believes that Quentin and his crew were in cahoots with Greg to kill her and cash in an inheritance.

Offshore on Quentin’s yacht, Niccolò (Stefano Gianino), Tanya’s mafioso escort from her cocaine-filled night, arrives to bring her back to shore — just the two of them and a sizable black “cocaine bag” in a tiny boat. Tanya is convinced Niccolò and the gays are going to kill her (“These gays are trying to kill me,” she whisper-hisses, perfectly). In a desperate move, she grabs the bag, finds the tape, rope, and gun inside, and locks herself in a stateroom. When the gays come knocking, she blindly shoots her way out, still whimpering, and manages to mortally wound if not outright kill everyone on the yacht. (No, I am not making this up.) Tanya Wick just has to make it to the attached dinghy, but instead of taking the stairs, she decides to jump — whacking her head on the side of the boat and drowning.

Tanya went out doing what she loved most, obviously luring in people with her copious amounts of money and then thwarting them last minute. (The murky status of Greg’s inheritance notwithstanding.)

In a cheerier conclusion than the first season, the rest of the guests got relatively happy endings.

Fatally miserable couple Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper Spiller (Aubrey Plaza) recovered their missing intimacy, accepting a little bit of mystery in one another. Knowing that his college roommate at the very least kissed his wife, Ethan tackles Cameron (Theo James) in the ocean and punches him in the face. Ethan reveals the possible indiscretion to Cam’s uncannily zen wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), who gives Ethan basically the same ambiguously erotic pep talk she gave Harper: Don’t be a victim; get yours. Unlike Harper, Daphne takes Ethan on a walk to a private island. After that, and a surprisingly not-weird dinner with the full foursome, Ethan rekindles his attraction to Harper and the two finally have sex.

The Di Grasso men left the island as they came — all terrible with women in their own unique ways. Dominic (Michael Imperioli) has a sliver of hope his wife will talk to him again, thanks to his son’s semi-extortionist blessing; Bert (F. Murray Abraham) still gets sexually excited from a hug. At the airport, Albie (Adam DiMarco) reconnects with Portia, each having been pretty well and thoroughly scammed by the sex workers they unwittingly ditched each other for. The two exchange numbers, so they can go on to hurt each other another day.

Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) got to achieve their dreams this season: scamming men and singing at the hotel’s piano bar.
Courtesy of HBO

And speaking of sex workers, Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) got a real happily ever after. Lucia played Albie and his dad for 50,000 euro. Alessio, the man supposedly stalking her, wasn’t a pimp or a disgruntled mob boss but just a doorman at a neighboring hotel. And as a result of accidentally drugging the resident pianist, Mia convinces hotel manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) to fire him. Good for them!

Men get played. Women get rich. Yachts became death traps. What a surprisingly jaunty ending for our White Lotus guests (save for Tanya) and oddly hopeful cap to the second season of this beloved HBO show.

The biggest shift this season was how The White Lotus transitioned from feeling like a show about unaware and unchecked privilege with a little murder mystery hanging over it, to murder mystery with a bit of unaware and unchecked privilege on the side. Fans were more determined than ever to decode every potential clue. The change in vibe began in the very first episode.

We meet Daphne who, at first blush feels familiar to anyone who’s seen The White Lotus season one. She’s got perfect hair, a perfect swimsuit, perfect teeth. Big, clean, gorgeous teeth. In White Lotus code, this means she’s probably a horrific monster. Daphne chats up the girls next to her, initiating a conversation about how lucky they are to be in Sicily.

“Italy’s just so romantic,” Daphne tells the women, before getting into the Ionian Sea one last time. “Oh, you’re gonna die. They’re gonna have to drag you out of here,” she says.

As Daphne takes the plunge, the water suddenly doesn’t seem as blue or clear as it did in the wide shot. And then it happens: A pair of floating legs (and Tanya’s corpse that they’re attached to) thump into Daphne, and send her screaming for shore. Onshore, we learn that a number of bodies have been discovered, but no final body count given (beach club supervisor Rocco tells manager Valentina that there’s a “few”). All we know is that the unalive people were guests of the hotel.

That’s where the real show starts.

In season one, the possibility remained that the body bag we saw in the very first episode had been the result of natural causes. But since we saw that end with snotty guest Shane (Jake Lacy) stabbing hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), and started this new season with a whole pile of bodies, it seemed all but assured that foul play would be afoot at the White Lotus Sicily. Were these deaths an accident? Were they on purpose? Murder? Manslaughter? And more importantly: Who died? And who killed them?

White’s sneaky move was to let the subtle, even pedestrian betrayals in relationships feel like clues to a murder mystery. A thousand motives flit across the screen, all possible in the characters’ fragile relationships. Over an innocuous dinner or drinks at the beach, the tension between these characters seems like it might boil over — and occasionally does.

Suddenly, it wasn’t so difficult to see a scenario in which Ethan, frustrated with Harper, would kill his old buddy Cam. It wasn’t impossible to imagine Albie killing Lucia after finding out his father also slept with her, or Jack (Leo Woodall) tossing Portia into the sea because she found out Quentin wasn’t his uncle.

The first season took a big swing, giving us White’s ideas about how American greed and pleasure are interconnected and how Hawaii and Hawaiians became the mainland’s victims. The White Lotus’s second season doesn’t even attempt to tell a similar story. Instead, it’s skewering gender by way of masculinity, sex, and desire. It’s a more sensational, more sordid, more sinister, and more streamlined story. It’s a less ambitious season, maybe, but a more successful one.

The White Lotus didn’t invent miserable rich Americans, nor did it create our morbid curiosity with them. Watching the wealthy writhe in emotional displeasure is a long tradition, from The Great Gatsby to the Real Housewives. There’s something comforting in knowing there are limits to financial security, and witnessing people who could afford anything still be unfulfilled in ways that they’ll never be able to solve. There’s something about the rich on vacation that feels like it could go full Hunger Games.

Yet, despite the endless reasons to hate so many of the main guests — Ethan is so terminally insecure, Harper is a horny grump, Cameron’s a slimeball, Tanya is an emotional vampire, Portia has no backbone, and the Di Grassos have never met a woman they couldn’t impose themselves on — there’s one I would die for: Daphne Sullivan.

Obviously, a lot of my affection for the character comes from Meghann Fahy’s brilliant performance. And just as much can be explained by the ancient proverb: “girl does sociopathic shit, her gays [say] work.”

But it’s also what Daphne represents.

When we first meet her on the beach chatting up the two women on vacation, there’s a sense that she’s kind of a rich dumb-dumb. That’s the common thread among White Lotus guests. Look how they can’t even understand what’s happening around them.

Adding to that impression is that we also meet eternally mordant Harper, who’s crabby the minute she gets to Sicily. Harper does not want to be there. She hates being on vacation with people she hates.

This irritability makes Harper seem like the show’s protagonist. It allows her to point out how out of touch the people around her are, the implicit position of viewers at home. When Harper tells Cameron and Daphne that she’s an employment lawyer, Cameron quickly spouts on about how most harassment lawsuits are fake. When Cameron and Daphne tell her they don’t read or watch the news, she’s shocked at their incuriosity about the world. If Harper, who the show paints as smarter than the rest of the cohort, thinks Daphne and Cameron are idiots, then they must be idiots, right?

But as the show progresses, Daphne shows herself to be much smarter than she appears — and maybe wiser than Harper herself.

In episode 5, Harper, by way of a condom wrapper and emotional warfare, finds out that Cameron and Ethan did MDMA and that Cameron cheated on Daphne with a sex worker. When she tells Daphne as much as she can without spelling out all the details, Daphne doesn’t even flinch.

Instead of shock, Daphne tells Harper about her trainer Lawrence. They spend an enormous amount of time together. Lawrence makes her laugh. Lawrence keeps her fit. Lawrence doesn’t let her get lonely. She describes him to Harper as blond and blue-eyed, and offers to show her a pic. Instead, she hands over a photo of her blond and blue-eyed children. “Oops,” she says, with the smallest point, and we know she’s never made a mistake at all, but that Cameron has in underestimating her.

“I spend more time with him than Cameron sometimes because he’s so busy at work,” Daphne tells Harper, before her face sharpens into a smile that’s all edges. “The point is, maybe you should get a trainer.”

It’s in this moment that Harper realizes Daphne isn’t oblivious to her life but, rather, fully aware of every moment of it. Like her shopping sprees, infidelity to the point of paternity fraud is one of the ways Daphne has carved out happiness in what could be an utterly punishing life. She’s the trophy wife to Cameron’s wheeling, dealing, cheating asshole finance bro, but Daphne plays the game, too. She just happens to be smart enough to never be left footing the bill. She knows being unvalued will get her further.

Though it looks like they might, Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Cameron (Theo James) did not kiss.
HBO

Daphne puts her slightly mercenary wisdom to practice in the final episode, after Ethan tells her something happened with Harper and Cam. Taking just a beat to let the hurt wash over her, she’s quickly ready to metabolize. While we don’t know for certain what happens when Daphne takes Ethan on a walk to La Isola Bella, it seems to lead to a reset in the natural balance of the group, which had gone perilously lopsided for Ethan since he had reason to be suspicious of his wife. Does Daphne really want Ethan? (No, I don’t think so.) Do they actually hook up? (Yes, I think so.) What matters is that neither of them is a victim anymore.

Daphne’s worldview serves both halves of the Spiller couple well, eventually. Each had felt victimized by the other: Harper by Ethan’s expectations and lack of sexual interest, Ethan by Harper’s moods and frustration, both by the other’s lies. Daphne helps put the couple on equal footing by encouraging each one to take their power back. Honesty is overrated; an appreciation for mystery in yourself and the person you love is a much sexier solution.

“You don’t have to know everything to love someone,” she tells Ethan.

She should know; it’s an answer that has paid off her time and again. It’s also worth noting that Ethan and Harper being on good terms with each other is a good thing for Daphne. If Ethan doesn’t see Cameron as a threat, especially if you read his “walk” with Daphne as more than a stroll, he might be open to Cameron investing his money and obliquely funding Daphne’s lavish life.

Upward mobility isn’t usually rewarded in The White Lotus, as we saw with Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) from season one, and Quentin and his cohort this year. Striving for something more never works out when you play against the ultra-wealthy. But here, all along, Daphne defied the odds and found a way. Just don’t tell anyone about her trainer.

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