[This story contains major spoilers from the season two finale of HBO’s The White Lotus, “Arrivederci.”]
The White Lotus opened its second season with a dead body to tell viewers that someone they will meet at the HBO show’s resort dies. But after seven episodes of getting to know the ensemble in Mike White’s anthology return — this time, set in Sicily, Italy — the ending remained unpredictable.
Even if a viewer had guessed that heiress Tanya McQuoid, played by Jennifer Coolidge, was the one who would die in the end, there was no way to have guessed just how she met her end.
The only main character to return from season one, Tanya had moved on from the grief of losing her mother and was vacationing as a newlywed with husband Greg (Jon Gries) at the Sicilian resort at the start of season two. But Greg, who was overtly miserable and possibly having a secret affair, left Tanya mid-vacation for business, which led her to spend out the rest of her days with a rich group of gay men, led by Quentin (Tom Hollander). After a night of partying and a cocaine-fueled romp with another man, Niccoló (Stefano Gianino), Tanya came upon a picture of a young Greg and Quentin, which was the first clue that pointed viewers to the theory that Greg and Quentin were carrying out an extortion plot so Greg could divorce Tanya over an affair, which would nullify their prenup.
“I wondered if Mike White was reading [these theories] because he would be so impressed with people coming up with these incredibly smart analyses of the possibilities,” Coolidge tells The Hollywood Reporter of the online fervor that built week-to-week as the audience tried to figure out creator White’s whodunnit.
In the 77-minute finale, Tanya uncovered a more sinister plot after realizing, from a tip from her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), that Greg had actually hired Quentin to kill Tanya for the money. While sequestered on Quentin’s yacht with two of his friends, she tries to warn the captain (“These gays, they’re trying to murder me!”), but he doesn’t speak English. When Niccoló arrives to take her back to the hotel on a dinghy under the cover of the night, she makes a break for it. She steals his bag and locks herself in a room, only to discover rope, duct tape and a gun. When the men barge in, she fires the gun in rapid succession and miraculously kills three of the men, and sends one fleeing into the water.
Her final question for a dying Quentin: “Is Greg having an affair?” When she gets no answer, she nervously attempts to get off the yacht and climb down into the dinghy, but her heel catches the railing, and she is flung overboard, hitting her head on the boat and sinking to her death in tragic and operatic fashion — just like the visit to the opera to see Madama Butterfly in the penultimate episode had foreshadowed.
“Tanya was so close to having a victory. And, an unlikely victory for someone like her, that she would have been able to manage a gun and save herself. She’s such a sad character, wouldn’t it have been cool if she survived?” asks Coolidge, when chatting the day after the finale.
Below, in a conversation with THR, the now Emmy-winning star of Legally Blonde, American Pie and Best in Show fame reveals how Tanya’s utterly tragic ending was inspired by a trait that friend White noticed in her. She also shares one possibility for her to return in the already announced third season of The White Lotus and reflects on the wild last two years of her career: “My mind is blown every day.”
When I reached out for this finale interview, I really didn’t think your character was going to be the one to die.
Aw, thank you.
Now, looking back, the signs were all there. But Mike White planted too many distracting seeds, and I think we were all fooled because, how could Tanya not be a part of The White Lotus? So, what has the reaction been like for you overnight?
It’s so weird because I thought maybe my friends were faking it when they were all asking, “Who’s going to die?” I was just really surprised that it hadn’t been leaked, or that people hadn’t figured it out. But my friends called me this morning, and actually last night, they were like, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t have told us this. I thought we were going to have a fun night. We didn’t know we were going to have to feel weird at the end of the night.” So I’m glad that people didn’t know; I’m glad.
Creator White crafted this role for you a while back with the first season. And he now explains that he knew he wanted to center season two around Tanya’s death after you spoke the season one finale line about death being the “final immersive experience.” At what point did he clue you in about Tanya’s fate?
I don’t know for how much time I knew that I was going to be in the second season; I forget how many months it actually was. But last year, maybe a few months before this one, I got this phone call from him, and we were having sort of a social call, and he said, “I just want to let you know something about season two.” He said, “We found these great locations in Sicily, and you’re going to love it here … oh and also, you die.” I was like, “I what?!” He was like, “You die.” I said, “Oh, really? Aw, really?” He didn’t tell me how I was going to die, but he told me I was definitely going to bite the dust. I was very disappointed, but not everyone can live!
Did you have all of the scripts at once, so you were able to see Tanya’s full and tragic arc? Or, was it episode by episode?
I think I had a lot of the script. I think I had the whole thing. It’s so weird because I was doing another job at the time, and to be honest, I feel like my brain is a little fried [in remembering]. The other job, I was definitely getting the scripts sort of dribbled; I was doing The Watcher [with Ryan Murphy for Netflix] right before White Lotus 2. I think Mike must have had all the scripts done, and I guess I did have the whole thing. That first phone call, he hadn’t figured out how he was going to kill me. But, he did figure it out.
What was the most interesting part about playing out this whodunnit, where you know all along, but Tanya and the viewers are the last ones to figure it out?
It ropes you in. I love that Mike dribbled one episode out each week and that people didn’t get them all at once. I really did like that, because then people had these [watch parties]. I even remember that happening with White Lotus 1. I had neighbors who were putting together these White Lotus nights. And I went to a lot of these parties. Everyone was dressed in their Hawaiian gear and would cook a different dish. It was very social, and I was so impressed. Then that ended, and the parties were even more intense for White Lotus 2. So I really like that it became a very social thing.
What I like about all the theories on Twitter and the different explanations that everyone had, a lot of it was so smart. I would read them and think, “I guess Mike White did leave that clue.” And other things where the clues made such sense. I wondered if Mike was reading this, he would be so impressed with people coming up with these incredibly smart analyses of the possibilities. It was riveting to read this stuff. I would send it to my friends, and they would send me back something they’d seen, and it was like you’d spend the whole day reading this stuff. But it was so entertaining, and some of the stuff people were saying was so funny.
White described Tanya’s ending as a “derpy death,” which is such a great word to encapsulate how she accidentally dies, after becoming a near-hero in her own tragic heroine story. How did you react when you read her death scene and saw how she goes out?
My initial reaction was just, “Oh my God, Tanya was so close to having a victory.” And an unlikely victory for someone like her, that she would have been able to manage a gun and save herself. She’s such a sad character, wouldn’t it have been cool if she survived? But Mike White is one of those people where you’re shooting something, and he is all about the reality. Like in that part where I picked up the bucket and I went over and hit him on the head with it, Mike says, “No, it’s not believable Jennifer, it’s not believable.” So I think Mike wanted it to be about how not everyone really gets to win in the end, even a tragic figure.
It’s terrible that Tanya dies. Greg [her husband] gets all the money, and he doesn’t even have to share it with Quentin [who was carrying out the hit on her], because Quentin is dead. So it has a sad taste in your mouth. I guess I didn’t like that I was so close to prevailing. But I heard Mike White tell someone else in an interview that he sort of felt like that was stolen from stuff he’s seen about me. When he says, “Jennifer, you can handle the big stuff, but then some small thing will be the unraveling of you. Some small thing that someone else can handle.” He’s fascinated by my inability to navigate technology a lot of the time. We’re all looking at some app, and I can’t get into it. There’s something with me and technology. So it makes sense because I think he stole it from my own ability to ruin something.
What was it like to film her ending, where she is so desperately trying to figure out how to get off this yacht, and then falls into the dinghy to her death?
The whole gun scene, that actually didn’t seem that difficult. But what really threw me off, again — and I told Mike White about this — is that I get really nauseous on boats. I told him on White Lotus 1 when he got to experience that with me when I got very ill on that boat in Hawaii, where I had to throw the ashes in the water. I ruined the day of filming for so many people on that boat because I was just holding that bucket and making everyone else feel sick. So Mike was like, “Well Jennifer, just remember, I’ll never make you get on a boat again.” And then, here we were! Here we were, and I was just as sick, and I had two different boats and had to do two different days of filming on these boats, and it was just horrendous. So I think it was navigating the nausea with the shooting. The motion thing is really a bummer. I was already nauseous from the boat, and then it’s just an added complication you don’t want to have to deal with.
But it’s sort of funny when you’re an actress. The things that really mess you up are things you don’t think about. Like, “Can you leap from here to here?” That seems easy. And then it’s some other thing that ends up being the biggest challenge of the project. But we had to shoot a lot, it was seven episodes in a very short amount of time in Sicily, and then ending in Rome. And I have to say, I’m amazed Mike was able to make that all happen. To write it all and direct it all, and then be involved in the editing. I don’t know how he did it. But, he did it.
It’s sad to think you wouldn’t be a part of the third season. Have you and White spoken about a way you could still be involved in the show?
Yeah, I mean, Mike is someone where you can’t just talk him out of things. Most of the decisions he makes, I have to say, later I look back and I’m like, “Oh my God, Mike White was right again.” Who knows if people were going to get tired of Tanya? Who knows? My only bummer is that I guess any way to bring back Tanya would have to be a prequel to White Lotus 1.
Or, in flashbacks.
Or flashbacks (laughs). I’m just sad, you know, I’m just sad. There was a very depressed Tanya in White Lotus 1 and then for White Lotus 2 Mike says, “She’s recovered from her mother’s death when we start White Lotus 2, Jennifer.” But the most sort of continual emotion of Tanya was always grief. I’m sad I couldn’t have played a happier Tanya! Because there are so many possibilities when someone’s not depressed; when someone’s depressed, it’s hard to get through the day. Who knows what she could have done?
White did hint that perhaps the murders would get traced back to Greg in the third season. Would that bring you some solace, if Greg doesn’t get away with it?
Yeah. I think Greg should get it. He should definitely have to pay for all the misery he caused Tanya. He should definitely get his comeuppance. But I wouldn’t even mind coming back as someone different. You know, you never know.
You’ve had such a successful year after winning an Emmy (for White Lotus) and coming off of Netflix hit The Watcher — another part that was written specifically for you, by creator Ryan Murphy. And, congrats on your Golden Globe nomination this morning.
I read in your EW “Entertainers of the Year” interview that you felt like your Hollywood offers were “flatlining” before Ariana Grande put you in her Thank, U Next video in 2019. How does it feel to be having such a moment at this point in your career?
I just like when life is unpredictable because it gives you hope, and I think it gives other people hope. It gives other actors hope. This moment is so unexpected. If you told me, “Sit down with a pad of paper and write down something you would expect to have happen in your life,” the very last page — on page 50,000 — would be that this moment would happen. This moment is just the last thing I ever thought of. It wasn’t even a possibility. If you told me to list the possibility of things you wanted to have happen, I wouldn’t have even put this on my possibility list, because it’s so unlikely. So I’m just blown away. My mind is blown every day about this run. And I’m so grateful for all of it.
The petition starts today for you to return to White Lotus 3 in a new role.
(Laughs) Aw, thank you so much!
Interview edited for clarity.