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This Time, the ‘White Lotus’ Season Finale Ends in Comedy

The revealed death at the end of the first season was a cruel twist of fate; Season 2’s was pure slapstick. That doesn’t make it any less effective.

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

Throughout the second-season run of The White Lotus, I’ve been amused by the sheer range of responses. Some declared the Sicily-set episodes a letdown; others pronounced them better than Season 1, a surprise hit that went on to earn 20 Emmy nominations and 10 awards. As for myself, I knew I’d wait to make a final call. So much of what made creator Mike White’s pandemic pivot a masterpiece was its bloody conclusion, which didn’t just wrap The White Lotus up with a bow—it told us what the show was. When entitled prick Shane stabbed Maui hotel manager Armond, only to return to the mainland scot-free, it retroactively imbued the events leading up to the accident with real tragedy, cementing the story as a parable of what the elite take from the underclass. The White Lotus doesn’t snap into focus until we know how, why, and for whom a luxury vacation turns deadly. The jury would always be out until the very end.

Not that Season 2 didn’t keep itself a contender for the title of worthy follow-up. This was no Big Little Lies situation: a drop in quality so steep it even drags down the original. The White Lotus may have changed continents, but it kept the scathing humor, seething resentment, and at least one protagonist. Whatever was brewing among these unhappy couples, fractured families, and stressed-out staff, it always had promise.

With Sunday night’s finale, that promise was fulfilled. The internet may have whipped itself into a frenzy with fan theories and close reads, but it turns out that predicting plot is not the same as predicting tone. Yes, viewers had correctly divined the context for “Arrivederci,” the seventh and final installment of Season 2: Heiress Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) was the victim of a conspiracy between Greg (Jon Gries), her husband, and Quentin (Tom Hollander), the suspiciously friendly Brit who magically appeared when Greg left “for work.” Then again, White also had Tanya stumble upon a photo of two young cowboys who looked an awful lot like Quentin and Greg. This mystery box wasn’t all that hard to unlock.

It’s what happens after all this comes to light that proved harder to guess, and more thrilling to watch unfold. Tanya connects the dots with some help from her assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), who’s stolen her maybe-kidnapper’s phone to call in a tip—about the only assistance Portia’s provided all season, come to think of it. When the Sicilian boy toy Quentin has secured turns up to take Tanya to shore, she steals his bag, locks herself in a cabin, and discovers a gun. She then shoots and kills almost everyone on the yacht, though not before tearfully asking Quentin if Greg is having an affair. Priorities! Having foiled the plot, Tanya falls on her face trying to climb from Quentin’s yacht into a smaller boat. Same outcome, slightly different circumstances.

If Armond’s death was a cruel twist of fate, Tanya’s is pure slapstick. This isn’t a man recovering from addiction and driven to ruin by his own need for retribution; it’s a woman of obscene wealth and blinding self-involvement making a pratfall into the ocean. Her demise is a fitting end to Tanya’s two-season arc, which saw her exploit multiple employees in what was shown to be a recurring pattern. It also recasts the rest of the season in a more comedic light. White did warn us, billing the story as a “bedroom farce with teeth.” “Arrivederci” puts the emphasis on “farce.”

After all, in the Shakespearean sense, a comedy is defined less by humor than the assurance that things will work out in the end. There’s real pathos in the plight of Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe), a couple clearly unsure their marriage will survive Ethan’s sudden wealth, or the Di Grassos, three men unwilling to admit how alike they are in their attitudes toward women. But this isn’t a season that would end with Ethan killing his college roommate Cameron (Theo James) for making a pass at his wife, a possibility that’s teased early in the finale. Nor is it one in which Albie (Adam DiMarco) would sacrifice himself to save local sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) from a pimp, as some speculated he might. It’s a story in which all the Americans—save Tanya, of course—go home more chastened and compromised than when they arrived, but not much worse for wear. And it’s one in which Lucia and her friend Mia (Beatrice Granno) emerge as the true heroes of the season, almost literally laughing all the way to the bank in a euphoric final shot.

The pimp, you see, was a fiction—a friend recruited to prey on Albie’s naive, condescending, nice-guy instincts, just as Lucia scammed his father Dominic (Michael Imperioli) out of some cash by charging a luxury shopping spree to his room. When Albie asks him for 50,000 euros, Dom is well aware his son is getting fleeced. (“How are you gonna make it in life if you’re this big a mark?”) But he goes along with it anyway, because Albie makes an offer Dom can’t refuse: vouching for him with his estranged wife, who’d finally had enough of the chronic infidelity. Maybe Albie did learn something on all those Godfather tours around the island. And maybe his gullibility was starting to wear off even before he realized Lucia took the money and ran, enough to drive a hard bargain with a man he very well knows hasn’t changed. By the time he bumps into a freshly traumatized Portia at the Catania airport, Albie knows enough to settle, as does she. It’s a match made in heaven.

In a way, Albie and Portia feel like an answer to Shane and Rachel from Season 1: a couple clearly imperfect for each other who reunite after learning how much harder it is on their own. So do Harper and Ethan, who both learn the same lesson from Cameron’s wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy) about how to live with some measure of distance. In Ethan’s case, the lesson appears to be a little more hands-on. After a few episodes of opposites-attract chemistry between Harper and Cam, White pulled an ingenious switch. We never see a hookup, but Ethan becomes consumed by the idea that one happened, putting him in the audience’s obsessive shoes. It’s his paranoia, not Harper’s temptation, that brings the situation to a boil.

When Harper admits Cam kissed her, Daphne introduces Ethan to her life motto: “Do what you have to do to make yourself feel better about it.” In this case, it’s heavily implied, that means having sex with each other so everyone’s even, at least in their minds. Probably not what Harper had in mind when she got the spiel herself, but it gets Ethan to express attraction for her again, so all’s well that ends well. They’re now one step closer to becoming the couple they once scoffed at—repressing whatever secrets they have to in order to get through the day. They’re learning how to be rich and guilt-free, one act of subterfuge at a time.

A fairy-tale ending it isn’t, but it is a happy one, or at least as happy as it’s possible to be in The White Lotus’s vision of long-term partnership. (It’s Daphne who delivers what may be the season’s thesis statement: “You don’t have to know everything to love someone.”) For a more straightforward kind of bliss, you can live like Lucia and Mia, unencumbered by obligation and clear-eyed about the true utility of sex. Mia began the season by attempting to sleep with the hotel’s piano player for a chance to sing; by dreaming bigger and going after his boss, the closeted manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), she gets his entire gig. Along with Lucia, she’s leagues ahead of where she started out, all by abandoning the false promise of romance.

In total, the ending of this trip to The White Lotus is about as good as we can feel about a miniature murder spree. Quentin got what was coming to him; Tanya could never be happy, and now she no longer has to try; everyone else has left a little more cynical than they once were, and therefore better equipped to handle hard truths. To focus on impending death over everything else is to miss out on The White Lotus’s more subtle texture. But as it did last year, a little high drama helps bring it all together. Ciao, Sicily—now, let’s do it all again.