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How HBO Is Weaving Real Italian Lore Into This Season of ‘The White Lotus’

The Moor Heads from the White Lotus

Spoilers for season two of The White Lotus.

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History and lore are passed down from generation to generation in Italian families, and many of the stories boil down to a singular message: Don’t scorn a woman unless you’re ready for the consequences. Or maybe that’s just what my Sicilian family always taught me.

Season 2 of The White Lotus starts off with the story of the Sicilian Moor Heads, or Testa di Moro. It’s the tale of a woman overcome by jealousy when the man she’s fallen in love with decides to leave her to return to his wife and kids that she knew nothing about. Her jealousy turns murderous and she cuts off his head and uses it as a vase.

The other bit of Sicilian lore we learn from the show—specific to the town of Taormina—is the story of Isola Bella. A wealthy Swedish woman owned a house on the island and wanted to keep it for herself, refusing all offers from “investors” (definitely code for organized crime) to buy her out. After she was found dead, her house was opened to the public and so while not a story of revenge, it is perhaps a cautionary tale.

All this is to say that White Lotus is doing an interesting job tying in actual Sicilian lore as the series continues to progress.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

While I do think that Isola Bella is going to tie into Tanya’s (Jennifer Coolidge) storyline with Quentin (Tom Hollander) and Jack (Leo Woodall), the story of the Sicilian Moor Heads has implications that run throughout the entire season.

If you go to Sicily, you’ll see that the heads are everywhere but—at least from my experience—rarely is the story told. I recently went there with my family and I was shocked to only learn about the story after the fact, but the tale does make sense, given what I know of my Sicilian heritage. The area is heavily influenced by Greek mythology and culture due to ancient Greek colonization and the people there take their lore seriously. Which means many believe in the messages present in the Moor Heads.

It is a story of lies. A man lied to his lover in order to have a love affair while he was away from home and it ended in his death. That theme is very heavily woven into each separate “family” that we’re seeing throughout the season.

Tanya’s husband Greg (Jon Gries) is clearly cheating on her (or at least is lying to her); Dom (Michael Imperioli) comes from a long line of cheaters and he himself is on the outs with his own wife and daughter because of his infidelity; Cameron (Theo James) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) had a night with sex workers while their wives were away and while Ethan swears he didn’t do anything, that doesn’t mean that Harper (Aubrey Plaza) believes him.

So at this moment, the Moor Heads could connect to any of their stories—and frankly, that is why these myths work so well.

Jealousy is universal.

Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Meghann Fahy, and Theo James in The White Lotus (2021)

At the end of the fifth episode, we did see the potential for new jealousy to develop, with the relationship reveal of Jack and Quentin. We don’t know exactly what their deal is but Tanya sees the two having sex after they’d presented themselves as an uncle and nephew duo. (We get it, HBO, you love incest.) That their relationship has a sexual aspect, as well as secrecy, is inevitably going to change how Tanya and her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) interact with this group and with each other, as Portia is having a fling with Jack—a fling that Tanya explicitly said made her jealous.

The episode ended on that cliffhanger so we’ll have to wait to see how it develops, but what’s clear is that jealousy isn’t a characteristic or plot device specific to one person. It flows through everyone in some way or another. Many of these individual plotlines are tied to deception or love, but there is a level of jealousy built into the show from the jump, universal but exacerbated by the extreme wealth and constant social ladder climbing on display at this specific luxury resort.

While season one mined (or at least tried to mine) the social and political history of its setting, season two is tapping into its location’s mythology. And I can’t wait to see who ends up floating in the ocean at the end of the season because right now, it is looking like none of the men in this series are safe.

(image: HBO)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh.

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