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‘The New Pope’ Gave Us a New Pope All Right, Just Not the One We Expected—or Deserved

Monday night’s season premiere saw the rise of a truly Woke Pope, but unfortunately, it appears he was just a stop on the John Malkovich express

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Spoiler warning

The second season of Paolo Sorrentino’s berserk ecclesiastical dramedy promises us a new pope. It’s right there in the title: The New Pope. This change comes because the first season’s titular young pope, Pius XIII, is now in a coma after collapsing in the original series finale. Even though the young pope is still alive, the Vatican cannot function with Pius XIII clinging to life via an arsenal of machines, and clinging to his modesty by virtue of a single strategically placed napkin. So we were promised a new pope, and thanks to the campaigning of the singular Cardinal Voiello, a new pope we were granted.

Just not the one we were expecting.

All the HBO promotional material for this season indicated that John Malkovich would become the new pope. But the first episode of the show—which aired Monday night—has come and gone without so much as a glimpse of its putative protagonist. Instead, during the papal election, the College of Cardinals deadlocks between Voiello and his doppelgänger, Hernandez, for 34 rounds of voting. With Hernandez all but certain to win with a simple majority on the 35th, the cardinal secretary of state swings his voting bloc over in support of Don Tommaso Viglietti, the guileless Franciscan monk and Vatican priest who heard Pius XIII’s confessions, including the memorable line: “I was praying so hard I nearly shit my pants.” A startled Don Tommaso accepts his election and styles himself Francis II, after St. Francis of Assisi.

And so the legacy of Saint Peter passed out of the dying man and into the friar.

Voiello believes he can control the nervous and bumbling Viglietti—much like he believed he could control Lenny Belardo—but once again, that faith turns out to be grossly misplaced. While many millions of adherents prayed for Pius XIII’s return to health, Francis II was introduced to a crowd the likes of which one would ordinarily see at a midweek Charlotte Hornets game. Things liven up, though, when a bird steals his Voiello-penned speech off the lectern, and Francis is forced to improvise a radical doctrine on the spot.

Franciscans take a vow of poverty, and so, to the horror of the cardinals, Pope Francis II sets out to reimagine the Catholic Church as an instrument of charity. He turns the cardinals’ dining room into a dedicated place to feed refugees and confiscates their gold crosses and rings to be donated to the poor. My colleague Miles Surrey called Francis II “Woke Pope.”

But nothing gold can stay in Woke Pope’s new order—literally and figuratively—as Hernandez and Voiello conspire to poison Francis’s blood pressure medication and install Sir John Brannox as a sort of Holy Plan C. Thus, Malkovich is presumably about to be delivered unto the faithful, and the series will march on, for ever and ever, amen.

And I’m furious.

Woke Pope ruled. Was Francis II as much fun as his predecessor, whose soul departed his body during surgery to sit among the cardinals in his boxer briefs? No, but few television characters, and even fewer popes, are that much fun. If Pope Teddy KGB is anywhere near as compelling as Pius XIII, it will be an upset.

But one of the greatest strengths of this The [Adjective] Pope series is Sorrentino’s ability to simultaneously marvel at the Vatican where it is grand, and to belittle it where it is petty. The mysterious authoritarian Pius XIII challenged a curia whose devotion to God had been dwarfed by its devotion to its own path dependence, and hilarity ensued. Francis II, with his cheerful indifference to and scorn for the pomposity of his brother cardinals, differed from his more conservative predecessor, but was no less challenging.

Francis II froze the Vatican bank accounts and locked the cardinals out of the vaults. He had an army of Franciscan friars install porn-blocking software in the Vatican’s computers. He traded in the exquisitely stylish red papal slippers for sandals that looked like Birkenstocks but were presumably even less ostentatious, then perched on the throne at the head of the Sistine Chapel and giggled as the cardinals, God, and His angels, were exposed to the pope’s naked toes. He threatened to reveal all of the scandalous secrets he gleaned during his time hearing the confessions of the church’s most powerful and (in some cases) most hypocritical figures. He sold Voiello’s beloved Venus of Willendorf. Left unchecked, Francis II would have destroyed the church and rebuilt it from scratch.

“Tommasino, you’re crazy,” Voiello said.

“No,” said Francis II. “I am the pope.”

Francis II operated not out of base political expediency, but out of a genuine belief in and adherence to the scriptures and doctrines he’d devoted his life to upholding. His about-face in church policy is played for laughs and treated as a crisis, but it’s fairly by-the-numbers behavior for a priest of his order. It’s funny to watch Voiello and his confrères squirm, but it’s also a subtle indictment of our society to see such comedic value in a pope actually practicing what his church preaches. It can also be read as a jab at the real-life Pope Francis I, the Jesuit reformer who’s hailed as a real-life Woke Pope of sorts. But while Francis I has moderated church policy as compared to his predecessor, he’s stopped short of answering the call Jesus laid before the rich man: Sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and follow me.

Actually attempting to answer that call was the fictional Francis II’s fatal mistake, and now we’re all condemned to suffer a nine-episode purgatory without the delightful Woke Pope. He was a great ally to the poor, and we will all be poorer for his absence.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.