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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Lenny Belardo finally returns in a breathtaking, miraculous episode of iThe New Pope/i
Photo: Gianni Fiorito (HBO)
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From its mid-season stretch of conniving, plotting, and despair, The New Pope has risen from the dead. For most of the episode, we follow a reawakened Lenny Belardo as he emerges from his year-long coma, readjusts to the world, and has some chill hang sessions with the doctor who had been treating him. It is absolutely delightful, and one of the best episodes of either Pope series. Where much of The New Pope has sprawled, tracking several cardinals, laypeople, and a new pope, this episode zooms in on the character who has been missing this whole time: the old pope.

Look—I appreciate a good papal ghost as much as the next fan of this show. It’s been a lot of fun watching Lenny show up in his spectral form every now and then, ready to give some advice, a spiritually meaningful glance, or simply to move the new pope’s heroin box. But those scenes have served to highlight just how important the character of Lenny Belardo is to this world, and how much Jude Law’s performance serves as an anchor. I got chills just watching Lenny be throughout this episode. Listening to his familiar, still-uncanny cadence felt like home. And his absurd normie clothes aren’t half-bad either. I understand the reasoning behind keeping Lenny in the background for most of this season, and letting us see what the other characters are like without Pius XIII, but I do ultimately think the season has lost something by denying us more Belardo. (Either that, or I’m just a glutton and should confess my sin of wanting more Lenny Belardo than Paolo Sorrentino is willing to give me.)

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Consider that, for the entirety of this episode, Lenny doesn’t interact with any of the characters we’d expect. Instead, he primarily hangs out with his doctor, the doctor’s wife, and their son—yet another disabled boy who shows up to serve as an object of pity, of blessing for a Catholic working through their crisis of faith. If there’s any defense of the way this boy is depicted throughout the episode, it’s that everyone who isn’t Lenny Belardo feels like wallpaper. Sure, the performances by Ulrich Thomsen and Yulia Snigir are good, and it’s a small miracle that I care about the doctor and his wife going out on the town in an empty Venice—but they’re here for the moment, and they serve primarily to confront Lenny with his newfound status as more than a pope.

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The best parts of this episode find Doctor Lindegard and his wife Ewa questioning what Lenny is, and how they should engage with him. At one point, Lenny has a heated conversation with Ewa, in which he suggests that she is looking to him for a cheap and easy solution to her prayers—a diagnosis that extends to the cult he isn’t even aware has formed around him. On the other hand, what else should she expect? Reviving a seemingly-dead man—a pope who has performed multiple miracles—sure seems like God answering her prayers. I don’t blame her. Lenny may be just a man in his own mind, but he isn’t a man to the rest of the world. And he certainly won’t be one once he reveals himself.

Yet again, Jude Law is asked to play Lenny Belardo as a deeply conflicted, confusing, occasionally maddening person, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. Lenny mutters to God that he was called, and sent back. He tells Ewa that he described heaven to her son, then says that heaven is exactly like Earth—except that in heaven, “we glimpse God.” He scoffs at the notion that he has performed a miracle, instead referring to his awakening as an “absolute scientific exception,” only to later attempt to perform a miracle, accepting whatever holy gift he has been given in an effort to cure the couple’s son, Eric. He is unable to go more than a minute without asking for a Cherry Coke Zero. He is truly a joy to watch.

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Eventually, Lenny appears to embrace his own status as divine in some capacity—he has the doctor call Gutierrez, initiating his return to the Vatican, and he seemingly does perform a miracle on Eric, even if that miracle is more ethereal than it is material. After a seemingly futile, almost tragic attempt, in which Lenny repeats the phrase “make him a man” to no avail, the former pope returns to the site of battle to, once again, wrestle with a God whose presence he can only intermittently sense. Here, Lenny performs a calmer miracle: The episode ends with Eric seemingly draped in light, floating up to the ceiling of his parents’ gorgeous, empty, imposing Venetian home. We’re led to believe—or, at least, I have been to believe—that Eric died, peacefully sent to heaven through Lenny’s intercession with God. I don’t know how to feel about that, but I do know it feels thrilling to see Lenny Belardo fully admit to other people that he has some special connection to the divine, and commit to figuring out what that is.

It’s not a moment too soon: In the few non-Lenny scenes we get, the Vatican hits yet another crisis point. This time, terror strikes at the heart of the Church—a bomb goes off in St. Peter’s Basilica, destroying the inside of the church and, more importantly, killing Brannox’s dog Valencia. (There are echoes of Lenny losing his kangaroo, though the kangaroo was imbued with more significance, more of a presence, and simply weirder than the pope’s dog.) Paralyzed by depression, the porcelain pope cracks. In another confessional scene, he admits to Gutierrez that he never wrote The Middle Way at all—instead it was his brother, Adam. John simply stole the manuscript and published it under his own name.

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But rather than curse the pope, as Brannox seems to expect and desire, Gutierrez rejects this display of self-pity. God saves, he tells John Paul III, and the attractiveness of sin only becomes magnified as we tell ourselves that God could not possibly love us. Without the possibility of God’s love, what would stop us from giving in to our vices of sloth, substance abuse, and being a terrible pope? In a way, Gutierrez rejects the very premise of Brannox’s personality, implicitly demanding that he respond to the responsibility of being the pope. It’s an absolutely remarkable acting moment from Javier Cámara, perhaps the highlight of an already stellar season of acting. If there’s anything to dislike about this episode, it’s that it’s coming so late. There are only two episodes left in the season—meaning there are only two chances to see Pius XIII interact with John Paul III, and for the divine to come crashing into the human. As long as Gutierrez, Brannox, and Belardo are all there, it will be worth the wait.

Stray observations:

  • Voiello has seemingly taken to retirement well, though Sofia does attempt to consult him on how to bring Brannox out of his malaise.
  • This episode also marks the new opening title sequence, an utterly majestic couple of minutes in which Lenny emerges from the water in a glowing bathing suit and walks underneath a row of women batting around volleyballs. It’s charged with the erotic, but Jude Law’s absolute resistance to Lenny Belardo’s sex appeal (he makes to kiss a ghostly Esther, but instead kisses her on the head) continues to work wonders, building tension until the inevitable, much-needed wink to the audience. Please, paint this scene on my wall.
  • Unless Paolo Sorrentino says explicitly otherwise, I will choose to believe that the character Eric is named after me. Please do not disabuse me of this notion, thanks.
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