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The Real Cost of The White Lotus

Photo: HBO Max

In the first-season finale of The White Lotus, Tanya McQuoid tells Belinda, the manager of the spa at the show’s titular hotel, that she’s determined to avoid building connections based on her substantial wealth.

“Right now, the last thing I need in my life is another transactional relationship,” she says. “It’s not healthy for me.”

As Sunday’s season-two finale of The White Lotus confirmed, more transactional relationships were indeed the last things that Tanya, played by the irrepressible Jennifer Coolidge, needed. Sadly, they were also the last things she got.

As “Arrivederci” reveals, the floating body that we first saw in episode one belongs to Tanya, who drowns after shooting “the gays” attempting to bump her off and split the payout with her husband, Greg. That conclusion was shocking and spit-take hilarious — Tanya clumsily goes full Scarface, obliterates nearly everyone on the yacht, then inadvertently kills herself when she tries to jump from the yacht to an escape dinghy — but also highlighted the thematic glue that bonds the first two seasons of this HBO series. Season one established that practically every relationship is transactional, and season two goes a step further by suggesting that satisfaction can only be achieved when one understands that essential truth. “The Best Things in Life Are Free” is the song we hear as the season-two finale concludes, and it is definitely deployed ironically. What this season of The White Lotus really taught us was that if you want the best things in life, you’d better be prepared to hustle, negotiate, and deceive in order to get them.

While the first two seasons of Mike White’s HBO series focus their attention on slightly different subjects — the initial one in Hawaii zeroed in on privilege and colonialism, while the second, Sicilian-set one centered sexual and gender dynamics — both examine the extent to which every personal connection is about getting what one wants. In season one, those dynamics played out primarily in various have-vs.-have-not relationships: between staff and customers (Tanya and Belinda, Shane and Armond); spouses where one person wields more power than the other (Shane and Rachel, Nicole and Mark); and friends who offer each other needed clout (Olivia and Paula). In season two, money and class remain central factors, as illustrated most blatantly by Lucia and Mia and their relationships with pretty much everyone they encounter at the White Lotus. But when you consider which of the guests comes out of that weeklong experience unscathed — you know, relatively speaking — it’s the ones that have accepted that partnerships involve negotiation and are honest with themselves about that.

Albie, angry with his father for cheating so consistently on his mother, makes peace via extortion, promising Dominic he’ll tell his mother that Dominic is a changed man as long as Dominic gives him the money Albie promised to Lucia. Admittedly, Albie is not particularly adept at executing this plan, talking up his father to his mother before Dominic has even agreed to transfer the €50,000 Albie requested. He also refers to the money as a “karmic payment” rather than the extremely transactional act that it is. Nevertheless, the final image we get of the DiGrasso men is of the three of them simultaneously turning their heads to look at a beautiful female traveler at the airport. It’s a funny comedic beat, and a nod back to that similar L’Avventura-inspired moment in episode three. But it also signals that these men are on the same page now, incapable of hiding their sexual desires but also more comfortable with their similarities in that regard.

While one might assume naïve Albie still doesn’t grasp that Lucia took advantage of him, he disabuses us of that notion when he reconnects with Portia at the airport and tells her that he got played. Portia, played to an even greater, more dangerous extent by Jack, is well aware that she too was flattered and flirted with solely because of Tanya’s money. When the two trade phone numbers, they do so with an air of two people who have become older, wiser, and more practical since they last spoke. It’s not hard to imagine them eventually meeting up for a beer back in the States, trading the full stories of how they were conned and starting a friendship, or perhaps something more, by bonding over their roles as easy marks. There’s an implication here that perhaps Albie and Portia could not have a real relationship with each other without first learning the hazards of entering a romance with their guard completely down.

Harper and Ethan, despite being married, absorb a version of the same lesson by spending their vacation with Cam and Daphne, a couple who have found their version of happiness by constantly calculating what and when to withhold from each other. Only after observing Cam and Daphne do Harper and Ethan get what they really want from each other: spicy sex. That sex happens to start with them breaking the teste di moro statue, a piece of art that symbolizes the story of a man beheaded by a lover who discovered he was married, and which Harper and Ethan shatter as easily as the myth that adultery can ruin a relationship. The meaningless physical encounters between Cam and Harper and Daphne and Ethan — we don’t know that Ethan and Daphne hooked up when they ventured over to that island, but it seems obvious they did — have actually enlivened the marriage between Harper and Ethan. Watching their traveling companions do and take what they want enables them to do the same with each other.

But there’s an important distinction between what Harper and Ethan have versus Cam and Daphne: They are honest with each other about their dalliances. They also finally seem to agree that Cam and Daphne are complete phonies, as illustrated by their incredulity when the other couple insists on eating their final vacation meal as a group and toasting their fabulous trip as if none of the drama among the four of them ever occurred. Cam and Daphne totally know their relationship is transactional, but they act as though it isn’t. Ethan and Harper, who finally calls Cam an idiot to his face, are less deluded and therefore, in the show’s eyes, more authentic.

White communicates the idea that Harper and Ethan have something akin to real intimacy through visual language. He films their love scene with reverence, capturing the glare of a rising sun peeking through the space between their bodies as though they’ve become — yes, I will use this word here — enlightened. And when we last see the two couples in the airport, they are sitting separate from each other as if they are two sides of the same dysfunctional marital coin. The White Lotus never outright says that the “friendship” between the four of them is basically over, but that’s the only read that makes sense. Ethan was never really friends with Cam in the first place; he was just engaged in a yearslong competition to prove his own worth. Now that he knows he can have everything Cam has — his wealth, his status, Cam’s wife, an outwardly happier version of his own wife — there’s no more allure in that relationship. Ethan finally got what he needed from Cam, and his marriage did, too.

The characters who enjoy the most notable moment of triumph in the finale are Mia and Lucia, and it’s not an accident that they also happen to engage in the most blatantly transactional relationships. What is more transactional than getting paid for sex, as Lucia does, or using one’s body to get a coveted job, which Mia does, first with Giuseppe (a tiny bit of poisoning helps there, too) and later with Valentina? These Sicilian women want straightforward things: money and, in Mia’s case, opportunity. They both get what they came for, so to speak, and stroll happily through the streets of Italy as if their cares have completely dissolved, which, for now, they have. The best things in life are free? No, girl, the best thing in life is getting what you want, especially when that something is a fatter bank account.

Ending this season with Mia and Lucia basically celebrating their ability to pull one over on the tourists feels like a corrective to what happened to poor Kai, the hotel employee who gets talked into trying to rob the Mossbachers at the end of season one. Instead of getting played or demeaned like the staff and locals in season one, the locals team up with White Lotus staff to stick it to the Establishment. It’s Valentina who ensures that Mia can keep her job rather than the older, male pianist, and, in a rich reveal, we see that Lucia’s alleged pimp is actually just a hotel doorman who will presumably get some cut of Albie’s euros. This time, the poor emerge just as victorious, perhaps more so, than the rich.

Then there’s the person who doesn’t emerge at all from the events that happen in Sicily: Tanya McQuoid, whose story is evidence all by itself of the importance of understanding the transactional nature of relationships. The problem with Tanya, may she try to rest in peace in an afterlife where she’s probably arguing with her mother and trying to hire a new assistant, is that she is self-aware only to a point. She knows herself well enough to admit, as she does to Belinda, that she uses her money to control people. But even when evidence that she’s being used for her money is shoved right in front of her face — Greg’s sudden exit from Sicily and his mysterious phone call, the picture of Greg and Quentin at Quentin’s estate, the weirdness of Quentin and Jack, his alleged nephew, having sex — Tanya still can’t see it. She only begins to grasp what “these gays” are up to when Portia clues her in, and even then the full weight of what’s happening to her can’t totally penetrate her teased hair to reach her brain. After putting all the pieces together, then murdering multiple people to save herself, her first question to a barely breathing Quentin is, “Is Greg having an affair?”

How is this the first thing she is wondering in this scenario? It’s because Tanya still can’t comprehend that Greg married her for her money, or that all these gay men fawned over her for the same reason. She does not get it, which White ruthlessly clarifies in perhaps the darkest line uttered in season two: Tanya’s last words before she leaps to her accidental death are, “You got this.” But Tanya McQuoid does not “got this.” She never got any of it. Only those who understand that they could be a mark as well as a beneficiary in their own transactional relationships get to live to see another day and, presumably, another stay at a White Lotus.

The Real Cost of The White Lotus