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‘The New Pope’ Gets Meta and Opens a John Malkovich–Shaped Pandora’s Box

John Brannox makes his first address as the leader of the church, but not before doing some mind-bending name dropping

HBO/Ringer illustration

The New Pope is here—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. 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 third episode.


Verse I. WHAT’S IN THE BOX?

For a series called The New Pope, marketed largely through the alluring image of pope John Malkovich flanked by pope Jude Law, it’s sure taking a long time for us to see Malkovich’s Sir John Brannox as, you know, the actual pope. With Pius XIII still comatose, we’ve already gone through one pontiff—rest in power, Woke Pope—and by the start of the third episode, Brannox is still of two minds about accepting the papacy. Brannox’s life, wracked by the mysterious death of his twin brother Adam, has left him more than a little mopey and discontented. There’s also the curious matter of his parents’ decades-long contempt for their only living son, which has me feeling that there’s more to Adam’s death than the series has let on. (Either that or I’m just preconditioned to find John Malkovich creepy in any role, and I mean that as a compliment.)

While flirting with the notion of becoming pope, Brannox tells the head of his family’s estate that he’d take only one of the family dogs with him to Rome, along with the “box.” We still don’t know what’s inside it, only that Brannox needs it to sleep at night—and it’s worth noting that Brannox’s butler had a somewhat alarmed expression on his face when he heard that the box would join him in the Vatican. The tease of the box’s contents is continued when we almost see Brannox open it; the next time this happens, I pray the finest internet sleuths will be on the case.

All screenshots via HBO

To channel Brad Pitt for a moment, I need to know: WHAT’S IN THE BOX? I would say there’s a 99 percent chance it does not contain the severed head of Goop magnate Gwyneth Paltrow, but virtually anything else is on the table. A memento of his dead brother? A vape pen? Melatonin gummies infused with CBD oil? Napoleon’s shriveled penis? I will not rest until we get some answers.

Verse II. Into the Malko-verse

I can understand why Brannox is taking so long to decide whether he wants to become pope. Sure, the Vatican looks dope, but he’s basically already in a goddamn castle. He’s living the Succession life, right down to the family baggage that always seems to come with exorbitant wealth. So yeah, Brannox doesn’t get along with his parents, but his place is so big that he can continually avoid them because they live in another wing (#blessed).

Also, there’s the small matter of becoming the leader of one of the world’s biggest religions while it’s in the midst of several legitimate crises—including the cover-up of sex abuse scandals and the continued idolatry of hot, young, comatose Pius XIII. It’s a lot to put on a guy described multiple times as a fragile piece of “porcelain.” And, like, would you want to leave this sick home theater?

Brannox screens Easy Rider for Sofia, the Vatican’s director of marketing, already making him a fascinating contrast from our Young Pope. (It’s a quintessential hippie film, and given all the resentment Pius XIII had for his hippie parents who abandoned him, he would probably consider watching Easy Rider heresy on the level of being denied a Cherry Coke Zero.) Brannox tells Sofia that his favorite celebrities are Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Manson, because they all “seem free.” He wants to meet them—and, given that Stone and Manson are set to make appearances on the series, we know his prayers will be answered.

But then Sofia drops a line so explosive it singed my eyebrows: “You remind me of my favorite actor, John Malkovich,” she tells him.

Wait, what?! “He doesn’t do much for me,” Brannox responds. OK, hold up, we need to consider the implications of this. Somewhere in the Young/New Pope Universe, John Malkovich exists and, given Brannox’s stature as a socialite with a goddamn knighthood, probably knows this man is his doppelgänger. Have they ever met? Is it possible that Brannox’s twin brother, Adam, faked his death so he could change his name to “John Malkovich” and pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an actor? Does this mean Jude Law is also an actor in this world with a bizarre resemblance to a comatose pontiff? Is Paolo Sorrentino aware that this winky, throwaway joke has entirely broken my brain?

If that wasn’t enough of a real-world clusterfuck, this episode throws in a running gag where Meghan Markle is a close personal friend who is constantly calling Brannox for fashion advice. “Wear the yellow Dior, because it plays up the contrast with your complexion,” he exasperatedly tells her. “They want to be influencers,” he says to Sofia, “yet they have no idea of color or combination.” (Earlier in the episode, Brannox calls Meghan a “nuisance.”) I have no idea why Meghan Markle is catching hands in The New Pope, but it adds a hilarious and unintentionally meta dimension to the series when Brannox openly ponders what she’ll do without his constant advice when he finally decides to go to Rome and accept the papacy. Turns out, Meghan losing one of her besties to the Vatican caused her and Prince Harry to renounce their royal titles. This is canon, right?

Verse III. This Pope … Fucks?

A common separation between the memes surrounding The Young Pope and the show itself concerned the pope’s [clears throat] libido. If your only Young Pope knowledge came from the sinfully clever corners of the internet, you’d assume Pius XIII was an edgy pope who didn’t play by the rules and, because he looks like Jude Law, might shrug off any notions of celibacy to get his holy freak on. I’m really not kidding when I say that several friends, upon learning that I was obsessed with The Young Pope, asked me some variation of So, does this pope fuck?

Pius XIII was certainly an extreme pontiff, just not in the way the memes would lead you to believe. What was extreme about Pius XIII wasn’t that he was the first pope to “OK, boomer” the conclave and listen to Billie Eilish, but that he was a radical conservative with outdated views on abortion and homosexuality who threatened to send the church backward. Even more beguiling: Despite wielding exceptional good looks and unironically implying he might be more handsome than Jesus, this pope never seemed to be led by temptations of the flesh.

All due respect to John Malkovich, but when he was revealed to be the lead in The New Pope, I assumed his pope would also resist carnal desires in favor of yelling at subordinates and questioning the decor of the Sistine Chapel. But Brannox, while not explicitly engaging in any sexual activities in this episode, gamely flirts with Sofia in his personal theater and nearly shares a tender embrace with Cardinal Gutierrez (much to the dismay of the onlooking Cardinal Assente):

Brannox may also be a sexually fluid pontiff—another fascinating implication that will surely provoke the church as much as the show’s raving nuns. It remains to be seen whether Brannox will actually act on any of these urges, or if he’s simply a flirt. (He jokes that he’s surprised they didn’t want any nudes for his papal photo shoot.) Still, if you’re going to place bets on a pope getting laid in this universe, don’t hold out hope for Jude Law—no matter how bare his beachwear might be.

Verse IV. A Papacy of Tenderness

Midway through the episode, it’s finally time to formally reveal Brannox as the next pope. But before the cardinals can get to another vote, we must bid one final adieu to the short-lived reign of Woke Pope. Now, I don’t know much about what goes on inside the walls of the Vatican, but I didn’t expect Francis II’s funeral service basically being a cardinal tapping his forehead with a decorative gavel and being like, “You awake, dude?”

Is this an actual thing that happens with deceased popes? If Francis II had jolted up like the Undertaker I’d have clenched my rosary beads so hard they’d have burst from their chain.

Anyway, since the New/Young Pope Extended Universe has already centered itself on multiple elected popes, we see Brannox—who now goes by Pope John Paul III—deliver his speech to the masses and his address to the cardinals within about 15 minutes of screen time. John Paul III’s edict is influenced by his upbringing and his tumultuous relationship with his parents: He wants the church to “protect fragility” and steer away from fanaticism. “Passion is the eternal enemy of humility,” he tells the cardinals. “Christian humility, which is frugal, is just and is necessary.” In lieu of “concrete love,” John Paul III wants the church to embrace “abstract tenderness.”

It was Pius XIII’s initial extremist attitude—though he got better and more accepting as The Young Pope went along—that alienated the church from many of its followers. On the surface, John Paul III’s empathetic message of tenderness not only feels reasonable, but it’s something that should have a more universal appeal by virtue of its level-headed intent. (At least, for the Catholics who aren’t part of the new, cult-like following of comatose Pius XIII.)

But all the reasons John Paul III seems so pleasantly well-adjusted to the early throes of the papacy are why I’m worried that it’s only a matter of time before things go horribly awry. The New Pope wouldn’t be particularly compelling if John Malkovich were a peerless, drama-free pope who steered the church into a new age of prosperity. Shit is inevitably going to hit the fan—whether it’s because Pius XIII will eventually wake up from his coma, the self-described fragility of John Paul III will cause him to unravel, or some combination of the two. Unfortunately, I reckon it’s only a matter of time before the Vatican becomes an unstable institution—again.

Verse V. Smash the Holy Patriarchy

If there’s one thing The Young Pope was never great at, it was adding dimensions to its female characters—all of whom acted largely in the service of men like Pius XIII and Cardinal Voiello. And while The New Pope has lost Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary—arguably the most interesting female character from its predecessor; certainly the best baller—the series offers a more trenchant look at how the church enables men in positions of power to take advantage of women who barely have a voice.

First, there were the cloistered nuns—the same ones who we see rave during the show’s opening credits—being denied an expense of 200 euros to fly one of their sisters to see her mother before she dies from stage 4 cancer. The nuns are stonewalled because the Vatican is undergoing a “financial crisis”—meanwhile one of the cardinals recently purchased a Bentley—and this trip would be an extraneous expense. It’s this type of attitude that Francis II fought in vain to destroy.

Then there’s Esther, who’s separated from her husband and struggling to support her son, Pius. She befriends a widowed man named Fabiano, who bears a bizarre resemblance to Philip Jennings disguised as “Clark” on The Americans.

After they become romantically involved, and Esther tells him about her financial struggles, Fabiano suggests that she … prostitutes herself for a wealthy woman he knows, because her son has some facial deformities and is still a virgin. (Instead of prostitution, he calls it an “act of Christian charity.”) Esther is understandably insulted, but knows she’s in desperate need of money—and when she consults her local priest about the situation, he considers the opportunity another “miracle” on the level of Pius XIII praying away her infertility. Yikes. As Esther agrees to the arrangement before balking when the deformed man touches her breast, Pius XIII can only shed a tear from his hospital bed.

The B-plots with the nuns as well as Esther made me reconsider the raving nuns from the opening credits (especially since they’re apparently the same cloistered nuns). I didn’t put much thought behind the dancing beyond “lol, this is fun and weird!” but maybe it’s supposed to represent the characters’ inner turmoil, the push and pull between faith and abandon. What else would erode someone’s faith more than watching cardinals spend in wildly irresponsible ways after the mysterious death of a pontiff who looked to eradicate the Vatican’s wealth? If the sight of a nun getting tatted up is any indication, these women might be on the brink of rebellion.

The Vatican might be about to implode, and with a “piece of porcelain” as the new pontiff, it might not be long before John Paul III begins to shatter.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.