Editor’s Note: The White Lotus and—most importantly—Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya are back for season two of HBO’s wonderful satire of the privileged at play. Our media critic wrote an equally brilliant assessment of Tanya last year. We thought it deserved a second season as well.
The great thing about Mike White’s The White Lotus, the pitch-dark HBO comedy series returning next season, is that it offers viewers a way to feel superior as we watch various rich, unhappy American vacationers flaunt their preposterous levels of white privilege at a five-star-resort in Hawaii.
Each of them can be rude and hideous. But among them, Tanya McQuoid, played by the always-hilarious actress Jennifer Coolidge, stands alone. Long beloved for her deadpan genius as a tall, blonde, befuddled sex symbol, Coolidge plays McQuoid as the blowsy, spoiled, clueless, single rich lady of our nightmares. It’s her most perfect performance yet, but as such, she’s a walking trigger warning for every single woman over 50.
Tanya is a load: she’s always properly highlighted, high-heeled, moisturized, made up and decked out in an array of shiny designer caftans that are just a little much. But at “the core of the onion,” as she likes to put it, she’s an empty maw of neediness.
And yet, by the end, she does find some meaning.
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It’s macabre enough that in all but the final episode, she’s shown carting a large-ish silver and gold box with her dead mother’s ashes around the beach and hotel as if it’s a Birkin bag, (the bigger one) wailing “Oh, Mother!”
She’s an empty maw of neediness.
She later mentions that her mother would never let her be a ballerina, “even when I was skinny!” Her obvious mommy issues hang around her neck like a certain sea bird, and affect her discs, too. Fresh off the boat that delivers VIP guests to the hotel, before she can even get a “mahalo,” Tanya tells the hotel greeter “I’m in desperate need of a massage. I’ll take anything. I have a herniated disc.” Her desperation for a man also translates to a “take anything” attitude. As she tells Belinda, the hotel spa manager and masseuse whom she immediately gloms on to as a magical healer/mother substitute, “I’ve driven away every man I’ve ever been involved with because I get too attached.”
A few days into her stay, she meets Greg, the seemingly unremarkable, divorced, middle-aged dude in the next room. Though she mistakenly romanticizes his work for the BLM, as in Black Lives Matter, it’s actually the Bureau of Land Management.
He’s probably best described as an empty (Hawaiian) shirt.
The Guy Next Door
She sleeps with him that night. The next morning, she’s shown dressed up in heels and a spangly number that might include jet beads, spying outside his door as he pops out in his swimming shorts, ready for laps in the pool. Embarrassed, he mentions that he might try to meet up with her later.
Which leads to the line that left me, an older divorcee (don’t you love that word?) who’s had her share of on-line dating and attempts-to-be cool-while-waiting episodes, shrieking out loud. It’s Coolidge’s remarkable gift to use her mobile face and capacious lips to spin words that are otherwise pathetic and cringe-making not only into comedy gold, but also into something universally vulnerable and human.
Disappointed, she responds to his vague offer like a toddler with no filter. Crinkling her lips with every word, she delivers the line like a toddler, too: “Okay, “she half-cries. “I’ll just lay on my bed and wait for your text.”
What killed me about her “laying on her bed” line is the awareness that “dating” when you’re not young often reduces even otherwise successful adults to middle-schoolers. The excitement is the same as it was in seventh grade when someone passed you a note that the cool new boy who wears desert boots likes you.
The Core of the Onion
So, who is Tanya? That night, after guy-next-door Greg haphazardly texts her in the middle of a dinner Tanya had invited Belinda to, to discuss her interest in funding Belinda’s own wellness business, Tanya immediately bounces to meet him in the bar. (Not nice.)
He’s a few drinks in with the boys, and she’s like a neon sign flashing “open.”
She’s like a neon sign flashing “open.”
But her mood swings quickly. “So I think we should just cut to the chase,” she tells him, after they go back to her suite. “You should just go now. I’m a very needy person. And I am deeply, deeply insecure. Both of my parents mentally abused me and my mother still tortures me and she’s dead,” she says.
She tells him that this is “the core of the onion…I’m just like a dead end, you know, a trap door. And I think you should get out.” It’s quite a crazy monologue, complete with many screaming “Get the fuck out!” lines, not to mention throwing the box with her mother’s ashes at him.
“No,” he responds, calmly. “I still want to fuck you.”
Some women might have been offended by the way he cut to the chase, reducing her to a sexual object. Tanya lights up, however, as if this man has just given her a MacArthur Genius Grant and a marriage proposal with a Paris townhouse. She’s immediately reborn, released from any doubt, knowing that Hawaiian shirt man wants her. It’s that simple.
Among the Ashes
The next day she’s able to fling Mom into the sea, though she worries that the ashes will come back ashore, like she’s “littering”. Though it seems that she was all about men, spa services, alcohol-intake, and cheese, in the end, she’s a fairly-nuanced character. She hurts people out of her own obliviousness. Like many who play the victim, she actually victimizes others.
Without giving too much away, the tragedy of the show is that the amoral entitlement of these wealthy white guests wins out across the board in the end. It something along the lines of what F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the rich: they can paper over any mess they make (even screwing with the lives of those serving them) with their money.
Like many who play the victim, she actually victimizes others.
Tanya tells Belinda that she doesn’t want to get into another pattern of controlling people with her money, so therefore, no business. Yet she decides to rent a house in Aspen for a few months for her and Greg and to see how it goes.
He reveals that he has a mysterious disease that could kill him. But her response is cheerily mature and existential, “Well, I’ve had every kind of treatment over the years. Death is the last immersive experience I haven’t tried.”
In the end, Greg is a simple party guy. Tanya, despite all, can be surprisingly deep.
But perhaps she’s finally found her own “phallic mother,” a phrase Mike White inserted into the script earlier as part of a soothing chant Belinda offers her, along with “vaginal father.”
Or maybe it’s just that she can afford a fun fling.
In any event, Tanya’s found Greg, someone she can relax with—a man who likes her body and doesn’t care that she’s crazy. It’s a start.
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Well-known media critic Barbara Lippert covers the intersection of women, pop culture, and politics. For many years, Lippert was the award-winning author of the Adweek Critique. She speaks at conferences and appears on TV as an expert on media trends and advertising imagery.