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The Young Pope Performs a Miracle While the New Pope Goes Into Withdrawal

In the sixth episode of ‘The New Pope,’ the stage finally seems set for the long-awaited pope-off

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 sixth episode.

Verse I. The Cockroach King

Calling a scene in The New Pope weird is like pointing out the size of an elephant, but folks, the opening scene of the sixth episode is truly bizarre. In the best and most unsettling way, I’d say it’s the most Lynchian moment of the series thus far.

Where to begin? Well, Sofia is having lunch in the Vatican’s mess hall, when a never-before-seen priest with an eyepatch walks in—moving as slowly as a sloth—to sit beside her. Then he snatches a green bean from her plate and says, “They’re all distortions of love, hysteria of one sort or another. That’s how the holy father defined them.” (When he puts the food down and loudly licks his fingers, I am grateful I’ve already finished my own lunch.) He claims he is the “second-most intelligent man in Rome,” and that if Sofia “follows the love” she’ll “find failure.” The man’s name is Leopold Essence, which somehow makes perfect sense.

It almost feels like Leopold and Sofia are exchanging a series of non sequiturs, but while his intentions are unclear, in his own strange way he’s pushing her to inquire further into her husband Tomas’s shady backdoor dealings, which have him conspiring with Cardinal Spalletta and the Italian minister of economy and finance to funnel money to themselves through the Vatican’s financial organization. (Pope John Paul III put Tomas in charge of the organization, per Spalletta’s recommendation.) That he’s pointing Sofia toward exposing corruption in the Vatican sounds like a lawful good, but during the conversation Leopold repeatedly taps his spoon against his flan—creating a highly discomforting sound—and generally gives off a sinister vibe. Oh, and a fucking cockroach crawls into his sleeve:

I’m really not digging The New Pope’s prevailing fascination with insects! But it does make you wonder: If the millipede could be a sign of God’s presence, what does that make the cockroach? Another instrument of the Lord? The work of the devil? Or is Leopold just a weird eyepatch priest who needs better hygiene? I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions, but I certainly wish I could unsee what inspired them (the cockroach, and maybe the entire introduction of Leopold Essence).

Verse II. Cardinal Voiello: Endgame

Sofia’s investigation into her husband leads her to discover that the three conspirators aren’t just scheming—they’re also paying an underage girl to sleep with them. (We see the girl leaving their, uhhh, Ornate Sex Dungeon with an envelope of cash, leaving the men naked, passed out, and surrounded by coke and open bottles of wine.) Sofia, understandably dismayed, brings her findings to Cardinal Voiello. It helps Voiello—who, again, is basically the Varys/Littlefinger of this series and knows most everyone’s secrets—put the final pieces together. The three debauched men are laundering money through the Vatican, and when—not if—the conspiracy is made public, the Vatican will have another serious and debilitating PR crisis on its hands.

But what Voiello doesn’t know is that Spalletta has the pope wrapped around his finger. “You and I have already affirmed our mutual affection, rather than any inclination to blackmail,” Spalletta tells John Paul III, which is a very fancy and roundabout way to confirm you are blackmailing someone and don’t want to get in trouble. (Spalletta also lies about his intentions, telling the pope that he and Tomas are just making sure the Italian government doesn’t begin taxing the Vatican, which has never happened in the Church’s history.) So, sadly, Voiello telling John Paul III the truth of Spalletta’s deceit only forces the pope to remove him as the Vatican’s secretary of state. It’s a move that will surely backfire on John Paul III: Even when Pius XIII and Voiello were butting heads constantly in The Young Pope, our pontiff wasn’t stupid enough to cut loose the guy who was effectively running the show.

But before Voiello formally tenders his resignation, he gets some affairs in order. He sends Cardinal Hernandez—Voiello’s doppelgänger from the series premiere; a.k.a. actor Silvio Orlando without a prosthetic mole on his face—to serve as a missionary in Kabul, Afghanistan, which doesn’t really have a lot of Christians. That, of course, is the point, since Voiello knows Hernandez was covering up sexual abuse scandals with priests and won’t be able to exert any influence in Kabul. (Owned!) Then, he interrupts the protesting nuns’ volleyball game in iconic fashion:

More importantly, Voiello’s leaving them with parting gifts. (A reminder: He had them monitored and basically found out all of their secrets.) The kleptomaniac nun is going to get psychological help; the abbess worried about the lump on her breast will be seeing a doctor; the nun who’s pregnant will be protected, and to cover up the baby’s identity, he will allow the convent to start taking in orphans. It’s a touching footnote to what, initially, seemed like an affair that would escalate after the nuns began to protest inside the Sistine Chapel—his methods may have been questionable, but he assures them that he always had their best interests at heart.

Voiello remains the most fascinating character in this Young/New Pope Universe; Silvio Orlando gives a performance that’s humane, self-deprecating, and slimy in equal measure. It’s a little tricky to frame the man who probably gave the order to assassinate Woke Pope as the “good guy,” but given the intentions of other power players at the Vatican—like Spalletta—I think we can agree Voiello’s antics are the lesser of two evils. He’s certainly not leaving the show’s orbit, but if he’s going to prevent the Vatican from imploding, Voiello will have to do all his work from the shadows. Ironically, that might make him a more formidable adversary than he already was.

Verse III. Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Choked Someone to Death?!

Perhaps no one’s had a stranger journey thus far than Esther, who’s gone from being married to a Swiss guard in The Young Pope to divorced and prostituting herself for a wealthy woman’s son—who appears to have werewolf syndrome—on The New Pope. Esther’s arc on The New Pope has been so strange and occasionally depressing that it’s hard to cover on any given week. Thankfully, Monday night’s episode gives us plenty of opportunity to delve deeper into her side of the story—and how it could fit into the rest of the series, plot-wise and on a more thematic level.

Esther’s cut out the middleman—a creepy man named Fabiano, who looked like Philip Jennings as Clark on The Americans—and is beginning to form a bond with the wealthy woman’s son, Attanasio. The woman calls Esther a saint for giving the gift of “human warmth,” but her appreciation of that “warmth” apparently has its limits. After Esther performs a sensual routine for Attanasio and some other facially deformed sons of wealthy women—a continual fixation for Sorrentino—the woman says she wants to end their arrangement. She insists that Attanasio is growing bored of Esther, but the truth is that she’s jealous and worried that the sexual relationship between Attanasio and Esther is turning into something more romantic.

“Sex has no value because it lives and dies in the present, but love doesn’t,” she tells Esther. “Love is dangerous because it looks to the future.” The mutual affection between Esther and Attanasio is apparent—and in a fit of rage Esther chokes the old woman to death.

Not great! But one of the overarching themes of this season has been the relationship between tenderness and passion, and how passion establishes a slippery slope toward sin and clouded judgment. If The Young Pope was about loneliness and its relationship to faith and power, then The New Pope is about love (or the lack of it) as it relates to those two things. John Paul III wants to lead the Church toward “abstract tenderness” instead of passion, but he doesn’t follow his own edict—what’s more, his papacy is tainted by blackmail and moral rot within the Vatican. Meanwhile, Esther’s passion leads her to choke the old woman to death as she prays for Pius XIII to stop her hand. It doesn’t happen in the moment, but once Esther leaves and Pius XIII lifts a finger from his hospital bed, it appears that he’s performed another miracle:

Pius XIII certainly led with passion at the beginning of his papacy, but by the end of The Young Pope he was embracing tenderness; well, up until his sudden coma. Everyone ought to be following Pius XIII’s lead—especially John Paul III, whose eloquent words ring hollow when his papacy is mired in corruption, inaction, and hypocrisy. Or, more simply: Maybe the hot dude who can (possibly!) revive humans is a more fitting leader for Christianity than Mopey John Malkovich.

Verse IV. The Strung-out Pope

With the number of breaths between Pius XIII’s coma sighs continuing to go down, John Paul III is diverting attention back to himself by sitting down for a live TV interview. As he told Sofia last week, he intends to announce during the interview that he’ll be in favor of both straight and gay priests marrying, which, like, just imagine the headlines if Pope Francis actually did something to that effect. (Papal Twitter would be lit!)

John Paul III tells his butler that he won’t need the mysterious “box” before his big sitdown—creating more suspense around what the hell is inside that thing. And while we still don’t know the specifics, it appears the contents of the box are feeding some kind of addiction. As if we needed more reminding, The New Pope continues to be the wildest show on TV.

We discover this because John Paul III starts to unravel during the interview: He gets through only a few questions about his personal life before it looks like the guy is powering down like a malfunctioning Westworld robot. “He’s in withdrawal, dammit!,” Spalletta tells Sofia, which leads us to believe the blackmail that the cardinal has on the pope has to do with the substance driving the pope’s addiction. The last coherent thought John Paul III expresses before he abruptly leaves the interview is this: “My priority is evil,” he explains. “Evil that must be looked at, openly, without hypocrisy, without distinction, without value scales. Evil is evil.”

The timing of the appearance of the pope’s withdrawal symptoms almost feels like divine intervention: a pope choking on his own false words. If the faith in John Paul III among the masses—and his Vatican cohorts—isn’t mostly eroded by now, opposition will surely go into holy overdrive when Pius XIII finally, eventually, emerges from his coma.

Verse V. OH LAWD, POPE COMIN’ (For Real This Time!)

Dear subjects, I must repent for making a content sin. I naively assumed from last week’s Pius XIII–related developments that the younger of our two popes would be awake by now, but I misjudged how much Paolo Sorrentino wanted to dangle Jude Law’s good looks. (I am being a very good blog boy and watching The New Pope weekly, despite being tempted to binge the entire series.) The auteur has taken Twin Peaks: The Return’s hella-drawn-out unveiling of Agent Cooper to heart, which is fitting since Sorrentino is the closest thing we have to Italian David Lynch (Gabagool Lynchy, to his friends).

But at the risk of making the same mistake twice, I really think we’re due for more Young Pope in the (final three!) episodes to come. We’ve reached the end of the sighing countdown—Esther has joined the attending crowd waiting outside the hospital, putting her back into the main narrative—and if that wasn’t enough of a sign from above, the candles and lights in Pius XIII’s hospital go out before the credits hit:

Here’s my new spin on a famous proverb: Fool me once with the Young Pope, shame on me; fool me twice, Paolo Sorrentino, and there will be hell to pay.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.