After a smashingly successful and award-winning first season, The White Lotus returns for its second installment with a new batch of guests. This time, the luxurious resort takes place along the beautiful coast of Sicily, Italy, rather than Hawaii. The location change has already hinted at the ways it will distinguish this season from the last. There are only two characters that have been rolled over from season one: Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya and her now-husband Gregg (Jon Gries). After a whirlwind hookup in Hawaii, they’re back for another romantic retreat. The rest of the guests and staff consist of fresh faces, a pair of young married couples, Tanya’s assistant, and a father, son, and grandfather are all introduced on the boat leading to the hotel, as per last season. There are some local characters that appear throughout Episode 1, but there’s a noticeable lack of emphasis on this year’s hotel staff and their drama (so far!). One aspect of the setting has made itself very apparent, however, and that’s the numerous statues around the hotel of the Testa di Moro, an ominous figure in Italian folklore that is bound to watch over this mischievous bunch.
What is the Testa di Moro?
Though it is briefly touched upon at the top of the episode, the legend of the Testa di Moro is a foreboding story of love gone wrong. During the period of the domination of the Moors in Sicily, a young, lonely woman was tending to her garden when a man, a Moor, appeared below her balcony claiming he had fallen in love with her. Because she had lived such a solitary life, she was immediately stricken by his passion and infatuation and fell in love with him too. Before long, she learned that he was keeping a dreadful secret — he had a wife and children at home, and he would soon be abandoning her to return to them. Heartbroken and betrayed, she cut off his head and turned it into a vase, where she would plant herbs and continue to tend to him forever, so he could never threaten to leave her again.
The vases and busts that resulted from this legend are a popular attraction for tourists, and ceramics are a very important part of Sicily’s cultural landscape, so naturally, the White Lotus decorates with these statues it seems in almost every room. As the guests ponder its significance, it also causes the viewer to wonder what themes this particular piece of set dressing foreshadows for these characters. We know Testa di Moro’s tale is one of revenge, loneliness, and heartbreak, but it also signals that dishonesty, lustfulness, and infidelity begets violence.
The Guests’ Connection to the Legend
The first episode wastes no time establishing the various characters’ relationship to the figurines. Shortly after we are introduced to married couple frenemies Cameron and Daphne (Theo James, Meghann Fahy) and Ethan and Harper (Will Sharpe, Aubrey Plaza), they have their first run-in with Testa di Moro as they’re being shown their rooms. Ethan, who we later learn is a more knowledgeable, inquisitive person than his friend Cameron, is the first to ask about the “head things” to which the concierge responds with a condensed version of the above story. When he questions what impression someone is trying to give when they have one of these busts outside their house, Cameron cuts in with a crass joke. The couple laughs it off, and we never do get to truly learn what the answer is. The “my husband better not screw around” quip made by Daphne reminds the bellman to show them a feature that allows them to conjoin rooms! How appropriate. The unsettled ending of this exchange leaves more to be desired, and surely the legend of Teste di Moro will gladly fill in some blanks as the season progresses.
The bust makes another ominous appearance in Tanya and Gregg’s suite. Tanya’s loneliness is reminiscent of the naive girl from the story, and Gregg seems as though he is taking advantage of that, much like the young Moor. Tanya is staring directly at the statue and abruptly stops their lovemaking, citing disassociation and strange visions. While the image of a decapitated ex-lover in your room is objectively unsexy, its association with infidelity ties into a hushed phone call Gregg takes in the bathroom later that night. When Tanya overhears his whispering, he writes it off as a work call. But we’re all onto you Gregg. Perhaps Tanya’s sudden fixation with the bust was a divine warning.
That same evening, Ethan and Harper have a similar experience staring down the figurine. Harper confides in her husband that she had an inappropriate run-in with his friend earlier that day, and it seemed very intentional on his part. Ethan disregards her complaint, which obviously rubs her the wrong way as she wordlessly turns over and goes to bed. Ethan hears the exuberant couple laughing in the next room and then makes long, unbroken eye contact with the bust. His apathy might lead him down a troublesome path caught between his wife and his best friend.
Secrets Can’t Be Kept For Long
These beautiful ceramic artworks might ground us in the uniqueness of the Italian setting, but it also acts as a powerful visual motif and framing device. The Testa di Moro is brought into focus when cagey behavior is afoot, and will likely continue to serve as a reminder that secrets can’t be kept for long, revenge is inevitable. Its presence reminds viewers that we should be wary of the guests and their actions. Of course, this is not a covert attempt on behalf of writer Mike White to encourage us to scrutinize the motives of those that pass through the hotel. The way this set piece is introduced leads us to believe that it will be an integral part of the story, if not a guiding compass as to how to navigate the mysterious deaths that will be taking place. This visual symbol with weighty cultural and historic significance is a strong and impactful choice, and it adds a new depth to the story. The looming figure gives off the same eerie feeling as when a scene is shot through an open window or an obscured view, such as the final shot of this episode. Teste di Moro’s omnipresence imparts the icky feeling that everyone’s privacy is being invaded and that their private actions are being judged.
As we continue to dive deeper into each player’s story and their lives begin to entangle with one another, we might get distracted from the Testa di Moro from time to time. Because it is set up in the premiere to be somewhat of a lightning rod for unsavory impulses, chances are that it might be the key to piecing together who is in the body bag from the beginning of the episode. The young local woman from the legend was obsessed with justice and revenge, will her spirit live on through the countless vases scattered about the White Lotus to pass judgment?