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 and 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). Our journey continues with the second episode.
Verse I. Sinful Status Quo Resumed
The official story out of the Vatican is that Pope Francis II—formerly Cardinal Viglietti, and before that, the meek confessor for the curia and Pius XIII—has died of a sudden heart attack, which we know was more likely a papal assassination. This pope was simply too woke for Cardinal Voiello and the rest of the conclave’s Machiavellian power players; they’re treating a papal do-over the same way someone might casually reset the level of a video game. (Except, you know, we’re talking about the leader of one of the biggest religions in the world—semantics!) The cardinals do look relieved to get their holy swag back:
How saintly of them. But the public isn’t falling for this cover story, and the media is questioning the actual circumstances of Francis II’s death. (Meanwhile, I imagine the New Pope universe’s Chris Cillizza is getting ratioed for a terrible column that picks Vatican winners and losers to the pope’s immediate death.) Many outlets are likening what happened to Woke Pope to the mysterious IRL death of Pope John Paul I; some are even insinuating that Voiello was responsible. The Vatican has also kicked the refugees that Francis II welcomed off its grounds. You don’t need to be a PR expert to know that’s a bad look, and quite antithetical to so-called Christian values.
The church is in as much turmoil as it was when Pius XIII slipped into his coma. With Woke Pope out of the way, we’re back to the chaotically sinful status quo. So Voiello and a small entourage set off for England, where they’re hoping to convince Sir John Brannox—a.k.a. John Malkovich—to become the new, new pontiff. Brannox was described in the premiere as a “snob,” and this week Voiello worries he might not have the best temperament for the job. However, I think we’re past the point of letting Voiello vouch for pope-ly bonafides. He failed to rein in Pius XIII’s extremist behavior at the beginning of his papacy, and then misjudged how much he could micromanage Francis II so badly that they had to kill the poor guy. Despite gaming the papal system like the Houston Astros, Voiello is 0 for 2 at the pope plate. Let’s see if he strikes out with Brannox.
Verse II. A Pope-mas Carol
At this point, you’re probably wondering: Where’s John Malkovich? We went through an entire series premiere with only a glimpse of his character in the end credits, and the second episode teases viewers by keeping Brannox seductively off-screen. Voiello and his crew arrive at Brannox’s estate in the evening, where they’re informed by the head butler—he’s got real Alfred Pennyworth energy—that they won’t be able to speak with the man until the morning. Brannox never disrupts his “in bed by 10:30” routine, not even for the Vatican’s secretary of state. (And hey, I respect anyone who loves a good daily routine!)
But while we all wait for the sight of Pope Malkovich, we have a Young Pope to tend to our needs—at least in spirit. Like a steamier version of A Christmas Carol, Voiello, Vatican marketing director Sofia Dubois, and Cardinal Gutierrez are visited in the night by Pius XIII, who spiritually manifests to help light a fire on a cold winter’s night for Voiello, reassures Gutierrez that he made the right call not having an evening tryst with Cardinal Assente, and [wipes sweaty brow with communion wafers; genuinely cannot believe I’m typing this out] gently comforts Sofia after she has somewhat literal phone sex with her husband by using her phone to achieve orgasm. (I can already sense the email coming from HR.)
The New Pope is wild, man. And it speaks to the power of this series that, while the aforementioned events sound a tad ridiculous out of context, it comes across on-screen as strangely, earnestly sentimental. The Gutierrez exchange, in particular, is a reminder of how his relationship with Pius XIII shaped both of them (see: the incredibly moving penultimate episode of The Young Pope). Pius XIII may be stuck in what everyone believes to be an irreversible coma, but he’s not far from their minds. And the longer we, the audience, have to wait to see him emerge and (probably) request a Cherry Coke Zero, the more we’ll long for his (sexy) physical presence.
Verse III. Now Accepting Papal Pitches
Before we get to John Brannox—sorry for drawing out his reveal almost as much as Sorrentino—let’s talk about his parents, who are revealed before him. They are wheelchair users and spend their days and nights thinking about Adam, Brannox’s twin brother, who passed away on a “cold winter’s day.” Their coping mechanism for losing a son is staring at his tombstone for several hours a day and then staring at this creepy-ass shrine in their bedroom. (Adam died 40 years ago.)
Another curious detail: They have seemingly cut John out of the family photos in their room. Ouch. Adam was clearly the favorite son, but the overwhelmingly intense grieving process—coupled with the fact we’re told they intentionally avoid seeing their only living son—inevitably inspires some theorizing. Does it bother them because looking at John reminds them of Adam, since they were twins? Or is it because they think John was somehow responsible for his brother’s death? Is this the Killer Pope? Am I projecting how Malkovich is really good at playing sinister characters onto this New Pope? All I’m saying is Did John Brannox kill his twin? could be the new Did Cliff Booth kill his wife?
Anyway, we’ve waited long enough: Let’s judge Brannox for ourselves. Clad in a purple suit and eyeliner(!) to greet Cardinal Voiello, it’s clear Brannox is an enigmatic figure—and one that doesn’t exactly fit with the traditional image of a pope. It also appears he suffers from the same affliction as Succession’s Roman Roy: He can’t sit normally.
More beguiling than his appearance, though, is his temperament. He is sulky and generally leans toward a depressive vibe. Brannox tells Voiello he weeps for, actual quote, “the inexhaustible imperfection of the world.” So maudlin, so melodramatic! (I’m sure his favorite NBA player is Kyrie Irving.) Given that we know he was once a punk rock musician (!!) who still wears eyeliner, it looks like John Brannox is basically Pete Wentz crossed with Eeyore. Admittedly, not what I expected from our soon-to-be new pope!
He is so gloomy, in fact, that Voiello and Co. are having a difficult time selling him on the papacy. Brannox’s thoughts seem to linger on his brother and his irreparable relationship with his parents. He could be in the middle of a decades-long crisis of faith, which would give his preordained papacy some tragicomic overlap with Pius XIII, who openly questioned the existence of God at several points in The Young Pope. Sorry, this Brannox introduction was kind of a bummer. Here are some photos of the dude during his punk rock years to lighten the mood.
Verse IV. Family Matters
What should we look for when electing a new pope? Don’t worry, this is rhetorical, and most of us aren’t exactly qualified to dole out papal advice—I have a more encyclopedic knowledge of quotes from the acclaimed major motion picture Venom than Bible verses. But it’s worth considering what makes a good pope in the context of the Young/New Pope Cinematic Universe, given the papal turmoil that’s rocked this world.
In theory, a good pope should have the virtues of the late Francis II (minus, you know, the masturbation surveillance system), whose dogma was to accept refugees, give to the poor, and rid the Vatican of virtually all its accumulated wealth. But our Woke Pope wasn’t elected because of his values: He got the papacy because the cardinals wanted a puppet who would acquiesce to their demands.
In The Young Pope, Voiello hoped to blackmail Pius XIII—going so far as to try and catch our hot, young fella having an affair with Esther, a wife to one of the Swiss Guards. But their relationship wasn’t sexual; Pius XIII may have even pulled off one of his saintly miracles by praying for the infertile Esther to have a child. (Which she did.) The point being: The only time Voiello could sorta-manipulate Pius XIII in the series was when he was distracted by the thought of his parents, who abandoned him as a child. His resentment about becoming an orphan was Pius XIII’s Achilles’ heel, and the main reason he appeared to channel all his frustrations out into the world once he was elected pope.
This might matter for two reasons. For starters, with mopey Brannox, the Vatican is about to elect another pope with some serious family issues—the sort of emotional baggage that could bleed into his approach to the papacy. (I imagine it’d be a little different than Pius XIII’s behavior, but the outcome could be similarly detrimental.) Secondly, we see some conspirators in Rome—including the Italian minister of economy and finance—discussing how they can control this pope because an unnamed cardinal says he knows Brannox’s “unspeakable secret.” Is it about his family? Is it about his dead twin? That’s still unclear, but this feels like a legitimate threat—if the foreboding decor of their meeting room is anything to go by. This looks like the Catholic wing of the Black Lodge:
What should we want when electing a new pope? Well, the Vatican evidently doesn’t have the people’s interests in mind. But if the last pope is gonna get assassinated for being too woke, can we at least compromise on not electing dudes with potentially chaos-inducing family baggage? Sadly, I’m skeptical our Punk Pope, even with the right intentions for this holy position, can be a good pope. Pius XIII eventually figured things out—“the child pope has become a man,” to quote The Young Pope’s iconic finale—and grew into an admirable leader, but the church is too unstable to deal with another fatally flawed pontiff. To paraphrase Star Wars: Help me, Pius XIII, you’re our only pope.
Verse V. A Hugely Important Update on the Rave Nuns
I have spent every waking moment of the past week thinking about The New Pope’s inspired choice to have a bunch of nuns rave over the show’s opening credits. And it turns out I’m not the only one. The real-life Patriarch of Venice did not enjoy the sight of nuns in nighties dancing sensually to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl,” with Father Gianmatteo Caputo deeming the sequence “offensive” and “lacking a narrative context that justifies the reason and the content.” (Rebuttal: Let them have their flights of strobe light fancy!)
This is unsurprisingly, not the first time the church has taken issue with Sorrentino’s surreal, provocative interpretation of all things holy and pope-ly. But they should realize that all publicity is good publicity, and that any protestations to this material will only draw more interest, which is impressive since The Young Pope’s debut was—and this is true—so popular in Italy that it bested the debut of Game of Thrones on Sky Italia.
For the record: Bless these nuns, who are still dancing their butts off in the second episode from some new angles:
I love this so much; the detail, the artistry! These are my Zapruder Nuns, and I consider it my sacred duty to keep you all apprised of what happens with them on a weekly basis. See you at the next rave.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.