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The ‘New Pope’ Premiere Blesses Us With Neon Crosses and Raving Nuns

Paolo Sorrentino’s continuation of ‘The Young Pope’ begins with Pope Pius XIII in a coma and a church struggling to find a suitable successor

HBO/Ringer illustration

Our content prayers have been answered: White smoke has emerged from the HBO offices, and The Young Pope is finally back. Well, sort of. The Young Pope is now The New Pope—and as the title would imply, there’s a new pope in town. Don’t worry, Jude Law’s Pius XIII can still lay claim to the title of People’s Sexiest Pontiff Alive, but a challenger to the papacy has emerged in the form of John Malkovich. It’s young versus new, Law versus Malkovich, as a Vatican power struggle scored to a bunch of EDM bangers—not a joke—threatens to create sinners of us all. Every week, we’ll douse ourselves in holy water, dive into Paolo Sorrentino’s sacrilegious world, and come out with scripture (blogs). Let us begin with the series premiere.

Verse I. The Comatose Pope

It’s been several years since The Young Pope graced our screens, and I’ll confess that if it weren’t for a recent series rewatch, I’d have forgotten many of its nuances. You probably remember the LMFAO-scored changing montage, the glorious Vatican kangaroo, and Diane Keaton’s hoop dreams. But for all the show’s bizarre antics—which somehow perceived and even outdid the divine memes spawned ahead of its premiere—The Young Pope was also a profound and moving treatise on loneliness, faith, and power. It wasn’t memes alone that propelled The Young Pope to become The Ringer’s number one show of 2017. It earned that title because it was a genuinely great series. And the finale’s cliffhanger was ridiculous.

That’s the other big thing to be reacquainted with: After Pius XIII gives a public address—one in which he reveals his visage to the public for the first time, and they’re no doubt delighted he looks like Jude Law/Daddy—he collapses and sees Jesus in the clouds. That’s where we ended things. The ambiguity could’ve led you to presume that, no sooner had Pius XIII mature and grow into a venerable leader than our young pope died. Alas, if you’ve seen any promotional material for The New Pope, you’ll know that Pius XIII is going to come back for a papal standoff with John Malkovich. But in the meantime, our dude is in a coma—and apparently under the divine protection of Saint David Guetta:

All screenshots and GIFs via HBO

A neon cross? Iconic, and weirdly on-brand. This is our first scene in the new series, as a nurse slowly—and one might argue, sensually—bathes our immobile pontiff. The provocative display is elevated by the lyrics of Susanna Wallumrod’s “Holy/Sacred”: “Nothing is holy, holy, holy / nothing is sacred, sacred, sacred.” You damn well know I’m clutching my rosary beads. Outside the hospital, Pius XIII’s most devout followers are doing a holy interpretation of the “summoning circle” meme, hoping their prayers will nurse their beloved pope back to health. They’re also rocking Young Pope hoodies, which I assume are from a recent Supreme drop:

Would cop. But the prayers aren’t helping at the moment: Three separate heart transplants have failed to bring the pope out of his coma, and the only thing separating Pius XIII from meeting his creator is a bunch of hospital equipment. The Vatican is in the strange position of only technically having a pope. The idea of a comatose pope, though, especially one as idolized as Pius XIII, is creating public unrest. As a solution, Cardinal Voiello—he’s the schemer with the huge mole on his face—leads the charge to elect a new pope.

If you were hoping for more Jude Law, I’m sorry to inform you that his screen time this week is tragically limited. Thankfully, we do get what I’m going to call—forgive me, father—a papal thirst trap. On the operating table, Pius XIII does some astral pope-jecting in his tighty whities to check in on his Vatican pals:

I’ll say this for creator-writer-director Sorrentino: He’s made a sexy pope, and he knows it.

Verse II. Seeing Double

On the matter of a new pope, Voiello confers with his loyalists in the Vatican’s bamboo garden—side note: It has a bamboo garden??—and begins the delicate process of pointing out all the issues with potential papal nominees: health problems, too snobby, bad fit, etc. You can probably see where this is heading: Voiello surmises that he is the best candidate. He even drops all pretenses that this was a spontaneous decision by having his right-hand man—a new character with a vague resemblance to, I shit you not, Martin Scorsese—pass out copies of his latest test results to verify his good health. Ever the narcissist, Voiello is already envisioning a book charting his papal exploits when, perhaps, we get a case of divine intervention via bird poop:

Is this an omen? Possibly, especially when Voiello’s closest challenger in the voting process is Cardinal Hernandez, who just so happens to look exactly like him. I mean that quite literally: Actor Silvio Orlando is pulling double duty this week. The only difference between Hernandez and Voiello are their glasses, and that Hernandez doesn’t have that hideous mole on his cheek:

Doppelgängers can be viewed as a harbinger of doom—though your reading into the Voiello clone doesn’t have to go that deep. It’s a hilarious spectacle—a tasty prelude to the chaotic papal voting process, which sees Voiello slowly losing ground to his double. For reasons entirely egotistical—Hernandez shit-talks Voiello when they’re alone in the bathroom, mostly for his ugly-ass mole—Voiello turns the table on Hernandez before he gets two-thirds majority by convincing the other cardinals to vote for someone else. Congrats to our new pope [checks notes] … Viglietti?

I’ll cut to the chase: This isn’t John Malkovich. Viglietti, better known as Don Tommaso, was introduced in The Young Pope as the confessor for the curia, as well as Pius XIII: a simple man tasked by our young pope with providing him gossip so he could anticipate Voiello’s moves. (Pius XIII eventually granted Tommaso a cardinalship for his loyalty.) Tommaso decides to call himself Pope Francis II. OK, we have to unpack that for a second. This means that in the New/Young Pope Cinematic Universe, Pope Francis is canon, and, sadly, probably dead. (Does Pope Francis watch papal content? Does he hate this show?)

Anyway, so begins the reign of our new pope—though with the specter of Malkovich looming, we already know Francis II’s term will be ill-fated.

Verse III. Il Papa,,, Welcome to the Resistance

The meek Francis II is nervous AF about his first address to the masses. He’s taking pills to stabilize his blood pressure, he’s crying—with all due respect, he’s a complete mess. Voiello has prepared a speech for him, pulling the strings the way he’d always wanted to with Pius XIII, and is essentially a backseat driver during Francis II’s address. But, once again, maybe-divine intervention gets in the way. These Italian birds have it out for Voiello: One swipes Francis II’s speech right off the podium.

The moment, now requiring our pope to go off-script, is enough to signal to Francis II that he needs to get woke. He realizes he’s the goddamn pope. He doesn’t need to listen to Voiello; this is his show. This is what I imagine Francis II’s epiphany looked like in his head:

What is our mans gonna do? He’s gonna OPEN THE VATICAN GATES FOR REFUGEES, AND REDISTRIBUTE THE CHURCH’S WEALTH TO THE POOR. “The time of privilege is over,” he later decrees to Voiello and Co. privately, laying out how he wants his papacy to be a “long, luxurious manifestation of poverty.”

Hold on, my head is dizzy, I need a glass of holy water. The New Pope went from zero to Bernie Sanders in a matter of minutes. But Francis II’s behavior, however well-intentioned, quickly goes off the rails: He wants Voiello fired (sure); he wants to liquidate everything of value in the Vatican for the poor (seems intense, but fine, it’s the right idea!); he wants to strip the cardinals of their bedazzled crosses and replace them with wooden ones (OK!); he wants to ban masturbation in the Vatican while installing cameras in the bathroom to ensure everyone follows his edict (wait what?!?!?!?!). His most devout followers—friars in simple clothing—have some serious Faith Militant in Game of Thrones energy. They go so far as to hack the Vatican servers so that their leader is the only one with access to the Vatican’s funds. Mr. Robot, eat your heart out:

Francis II is, in essence, drunk with power. It’s an illuminating sight, and one that underscores the immense weight that comes with such an influential position. Though Francis II does make a compelling case that Voiello should’ve seen this coming: While Voiello saw a naive, newly appointed cardinal he could manipulate through the papacy, he forgot all about Tommasso’s standing as the curia’s confessor. He has dirt on everyone—he knows better than anybody in the world how corrupt and sinful the power players in the Vatican are. Francis II wants to clean house and accept refugees with open arms; that’s good. The video-assisted masturbation-prevention measures need to stay in evangelical message boards.

But we all know that Francis II won’t last—not unless His Holiness Pope Malkovich I was the most sinful red herring in the history of television—and what do you know, he doesn’t live through the episode. Sorrentino, clearly inspired by the mysterious deaths of popes past, heavily implies that Francis II’s blood pressure medication was poisoned—the culprit likely being the newly introduced mono-named Bauer, an “ambassador to the Holy See” who appears to be the show’s equivalent to Doug Stamper. Bauer is a sketchy dude. How sketchy? He slurps on oysters in a fancy restaurant; you might as well have him wear a neon sign that says “BAD GUY!” (The neon sign can be color-coordinated with the Young Pope’s hospital room cross.) All told, the frenetic reign of Francis II lasts about 25 minutes, though its consequences could have far-reaching effects in the matter of public opinion—especially because there’s no way the masses will believe the Woke Pope died of natural causes. The sheeple might be waking up.

Verse IV. The New New Pope

We’re back to Vatican Square One. Pius XIII is still comatose; Francis II got an early retirement. The faithful need a pope to rally behind. Voiello and Hernandez concede that neither of them should be pope to avoid more curia infighting, so they agree to back the person with the most votes after them: Sir John Brannox. All we know about Brannox is that he was considered “too much of a snob” by Voiello and that he’s widely praised for converting many Anglicans to Catholicism. (Also, he bears a striking resemblance to John Malkovich.)

But I’m going to cheat a little and give you some of his backstory. With saintly restraint, I’m watching episodes of The New Pope only one week at a time—all the better for my digital scriptures that I don’t peer ahead—but in my casual internet-ing I accidentally stumbled upon an incredible fact about Brannox that I can’t resist sharing. Brannox is—you might want to sit down for this—an English aristocrat and former punk rock musician. In several promotional photos for the series, Brannox wears—are you still sitting down?—eyeliner. Marilyn Manson is going to appear in the series, making it entirely possible that he’s invited to the Vatican by the pope because they used to shred together or something.

I can’t believe this is a real TV show. This show has rocked three separate pontiffs, from Hot Pope to Woke Pope to Punk Pope, and, possibly, back to Hot Pope when he’s no longer Coma Pope. The New Pope is going to break the internet. But maybe not this week. We get only the briefest glimpse of Malkovich-as-Brannox over the end credits, scored to the same “All Along the Watchtower” instrumental that served as The Young Pope’s theme song.

Brannox looks very contemplative; we’ll see if he’s just as composed at the Vatican—and how short-lived his papacy might be. Our Young Pope’s going to wake up eventually, just as soon as I deliver a few more Hail Marys.

Verse V. Praise Be, Mother Oontz Oontz

Our sermon couldn’t end without addressing the dancing nuns in the room. No, seriously. After our Pius XIII coma check-in, we begin the episode with some cloistered nuns about to turn in for bed—only to put on heels, apply makeup, do their nails, and squirt some perfume in the service of having a rave next to their pulsating neon cross. All of this is scored to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl” while the opening credits hit. It is exceptional. I must confess I’ve watched this upward of 20 times.

We needn’t overthink this or take any of it literally. Sorrentino is no stranger to surreal flourishes or visual spectacle—electronic music was also, somehow, the beating heart of The Young Pope. The wildest thing is that it really works. Something about religious iconography + dank beats = aural divinity.

The only question that remains is whether this nun rave was a onetime thing, or if it’s replaced the “All Along the Watchtower” instrumental as the official theme song of The New Pope. If so, is it going to be the same dance sequence? The same nuns? Will the nuns be raving to new tunes every week, or are we sticking to “Good Time Girl”? Is this what Pius XIII dreams about in his coma? Am I going to dream about nuns raving? Is it a sin if I do? Is the Young/New Pope Cinematic Universe the greatest television experience of our lifetime? Only time will tell; there are still eight episodes to go. Bless up.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.