From the first moments of this season of The White Lotus, Mike White made us wonder “Who’s in the water?” What body does Daphne bump into opening of the “Ciao” season, and who else does the Italian police find? Is it Cam, Harper or Ethan, members of married couples at different levels of marital distress? Is it one of Di Grasso’s men, on a family trip to the motherland? Sex workers Lucia and Mia, or beleaguered assistant Portia?
These personages were all walking towards the water and looking at it solemnly; they watched the waves crashing on the rocks; they heard stories of people being killed for their seaside property, their bodies thrown off cliffs. And at the end of “Goodbye,” he returns White Lotus guest Tanya, who is found drowned, marked for death by her frilly pink floral dress, so similar to that worn by the dummy version of Michael Corleone’s first wife, Apollonia in The Godfather tourist attraction visited by Portia. “Death is the last immersive experience I haven’t tried,” Tanya told her not-yet-husband Greg in white lotus season 1 finale “Departures,” and it is with a sense of narrative self-referentiality that White transforms Tanya’s relationship with the water from season one’s baptism to season two’s oblivion.
Water is a well-established symbol of rebirth in art and literature, and White has repeatedly evoked this meaning in his own work, with added layers of fantasy and surreality. In Enlightened he used various underwater images to ask how people see themselves in the vastness of the universe – are we pearls “hiding under the sand at the bottom of the ocean”, waiting for someone notice us and claim us? Is the blissful serenity of a sea turtle, fully conscious and at peace with itself, possible for us? In the first season of The White Lotusthe Hawaiian beach and water are places of refuge for Quinn, a wealthy white teenager, who sleeps on the sand and is captivated by the apparent purity of the landscape, and for Tanya, who arrives in Hawaii to make peace with the death of his mother.
Tanya is introduced to us as self-absorbed and self-absorbed, actively harmful to White Lotus staff, and deeply concerned about her appearance, especially to men. The first time she tries to scatter her mother’s ashes on a boat chartered from “Mysterious Monkeys” she is hysterically upset, her face frozen in a mask of agony and resentment. But in “Departures,” after all the support provided by White Lotus employee Belinda, she’s effervescent and at ease, practically dancing through the waves as she tosses handfuls of ash into the air. She turns around, looks at the water that surrounds her and finds a new beginning there. The same goes for Quinn: after watching Tanya walk along the beach, he abandons his family and stays in Hawaii to canoe with a group of locals who warmly and without question accepted him. in their crew. One of the final scenes in “Departures” is Quinn on a Hawaiian-style outrigger boat, paddling further from shore (and her old life), and moving towards the sun and something new.
This season of The White Lotus, however, clearly and deliberately subverted that ending. These deaths on the opening scene signaled a different approach: there was no longer such a restorative or welcoming aquatic environment, and in its place was the equally mysterious and impenetrable ocean – not too far from what Daphne tells Ethan about the wedding in “Arrivederci”. When Daphne observes: “You never really know what’s going on in people’s heads or what they’re doing. … There’s always that part that’s a mystery,” she talks about the ambiguity of companionship and the impossibility of fully anticipating what someone you love and trust might do – or do. at you. Take these statements figuratively, though, and they sound a bit like ocean commentary too: 95 percent of it that remains unexplored and unexplored by humans, entire ecosystems in which we have no part. There are patterns and rhythms in the ocean that operate with their own intent, and which we have no impact on, and White immediately establishing the water as a place of death this season amplified the unknowability of this underwater world.
Photo: Francesca D’Angelo/HBO
Each of these seven episodes are used as B-roll waves crashing on rocks and splashing cliffs, pebbles caught in the surf and sunlight appearing on the surface of the water, and sometimes even images of rewinding the rising tide to convey a natural, unpredictable, even aggressive threat – not too dissimilar to how David Lynch used trees, leaves and winds in twin peaks as a reminder of all that is happening around us regardless of our presence or interference. In The White Lotuss, there is something comforting about our personal irrelevance in tension with the choices of others, Daphne seems to say, because it gives us the freedom to decide for ourselves how we act and react.
To bring that idea of inscrutability back to Tanya, her actions this season have often felt like someone caught in a riptide, going with the flow until there’s no turning back – and no one to save her. She’s different from a character like Daphne, who sees the storm and swims parallel to it, carving her own path through the chaos. Instead, Tanya’s ending feels like both a pointed rebuke of her faux-triumph in the first-season finale (she frolics along the beach and believes the water could heal her, while it was really the constant emotional work of Belinda being abandoned), and a bit of a sad reminder that the answers we most often seek are the ones we never find. Tanya guesses that Quentin, “those homosexuals” and Mafia-affiliated Niccolo planned to kill her; Otherwise, why would Jack abduct Portia and steal her phone, and why else would Niccolo bring her back to shore with a bag full of rope, duct tape, and a gun? But Tanya, who pushes her way through the men, never discovers how involved Greg, whose photo Quentin kept by his bedside, was in the scheme; Quentin dies while she is interrogating him. Was this fortune teller’s reading of Tanya, in which she guessed that Greg was having an affair and Tanya would kill herself, right? Somehow, even misjudging the distance between two boats and bumping heads is more of an accident than suicide.
Much of this is open to interpretation and, in the voice of Daphne de White, ambiguous until you make up your own mind about what to believe. There is clarity, however, about White sending Tanya to a watery end, and about her warning that what we believe will heal us might actually be what hurts us. The line between comedy and tragedy is thin, after all, and Tanya could only hold on to it for so long before slipping.