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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Paul III continues to soft sell his papacy as The New Pope says "no" to tainted love

Illustration for article titled John Paul III continues to soft sell his papacy as iThe New Pope/i says no to tainted love
Photo: Gianni Fiorito (HBO)
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John Brannox is a weak man—or, at least, a soft one. Though he hides behind an air of seriousness (and John Malkovich’s charisma), it’s increasingly clear that he’s struggling to meet the challenge of the papacy. The church is beset on all sides, and Brannox’s lack of self-confidence, justified though it may be, has consequences for the institution he aims to shepherd.

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After his unfortunate encounter with Marilyn Manson, the pope meets another one of his celebrity heroes: Sharon Stone. This scene plays out as an extended Basic Instinct gag, in which Brannox repeatedly expresses anxiety about Stone crossing and uncrossing her legs—a bit that pays off handsomely when, with a turn of his hand, Brannox orders a line of priests to look away from the celebrity in the middle of the room. As in the Marilyn Manson scene, Brannox grasps at celebrity as a possible way forward for the church, asking Stone what they can do to be more “eloquent.” (She suggests focusing on art.)

But, unlike last week’s episode, Stone also has a real request for John Paul III: allow gay Catholics to get married. Brannox’s response indicates that, though he understands the moral rightness of eventually allowing gay Catholics to marry, he does not have the spine to push that type of reform through—especially considering the firm, unyielding nature of the Bible. This is the first of two times the Bible will be compared to an iPhone in this episode, comparison that sounds, and is likely intended to be, ridiculous. The church, and its members, occupy an entirely different world.

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Halfway through The New Pope, that new world seems precarious. Most of the characters appear to be at their low points, or at least in places where they need some spiritual guidance. Gutierrez continues to succumb to temptation with Freddie—and he gazes longingly at the alcohol in their hotel room’s minibar. Fabiano pimps out Esther to the creepy priest—and unfortunately for Fabiano, Esther has lost the ability to enjoy regular sex. Voiello is in the wilderness, unable to get the pope’s ear and reduced to meeting with Bauer in an empty movie theater. Sofia is starting to question her relationship her relationship with her husband, who is openly doing cocaine in their house. And John Paul III faces the biggest challenge of his papacy yet, as he is pressed to respond to a massacre ostensibly committed by the largely unseen caliph.

The site of the deaths—a rocky beach in Lourdes, France—provides a tranquil, if severe backdrop for a crisis. The New Pope has let its version of fundamentalist terrorism linger in the background, until now. (Sofia asks Brannox not to use the word “Islamic,” which is probably for the best.) But these killings, a highly public event, become a catalyst for the John Paul III papacy, an opportunity for Brannox to assert himself and respond as a moral leader. He rises to the occasion: In lieu of a full statement, he shouts “no!” to the assembled faithful, continuing to repeat the word until the chant echoes throughout the world. I have some questions about where this is going, especially since Sorrentino continues to exclusively use one clip to depict the terrorists and Faisal is the only other Muslim character on the show—but as a jumping off point for the Vatican leadership, it works quite well, and conjures an eerie feeling of solidarity in the face of suffering.

What are Catholics going to do with that sense of solidarity? No one’s quite sure—as Brannox puts it, “The vulgar act of explanation must fall to others.” He continues to pursue the symbolic, the poetic without an attendant course of action. He does, however, have a plan to deal with a different problem: the problem of sexual abuse in the church. Brannox’s plan is, if anything, as radical as the Sharon Stone plan: allowing priests to marry. It’s an attempt to divert the “sick love” that the better men of the church claim to abhor, a iteration of the Middle Way that avoids excessive punishment or vengeance and carte blanche forgiveness alike. But it also appears to be, to be it mildly, self-interested.

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We knew that Brannox was enamored of Sofia, but this episode takes their flirtation to the next level. Brannox gives Sofia the private number to his apartment, then waits for her to call so they can go on a quasi-date to the Vatican catacombs, where Brannox tells Sofia his plan to let priests marry and asks for her advice about Voiello. Their scenes together are the ones in the episode where Sorrentino takes by far the most visual care. Early in the episode, he frames Sofia standing in front of a painting, then allows Brannox to approach, moving toward Sofia into the unmoving shot. Later on, Sorrentino holds on a shot of their faces, inches apart. Cecile De France and John Malkovich have a slow-cooking chemistry, one that gets stronger as Brannox becomes more and more direct about his feelings—it’s tragic in some ways, and absurd in others, but it’s mesmerizing.

And it’s lucky for Brannox that he has such a strong ally, because he’s in for another big change: Pius XIII is stirring. During a phenomenal montage midway through the episode (soundtracked by Brannox’s phone ringing as Sofia waits for him to pick up), the sleeping Lenny Belardo lets out a sigh. We learn later on that there is a pattern to Lenny’s breathing—he breathes 415 times, then lets out a sigh, followed by 414 breaths, another sigh, and so on. A radio station pivots entirely from music and entertainment to just broadcast Lenny’s breathing, which seems to be a good media move—the phenomenon becomes all anyone can talk about. Given Lenny’s history of performing miracles, it’s not hard to project outward from the countdown to a holy event—an event that threatens John Paul III’s papacy, and that might make it impossible for John Brannox to adhere to his Middle War.

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Stray observations:

  • We finally see Sofia in a casual setting: wearing a fancy sweatsuit and reading Crime And Punishment. I get what Brannox sees in her.
  • Brannox tells Sofia that he was the lone vote for Lenny during the conclave. I think we could have seen this coming, but it’s nice to get confirmation.
  • Brannox’s appearance after the Lourdes press conference is, I believe the first appearance of a popemobile in either The Young Pope or The New Pope.
  • The episode-ending dance sequence, which brings back the Franciscan monks and has them groove with the nuns, is easily my favorite of the season. (Also, the nuns have started outright doing acrobatics in the opening credits. It rules.)
  • I’ve avoided linking every episode of Papal Bull: Resurrection (my companion podcast to the show), but the most recent episode features an interview with Javier Cámara, the actor who plays Gutierrez. It was a delightful conversation, and if you like the show I think you’ll get a lot out of it!
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