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The Young Pope Is Back, Performing Miracles, and Coming for the New Pope

Pius XIII finally wakes up, spends some time on a dreamscape beach, and performs a miracle in Venice before returning to Rome

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 seventh episode.


Verse I. Peak TV Has Finally Peaked

Any concerns that The New Pope would continue to delay the inevitable return of Pius XIII were squashed in the opening frame of the seventh episode. Like something out of a dream—which it kind of was, or perhaps a vivid interpretation of what happens when someone returns to our world from heaven—our young pope emerges from a pristine ocean in a white Speedo, looking every bit like a Messiah Who Fucks. (The only sin here is that The New Pope gave away this moment five months ago in one of its teaser trailers.) Waiting on the beach is Esther, and as Pius XIII seductively reaches for the cross between her breasts, he opens it to reveal a lone cigarette. (Because he’s a hip, young pontiff, naturally he smokes.) Make no mistake, I am losing my mind:

The pope then begins walking across the beach, surrounded by women in bikinis, as the show’s theme goes back to the “All Along the Watchtower” instrumental that accompanied much of The Young Pope. (Say a final prayer for “Good Time Girl”?) It feels like a changing of the papal guard. The entire sequence is patently absurd—all the way down to our young pontiff giving his customary wink to the camera.

I wish I could’ve filmed my reaction to Pius XIII’s reemergence. I hadn’t had a response that visceral to anything since the Washington Nationals won Game 7 of the World Series against the fraudulent Houston Astros. The New Pope treated the young pope like a goddamn Bond girl: This is fan service as its finest and thirstiest. “How long have I been asleep?” Pius XIII later asks his cardiologist in real life upon waking up from his coma. When the pope finds out it’s been a full year, he retorts: “Then I certainly deserve a Cherry Coke Zero.” YES, THAT REALLY HAPPENED!

Can someone call me an ambulance? I have symptoms that look exactly like this:

Verse II. Saintly Denial

“You called me. I came back. Now tell me why.” Pius XIII is aware that his return to the world of the living after three failed heart transplants and a yearlong coma is a work of divine intervention. But there’s still a part of Pius XIII that wants to deny there’s something special about him—despite the fact that he can perform miracles and could be a living (resurrected?) saint, which is something that tracks from The Young Pope.

What will happen once Pius is back in the Vatican? That’s a mystery that’ll have to wait. In the meantime, the only people who know that Pius XIII has returned are his nun/nurse and his cardiologist, so the doctor invites him to stay at his home in Venice. Because Pius can’t wear papal garments, he has to settle for sweaters so cozy that they’d make Chris Evans’s character in Knives Out blush. In Venice, he meets the doctor’s wife—a beautiful but noticeably sullen woman, aptly described by Pius XIII as a “grieving Madonna”—and eventually their terminally ill son, Eric, who was born with countless health problems and lies in a vegetative state.

You can probably infer where this is going: If Pius XIII has, theoretically, performed miracles in the past—helping the infertile Esther give birth to a son, praying for and then causing the death of an evil nun (that sure was wild), and, most importantly, healing a friend’s terminally ill mother when he was a child—can he do the same for the doctor’s son? The doctor and his wife believe Pius was sent back for a reason: After all, there’s no scientific explanation for why he is walking around completely healthy again.

But Pius XIII insists that his reemergence is an “absolute scientific exception,” and that he won’t be able to heal Eric. This is, in its own way, the young pope’s crisis of faith—he’s always maintained that he never asked for his maybe-saintly gifts, and in The Young Pope openly questioned whether God even existed. But the plight of the doctor’s family, which takes up most of the episode, is an example of how Pius XIII can help Christians in the micro: renewing their faith, giving them a leader to believe in, and just maybe performing some miracles along the way. As he’s inclined to do, Pius XIII is stubborn as hell, so while he initially refuses to heal Eric he visits the boy and whispers in his ear what heaven is like. Eric sheds a single tear:

If you’re thinking, “Wow, this is quite the contrast from Jude Law emerging from the ocean in a Speedo, hanging out with women in bikinis, and winking at the camera,” you are certainly correct! From dank memes to religious pathos, The New Pope contains multitudes.

Verse III. The Cultist March

“In what way does the world love me?” Pius XIII asks the doctor, which is a very reasonable reaction when you discreetly leave a hospital and find dozens of worshippers with signs bearing your name and hoodies with your face on them. (I’m sure he thought “would cop.”) More seriously, though, this appears to be Pius XIII’s acknowledgement that idolatry isn’t a good way to express faith. (The “passion” versus “tenderness” debate strikes again!) The doctor’s wife literally claims she no longer believes in God, but believes in Pius XIII, in an effort to persuade him to heal their son.

The Pius XIII cultists haven’t done anything extreme—for the most part, they’re just waiting outside the hospital with sleeping bags for his resurrection. But things change when Esther joins the group, and radio stations stop broadcasting Pius XIII’s breathing. Esther posits that the pope is going to be killed. “Pius XIII is a living saint,” she says, “and in the Vatican, saints are an inconvenient presence.” She successfully convinces some of the cultists that Pius XIII was killed—I guess the mysterious death of Woke Pope, who was probably assassinated, will make some people paranoid! And so Esther and the leader of the cult decide they’re going to “purify” themselves. What does that entail? Well, you take off all your clothes and walk straight into the ocean:

I’ve misinterpreted things on The New Pope before—I haven’t watched ahead, I could be totally wrong—but this seems to imply that Esther and some of the Pius XIII cultists have committed a mass suicide. And, uh, yikes? I don’t have a problem with the story line itself—for one, it’s an interesting inverse to Pius XIII emerging from the beach in the opening credits—but why bring Esther into this? Frankly, why is she in this season at all? Esther spent most of The New Pope strapped for cash, prostituting herself, and choking a woman to death—and instead of reuniting with the pope who (probably) helped her conceive a child with her ex-husband, it seems she’s going to (probably) die. The only solace we can take is that Esther didn’t bring her son with her to the beach. (Come to think of it, where is he?!)

If that’s the end of Esther’s story line, and she and some cultists walked into the ocean and really died by suicide after assuming the young pope had been killed, then I’m comfortable saying this is going to be known as The New Pope’s greatest sin.

Verse IV. Miracles Maketh Man?

It doesn’t take long before Pius XIII decides to try to cure Eric of his many ailments. He tells the doctor and his wife to go for a night out on the town while he takes care of their son.

An aside: For all the ways The New Pope has bungled Esther’s story line, the fact that it can just randomly introduce the pope’s cardiologist and make his family feel as compelling, sympathetic, and richly developed as anyone else on the series is a testament to how the series is like nothing else on television. Plus, their decadent house, which straight-up looks haunted, feels like a perfect reflection of Venice: a beautiful city that’s on its own slow march toward death. (Also, shout-out to Ulrich Thomsen and Yuliya Snigir, who do a terrific job playing the couple.)

Anyway, Pius XIII is devastated when his first prayer session makes no miraculous progress with Eric. “I do not perform miracles,” he says in a defeated tone. “I simply find myself at the center of coincidences.” It’s a bit of self-doubt that also serves as confirmation of something he already believes: that he isn’t a saint. But Pius XIII still refuses to leave Venice and head back to Rome; clearly, he can’t bring himself to leave without giving the family some closure.

Not long after, a second prayer session ensues. He’s in his patented Healing Position (on his knees, arms extended out like Christ on the cross). “Make him a man, lord, make him a man!” the pope shouts with an increasing sense of urgency. The boy lifts his hand:

And then he dies. Sad, yes, but also perhaps an act of mercy. The young pope is now ready to return to Rome. But first, he wants to give the couple a “miracle.” In the doctor’s living room, the three hold hands and close their eyes: Pius is able to show them their son’s spirit.

I have made many comparisons between The New Pope and Twin Peaks: The Return, but this really had some real Laura Palmer Orb energy. Jesus, am I … crying? Less than an hour ago I was falling out of my chair while looking at Speedo Jude Law winking at women and making them faint. No other TV show has this range!

Verse V. THE NEW POPE SUCKS, MAN

There’s an awkward thing awaiting Pius XIII in Rome: another pope, who happens to look like the actor John Malkovich. Rest assured, the young pope eventually finds out that there’s a new pope, and he isn’t even that upset about it. “Even though I’m no longer the pope,” he says, “I hope there’s still a bed for me there.” (“Awww!” I said out loud, because I have a problem and can’t resist infantilizing this pope.)

Objectively, though, we need to get John Paul III outta there. If acting mopey, having complicity in a money-laundering scheme, and doing drugs isn’t enough to convince you that he’s an unfit pope, then this week’s episode should push you over the edge. After terrorists successfully bomb St. Peter’s Basilica, John Paul III—as well as new Secretary of State Cardinal Assente—don’t issue any public statements or condemnations. John Paul III, repeatedly described as a “fragile piece of porcelain,” is shattered after the attack, because the only casualty from the bombing is his dog:

I’ll take John Paul III’s side on this one: If my pet died, let alone died in a terrorist attack, I would also be really depressed and refuse to leave my apartment. (Of course, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise, I am not the leader of a major world religion.) This sight unfortunately evokes the death of Pius XIII’s beloved Vatican kangaroo in The Young Pope, a tragedy I hoped to forget.

But the lack of a proper response to the attack is not why John Paul III deserves our scorn. He once again goes to confession with Cardinal Gutierrez, and this time, the pope reveals everything about himself. The “Middle Way,” his supposed personal philosophy—it’s basically the Christian version of centrism, appealing to progressive and conservative cardinals, and the reason he was considered a good choice as the next pontiff—was never his idea to begin with. He published the writings of his twin brother Adam, who passed away when they were teens, as his own. “I’m an imposter, Gutierrez,” he says.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This plagiarizing pontiff, who has a fucking knighthood, owes pretty much all his success to his brother. It explains a lot about why John Paul III’s parents feel the way they do about him: They surely know he stole all his ideas from his brother. Gutierrez, ever the compassionate person, assures the pope that in God’s eyes, everyone is worthy of salvation. Imagine having to tell that to THE POPE.

I need a pint of holy water, and the church could use a new pope: a familiar, youthful pontiff, who happens to look like the actor Jude Law. With two episodes remaining, Pius XIII is finally on his way to Rome—the look of joy on Gutierrez’s face when he gets the call about his old buddy’s resurrection cleansed my spirit—and we’ll see how much tension his resurrection creates within the (somewhat literal) crumbling walls of the Vatican. How John Paul III reacts to the appearance of someone more deserving of the papacy will say a lot about his own failing stint in the role.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.