CAUTION: Spoilers ahead for the season finale of The White Lotus: Sicily.
Just before she is about to be married and spend her first night with her husband, the spiritually winged Butterfly of the seminal opera Madama Butterfly says, “Oh, could I but vanish, my blushes to hide!” A small, but significant moment; this a young woman who is about to be transformed by pleasure, so much so that she wishes to disappear into herself, into the possible ecstasy of love itself. But is it love?
Mapping the Puccini opera—about a very young Japanese girl who falls for an American naval officer in the early 1900s, which sends them hurdling down a path beyond their control—onto the second season of Mike White’s HBO show The White Lotus: Sicily offers an intriguing experience. It’s the opera that the extremely wealthy dandy Quentin (Tom Hollander) takes the equally wealthy Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) to, as if to hold up a mirror to her own tragic status.
But it’s also the text White shows his audience, glimmering with aged perfection that suggests possible rot underneath. As the camera pushes in during an aria, Tanya’s face is caught in between: there’s recognition and disassociation, but also the sense of an uncanny smirk from behind the camera, that maybe Tanya isn’t the subject of the scene at all.
The twinned renaissances of Mike White and Jennifer Coolidge’s careers—in the wake of both the proliferation of their work being circulated around the internet, and particularly with the surprise success of the first season of The White Lotus—created a compelling and complicated dynamic, with Coolidge a muse of meme-makers and White the all-powerful god who could just as much control her narrative as relinquish that power to gay people on the internet.
White has always been a sharp craftsman with an ear and eye for the absurdity of people who long for connection but are stunted by either their personal failings of the environment that encouraged those behaviors. In that vein, he gives Tanya a kind of pathetically goofy background—well-meaning but ultimately selfish. So rich and so miserable and bereaved (her mother died and she’s come to spread the ashes), Tanya is a lady Pagliacci with a bejeweled crown of gold.
And, what can we say? Gay men love an affluent idiot woman who suffers just enough to make persevering her storyline, to make the affect of materialism her personality—and therefore theirs—to transform a deftly observed black comic character into online fodder.
— Jennifer Coolidge (@JENCOOLIDGE) December 12, 2022
White’s characterization of Tanya turns sharply left in the second season, not so much a woman baby who doesn’t know any better, but with a fuller sense of both a kind of helplessness and a complete disregard for the feelings of others. Arguably, she’s meaner, needier, but not ridiculous, not easily classifiable in a digestible way. At least, she keeps her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) on a leash while it looks like her marriage to Greg (Jon Gries) is about to fall apart.
Her search for happiness and beauty in Sicily is aggressively opaque, resting on either what she’s seen in movies (she loves and dresses up like Italian icon Monica Vitti) or what someone else can provide to her. She has no conception of it for herself. Instead, she is happy to play the role of a vacant but beautiful object for others.
Which leads us to Quentin and his coterie of expat hot, rich gays: refined, name-drop-y (he’s pals with author and public intellectual Gore Vidal), and divinely obsessed with Tanya herself. They provide to her the attention she has longed for from her husband, even though their interactions—implied by Hollander’s deliciously haughty line deliveries—have a bizarre flavor to them. It’s hard to pinpoint: a shifting power dynamic that at once props Tanya up onto a pedestal to be revered, yet controls and contrives what kind of idol she is. It’s classic gay diva worship, but with a tinge of darkness.
Quentin takes her to Madama Butterfly, gives her the time of her life, and makes her the star of her own tragic opera. But for all of his moves to make her the subject of her own fantasy, isn’t she really just the object of his? Someone to fawn over, to debate the value of beauty with—someone whose own beauty is a kind of capital that gay culture likes to associate itself with with little concern for interiority and depth.
While much of The White Lotus: Sicily orbited around the sexual mind games of other rich people and those aware of intimacy as transaction, Tanya’s storyline stands out. Here, Mike White finds himself adapting those thematic preoccupations into an autocritique mode. Perhaps there’s a sense of deja vu for the writer and showrunner, who has also witnessed his once muse Laura Dern, of Enlightened, become an object of gay obsession on the internet in the last several years
The season both provides those quotes that can be quickly screen-grabbed and posted online for easy gay jokes (“Those gays, they’re trying to murder me!”) and undermine them at the same time—because Tanya dies. She needed to.
— out of context the white lotus (@oocwhitelotus) December 12, 2022
Tanya finds herself ensconced in Palermo with the gay mafia, and then trapped on a yacht with them, with all the signifiers of excess pushed to the limits so that they seem almost campy. And then, when she finally realizes she’s a mark for her fortune to be stolen by these gays, she makes a final fight. After she clumsily bandies about a pistol, on her way to escaping, she falls to her death. It’s an end both operatic and “derpy,” as White calls it. But it was necessary.
The complex history of gay and queer men and their diva worship—as well as the melodramatic suffering of women and its connections to camp sensibility—is long, too long for this piece. But White and Coolidge give it a fresh effacing. It initially seemed a little on the nose that Tanya would be trapped by a gay mafia that was obsessed with her. But, since the meme factory hasn’t shut down yet, such an obvious critique of this kind of engagement with The White Lotus only makes the show’s efforts that much more fascinating.
In the show, love ends up being a surface on which we can view our ideal selves—so long as we can convince ourselves that it’s beautiful enough to do so, and gaze at a non-existent perfection.
Or, possibly, if our search for love and beauty—because here they are the same—becomes one in which others are merely those shiny objects by which we can gaze at those faux perfect reflections, which then end in death, perhaps we may vanish, disappear into it. Transformed and destroyed by beauty that cannot be contained.
All seven episodes of The White Lotus: Sicily are available to stream via HBO Max.