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‘The New Pope’ Is Delivering Blackmail and Bracing for a Pope-off

Cardinal Voiello acts as one pope’s fixer and the other’s hype man to clear the path for an epically holy meeting

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 eighth and penultimate episode.

Verse I. The Truth About Adam

Wallowing in self-pity after he bungled a live television interview by going into withdrawal, John Paul III has left Rome to lick his wounds in one of the Vatican’s many properties. (There are far worse places to be mopey than a chalet in Italy’s Dolomites mountains.) It’s hard to feel too sympathetic for a pope who confessed that he’d built his reputation in the church by claiming his twin brother Adam’s writings as his own. I’m more sympathetic toward drug addiction, but it also emphasizes just how unfit John Paul III is to be the leader of a major religion.

Going into The New Pope’s penultimate episode, we know just about everything we need to concerning this pontiff—except the details about Adam’s death when the two were teenagers. (I’d previously theorized that John Paul III killed his twin brother, mostly on the merits of John Malkovich having such a storied history as a menacing onscreen presence.) Well, we get that last piece of information this week.

When the brothers went skiing, Adam injured his head during a fall. As John Paul III tells Sofia, Adam could’ve survived the accident if his brother had been able to get him to a doctor on time—but John Paul III was too strung out on heroin. It is not just losing a brother, then, that has made this pope so despondent: It’s knowing that he’s somewhat responsible for what happened. (One nitpicky note: I’ve never gone skiing or … done heroin, but I imagine doing both at the same time is quite difficult, and I have no idea how John Paul III managed to avoid crashing.)

“It is burdensome, to feel profoundly alone for a lifetime,” he says to Sofia. “It has been, in fact, a dead life—and God was not enough.” Some of this sadness, however, is self-inflicted: John Paul III seemed to purposefully isolate himself on his family’s gloomy estate, despised by his parents and constantly reminded of his greatest sin. But even if he’s an unfit pope, John Paul III can still embrace the Christian virtues of forgiveness and redemption. Besides, the everyday Christian doesn’t know about all of his misdeeds. Ignorance, in this case, is bliss—and after Sofia releases photos of John Paul III during his punk phase to the press, our pontiff is blessed with a wave of positive PR:

Screenshots and GIFs via HBO

In the wake of several terrorist attacks, including one on the Vatican grounds, the church needs to make sure the world can rally around its leader. For all his flaws, that person is still John Paul III—at least, until the holy father who can flex in a white Speedo is back in the public eye.

Verse II. Don’t Call It a Comeback

It’s important to remember that the world doesn’t know what’s happened to Pius XIII since radio stations stopped broadcasting his breathing and sighs from the hospital. (I can only imagine the papal conspiracy theories popping up on Reddit telling readers to break out the holy water and open their third eye.) In the meantime, Pius XIII has quietly made his way back to the Vatican, where he is now technically pope emeritus. The holy father’s new lodgings, thankfully, are up to his standards:

God, I love this show. Anyway, Pius XIII isn’t just here to drink soda, smoke cigarettes, and rock papal fits. “I intend to spark a revolution,” he tells ousted Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Voiello, explaining his plan to combat the spate of terrorist attacks. That means going back to the Young Pope playbook: making Pius XIII’s return a mysterious and enigmatic affair with fleeting appearances meant to spark public interest and intrigue. (It’s still incredible that the character cited Daft Punk and Banksy as inspirations for his pope #brand in the initial series.) As Voiello and Pius XIII pieced together their plan—Voiello will get someone to capture blurry photos of our young pope meeting with the nuns from the protesting convent—The New Pope drops a familiar music cue from The Young Pope, Recondite’s “Levo.” I take it as a divine sign that these two are getting their groove back. Their cardinal–emeritus pope etiquette still needs some work, though:

This is a good thing, right? John Paul III has been mopey, ineffective, and exposed as a fraud; he’s also doing drugs and is being blackmailed by a triad of men in the Vatican and the Italian government. On the other hand, Pius XIII appears to be able to perform miracles and might be a saint. If choosing between the two, I’d take Pius XIII all day. There’s just one moment in this week’s episode that gives me pause.

Remember the tragically short reign of Woke Pope? Well, according to the mono-named Bauer—an ambassador to the Holy See, but really the guy the Vatican goes to in order to make problems disappear—Francis II died before he did anything. And when cross-checking Francis II’s death with Pius XIII’s stint in the hospital, Woke Pope died right at the time the young pope lifted his finger. What Bauer presupposes is … what if the person responsible for killing Francis II is the same man who miraculously came out of a coma?

While I initially read that finger flick as Pius XIII’s reaction to the papal assassination, it could definitely be perceived the way Bauer claims—especially after another flick of the pope’s finger revived an old woman whom Esther had choked to death. (To add more fuel to this “Is the young pope actually good?” fire, John Paul III theorizes that Adam misread the millipede as the presence of God and that it was in fact Satan. Remember that it was a millipede that landed on Pius XIII while he was lying in the hospital.) Pius XIII seems to have good intentions for the church, but we oughta watch this space heading into the series finale.

Verse III. Voiello Mojo Restored (Also, RIP, Girolamo)

“I am a floriculturist now,” Voiello tells Bauer at the beginning of this week’s episode, insisting that he’s done scheming. But circumstances—and the former secretary of state’s Machiavellian nature—inevitably lead Voiello back to maneuvering behind the scenes at the Vatican. In addition to meeting with Pius XIII about his comeback, he is approached by John Paul III—on Sofia’s advice—about coming back as secretary of state.

Voiello assures John Paul III he can protect him from the blackmail scheme of Cardinal Spaletta, Tomas Altbruck, and the Italian minister of economy and finance. In return, he asks for a favor: that John Paul III be able to say Mass at a funeral for Girolamo, the disabled boy who is Voiello’s closest friend, who dies in the middle of the episode. The pope, obviously, obliges. Voiello’s speech at Girolamo’s funeral is genuinely affecting: a reminder that for all his scheming, he can be likable. I might go so far as to say that Voiello is the best character in the New/Young Pope Universe.

But there’s still the matter of the current secretary of state, Cardinal Assente, whose new position of power has made him cold, arrogant, and hypocritical. He tells the protesting nuns he’ll revoke their convent’s right to raise orphans, claiming he despises children. (Dude, what the fuck?!) And while saying he’ll impose serious punishment upon any cardinal engaging in “questionable or unseemly relations,” Assente himself is having a tryst with Voiello’s former assistant, Don Cavallo, who sorta looks like Martin Scorsese. Spot the lie!

With these two unseemly details in hand, Voiello has enough ammo to will Assente into submission, the nail in the coffin being photos taken on Cavallo’s orders that show Assente and Cavallo, quote, “engaged in unseemly somersaults.” Talk about going above and beyond at work! Assente is forced to resign. Voiello has Assente transferred to Kabul, Afghanistan, the same place where he’s already tossed his doppelgänger, Cardinal Hernandez, who’d covered up sexual abuse scandals in the clergy. “You’re a bad person, Voiello,” Assente says. “No,” Voiello corrects him, “I am an appalling person.” Man, I am so glad our guy (and his giant prosthetic mole) has his mojo back.

Verse IV. Bauer, Lord of Blackmail and Vapes

The theme of this week’s episode is, without question, blackmail. Blackmail isn’t just the currency of governments, but of the church as well; there’s a reason many critics likened The Young Pope to a Vatican House of Cards. In The New Pope, that means countering blackmail with—you guessed it—even more blackmail.

How can Voiello ensure that Spalletta, Tomas, and the Italian minister won’t be able to blackmail the pope? Well, Bauer and Leopold Essence—the Lynchian priest with the eyepatch and cockroach on his sleeve—place cameras in the trio’s Ornate Sex Dungeon and record their latest orgy-and-coke session with the underage girl they regularly pay as a prostitute. (The girl is in on the deception, too, after being approached by Essence in public.)

Bauer and Essence lay out the terms: the members of the trio will resign from their respective positions and, of course, never blackmail John Paul III. In return, the video of them having sex with an underage girl will never come to light. It’s an incredibly satisfying turn of events, punctuated by the girl giving a triumphant “HA!” and Bauer spending the entire scene with a vape in his hand:

It is immeasurably strange to see a guy deliver threats while vaping. Bauer is definitely the coolest character on TV who vapes, though that might be a very low bar to clear.

Verse V. Pope-off Incoming

With Voiello protecting John Paul III and helping with Pius XIII’s post-coma public exposure, it seems like the newly established secretary of state is playing both sides—in the sense that it’s not clear which character will emerge as the actual pontiff. That is, in part, because the two popes—not to be mistaken with the Netflix film, The Two Popes, about two different popes who were actual IRL popes—haven’t met and discussed what they oughta do. Blessedly, by the end of the episode, Voiello convinces John Paul III to convene with Pius XIII for an epic meeting of the papal minds.

It’s truly sinful for Sorrentino to deprive us of a pope-off between Jude Law and John Malkovich for this long. I pray that the delayed gratification is worth it. Plotwise, it does appear that the meeting of the popes will collide with a Catholic gathering for the Angelus and a resolution to the terrorist attacks. (Hopefully without any more casualties.) Our popes get prepared for this fateful meeting by putting on their finest vestments and—holy shit, why is Jude Law naked in an empty pool?

Seriously, this is our last sight before the end credits hit. This show is my savior. And with that, we’ve got one episode of The New Pope left. We have spent far too little time with Pius XIII, the perfect amount of time with the raving nuns, and maybe a little too much time wallowing in the sadness and regret of John Paul III. But Paolo Sorrentino has once again created exceptional, surreal, superlative television—and I expect some of the best is yet to come. Until then, you’ll find me in the confessional booth repenting for taking a screengrab of Jude Law’s butt.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.