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The Young Pope Sighed and Flipped ‘The New Pope’ on Its Head

Just as John Paul III begins to hit his stride, his predecessor steals the spotlight without leaving his hospital bed

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 fifth episode.

Verse I. Stone-cold Stunner

After meeting one of his celebrity icons, Marilyn Manson, in last week’s episode, Pope John Paul III gets to indulge another one of his curiosities in Episode 5 by sitting down with Sharon Stone. The mood, like with Manson, feels a little awkward—and that’s before our pontiff asks the actress for a favor. “I would be eternally grateful if, during the course of our conversation, you avoided the uncrossing and recrossing of your legs,” he tells her. Wow. We know this pope hardly has saintly restraint when it comes to his beloved Sofia, the Vatican’s director of marketing, but surely he can handle an audience with a random member of the opposite sex.

It’s not lost on me that Cécile de France (who plays Sofia) and Sharon Stone look somewhat alike—though in John Paul III’s defense, this request has more to do with the attendant, all-male clergy gawking at Stone. Still, the implication that a bunch of clergymen can’t hold it together in the presence of a female celebrity exposes another hypocrisy of the Vatican. No wonder the nuns are going on strike in part because dudes are too creepy. Sadly, life imitates art: Some Christian dude wants to take legal action against the NFL because this year’s Super Bowl halftime show made him horny.

Anyway, Stone is here to ask the pope whether he’s willing to make the church officially accept gay marriage. John Paul III responds this may happen “when the church has a brave, revolutionary, resolute pope, qualities none of which I possess.” On that much we can agree. The beginnings of John Paul III’s papacy showed he’s not capable of much besides vacillating between childlike petulance and despondent inaction. If he’s not being easily manipulated by the Vatican’s power players, he’s just upset not enough people idolize him in a futile attempt to compensate for his parents not loving him. One would hope this pope could shake himself out of this—oh hold on, Sharon Stone needs to recross her legs because they’re getting stiff, everyone turn away:

Much like last week’s opening credits with Marilyn Manson, it’s a delight to see the text “Guest Starring Sharon Stone” accompanying our raving nuns. Also, one of the nuns does a front flip at the end of the sequence, and it would be a sin not to commemorate the moment with a GIF. Bless her athleticism:

Verse II. A Word Comes to Mind

One of the consequences of Pius XIII’s sudden coma—and the Vatican-related disorder, including the rise and sudden death of Francis II—is an increase in threats and attacks from an ISIS-like terrorist group looking to capitalize on the church’s disarray. The terrorists are mostly on the fringes of The New Pope, but when 10 people are killed in an attack in Lourdes, France, it’s imperative John Paul III repudiates the senseless violence.

You can sense there is slight trepidation among the pope’s entourage—Sofia emphasizes he needs to find the “right words” for his speech in Lourdes so his papacy can move in a meaningful direction. “One word comes to mind,” is all John Paul III offers her, and that statement turns out to be quite literal. In lieu of an actual speech, the pope addresses the masses in Lourdes by repeating “NO!” At first, the attendees look perplexed, but once he encourages everyone to join him, “NO!” becomes a rallying cry:

The catharsis of the pope’s “NO!” is powerful, and, of all things, most reminded me of the female Harga in Midsommar synchronizing their screams with Florence Pugh. (Midsommar absolutely slaps.) If we consider the role of a pontiff as largely symbolic —or in more modern parlance, that of an influencer—then it’s pretty great that John Paul III successfully distilled a moving message in a single word. That’s a marketing team’s dream. And it really works. The power of a large group of people, led by John Malkovich, shouting “NO!” in unison might sound a bit silly until you hear it for yourself. (If you are reading these recaps and not watching The New Pope, that is a content sin.)

Never one to miss an opportunity to politicize something, Cardinal Voiello—with an assist from the mysterious Bauer, the “ambassador to the Holy See” who probably assassinated Francis II—understands this is also the perfect opportunity to reframe the church as victims in the eyes of the public. What better way to distract people from sexual abuse scandals than by diverting attention to a pope with a evocative message amid a tragedy? Our guy even holds a baby, which is Politicking 101, uh, baby:

Verse III. This Is the Middle Way

In what’s quickly becoming one of the stranger will-they-won’t-they’s in television history, John Paul III gives Sofia his private phone number—for, you know, reasons. Again, I’m still not convinced anything will actually happen between them, but that doesn’t mean engaging in a little workplace flirtation isn’t a bad idea when YOU’RE THE POPE. When her husband leaves for one of his mysterious meetings—which likely has to do with manipulating said pontiff—Sofia gives the papal equivalent of a “u up?” call.

So John Paul III takes Sofia on a tour of the Vatican catacombs, where they pray at Francis II’s tomb, and he casually prods her on whether she believes the previous pope was assassinated. (She maintains she thinks he had a heart attack, though I can’t imagine she doesn’t believe Voiello was probably responsible for it.) More importantly, he wants to inform her he’s ready for a sit-down interview where he’ll reveal more about his intentions as pope—namely, how he intends to deal with systemic sexual abuse in the church.

John Paul III says he’ll announce he’s in favor of priests, both gay and straight, marrying—which would, obviously, be a radical development. “We have to legitimize possible love so as to divert people from abhorrent love, which is a form of violence,” he explains. He frames this decision as a representation of the “middle way,” which is basically the Catholic equivalent to centrism: that John Paul III is an appealing leader to both conservative and progressive cardinals is one of the main reasons Voiello was content supporting his papacy. It’s difficult to picture hard-line conservatives being cool with priests marrying, let alone same-sex marriage. But it seems that John Paul III’s heart is in the right place, and for now, that’s an important development in and of itself.

But seriously, dude, I think you and Sofia need to leave some room for the Holy Spirit:

Verse IV. The Dead Sigh!

Oh hey, remember the young pope? If the trailers didn’t give it away, I think most viewers assumed Paolo Sorrentino wouldn’t bring back Jude Law just so he could lie in a hospital bed and occasionally manifest like a spirit for nine episodes. Now that we’re essentially at the halfway point of the series, it’s become a matter of when, not if, our pope will start waking up. And in this episode, it’s finally starting to happen: Pius XIII sighed.

It’s important to understand the context here: The dude is supposed to be in an irreversible coma after three failed heart transplants. This registers as nothing short of a miracle, and so a radio station drops all music, commercials, and entertainment to broadcast the pope’s breathing and the occasional sigh. It stops everyone on the series in their tracks. It’s moving to see the various reactions from characters who were close to Pius XIII in The Young Pope—in particular Cardinal Gutierrez, who has seemed more and more lost each week without his old friend guiding him away from darkness.

The masses start forming in Venice outside Pius XIII’s hospital as doctors reveal the pope is taking fewer and fewer breaths between each sigh. (415 breaths, a sigh; 414 breaths, a sigh; and so on.) Hearing that, I couldn’t resist putting “IT’S THE PAPAL COUNTDOWN, DO DO DOO DOO” in my notes, and I will repent for that. The idolatry around Pius XIII is beginning to grow, and perhaps no one is more upset about this than John Paul III—unsurprising, given his self-professed vanity and the fact that everyone was just warming up to his papacy. The dude rallied the faithful after a terrorist attack and was about to announce priests could marry; now thousands of people are cheering each of Jude Law’s sighs from a hospital bed like they’re stoppage-time equalizers:

It’s time for my own confession: I’ve really missed Pius XIII. Like, a lot. No disrespect to John Malkovich, who’s a beguiling pontiff, but my relationship with the show began with Pius XIII. He was hardly a good person—he led the Vatican through intimidation and an ultra-conservative philosophy—but he might be an actual saint capable of miracles, and by the end of The Young Pope, he looked like he’d blossomed into a venerable, mature, and less conservative leader. I’d compare the anticipation of Pius XIII waking up from his coma to that of the (extremely) delayed return of Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return, and I imagine the catharsis of finally having this young pope up again, walking and (probably) requesting a Cherry Coke Zero will make me more emotional than I care to admit. Give us this day, our Pope Jude Law.

Verse V. We Found God in a Millipede

One of the more surreal flourishes of The Young Pope was the recurring presence of a kangaroo, gifted to Pius XIII by the Australian government, who lived in the Vatican gardens. Our furry friend would show up intermittently, doing kangaroo things (hopping), and I’m not sure I’ll ever glean the meaning behind the animal—unless Sorrentino’s idea began and ended with “LOL, idk man, I just thought adding a kangaroo to my show would be dope.” Relatedly, I will also never forgive The Young Pope for killing the kangaroo, an unforgivable crime.

There has been nothing quite like the Vatican kangaroo on The New Pope, but the show has repeatedly shown us … millipedes. I find millipedes/centipedes absolutely repulsive, so that hasn’t been fun, but the insect could represent “God,” as described in a flashback by John Paul III’s deceased twin brother, Adam. A millipede is seen in a jar on Adam’s desk in a flashback this week; another indication God is “with” him as opposed to his brother. During what was, most likely, a dream/vision of sorts, we see a millipede crawl out of the Pope’s mysterious box this week. (I swear there’s a point to all this millipede talk.)

There are a couple ways to interpret this. One, this could be seen as a form of Ignatian spirituality—the notion that God can be found in all things on Earth (including insects). Alternatively, uh, maybe you can take the idea more literally: The millipede is, in fact, God. However you want to read Sorrentino’s fixation on the millipede, this moment in Pius XIII’s hospital room at the very end of the episode genuinely made me gasp:

Who is God with? Praise be, Pius XIII is almost awake or as I wrote in my notes—I’m sorry—“OH LAWD, POPE COMIN’.” Let the pope-off begin.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.