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On The White Lotus, Aubrey Plaza steals the show

In "Abductions," Harper's wry smile keeps us guessing as to whether she’s toying with her husband or getting back at him

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Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey Plaza
Photo: Fabio Lovino/HBO

I always knew this season of The White Lotus would belong to Aubrey Plaza. But I was hardly ready for the way in which her Harper would take a chokehold on this HBO anthology series. (Can each new season be chain-linked, with us following Harper next season wherever she’s headed provided she survives next week’s finale? Pretty please!) Plaza, who’s long been known and often underestimated because of her uncanny ability to channel deadpan “evil hag” energy, has here yet again proven why she’s one of the most fascinating performers around.

Case in point: her portrayal of Harper as she both unravels herself and entangles Ethan (Will Sharpe) into her own web of suspicion. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out that this apparently solid couple who may or may not have intimacy issues that they actually need to figure out is getting to play an Othello/Desdemona storyline of their own making. There is, of course, no Iago here to egg on either about the possible cuckolding that may or may not have taken place. But that’s because there’s no need for that. Harper and Ethan do so all by themselves—and Plaza’s decision (working off of Mike White’s elegantly structured plot) to not quite reveal what it is Harper is playing at is what keeps us on our toes.

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Is Harper openly encouraging Cameron (Theo James) so as to make Ethan jealous, sowing seeds of suspicion as to whether the two actually were up to no good in their hotel room? Did she actually go through with it? Is she toeing a line but making sure she doesn’t cross it? Might it all be, as we’re also led to believe, in Ethan’s head? It’d be simpler if we hadn’t already seen Cameron making under-the-table moves toward Harper, or if we’d actually heard the conversation wherein Cameron came clean with her about that night away from the wives. But it’s obviously a lot more fun being left in the dark, with Plaza’s wry smile to keep us guessing whether she’s toying with her husband or actually getting back at him. Possibly both? Who can tell, really.

If Harper and Ethan’s relationship has the air of a Shakespearean tragedy (we are headed for what we were told were multiple deaths!), it follows that they’d be felled by their own insecurities. Once that green-eyed monster has reared its head, it’s hard to ignore it. Which is what Harper first failed to do, and now it’s Ethan’s turn. Ah, if only they’d deal with their jealousies the way Cameron and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) do: by play-acting at being okay with consensual non-monogamy while actually being in a non-consensual non-monogamous marriage.

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If I’m stuck on Harper, it’s because I feel she’s the key to this season (in a way Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya was in season one, even if here she’s been sidelined into what’s turning out to be White’s most luscious and deliciously operatic subplot). If Tanya’s grief structured The White Lotus: Hawaii, our sojourn in Sicily is being articulated through Harper’s slow motion descent into jealous-turned-scorning-wife.

Adam DiMarco and Simona Tabasco
Adam DiMarco and Simona Tabasco
Photo: Fabio Lovino/HBO
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It is through Harper that we’ve come to witness how issues of trust, longing, and honesty have come into focus in every single one of the relationships Mike White has sketched out for us. Whether it’s Valentina’s heartbreak over a recent engagement (and her subsequent hotel room tryst), Albie’s “romance” with Lucia (he’s getting played, right?), or Tanya’s own cocaine-fueled romp (what a final shot!), this season is fascinated with the disruptive power of desire. And, more specifically, with the way any carefully constructed idea of who you think you are can so easily be disassembled in the face of…you name it, beauty, youth, passion, even pity.

Now, as to whether White’s season-long examination of the corrosive (but also intoxicating) power of shameless desire ends in a tragedy that tries to redeem such impulses or further muddies them is left to be seen. I guess we’ll have to spend this next week figuring out who it’d make the most sense to dispense with if what you want is to keep your audience wondering what it is that happens when you sell your body, when you fear your desires, and yes, when you cannot help but sell your body in order to feed your desires.

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Stray observations

  • Ahem, the name of the actor you’re most wanting to Google right about now is Stefano Gianino.
  • Anyone eager to watch Plaza’s most interesting work should seek out not just the recent Emily the Criminal but Ingrid Goes West, Black Bear, and Happiest Season (not to mention her stints hosting the Independent Film Spirit Awards!). Oh, and Legion, obviously.
  • Oh, I guess I barely mentioned the DiGrassos but…can you blame me? The Lucia of it all aside, theirs is my least favorite subplot. Though the poetic justice in three DiGrasso men being told to get out by three Sicilian women was very rewarding. But yeah…as for Lucia and her mystery man, I don’t know. I can’t bring myself to care that much and I worry the final murderous (or deadly) twist we’re getting next week may turn out to hinge on it which…pass.
  • I also didn’t much mention Portia and her drunken (and quite wounded/broken) fuckboi because, well, that final scene with them kind of wrecked me and I figured his non-disclosure disclosure was best left untouched since it got at (yet again) transactional relationships and illicit desires.
  • In case you were wondering, those two Italian bangers that score Quentin’s fab party are “Ciao Ciao” by La Rappresentante Di Lista and “Andiamo” by Fiori. You’re welcome.
  • Related: If you’re an Italian “uncle,” please invite me to your parties at your villa. Thanks!
  • Semi-related: If you’re a masseur who looks like a muscled Timothee Chalamate, please call me. Thanks!
  • Jennifer Coolidge’s physical comedy remains a highlight of this show; watching her Tanya snort cocaine alone is a master class in comedic timing.
  • As much as I praise Mike White for his dialogue (he really has an ear for ordinary sentences that carry within them quite the emotional heft: “We’re too young to be this old”), I should commend him here as well for his eye. This season he’s turned establishing shots (of a window, of a door—of the ocean, even) into wonderfully baroque punctuations of the show’s visual grammar. Also, that shot wherein we see Harper looking at Ethan as he talks with the girls (in reflection) isn’t just beautiful but it’s an amazing distillation of the mirage she’s concocted for herself in her head.
  • Raise your hand if you think we’ve just been shown a Chekhov’s gun. I know, I can’t wait to see how this all turns out…