In Rome this summer, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, a weirdly invigorating set of bone-encrusted tombs near Piazza Barberini. You walk into the first room, and it’s just human bones everywhere, painstakingly arranged in geometric patterns on the floors, the walls, and the ceiling. The skeletal tableaux is crafted from the remains of monks — 300 cartloads full — that were moved to the crypt when their living brothers relocated to their new monastery in 1631.
The best part of it all, which I did not expect: the bones are hilarious. These Capuchins were having a blast. Jaws and collarbones become appendages to little flying skull creatures. Skeletons of monks sit around, looking like they’re chuckling to themselves, all very much on purpose. Sure, it’s grim, but it’s goofy too. It’s a dare to stop taking yourself seriously. Some day, this will be you.
The point of all of this, the Capuchins say, is not to creep out visitors, but to serve as wry memento mori — life is short and fleeting and we all are destined to be skeletons in the ground, which is kind of a cosmic joke. It’s of a piece with much of the enduring art of the late medievals, from Boccaccio’s Decameron to the works of Shakespeare, which should be read with a sense of ever-present background plague anxiety. And as with our most recent plague, Italy was one of the first places where the 14th-century “black death” hit Europe. It wiped out half of the people in Sicily’s cities.
Sicily is also where series creator Mike White set the second season of The White Lotus, which I have to imagine is not an accident. The first season picked apart (with varying degrees of success) the racial and class divides that accompany the lives of the very wealthy. But the second season is much more occupied with mortality — specifically, the flailing ways humans try to forget mortality in a time of apocalypse. Watching it happen, all we can do is grimace and chuckle nervously.
The opening credits of The White Lotus’s first season were modeled on wallpaper depicting exotic tropical scenes, befitting popular conceptions of its Hawaiian setting. The second season’s credits turns for inspiration to Renaissance paintings and, if I don’t miss my guess, depictions of the Triumph of Death. It was a favorite theme of European Renaissance artists, because the threat of apocalyptic plague was ever-present; to live was to think about dying. Might as well face it down.
One famous one, in particular, comes from Sicily, a fresco from an unknown artist circa 1448 that’s now affixed to a wall in Palermo. In the giant painting, a group of people, including (according to the official description) “noble pleasure-seekers and elegant ladies,” are making merry, partying and hanging out near the Fountain of Youth, seemingly unaware that Death — a giant skeleton on a giant skeletal horse — is bearing down on them.
History echoes itself, and human nature never changes, and thus The White Lotus’s description sounds eerily similar to the fresco’s. “Noble pleasure-seekers and elegant ladies,” which is to say a bunch of rich Americans and Brits, have turned up at a White Lotus resort in Sicily (apparently it’s a resort chain) to spend a week in the sun. The resort itself is situated on cliffs overlooking the sea.
There’s a pair of wealthy young couples (Theo James and Meghann Fahy, and Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe) having a tense vacation. Three generations of Di Grasso men (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, and Adam DiMarco) are vacationing in the ostentatious absence of the female members of the family, for reasons that start to reveal themselves soon after their arrival. And opulent heiress Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) returns, with her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) in tow. Two local girls — sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and budding singer Mia (Beatrice Granno) — lurk around the White Lotus, too, and a bevy of staff are led by harried manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore).
In Greek mythology, lotus-eaters were people who went to an island on which a lotus tree grew, ate from it, and forgot everyone and everything off the island. At the White Lotus Sicily, people are having fun, and having sex, and trying to forget the outside world, to shut out anything beyond the sunshine, their cocktails, and maybe the pretty girl down at the end of the bar.
The oblivious pleasure-seeker mythology, present implicitly in the show’s first season, is more explicit in the second one. Harper (Plaza), a fabulously uptight employment lawyer, remarks at breakfast early in the show that it’s so hard to enjoy a vacation with “everything that’s going on in the world.” As her husband Ethan (Sharpe) nods, Daphne (Fahy) and Cameron (James) look confused. What does she mean, they ask? Oh, they try to avoid the news. It’s too depressing, and you can’t do anything about it anyhow. It’s so beautiful here. Let’s just have a good time.
But recent events have a way of intruding anyhow, if only psychologically. Portia, Tanya’s assistant, can’t seem to shake the malaise of the last few years of her life; as she puts it, she’s spent three years alone in her room doomscrolling, mired in the miseries of “the discourse.” (Relatable.) She wants to live, she tells Albie (DiMarco). Surely in the past, she muses, the world must have been full of experience and life, not just digital caves we crawl miserably into.
Well, she’s half right, but the past world was full of death, too, and reminders of that are all around them. A key to watching this season of The White Lotus is keeping an eye on the faces in the background. They’re always watching: magnificent frescoes, busts, and statues, or paintings hung on the walls; the faces of the dead, the mythical, the martyred, hovering around fountains of youth with Death looking on. Eyes that never stop watching the living as they try to shrug off existential dread and the knowledge that they’ll die, which for these characters — having just lived through a world-altering pandemic, even for the super-rich — has to be cranked way up.
That explains their desperation to have fun: fun sex, fun beachside spritzes, fun shopping sprees, fun ragers, “fun” mind games with one another. Like all of us, they’re making up for lost time. Like few of us, they have the resources at hand to shut out everything else — no worrying about the political situation or student loans or who’s saying what on Twitter. Let’s go find some jet skis.
But the series makes it clear that death is never very far from mind, and that some of this desperate fun-seeking is a reflex to kick away memento mori. It’s a very funny show, but it’s dark around the edges. From the start, it’s clear someone’s going to die; this is the White Lotus motif, after all. The cliffs look awfully craggy and dangerous. The discussions occasionally swing around to what’s so important you’d die for it, or kill for it. People glare periodically at the faces on the walls. Several times, we catch characters staring at the ocean in a way that suggests that, having reached the end of their rope, they wish to plunge in. This island seems to promise eternal happiness, but vacations always come to an end.
Apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world; it means unveiling, a revealing of the truth behind the facade. Having glimpsed the plague-time truth of mortality, in whatever small way, our vacationers don’t wish to repeat the discovery. If money can keep death out, then they’ll be spending it. But we know this cliff paradise can’t last forever, if only because some day the sea levels will rise. And before that — perhaps long before that, though who knows? — death lurks around the corner for everyone.
So you’re best off watching this season of The White Lotus with our own apocalypse in mind — not, of course, that you can really push that knowledge off anyhow. That raises a pressing question, though, one without much of an answer: is watching TV to escape the world a bit like nibbling the lotus? Is a show like this one — or one with dragons, or elves, or a hapless British football team, or whatever else we’re plunging into these days — just another attempt to forget that we’re all gonna die? Does it even really matter?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we all ought to just go get a little skeleton and keep it propped up against the corner of the TV, where it can watch us all the time, grinning. Just in case.
The White Lotus premieres at 9 pm on HBO on October 30, with a total of seven episodes airing each week on Sunday nights and then streaming on HBO Max.