Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) is unhappy; a fact she makes glaringly clear only minutes into the premiere of The White Lotus’s second season. Checking into the White Lotus Hotel in Sicily (a franchise of the Hawaiian hotel from season one) as Tanya’s (Jennifer Coolidge) overworked and undervalued assistant, the millennial sits poolside in a House of Sunny-esque sweater vest lamenting to her friend over the phone about her current situation. After following Tanya to Italy, an experience and trip she was hoping to kickstart her desire for a life of adventure, she’s told she has to stay in her room the whole time to appease Tanya’s husband. “This is such a fucked situation,” Portia tells her friend. “I feel like I’ve just been stuck at home just doom scrolling on my phone for the last three years, and I finally get out of there and I’m in Italy and she just told me that I have to stay in my room the whole time.” She sobs.
It’s not a unique experience. Portia’s phone call and poolside tears comes only moments after Dominic Di Grasso (Michael Imperioli) unsuccessfully tries to reconnect with his estranged wife (she yells at him over the phone and hangs up), and Tanya and her husband Greg argue over the fact that the former brought her assistant on a romantic vacation. This season of the HBO show has this high-end resort location rife with people who are unfulfilled with their current situations, yearning for something more, and are certain that, if they had it, whatever “it” may be, their lives would be infinitely better. As Portia tells her friend: “If I had half a billion dollars I would not be miserable, I’d be enjoying my life. It’s so unfair and I’m so tired.”
Of course, anyone who's ever wanted anything and ultimately got it knows that’s not always the case (because we always want what we can’t have). If the first season of the popular series was a commentary on colonialism and critique on class discrepancy, the second season explores the effects of dissatisfaction with one's life, the desire for more, and the reality that often, once we’ve achieved our goals, it isn’t as fulfilling as it may seem. Specifically, through the characters of Tanya, Portia, and Harper, the series not only makes a commentary on society’s perpetual desire for more, but also makes viewers question whether or not we can ever truly be happy.
Which, at least at the beginning of the series, seems like the answer is no. “When you meet Portia, it’s pretty apparent that she’s not content,” Haley Lu Richardson tells Refinery29. “She’s a little bit miserable [and] there are so many things that are stereotypical and pretty extreme about her angst, her desperation, her humor in a way, her disposition in the world.”
While Portia may be explicit with her unhappiness, characters like Harper Spiller (Aubrey Plaza) are more subtly so. Vacationing with her newly-wealthy husband, his college roommate Cameron Sullivan (Theo James), and Cameron’s wife Daphne Sullivan (Meghann Fahy), despite the fact that Harper’s constantly criticising the wealthy, touchy-feely, privileged apolitical couple — They don’t read the news! They don’t vote! — it ultimately comes from a place of jealousy, something Ethan (Will Sharpe) points out later in the season. For someone like Harper, who makes it clear that she’s a career woman who looks down on Daphne, a stay-at-home mum, these conflicted feelings of desiring something that you think you should disdain can be complicated. “It's coming from a place of quiet almost jealousy in a way,” Aubrey Plaza explains. “Daphne has kids and Daphne seems happy… I think maybe deep down inside it comes from a place of maybe [Harper] does feel threatened by someone that just seems like they have it all together.” Even if it just appears that way from the outside.
“When you're watching a couple of friends that are in a relationship, it always looks so magical on the outside where you see people at a cafe and you're like, I want that,” Jennifer Coolidge tells Refinery29. “But we just don't know.”
No one knows this better than Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid-Hunt. Now married to Greg Hunt (Jon Gries), who has recovered from his illness and been given a new lease on life thanks to Tanya’s money, we watch as Tanya scrambles to hold onto the image she once had of her marriage. She does everything right, going through the motions of what one would expect from her life, but everything is just a little off, hinting at the inauthenticity behind it. She books a romantic vacay, but her husband doesn’t respond to her messages in the day leading up to it; she dons sexy lingerie, but has a panic attack midway through the deed, pushing her husband off her as she tells him she pictured him with shark eyes, “just dead, completely dead.”
By the end of the episode, when you see Tanya with her ear pressed up to a closet door, listening in as her husband whispers into his phone on the other side (TLDR, he might be having an affair), you can’t help but feel sympathy for her, like she’s dissociating from her reality and trying so hard to wedge her marriage into an idealised version of itself that it ultimately can’t conform to. And, will never be able to be. For Coolidge, it's a common experience.
“It is that weird thing [that] once you have something in your hand, you sometimes have to go into denial about it because you're like, Oh my God, I worked this hard for this? I'm here and this is really disappointing in many different ways.” And not only that, but a fear that now that you have the thing that was supposedly supposed to make you feel fulfilled, you’re obligated to stick with it. “You’re like, Oh, I've gotten this, and how long do I hang with this? Do I have to face the mirror and realise that I projected all of this onto that person [and] it was a false projection?”
While Tanya may slowly be coming to this realisation throughout the season, she’s also not yet — at least in the first few episodes — ready to confront or change her circumstances head on. But that’s also true to human nature. In many ways, these characters’ dissatisfaction is a commentary on society’s stagnation, and the fact that, despite many people who are unhappy with their circumstances most likely won’t do anything about it. After wailing poolside about her circumstances, Portia's friend makes a suggestion — quit her job. Portia glosses over the advice, barely acknowledging it.
For Richardson, as a “Gen Z/millennial cusp,” Portia’s yearning is familiar. “I relate to this as well because it's like we want so much more than what we already have. Always,” she tells Refinery29, “It's a problem. That's like an illness to want so much more instead of looking at what we have already and connecting with that and appreciating that.” (This comes up again later in the season).
Portia, as Richardson points out, wants all these things that are different and more than what she already has, “but she's also not aware enough or connected enough to be able to put in the effort to work on herself.” (Maybe not all that surprisingly, in a show and resort chock full of wealthy people who are unhappy with their situation, it’s the actual working class characters, Lucia and Mia, that are actively working to rectify their current situations and pursue their dreams to give themselves the lives they want by any means necessary).
This stagnation and inability to be happy with what we have makes for good TV, but isn’t a super promising message for society as a whole. Are we destined to forever be unhappy? The answer might be yes. But, we can also use the experiences of these characters on screen to reflect on our own, and maybe take something away from it. Which is what Richardson has been doing herself. “[Portia] needs to do the effort that it really takes to find the real meaning of life; she's very much stuck and lost,” she says. “That is something that I relate to. Playing this character and understanding Portia brought to the surface some things within myself that I've really been facing.”
New episodes of The White Lotus are now showing on NOWTV