A few years ago, I was on a flight with dozens of travel agents to Washington, DC, to travel to an industry conference in the nation’s capital. It was an odd mix of people and patterns: I spotted not one, but two Tommy Bahama floral shirts layered under blazers.
The person sitting next to me was a 65-year-old former kindergarten teacher who had founded a small travel agency with her wife after her retirement. The travel agency had brass accents and a Boston accent. The warning absolutes in which she spoke – like “Never get tattoos after work in Tokyo” or “Fortune tellers in Palm Springs are the meanest experienced in their profession” – sounded as if they were based on unique personal experiences.
After we started the descent, the conversation finally turned to me and the travel agent asked about my work. I told her I was a food writer and she nodded solemnly as she slipped the in-flight magazine into her purse. She then told me that a large part of her vacation planning for couples focused on two cultural stereotypes: first, that vacation sex is the best sex you’ll ever have, and second, that the resort food is probably the dullest in the city .
It was her job to ensure that the former was true while the latter was toned down somewhat.
“In the end,” she said. “It’s about managing the pleasure of my customers.”
In season two of The White Lotus, those two assumptions about sex and food are undermined when an overarching question emerges: what does pleasure look like on vacation?
Sex is at the heart of this Italian drama, even more so than the first season of Mike White’s acclaimed HBO comedy-drama, set at the eponymous White Lotus Resort in Hawaii. Early on, we learn who is having the kind of sex they want to have and—more importantly to the plot—who isn’t.
There’s Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and her husband Ethan (Will Sharpe), who are intellectually connected but emotionally and sexually at odds. This only becomes clearer when they allude to their murky sex life over dinner one night after Harper encounters Ethan masturbating, who then rebuffs her halfhearted advances.
On the other side of their hotel wall are their “friends” — well, “friends” is extremely generous at this point — Cameron (Theo James) and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), who have suffered trauma related to their intimate life almost fatal birth experience. However, their seemingly passionate sex life is fueled by resentment, infidelity and power games.
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As James recently told The Daily Beast with his character, “There’s a chance he’ll fuck anything and everything if he’s walking on his feet. That animalism isn’t constrained by being straight—although he is and he’s married. He has a hunger inside him.”
Down the hall live three generations of Italian-American men vacationing together. There are Dominic Di Grasso (Michael Imperioli, who has aged like fine wine), his son Albie (Adam DiMarco) and his father Bert (F. Murray Abraham).
Put simply, Bert is an old-school misogynist who thinks affairs are fine as long as they’re discreet. (Spoilers: His weren’t discreet.) Dominic is a sex addict, which has ruined his marriage and severed his relationship with college-age Albie, who considers himself a “nice guy” and comes with his own sexual issues.
Perhaps the two most interesting characters of this season, however, are escort Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya (of course!).
Lucia has now slept with Dominic, Albie and Cameron, with the latter still owing her money. And while Lucia offers her clients a certain kind of tangible fantasy—literally, “managing their pleasure,” as the travel agent I met might put it—Tanya becomes more and more untrammeled as her concept of a fantasy holiday unravels.
Tanya came to Sicily to be with her husband Greg (Jon Gries), who doesn’t bother to show her interest. Tanya presents her best: she rents a Vespa, slips into lingerie and raves poetically about the romantic dinner she plans to have with Greg.
“We drink a lot appetizers, and we eat big plates of pasta with giant clams. We’re just really chic and happy. We are beautiful.”
“We drink a lot appetizers, and we eat big plates of pasta with giant clams,” she says. “We are just very chic and happy. We are beautiful.”
When staying at the White Lotus, however, things don’t always go according to plan.
Meanwhile, the story told by Essen is more reserved than that told by Sex. Yet it is a ubiquitous facility, even in its mundaneness. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay astutely pointed out a few days ago, the big mystery so far this season isn’t who’s getting murdered, but rather the constant eating at the hotel. While the White Lotus is almost definitely an all-inclusive resort, these characters are certainly wealthy enough to indulge in a few culinary excursions.
“These decadent TV characters can afford any meal, anywhere,” Gay wrote. “Why are they sticking with the same in-house menu?”
This underscores one of the key counter-pull tensions that underscores many couples’ vacations: the tension between novelty and routine or perceived safety. That excitement is actually built into the way we talk about travel experiences, from “once-in-a-lifetime experiences” to “holiday flirts.” Novelty can offer us both fleeting moments of pleasure and an opportunity to self-actualize certain parts of who we are or aspire to become.
Food, of course, can serve as a channel.
Tanya didn’t just want to eat Linguine alla vongole. She also wanted to feel chic and beautiful while sitting opposite her husband, who wants to have sex with her just as much as she wants to have sex with him.
Why is everyone drinking countless Aperol spritzers on the pool deck now?
Why is everyone drinking countless Aperol spritzers on the pool deck now? It’s part of the Italian holiday fantasy; Drinking one there is different than drinking one while looking through an apartment window that opens onto an alleyway in Chicago, for example. This consumption feeds and helps perpetuate the myth-making inherent in any vacation planning.
The boring nature of hotel dining room dinners is why the characters’ attempts to move away from the menu signal something bigger. For example, when Tanya frantically scans the continental breakfast menu and stops a waiter to ask if she can have a slice of “OREO cookie cake,” it’s an obvious sign that things aren’t going well behind the hotel room door.
Just like in airport bars, vacation time is an illusion. This season of White Lotus seems to be asking if there’s true pleasure, at least for these overflowing characters.
“The White Lotus” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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