Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In his debut, John Malkovich rises to the challenge of being The New Pope

Illustration for article titled In his debut, John Malkovich rises to the challenge of being The New Pope
Photo: Gianni Fiorito (HBO)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

If we thought the church was in a state of disarray before, it’s teetering on the edge now. The death of Francis II preserves the status quo for the cardinals—Sorrentino pointedly pairs shots of them reclaiming their jewelry with the refugees being kicked out of the Vatican—but it leads to a new nadir of public trust in the institution. As we see briefly at the end of this episode, everyone is waiting to see what happens next. Bauer is anxiously awaiting the outcome of his schemes. Esther is trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of her life. The cult of Lenny is preparing for their next move. And Lenny himself continues to sleep, sleeping as the world convulses around him.


For the most part, this second episode is focused on a core group of characters—Voiello and the rest of the holy squad (Assente, Gutierrez, Aguirre, and Sofia). They must return to Rome with a new pope, one who will be able to solve all of the Vatican’s problems simultaneously. They need someone who will quiet speculation about Francis II’s likely murder. They need someone who will dim the bright, overwhelming star of Lenny Belardo. And they need someone who will do all this, knowing the enormity of the task. In other words, they need Sir John Brannox.

Befitting our new central character, we spend a lot of time being introduced to Sir John, and to John Malkovich’s portrayal of the soon-to-be pontiff. (Though he puts up a show of not knowing whether or not he’s going to take the job, we’ve all seen the previews for the rest of the season.) It’s a pretty good first impression: When we first meet him, Sir John is wearing eyeliner, a fancy suit, and lounging on a series of chaises. Essentially, he looks like an older Brendon Urie. Throughout the rest of the episode, we see him in a variety of stellar, fashionable outfits and lavish rooms, including a fantastic white suit worn in a big stone room fitted with a fountain. He is a fragile, fancy man.

Like Pius XIII, Brannox has a complicated family situation. His aging parents, confined to wheelchairs, spend most of their waking hours sitting silently in front of their dead son’s grave. They strenuously avoid their living son, blaming him for his brother Adam’s death. We get a few flashbacks to John and Adam’s childhood, shot similarly to the ones depicting Lenny’s boyhood years in the orphanage. Given the suspicious extent to which John asserts that he loved his brother, we likely don’t know the whole story. 

There are a few other ways in which Sir John resembles Lenny Belardo: He is also depressive, aloof, and fragile. (Throughout the episode, he’s described as a piece of porcelain.) He has a strong adversarial rapport with Voiello. He is taken by Sofia. And he has a way with words—though Sir John doesn’t quite have the acidic tongue of early Lenny, he floats above everyone else, retreating to somewhere inside his own mind. Through long meditation and careful spiritual cultivation, Sir John Brannox has a strong relationship with God. He seems to experience a doubt much like Lenny’s, though his is largely directed inward, rather than an outward rage. And, like Lenny, he has movie star charisma—several of Sir John’s lines are a bit on the hammy side, but he sells them, because, well, he’s John Malkovich. Of course he weeps for the imperfection of the world.

Sir John’s introduction works well because of Malkovich’s acting talent, but it’s also because he’s reacting to a group of characters we’ve come to know over the course of The Young Pope. The episode is shockingly episodic, largely devoted to the mission of the cardinals (and Sofia) to get Sir John on board. Each takes a different tack: Voiello by semi-tactful negotiation, Assente by flattery, and Gutierrez by tender honesty. (Aguirre, meanwhile, asks if there are ghosts in the house, and does almost nothing to aid the party.) Sofia doesn’t do much in the way of direct persuasion, but she does catch John’s attention. And she is the center of the episode’s major non-Brannox theme: horniness.


For all The Young Pope’s interest in the aesthetics of the Vatican—and in the good looks of Jude Law—it was not an especially erotic piece of art. Its mystery and allure often came from the way the show juxtaposed the lushness of its setting with the almost perversely withholding nature of its central character, who resisted all attempts to be seduced. Without him, everyone is giving in to their baser desires—or, at least, Sorrentino is making more time for everyone to get down. We meet Sofia’s previously unseen husband Thomas, who has a cold, brutal sexuality and seems to be more interested in his own power than in his wife. He gets off on masturbating onto Sofia, forcing her to change her outfit—an act we see in a shot holding squarely on her face. Later in the episode, she masturbates while they video chat, bizarrely using her phone as a dildo. (I am like, almost positive this would be a deeply unpleasant experience, but I’m open to being wrong.)

And even amidst uncomfortable carnality, there’s a moment that proves The New Pope’s ability to surprise. The most profoundly charged connection made in the episode isn’t between Sofia and Thomas, or between Sofia and the group of monks she almost flashes (I know, right?), or even between Sir John and his new colleagues. Instead it’s a tender, unexpectedly moving scene where Assente spritzes himself with perfume, then gingerly knocks on the door of a vulnerable Gutierrez. They look at each other with longing for a moment, before Gutierrez insists that to act on their desires would be bad for their souls, and Assente is forced to close the door.


Gutierrez knows love, and he experiences it through his commitment to the institution that has shackled him. He experiences the presence of Lenny Belardo telling him he made the right choice, one of several manifestations that seem to be literal in this world. (Lenny also moved Sir John’s mysterious bedside box, one that appears to be related to whatever secret he’s carrying.) It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Maybe Gutierrez should have been the pope.

Stray observations:

  • Thomas has a shady meeting with another cardinal and the Italian finance minister in what appears to be a Vatican bunker. Leave it to this show to keep adding bizarre new locations for cardinals to stand around.
  • My favorite John Malkovich line delivery here: “That joke is terribly funny. Even though I did not laugh.”
  • Sir John’s butler is a fun new character. He goes out on a limb to describe Sofia: “Pardon my vulgarity, sir. But she... is a beauty.”
  • We also check in on Esther, who is struggling to make ends’ meet telling her miracle story on TV in a hilarious scene with one of the episode’s best editing moments.
  • Sofia raids the manor for photos of a young John Brannox, including several where he appears to be a young punk in the 1980s.
  • We end with a silly dance sequence in a shawarma restaurant, where it certainly looks like Bauer is doing something Francis II tried to ban in the Vatican toilets.