Over the past few episodes, a sense of decay has crept into The Young Pope, and not even Lenny’s vengeance miracle in the last episode can stop it. Though the pope appears to be undergoing a full spiritual reawakening, he’s still an emotional wreck for all of this episode—not least because his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, is dying.
The episode begins with Spencer in a wheelchair, arguing with Lenny about abortion in the Sistine Chapel. This is the most didactic the show has been on a specific issue, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear the different approaches they take. Lenny, of course, is a hardliner, citing the original Exodus verses that ostensibly bar abortion via injury to pregnant women. “It is only modern laxity that wishes to turn sins into rights,” Lenny says. But even the conservative Spencer demands that the pope be “tough in principle, soft in practice,” pointing out the flawed nature of received interpretations and the need to maintain a focus on what really matters: not just life, but living. (In particular, he identifies a shift in human understanding of conception which cost “several billion female orgasms.”)
Spencer gets increasingly sick over the course of the episode, but he also gets softer and kinder, giving us a sense of what it was like when he was more of a paternal figure for Lenny than a rival. Eventually, he takes to his sickbed and, uh, dies—and Pius XIII, the pope who berated Suree for crying at her sister’s death openly bawls. This is one of a couple of indications of how emotionally open the pope is becoming, along with a vision of several “helper” characters from the course of the season. Valente, Suree, Sister Bice, all appear to the pope—and he whispers, “I love you all.” So much for formal relationships!
But before Spencer dies, he implores Lenny to finally recount the miracle he performed—the one that Sister Mary (who creepily stands outside the window) has repeatedly referenced, and that Lenny has been reticent to discuss. In flashback, we see a young Lenny go to visit the orphanage custodian, where, in the now-familiar pose, he prays for Billy’s mother, whispering that he and God “must” talk. (If parts of The Young Pope are the story of a supervillain, this seems like an important part of the origin story.) A divine light washes over the room, and Billy’s mother is cured. In fact, she’s still alive. Is there anyone who doubts that Lenny is a saint at this point? Sorrentino has tried to give us increasingly less room to interpret around these miracles, and even though all of the flashbacks are shot in soft-focus style, there’s nothing to suggest we shouldn’t understand that this actually happened.
This is a slightly different, interesting read on Lenny’s formality and distance that, honestly, I hadn’t fully considered: Is he afraid of the implications of his own power? And has he become more open to understanding his own possibility? There’s certainly even more of a sense of gravity to the pope than usual this episode—including the shot of Voiello, Sister Mary, Caltanissetta, and Marivaux walking away from Spencer’s deathbed, with Lenny clad in a boxy white suit that calls to mind nothing so much as David Byrne’s big suit from Stop Making Sense. The weight hanging over the pope is unsurprising. As Tommaso—who is apparently talking to the pope again—says, “Life in the Vatican is not much fun for young people.”
Life outside the Vatican isn’t much fun either, as we discover in the bulk of this episode, which focuses on the adventures of Gutierrez in Queens as he investigates the child abuse charges against Archbishop Kurtwell. When we first see him, Gutierrez’s investigation has stalled out. He’s staying in a hotel room (with three beds, for some reason) covered in newspaper clippings about Kurtwell, the pope, and his own mission, as well as empty bottles of booze. (So much for giving up his alcoholism!) Mostly, he wanders around the city, trying in vain to get Kurtwell’s victims to go public.
It’s not surprising that the victims have been cowed. We finally meet the mostly-unseen villain of the season, and boy is he creepy. Played by Guy Boyd, it’s obvious that Kurtwell is a serial abuser from the first moment he appears eating a hard-boiled egg. There are some brief attempts to humanize him over the course of the episode—in particular, a maudlin story about the superintendent of the building he lived in, who presumably abused Kurtwell, setting in motion an ongoing traumatic cycle—but for the most part, the archbishop is drunk on his own power. He sets up a tennis program for the diocese as a way of trying to get into bed with Freddy (Alex Esola), a young man who Gutierrez has been attempting to use as bait. He does TV interviews promoting that program. And he attempts to blackmail the pope. In an effort to convince Gutierrez that the pope merely has it out for him, Kurtwell says: “He envies me my charisma because he lacks that quality.” This is, frankly, an insane thing to say about Jude Law.
Gutierrez, on the other hand, appears to be more charismatic than ever. During this episode, he interacts with a series of individuals who have apparently been a part of his life in Queens, each of whom seems to want to bone him. Freddy expresses some desire for Gutierrez, but so does Rose—the proprietor of the hotel he’s staying in, who requires serious weight loss surgery and who seems to have some romantic tension with Gutierrez during a scene where they talk to each other through a fan. Everyone calls him “Bernardo,” which is adorable, and his kindness seems to have made their lives better. But that hasn’t helped his investigation—none of the victims are willing to press charges, and eventually he tries to resort to Voiello’s methods (using Freddy as bait before taking photographs). As Gutierrez himself puts it, “I never resent anyone. That’s my main problem.”
Still, Gutierrez’s inherent goodness turns out to be the key to cracking the case. At the skating rink, Gutierrez meets David, a frightened, unstable man with a bad orange wig (not the president) who turns out to be Kurtwell’s secret son. The two slowly get to know each other at the bar Gutierrez goes to frequently, leading to my favorite shot fo the episode—a slow pan around Gutierrez and David to reveal that Kurtwell has entered the bar, while David has fled to the bathroom (or something), before the archbishop finally sits down across from Gutierrez. It’s a slightly different type of camera work than we’re used to from Sorrentino, but he shoots many of these segments as if they were scenes in a conspiracy thriller, which is a welcome diversion from some of the other shots at the Vatican. By the end of the episode, Gutierrez has fully come into his own, dragging Kurtwell back to the Vatican while simultaneously taking his car and privileges that have been dependent on the pope.
More than anything, these scenes are melodramatic (more so than the rest of the show), which carries over to the episode’s conclusion: the publication of a series of love letters Lenny wrote to his old girlfriend. These were supposed to be Kurtwell’s secret blackmail weapon, but it turns out Lenny never sent “because he’s married to God.” Instead, The New Yorker publishes these letters as “strictly literature.”
At the end of the episode, Lenny leaves the photo for himself and little Pius for Esther at the beach near her new home, and we hear him reading the letters in voiceover. They’re pretty sweet, but here’s my favorite bit: “I ask questions straight out of a pop song.” This makes a lot of thematic sense—the soundtrack for this episode features two aggressively sugary pop songs, which is a bit of a departure for the show, but fits well into the networked romantic comedy genre this episode is playing with. As the other characters respond to this publication, we meet someone new: Lenny’s ex-girlfriend. Encountering the print version of the letters, she reminisces fondly about her brief relationship with the future pope, grabs a couple of oranges from her kitchen, and goes outside to teach her kids how to juggle. Pius XIII may not be fully stable as a pope yet, but at least he’s brought some joy to someone, however indirectly.
- One of Kurtwell’s meetings is with “Robert Lee,” who is apparently the chairman of the Tea Party. Maybe they should have just gone all out and named him Jeff Davis?
- Apparently reconciled with the pope, Tommaso tells him that “Everyone here says you are a saint,” to which Lenny responds simply, “Calumny.”
- Lenny barely interacts with Gutierrez, but their two brief moments of communication are great. Gutierrez writes an empty letter updating the pope on his progress, and the two briefly video chat so Gutierrez can show Lenny his hotel room. Cute!
- When David confesses to Gutierrez, he says one of my favorite lines of the season: “The point is the horror.”
- See you tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion of this season of The Young Pope!