“Whenever I stay at a White Lotus, I always have a memorable time, always!”
Uh oh. That’s a pretty deadly line coming out of the mouth of my favorite character, crazy lady Tanya McQuoid, on The White Lotus, the ever-darker HBO hit that just finished its second season.
Played by our beloved, deadpan comedy genius Jennifer Coolidge, who brought the role to life in the first season with her pillowy lips and questionable caftans, Tanya is the only character in the cast, along with her now-husband Greg, to return for the second season that is set in Sicily.
And that “memorable time” line is uncharacteristically lackluster, or let’s say deadly dull, for a character like Tanya. It’s White Lotus creator Mike White’s way of marking her from the very start.
Yup, and spoiler alert: Tanya is a goner.
Certainly, in two seasons, White has created a device that works: In the first episode, he establishes that someone in the incoming group of visitors goes home in a body bag. Then the mystery of who’s in the bag is sustained over seven or eight episodes until the season’s final twisty shocker.
She brings enough baggage with her (both physical and psychic) to cripple an empire.
It’s a hook that compels viewers to hang in there through some of the draggy middle parts, because this second season is about the ineffable: sex, “mimetic desire,” betrayal, infidelity, “Achilles’ cock,” marriage, hookers, and generational differences. That’s tougher to sit with than the theme for the first season: wealth, entitlement, and how easy it was to hate those people. This second season was slower, murkier, and because of all the transactional relationships, I found it more upsetting.
Although, it was steeped in symbolism. The elegantly drawn wallpaper at the start of the show is filled with classical imagery worthy of Talmudic study: rutting animals, animated geysers, naked zaftig women, and Leda of mythology fame going at it with her swan.
The music is magnificent, but the vibe is overall creepy: the halls and hotel rooms are filled with teste di moro (upside-down vases sculpted and painted like the head of a male Moor). Although at first, I thought teste di moro translated to “death testicles.”
“The story is, a Moor came here a long time ago and seduced a local girl,” we hear from a bellhop. “But then she found out that he had a wife and children back home. He lied to her, so she cut his head off.” There’s also an ominous-seeming island nearby, Isola Bella, with a similar back story.
But back to the opener and its clues: the boat, the men, the need for help. It takes several strong bellmen to carry Tanya off the speedboat when she arrives in Taormina with the other hotel guests; her high heels are not made for ladders, and she brings enough baggage with her (both physical and psychic) to cripple an empire.
Joining the Blossom Circle
As the luggage is brought up, Valentina, the hotel manager, tells Tanya that she has progressed in her status as a “Blossom Circle member.”
“I was a petal, and I worked my way up to blossom,” Tanya says proudly, in the way that only Coolidge could deadpan.
Greg was playing the long game in the grift department.
But since last season, her marriage seems to have worked its way down: what they have on their hands now is a dead leaf. The rendezvous with Greg at the hotel didn’t go as planned, because she brought her assistant, Portia, a GenZ-er-with-the-bad-separates, with her on the trip.
Tanya needs helps and nurturance 24/7, and although in fear of Greg’s fury, she banishes Portia to her room.
And I must say, she switched her wardrobe into more chiffon, ruffles, and pastel tones this year, as if resurrecting the Stepford Wives of 1975. But her need for Portia reminds me of the way Tanya glommed on to Belinda, the spa manager, in Maui in the first season. Belinda became her masseuse and spiritual mother. Tanya ended up promising her financing for her own wellness center for local women, but she dropped the idea when Greg came along.
Looking back, Greg’s whole meet-cute scene in Hawaii—mistaking Tanya’s hotel room for his own—seems predetermined: Greg was playing the long game in the grift department. And he seems as enigmatic, detached, and needs-based as ever. It seems they haven’t seen each other in a while, and back in the room, after she fondles his chest with her foot to get him in the mood, he says, “I have to take a shower. I have swamp crotch.”
Tanya, ever delusional, smiles beatifically at that bit of poetry, telling herself, “He’s always thinking of me.”
Shelly Winters Redux
A friend pointed out that the Tanya character is like Shelley Winters, a blowsy type who notably drowned in three different movies. Film critic Roger Ebert’s description of Shelley’s Tanya-ish persona at the time: “a heroine both whiny and plucky, comic and noble.”
But among all the preposterous hotel guests trampling through Taormina, why did creator White have to pick poor Tanya to sleep with the fishes?
(At least he gives her a hilarious dream scene on a Vespa, dressed as Monica Vitti earlier.)
In an interview, White brought up her line from last year’s last episode, when she said in response to Greg’s mystery illness: “Death is the last immersive experience I haven’t tried.”
[The creator] said he felt that [Tanya] needed “some kind of victory over whoever was conspiring to get rid of her.”
“Not that I really wanted to kill Tanya, because I love her as a character and obviously love Jennifer” he said in a press interview. “But I just felt like we’re going to Italy, [and] she’s such a diva . . .”
He said he felt that she needed “some kind of victory over whoever was conspiring to get rid of her,” he added. “So it just made me laugh to think she would take out this whole cabal of killers and that, after she’s successfully done that, she just dies this derpy death. It just felt like that’s so Tanya.”
Indeed, after all of that heartbreak, chaos, drinking, wearing “cute clothes” and padding around “crumbling buildings” in the middle of the night, Tanya goes out with a bang and a clunk. For the bang, Tanya finds herself in Palermo, at the villa of Quentin, the British ex-pat ringleader of a group Tanya calls “some high-end gays.”
And yes, the extreme stereotypes presented with this legion of “evil gays” seemed a bit insulting to me. Come to think of it, Murray, who ended up in last season’s body bag, was quite a caricature too. But Out Magazine had this to say: “The endgame of The White Lotus is a perfect example of how characters can be villainous and gay—not villains because they’re gay, but villains who also happen to be gay.” Okay, then.
Boy Toys and Bangs in the Night
After spotting her at the hotel, Quentin gets preternaturally attached to Tanya, telling her she has “impeccable taste” and going on from there. He seems determined to give her a “big send-off” including a party at his villa, topped by a visit with a hunky male escort, a trip to the opera to see Madame Butterfly (a geisha kills herself after finding out her husband has another woman) and now, for the last leg, a nautical sprint back to the hotel including dinner on his yacht.
On the pleasure cruiser, she’s surrounded by his friends, a rag-tag bunch of mafia-like criminals, especially Niccolo, the man-hunk they set up to service her the previous evening. The boy toy joins them later, arriving by dinghy, and climbs aboard the boat carrying a black bag that might as well be labeled “murder weapons.”
The boy toy joins them later . . . and climbs aboard the boat carrying a black bag that might as well be labeled “murder weapons.”
Only after a last-minute phone call from her assistant Portia, who’s been having an affair with Quentin’s ultimate bad-boy nephew, and who is now herself in jeopardy, do they both start putting two and two together. Portia tells Tanya that Quentin has been talking about coming into a windfall. Tanya, in turn, lets Portia know that the “nephew” is perhaps not Quentin’s younger relative, because she saw him “kinda fucking his uncle.”
What’s more, as unlikely as it seems, the uncle seemed to have a thing for Greg many years ago. Tanya puts it all together when she remembers that her pre-nup grants Greg her money only in the case of her pre-deceasing him. Then she finally gets it: Quentin is in cahoots with Greg to kill her for her billions.
So here comes the second bang:
After delaying as much as she can on the yacht, Tanya makes a run for Niccolo’s kill bag and barricades herself inside a room with it. When her con-artist killers start banging on the door, she takes the gun out of the bag. And for the first time in her life, she becomes self-reliant, coming out with gun blazing, rat-a-tat-tat, despite rapidly aiming that shiny revolver while crying with closed eyes.
Poignant till the very end, Tanya the superhero/action figure finds Quentin lying on the floor among a cluster of dead bodies, a bloody hole in the back of his trim little suit, about to breathe his last. So she musters up her courage to ask him her most pressing question: “Is Greg having an affair? Tell me, I know you know.”
Only in Tanya’s unstable universe is murder sort of understandable, but cheating is the worst.
Quentin responds in the only way he knows how: with a death gurgle and a trickle of blood pouring out of his mouth.
As for the post-bang clunk, well, that too is mighty unfortunate. After mowing down so many, our marksperson is hardly feeling triumphant. Having already lost her phone (it slipped overboard out of her shaky hands), Tanya feels she has no options to get back to the hotel other than to make it onto the dinghy parked below.
Only in Tanya’s unstable universe is murder sort of understandable, but cheating is the worst.
This is a scary prospect, as the giant yacht, with its high railing, dwarfs the dinghy. It’s pitch dark, the ocean is angry, and she seems to forget that there was a rope ladder somewhere that had allowed her almost-murderer aboard. (Meanwhile, “what’s his name,” one of the gays, escaped by jumping off the back of the boat, where there wasn’t a railing.) But our sharpshooter has had lots of wine, is rarely in her right mind, and having just committed multiple homicides, might find it hard to focus.
In her stacked heels, she decides she must climb over the railing and jump onto the dinghy. She even jazzercises the moment up with some you-go-girl, forward-looking confidence by telling herself, “You got this.”
She takes her last shot, heaving herself over the rail, but ends up tripping and falling head first, banging her head hard against the side of the dinghy. Despite the big clunk, I was hoping she’d survive.
But next we see her under the sea, blonde hair extensions trailing Medusa-like, looking like one well-accessorized fairy tale mermaid, floating peacefully, although a bit dead.
Just Like Mama
Ironically, as a sea creature, she’s once again connected to her cruel mother, whose ashes she threw into the ocean from the beach in Hawaii in season one. (She carried the box around for days until she could bring herself to do it, and even then worried that she was “littering.”)
As the operatic music, O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh, My Dear Papa), booms over the shots of the rough Ionian Sea and fires erupt out of Mount Etna in the background, we say sayonara to Tanya.
With every raw emotion and quiver of her filler-filled upper lip, she firmly deserves our compassion.
I can’t help wishing that she’ll somehow return for the third season, which White has said is set somewhere in Asia, focused on “death and Eastern religion.”
A prequel, maybe? Her first trip to a White Lotus resort, when she was a baby Tanya, yet to become a petal? Or as a ghost?
Attention must be paid: Sure, Tanya could be willfully blind and monstrously self-involved. But still, with every raw emotion and quiver of her filler-filled upper lip, she firmly deserves our compassion.
Riposare in pace, dear one.
And thanks to your raw humanity and larger-than-life qualities, you’ll live on in the metaverse with the already-trending meme, “These gays, they’re trying to murder me!”