This vacation is so good it will change your life
So much that you are so changed that you return exactly as you were
“Yeah, I don’t do that shit.”
Nearly 24-hours into being kidnapped, Portia is looking her kidnapper up on Instagram, hoping to find some information about why she is being kept away from her rich heiress boss. She has a vague understanding that the flirty Essex boy that has whisked her around Palermo isn’t all he seems, but still she tries to find more about him online hoping that she’s not trapped in a nightmare but a future meet cute with the himbo that will finally get her out of her shell.
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The next morning after being distracted for a full day after being warned by her boss to “get her shit together,” Portia tries to confront him after he in the most obvious fashion has hidden her phone. He rebuffs her and one again tries to take her around Sicily as some romantic holiday flirt before both go back to their daily routines. This is a romance that could change her, so she gives into the mystery.
Anyone with any vague sense of history — and access to a google search — could tell you of the island of Sicily’s famous history of organized crime. Heck, days earlier Portia is taken to the house that Francis Ford Coppola shot scenes for The Godfather II, possibly the most iconic mafia media in U.S. cinematic history. Portia not knowing that the shady characters who are cagey about all their backstories is not inexcusable per se, but it is a defining character trait in this season of Mike White’s The White Lotus.
A dissection of how class defines the American travel experience, season two of the show takes the iconic hotel chain off U.S. soil (albeit it started on stolen U.S. soil) and abroad to dissect how American luxury views getting its taste of a different culture.
Three distinct groups descend on to the White Lotus hotel in Taormina, Sicily with different motivations, all looking for something they cannot find at home and hope to come home a different person marked by the experience.
The Di Grasso family men hope to find long lost cousins that are from Sicily before the family splintered with some staying behind in the island’s poverty, and others looking — and finding — better lives in America. Tanya drags unworldly Portia with her on a romantic getaway to a hotel she is a premium rewards member of, in hopes of rekindling romance with her distant husband Greg. Finally Ethan and Harper are invited by Cameron — Ethan’s old college roommate — and Daphne to experience a luxury vacation to cement their new status after Ethan has sold a company for millions of dollars.
Spoiler: The Di Grasso’s, Portia, and the two married couples make it back to the airport after a vacation from hell that proved formative for all of them.
Yet, all the characters leave pretty much as the exact same people they arrived. Unlike the first season, White brilliantly layers in characters local to Taormina whose interactions with the hotel guests can only be described as for their own gain at the guests expense. While the Americans hope to learn from these characters, they see their veneer of desire for worldliness and ultimately find ways to profit and grow from them. The Americans may think they’re the one getting a cultural excursion and lifelong lesson, but its all just a cog the tourist-industrial machine aimed at securing as many rents from the luxury offered as an experience.
The first time I ever went to an “all inclusive” hotel, I was under the age of 12 and it was in the Caribbean with my parents. The hotel was one of those chain brand-name all inclusive resorts, so I was able to run free galavanting with other kids my age with no fear that I’d accidentally run up a four-figure bill like kids do in Fortnite these days. Or, at least that is the impression I was under.
I don’t remember much about the trip besides the resort staff created activities for us to participate in so our parents could sit on the beach and relax in a child-free environment while we won points that could be redeemed for knick-knacks that ultimately ended up in a drawer and thrown away six years later.
The second time I went to an all inclusive hotel was with my partner last year as the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to recede, while we were vaccinated, and the tourism and aviation industries desperately needed to rebound. We found a beyond-cheap flight deal to the Maldives, booked a suite over the water on an island resort, and were told meals and drinks would be included. However, the second you arrive you learn that meals are included only in specific restaurants, and drinks only from specific bars in certain locations. Rent water-sports equipment incurs a room charge, as does going on many of the planned excursions designed so that you get the most out of staying 5 nights on a tiny island in an atoll.
Ultimately you cannot get the true island experience without going above the all inclusive rate, nor can you take advantage of all the resort had to offer. For five days we ate at the same Restaurant in nearly the same tables, breakfast lunch and dinner. While the food was incredible, it did get stale pretty quickly.
The vacation came at a very stressful time in our lives, and was a wonderful experience. I would never do it again. If you asked me if I experienced the Maldives, I have no idea what to tell you. We had a blast romping around an island for five days, and we learned the in-terminal hotels in Abu Dhabi have hourly beds for rent that are surprisingly comfortable during an eight hour layover. It may have been a White Lotus resort, without the death, and thankfully neither of us tried to go into this vacation looking for a life-changing experience.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the world for my job as a reporter, and no matter where I go I always try to find time to get out of the bubbles that business reporting places you in. Most of the places I’d go were to cover events that were taking place in conference halls for 72 hours, where you’re working close to 50-55 hours of them. Sacrificing a little sleep to make some new friends and hope they can let you into their world is always the dream when you have to get up and listen to eight hours of plenary sessions the next day before filing 2-3 reports.
Many of the places I had to stay to be on site for these events were luxury hotels. They were some of the most gorgeous but sterile places I’ve ever been. As travel has become a bigger industry, hotels with names like the “Grand Ballroom” are no longer the site of salons for the very few who could experience a new country and be sequestered in a new country harboring their Western idealism. Instead, they’re just luxury hotels that have become commodified for a certain sensibility that is largely Americanized it feels like.
Tourism is big dollars and catering to this sensibility means a steady flow of the world’s reserve currency into their coffers. Experiences catered to social media, and more visibility leading to more business are the norm. Is there even an “off the beaten path” anymore? Was there ever one to begin with? Can one fully shed the Western-gaze when it comes to travel? Was I foolish to feel otherwise?
When Portia is treated to a real Palermo experience she ends up shoplifting and being held hostage while her date’s bosses plan to execute her heiress boss. She’s dropped off on the side of the road and stumbles to the airport lucky to be alive, frankly, and checks hoping that she’ll rendezvous with her boss and all of this will be a hilarious story she can tell her friends going back to her boring life as an assistant.
She runs into Albie Di Grasso, who at one point she was hooking up with at the hotel before leaving to chase an adventure that she admittedly said that she had never had. The pair realize that Sicily both took advantage of them heavily, decide to exchange numbers and probably will find each other on social media liking each others posts and sending cute DMs every once in a while when they want to feel flirty and in control when life spirals out around them.
Portia has decidedly not “gotten her shit together” as her now-dead boss encouraged her too, and Albie has continued the family tradition of indulging in the desires of sex workers to the detriment of themselves and their own relationships. Albie however did it through a feminist reading of his tryst with Lucia, justifying the indulgence through her empowerment, just cementing his personal notion of being a “good guy.” He’s still the same “good guy” Portia fled from, but still attracts the wounded bird she still is in the end.
Meanwhile, whole book series could be spilled investigating the lovers quadrangle and memetic desires that plagued Ethan, Harper, Cameron and Daphne. Yet, as the four of them work through their own insecurities the lingering shot in Catania shows both couples in their own worlds, returning to the spheres of influence they came from before crash landing at the White Lotus together. One thread of note was Cameron trying to get Ethan to invest his money with his hedge fund, what felt like a parallel to Lucia and Mia using their local guiles to collect as many rents as they could from the Americans willing to give it to them. Instead, it came off as a pitch Cameron would give to anyone, knowing that pouring other peoples’ money to be invested was his livelihood pre-vacation of a life time, and will continue to be after. Whatever happens outside the resort afterwards is the normal course of life in New York finance, and not the rich otherworldly experience of renting a palazzo for yourself on a whim.
The beauty of these threads to untangle is that nothing is ever fully explained. You can’t explain what happens when a group of strangers go on vacation and suddenly step out of their lives for a week. There’s no beginning, there’s no ending, just a short stay at a luxury resort that we were privy to thanks to the magic of television. Everything is left to interpretation. No amount of SEO can change that.
I could write out the plot to this season five different ways and wouldn’t come close to sharing everything that happened. No amount of knowing means you can never truly know the motivation behind the characters and how the vacation changed them or didn’t. There’s no explanation, just like there is no life changing experience. We’re all just travelers hoping to take something away from this even if we don’t.
The most powerful scene in the White Lotus season two finale may be 15-20 seconds of facial expressions without lines from Meghann Fahy before her character goes on one last excursion near the resort:
So you looked online and saw some spoilers for the show? I don’t think you have anything to worry about.
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