There’s a hole in the middle of The New Pope.
Everyone knows it. After a torturous early papacy, Pius XIII had finally come into his own as a spiritual force—and had begun to accept the uniqueness of his relationship with God. But hope is a dangerous thing for a church like the Vatican to have, and once Lenny Belardo’s third heart transplant fails to take, killing that hope, his absence becomes undeniable. Everything is just off.
Withholding Lenny feels, more than anything, like a deliberate choice on the part of Paolo Sorrentino. After all, it’s not like Jude Law wasn’t available: We open on Lenny’s bizarre, enormous makeshift hospital room in Venice (where he is receiving a sponge bath), and spend some time in surgery with him as he seemingly reaches out and connects with some of his friends and colleagues—in a purely spiritual capacity, of course. Law’s star power, and his ability to callously shrug off the best intentions of everyone else in the Vatican, are left tantalizingly out of reach.
It would be a lie to say that I’m glad Lenny isn’t really in this first episode of The New Pope. But I do appreciate how the rest of the characters react to the lack of him, and the picture the episode presents of the Vatican running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
To wit: We didn’t get a conclave scene in The Young Pope showing how Lenny actually got elected, but Sorrentino more than makes up for it by depicting the political machinations that go into the decision to replace Pius XIII. (In some respects, it feels like Lenny’s faith was too pure to find footing in this venal ritual.) Silvio Orlando’s Cardinal Voiello, returning in peak form here, tries to make his play to finally be pope, only to be devastatingly shut down as if he was a nerd trying to ask out the coolest girl in his high school class—he literally gets hit with bird droppings.
The conclave is, to put it lightly, stressful. Beyond the now-standard, still-dazzling Sorrentino visual flares, pop music cues, and intense focus on the faces of each of the lived-in cardinals, there are several rounds of voting, several strategy sessions, and one very alarming prayer sequence. Here, we get a glimpse into the thoughts of some of the cardinals as they pray for a particular sort of pope. Some of these prayers are sweet—the tender-hearted Gutierrez wants someone to show him his place in the world, while another cardinal merely wishes for a pope who is like his dad—while others revolve around the cardinals wanting to be alternately forgiven or punished for their role in sexually abusing children.
Thinking about the fact that a ton of these men have, if not personally abused children, then at least covered it up goes a long way toward puncturing the warm, aesthetic bubble of The New Pope. Yes, the outfits are incredible; yes, the dialogue is sharp and funny; yes, Voiello’s mole is a perfect work of art. But there are real stakes, which largely serves to make the back half of the episode all the more alarming—and hilarious.
In his effort to win the conclave—and, eventually, to defeat his nemesis-slash-doppelganger Cardinal Hernández Tommaso—Voiello repeats the mistake of picking a seemingly weak candidate. Rather than let Hernández win, Voiello puts his weight behind Tommaso Viglietti, the Vatican confessor Lenny created as a cardinal in The Young Pope. (You may remember him as the guy who spends most of the season running around, terrified of his own shadow.) Marcelo Romollo is fantastic in this episode, slowly coming unhinged as Tommasso transforms from a meek, seemingly paper-thin man into a full-on Bond villain.
Tommaso’s reign as Francis II (a clear reference to the public image of the current pope) is truly something to behold. After yet another miraculous encounter with a bird, he realizes that he has been imbued with the power of the office and no longer needs to listen to the other cardinals. Some things change around the Vatican: the doors are flung open for refugees, much of the church’s wealth is slated for donation, and group of Franciscan monks wearing headband lamps Naruto runs around the building making trouble for people.
After taking a few steps too far (including claiming he’ll install cameras in the bathroom to stop priests from jerking off, firing Voiello, and demanding the cardinals give up their jewelry), it becomes clear that Francis II has to go. So when he drops dead, it certainly seems like murder. It’s a great, dark joke, that the pope who is seemingly deeply committed to the church’s stated ideals—to the point of sleeping on the floor—has to be offed for the show to go on. And besides, the show needed to dispose of Tommaso to make room for John Malkovich’s Sir John Brannox, who will become John Paul III.
But if anything, the brief glimpse of Malkovich we get during the closing credits is purely frustrating—the papacy of Francis II is an absolute delight, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing it go on for another episode or two. If the late, great Francis II had anything in common with Pius XIII, it was the ability to make the cardinals squirm. And that’s something we can all get behind.
- This episode is ridiculously stuffed, so I haven’t had room to talk about all of the new characters, including Voiello’s new right-hand man, the obviously criminal ambassador Bauer, and Sofia’s new haircut. Don’t worry, we’ll get to them in later episodes!
- Also, I didn’t get to dig into the convent, or the neon-lit, Sofi Tukker-backed dance party that makes up the new opening credits of the show. But, of course, it rules.
- After some long, lean years, we’re back with The New Pope and I’m back with it. I am ready and we are going full speed ahead. Let’s pray.