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‘The New Pope’ Ends by Rebuking Fanaticism and Delivering a Tear-jerking Send-off

In the series finale, our two pontiffs find closure and set the stage for another shift within the Church

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 glorious journey concludes with the series finale.

Verse I. The Two Popes

Paolo Sorrentino’s papal universe routinely subverts expectations. If you had guessed the story of The Young Pope based on its promotional material alone, you’d be forgiven for expecting Pius XIII to be some kind of hip, libidinous pontiff who doesn’t play by the rules and demands, like, Netflix access in the Vatican—instead, he was a radical conservative with a penchant for Cherry Coke Zero, spontaneous temper tantrums, and, occasionally, performing the apparent miracle. Meanwhile, The New Pope’s choice of John Malkovich as its next pontiff would lead you to believe his character would be similarly tyrannical, rather than the despondent, fragile figure John Paul III turned out to be. This is all to say: If you expect fireworks when our two popes finally meet in The New Pope’s series finale, you’ll be disappointed.

They might have different vibes, but these popes can vibe. Still, it must be weird to encounter your predecessor after he miraculously wakes up from a yearlong coma. Pius XIII and John Paul III’s fateful meeting doesn’t concern who should lead the Church; instead they discuss what to do about a situation in which terrorists are holding six children and a priest hostage in Ventotene, one of Italy’s Pontine Islands. Their demands are not yet clear. (Sidenote: The episode’s aerial shots of Ventotene are gorgeous and I would very much like to vacation there.)

The terrorists have been a thorn in the Vatican’s side for much of The New Pope, seemingly responsible for killing several Catholics and bombing St. Peter’s Basilica. Pius XIII believes the group’s caliph has been orchestrating these attacks because Pius’s papacy inspired an uptick in Catholic fanaticism, and now his rumored return could create another spike. “If I show myself to the world, I will rob him of his monopoly on fanaticism,” Pius XIII explains to John Paul III. “I can create a billion Catholic fanatics in a week.”

So Pius XIII has John Paul III deliver a public address condemning the situation in Ventotene—a speech Pius XIII believes the caliph will understand as confirmation that he’s risen from his coma. Basically, if the terrorists don’t release the hostages, Pius XIII will show himself to the world and do exactly what the caliph fears: create more Catholic fanatics. This plan dovetails nicely with Pius XIII’s address to the Cardinals about how they should lead the Church and inspire the masses. “If you can rule the emotion of your fellow man, he will follow you wherever you please,” he tells them. “This is called power.” As an added bonus, during this address, Pius XIII is covered head to toe in papal vestments, looking like the holy equivalent of the May Queen in Midsommar:

John Paul III appears to be a passive figure in all this scheming, a move that fits with the character’s subdued nature and well-established fragility. The new pope might be the public-facing pope, but at this point he’s acting as a cipher for the man who’s really calling the shots.

Verse II. Misplaced Faith

I must repent for a blogging sin: I was wrong about Esther and the other Pius XIII cultists. I’d assumed the group died by mass suicide in the seventh episode, when Esther and the rest of the cultists stripped naked and walked out into the sea to “purify” themselves—convinced that the Vatican had killed Pius XIII when he rose from his coma. That was the last we saw of them, and their complete absence in The New Pope’s penultimate episode seemed to confirm my suspicions.

Forgive me, father, but I botched that prediction. Esther and the other cultists are still alive; that’s the good news. The bad news is that the group has been responsible for all the terrorist attacks in the series, including the finale’s hostage situation in Ventotene. The caliph and all those ominous broadcasts were red herrings. It turns out that the group wanted to see Pius XIII’s body as proof that the Vatican was responsible for killing him. (They also compare it to the body of Christ.) But, since they communicated their demands so poorly, Pius XIII, unaware that the group simply wants to see him, remains hidden. As a result, the cultists shoot the captive priest.

So in the end, the cultists technically get their wish: Not only do they see Pius XIII in Ventotene, but they see him alive. The reveal that this was all a result of the Vatican equivalent of Pizzagate is particularly crushing for Pius XIII, since the people responsible for terrorizing Catholics were, essentially, his biggest supporters:

From the beginning of The Young Pope, Pius XIII insisted he wanted to create fanatics. (“Fanaticism is love,” he told the College of Cardinals in the first series, “everything else is strictly a surrogate.”) He believed this kind of idolatry was essential for the survival of the Church. But the situation with Esther and the other cultists reveals the philosophical conclusion The New Pope has been building toward: that fanaticism in any form is inherently dangerous. While it’s a shame that Esther’s story line went down this path, it also makes sense, considering her arc in The Young Pope revolved around being Pius XIII’s number one fan, willing to devote her entire life to his extreme ideology.

On a less somber note, this turn of events makes me feel way more awkward about asking HBO for one of the cultists’ Young Pope hoodies.

Verse III. A Holy Retirement

“I don’t understand, who is the pope now?” Cardinal Aguirre says after Pius XIII’s big speech to the College of Cardinals. “Shut up and pray, idiot!” Cardinal Voiello snipes back, because he is perfect. Still, Aguirre’s question is a fair one: How will the Vatican juggle two popes?

Thankfully, John Paul III opts to avoid the conundrum entirely. After delivering the second public speech at the behest of Pius XIII, he decides he will step down as pope. “I have finally understood that my fragility is my strength, not my damnation,” he says to his fellow (younger) pope. Even without a trio of power players trying to blackmail John Paul III as part of a Vatican money laundering scheme, our guy has had enough time in the Vatican spotlight and wants to retreat back to his family’s manor in England. There are certainly much worse places to retire.

Like Pius XIII, who channeled his resentment at being abandoned by his parents into his papacy, John Paul III’s reign was as much about self-exploration as it was about leading the Church. But while Pius XIII initially turned the lack of parental love into rage, John Paul III was consumed by sadness and regret (he could’ve saved his twin brother Adam’s life if he hadn’t been strung out on heroin at the time of Adam’s skiing accident). Call him—I’m sorry—the Mope Pope. John Paul III was denied the love of his parents—they blamed him for Adam’s death—and seemed to deny that love for himself in the company of other people. John Paul III’s life has been, as he described to Sofia in last week’s episode, one of profound loneliness that even God couldn’t salvage. (Is the Young/New Pope Universe one big endorsement of men going to therapy? Perhaps unintentionally, yes!)

But there is always time to change. When John—I guess we can go back to calling him John Brannox now?—returns to his family estate, his butler tells him that his parents wanted to see him to welcome him home. Maybe after watching their son’s papacy from afar, they’ve come to appreciate what he’s done, and are finally willing to forgive him for his part in Adam’s death. (The look of relief and happiness on John’s face is some of Malkovich’s best acting on the series.) Not only that, but now that Sofia has moved on from her cheating, scheming husband and resigned as the Vatican’s director of marketing, the two of them can be together, clergy rules be damned. It’s been clear from the beginning of The New Pope that these two are infatuated with one another—susceptible to long, adoring glances and enough sexual tension to make you clutch your rosary beads:

I don’t know the rules for retired popes and intimate relations—please, dear lord, nobody ask Pope Benedict XVI about his sex life—but I want the best for John and Sofia. And, I guess by proxy, the future of in-universe Meghan Markle’s fashion choices.

Verse IV. Let the Mystery Be

It took the better part of two shows—and, unfortunately, some terrorist attacks by some of his own fanatics—but Pius XIII finally understands how love should really be received, and delivered. In what becomes the third and final papal address of the finale, Pius XIII reveals himself to the world once more, confirming his miraculous reemergence from a coma. “At times we confound love with madness, beauty with ecstasy,” he tells a gathered crowd at St. Peter’s Square. “Madness and ecstasy have once again proven to be irresistible temptations, but they always end the way they did on Ventotene: with unjust death.”

The way the Church should lead, then, is with the “Middle Way,” the ideology espoused by John Paul III—which was actually something created by his brother Adam before his untimely death. With a renewed mind-set, Pius XIII says he’ll do what he’s wanted to since he became the pope: embrace the faithful one by one. He goes into the crowd, hugging and kissing strangers. They pick him up; we have a crowd-surfing pope. And in that moment, Pius XIII dies:

The crowd carries the pope to the attendant nuns at St. Peter’s Basilica, who place his body in front of La Pieta, positioned like that of Christ:

I won’t lie: Every time I rewatch this scene I bawl my eyes out. It would be an understatement to say there’s a lot of symbolism at play here, from the way the nuns position Pius XIII at La Pieta to the fact he basically came back to life and then ascended to heaven once his divinal mission was completed. His death is also, in a way, what the Church needed in order to go forward. The New Pope was largely a thesis on the dangers of fanaticism—it’s hard to imagine extremist behavior would’ve ceased when there was an active pope seemingly performing miracles.

It’s also left ambiguous as to whether Pius XIII’s address and crowd-surfing death even happened. Let’s not forget, St. Peter’s Basilica was bombed by the Pius XIII cultists, an attack that we know damaged La Pieta. The statue looked pristine when the nuns placed the pope’s body there, an indication this could’ve been some type of dream sequence, similar to the surreal sight of Pius XIII emerging from a beach in a Speedo. For me, it doesn’t really matter if the moment was “real” or not; it’s about what Pius XIII represented to the faithful, and to viewers of the series.

The young pope himself said it best in his climactic speech: “You know what’s so beautiful about questions? It’s that we don’t have the answers.” What I do know is that Jude Law gave a phenomenal, layered performance through both of Sorrentino’s series, playing a petulant man-child who was sexy (and he knew it), and perhaps even a saint. Rest in power, Pius XIII. I shall chug a Cherry Coke Zero tonight in your honor.

Verse V. The New, New, New Pope

If you’re keeping track, Pius XIII’s death and John Paul III’s retirement means that the Vatican needs another new pope. We have gone through so much papal turnover in this series! But who the hell is actually left on this show that’d be a capable pontiff? “We need a man steeped in mediocrity,” Voiello says knowingly to some gathered Cardinals at the end of the series. That’s right: Voiello is finally going to get his wish and become the pope.

Voiello’s dreams of ascending to the papacy were shattered at the beginning of The New Pope when he was deadlocked in the papal voting process with his doppelganger, Cardinal Hernandez, but nobody’s standing in his way now. And, honestly? I think he will be a good pope. Voiello is the most savvy cardinal when it comes to all the Vatican political scheming and backchanneling—others would have a hard time moving against him—and he has progressive values. His self-described mediocrity is also a point unto itself: Voiello could have a successful papacy without inspiring the sort of extreme idolatry that nearly destroyed the Church.

In the final credits of The New Pope, as we’re blessed with various send-offs to supporting characters like the refugee Faisal and formerly protesting Sister Lisette, we see Pius XIII walk back into his heavenly ocean. (Congrats to all of us for getting a final sighting of Jude Law in a white Speedo.) But this all—and I can’t believe I’m typing this—gives way to an homage to The Shining, as Esther’s son, Pius, rides his Big Wheel through the halls of the Vatican and runs straight into Pope Voiello. (Sadly, we don’t know what name Voiello’s given himself as pope.)

“Pius, you’re a pain in the ass,” Voiello says. (Since Esther is in prison, I think we can infer that Voiello adopted her son?) And so, incredibly, ends The New Pope. You could’ve given me 1,000 guesses to how the show would end, and I’d have never landed on “Vatican Shining Homage.” Such is the power of Paolo Sorrentino to keep us on our toes with an arresting series that combines thought-provoking examinations of faith with low-brow humor and the occasional sexualizing of Jude Law. It is a combination that feels simultaneously divine and sacrilegious.

I wish our pope-laden journey wasn’t ending here—I could inhale 10 more episodes of Voiello bossing people around and maybe visiting a doctor to have a consultation about his mole. But let’s keep faith that this story hasn’t ended. Sorrentino has said he has an idea for a third season that will wrap up a trilogy. Will it focus on Pope Voiello? Will the Church have to deal with another crisis? Will Jude Law miraculously return in, if such a thing is even possible, even skimpier beachwear? Only Sorrentino knows the answers.

In the meantime, let us pray.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer