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Lenny becomes a phenomenal supervillain as The Young Pope reaches its halfway point

Illustration for article titled Lenny becomes a phenomenal supervillain as The Young Pope reaches its halfway point
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At first, it seems like “Fifth Episode” is going to be a relatively standard episode of The Young Pope. (Such as there is one.) After all, it opens with yet another dream where Lenny’s parents are abandoning him on a boat in Venice. But the dramatic music from Lele Marchitelli’s score continues over the opening credits, where we would ordinarily expect “All Along The Watchtower”—with no accompanying shift in mood. The paintings are the same, the pacing is the same, and Lenny still winks at the camera, except that it’s a lot creepier. That’s basically the vibe for most of this episode, which takes all of the emotional and tonal groundwork done by the first four episodes and cranks them up to an almost untenable degree.

Thankfully, much of this episode is also spent wrapping up the stories that have been set in motion over the first half of the season—primarily Voiello’s conflict with the pope—and establishing Lenny’s total, undoubtable dominance over the church.

In particular, Esther makes her final, awkward play to seduce the pope. Lenny just responds with confusion, staring as Esther as if he’s watching a science experiment. He even remains impassive when she unbuttons her shirt and tries to move his hand to her breast. But the tableau of Voiello, Amatucci, and a photographer is ready, snapping of pictures of an incident that didn’t really happen. The scene is comic (after all, Lenny doesn’t know that Voiello is there), but it also mirrors the voyeuristic experience of watching this scene—we are, after all, in the same position they are.

In a shockingly earnest moment, Lenny tells Esther that his calling as a priest is a way of cutting himself off from humanity: If you take a vow of celibacy, you never have to worry about getting your heart broken. (“I’m not a man, I’m a coward.”) It’s one of the rare moments of Jude Law’s performance that resists reading as performance or scenery-chewing, instead presenting a brief glimpse at what it would look like for Lenny’s not-so-inner child to become self-aware. Tellingly, Voiello—a career priest—takes these words to heart, and later briefly passes them off as his own during a scene where he seems an awful lot like he’s trying to seduce Sister Mary.

Voiello, in turn, is completely crushed by Lenny in this episode, beaten at his own game. Lenny knows all of Gutierrez’s secrets, he knows about the blackmail attempt with Esther, and he knows a truth that Voiello does not: Blackmail only works if the blackmailer has emotional leverage over the victim, who is afraid of being shamed or otherwise losing face. As Lenny puts it, “Your old methods only work on the old popes, who were afraid of losing consensus. They don’t work with me. I am the young pope.” This incredibly on-the-nose moment is captured with amazing shot of Lenny, framed from below, looming over the crumpled, defeated Voiello, in a striking image that hits home their power disparity so strongly.

By this point, it’s basically impossible—and probably besides the point—to try to capture all of the specific things happening on The Young Pope. It’s too dense, and there are frequently too many possible readings of any given moment to really gesture at all of them. But still, the show seems to demand granular analysis, even when the viewer has no idea what’s going on. That‘s definitely the case in the bulk of this episode’s second half, which is given over to Lenny’s speech to the cardinals, beginning with what is and will remain one of the best, most memorable TV scenes of 2017. If there’s one thing you need to know about this pope, it’s that he’s sexy and he knows it.

This scene has everything: the ritual, the aesthetic glory, the insinuation that at heart the pope is an adolescent dressing up for a special occasion (or maybe that that’s all anyone is every doing), excitement, other priests (including Valente) anxious staring in at the pope dressing, Jude Law’s mouth—you name it. Really, the entire segment of the episode devoted to the pope’s address is just masterful, as Lenny is carried into the Sistine Chapel, stares down the cardinals, and finally delivers the brutal, authoritarian address in which he describes himself as “the new tenant, who has diametrically opposite tastes in decorating.”


How did the tiny, golden door get to the Sistine Chapel? How did it stay there? It doesn’t matter. Like all questions about whether something “really” happened on The Young Pope or was “plausible” in some fashion, it misses the point of the lushness of the show, and how dreamlike everything is supposed to be at all times. (I’ve seen some people suggesting that maybe the kangaroo is in Lenny’s head—I’m sorry to be this blunt, but that is absolutely the wrong way to watch this show.) It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, in a riveting monologue, Lenny lays out the tenets of his mystery church, based on absence making the church more desirable, and in rooting out dilettantes in favor of true believers and people who experience “love” for God—reflecting much of what we know about his non-relationship with his parents. “This pope does not negotiate,” Jude Law snarls, as Lenny forces the cardinals to kiss his foot (a practice that hasn’t been observed at the Vatican for decades). He’s become the villain we always knew he could be.

Still, most of the first half of the episode is spent fleshing out another of Lenny’s more humane relationships: His friendship with Dussolier. The two were like brothers growing up, and Sorrentino spends a lot of time on an extended flashback of the pair abandoning Sister Mary’s orphanage so Lenny can find his parents. (Which, spoiler, he does not do.) Instead, they find a stray cigarette, wander around for a while, and eventually form a bond strong enough to survive awkward conversations at hotel bars. This excursion is mirrored in their night out in Rome, where, clad in track suits, they go to a food truck, try to buy cigarettes, and meet a prostitute who claims to have proof of the existence of God. (This is, of course, the only that thing could interest Lenny.) She takes a photo of Lenny, which is now the only proof of his existence.


It looks like Dussolier will be around a bit more going forward, since Lenny offers him the position as Prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy, the role he had previously offered Spencer. (It’s unclear why Dussolier is qualified for this job, but he and the pope do both says the phrase “like when we were kids” at the same time, so it’s fine.) It’s a good thing, too, since we get a very nice scene of them returning home to Sister Mary in parallel parts of the show’s timeline. Their makeshift family is stern, but loving, which is one of the better descriptions you could write for the ideal version of the church.

At least for now, the pope’s house appears to be in order. The kangaroo jumps when he tells it to, Voiello has been fully cowed, Esther has maybe had divine assistance conceiving a child (indicated by a holy light and a shot of a flower spontaneously blooming), and everything else seems to be going his way. Though Lenny continually refuses to talk about the miracle he supposedly performed, it’s worth asking: Is this pope a saint? It looks like Tonino Pettola is about to find out, as he returns to his home only to find the pope in full vestments, flanked by several cardinals (Dussolier, Caltanissetta, Aguirre, and Voiello), because he has “busted our balls.” We’ll see what else happens in the second half of the season, but at the very least it looks like it’ll include some more intimidation, attack dog Voiello, and totally implausible but gorgeous imagery. Hell yeah.


Stray observations:

  • Gutierrez makes a couple of brief appearances, in a scene where he has a brief panic attack while watching nuns play volleyball (and talks to the pope about his alcoholism). Does he have another secret?
  • Lenny tries to explain his insomnia to Dussolier: “The evening doesn’t console me.”
  • The previous pope escaped from the Vatican to go to a bingo parlor, where he accused the caller of cheating.
  • Sister Mary lies about not telling Voiello about the pope’s absence.
  • The moment where Spencer stands up and takes off his hat is one of the most tense things I’ve seen on a fictional TV show in the past few months—I, and I suspect you, thought for a moment that he was going to publicly abandon the church.