Evaluating the symbolism of The Young Pope is an intentionally tricky and mysterious task. Are Lenny’s furtive glances at the kangaroo too on the nose? Should we groan at the parallel placement of baptisms, a (very unpleasant) sex scene, and a funeral? Does it even make sense to ask these questions when the show is already about Jude Law playing an extremely blunt and often hyper-literal pope who, in this episode alone, repeatedly insults the leader of a country, yells at a grieving nun, and smirks as he prepares to excommunicate all gay people from the church?
Calling The Young Pope’s symbolism too blunt is just missing the point of the show—it might not be your thing, but it’s hard to pretend you didn’t know what you were getting into when this episode starts with a man literally riding in on a white horse across a field. The only signs that this is isn’t some kind of weird medieval flashback are the evenness of the grass and the telephone poles visible off in the distance. But once the gorgeous, heavily styled man gets off the horse, he reveals the real power in the scene: A disheveled, stooped, bald man with stigmata who sees the Virgin Mary in a sheep. This is Tonino Pettola, and he is apparently something of a folk figure. As a competing religious power, this makes sense. The scene—dozens of people loosely clumped around a van, including a literal hospital bed that has been wheeled out—seems more fitted to one of Lenny’s dreams than it does to the show’s waking world.
The intentionally unsettling framing continues after the opening credits, as the pope (dressed in a stylish green robe we haven’t seen before) talks to Sister Suree (Nadee Kammellaweera). Their conversation is surreal, edited in a series of quick cuts back and forth from their faces, violating the often unspoken rule that two characters in a scene should appear in the same shot at least some of the time, to give the sense that they’re occupying the same room. Instead, it seems like Lenny is interrogating her from a distance, or possibly over video chat from a different room entirely. Adding to this effect, every shot of Lenny’s face has a messy quality to the sound, like an airplane about to take off—which we realize after a few moments is coming from Suree’s hearing aid.
Suree’s sister is dying, and though the pope is the leader of an institution that maintains the religious lives of a billion people, he takes the time to look into it, having her sister’s body flown from Sri Lanka to the Vatican (unbeknownst to Suree). Eventually, the nun bursts into tears, and the pope barks at her: “Believers don’t cry, that’s not right!” Given Lenny’s enormous emotional fragility, this seems like a bit of poorly thought out projection.
Meanwhile, Voiello is conflicted. He increasingly seems to be in the right in his efforts to take down Lenny, who tells him this episode that he’s intent on rooting out every gay priest, even if they’re upholding their vow of celibacy. It’s certain that Lenny’s actions will be destructive for the church. Still, Voiello is framed as a villain during his unfortunate confrontation with Esther, in which he forces her to seduce the pope so that her affair with Valente will remain hidden. This scene is incredibly creepy, precisely because it’s also hilarious. Voiello offers her cane sugar, which he has somehow been led to believe is the hot craze for young people (his second reference to the sweetener in as many episodes). Amatucci puts out the candles in the room one by one, as Voiello strokes Esther’s hair and says “Don’t worry. It’s me, Voiello.” Why worry?
Esther has sinned, and she’s one of the few people on the show capable of being cowed by that fact. This makes her susceptible to Voiello’s lies (exaggerations) in their next meeting that the pope has had “dozens of girlfriends,” and it makes her more likely to try to do something drastic in order to save the church. Still, Esther’s naïveté leads her to claim to that she can get through to the pope, because “he respects me,” to which Silvio Orlando responds with a masterful, uncomfortable, very funny acting moment of Voiello stifling his instinctive laughter, followed by this gem: “I was about to laugh but I stopped myself because I have a certain class.”
Voiello’s mockery of Esther is ironic, since he lionizes the same qualities in Girolamo, in one of the show’s most genuinely uncomfortable scenes to date. He characterizes the boy’s cognitive impairment as a “hem of holiness” because of his lack of knowledge, which is, frankly, lame as hell. I’ll talk more about these scenes as they take on more importance for Voiello’s character, but for now, it’s enough to say that it’s pretty frustrating to watch Girolamo used solely as a character development prop. Thankfully, Voiello endures even more humiliation from the pope when he tries to present Lenny with a gift—something that the pope notes “are supposed to be worse for you than real cigarettes.” Yes, that’s right: Voiello tried to buy Lenny a vape. Praise The Young Pope.
Still, Voiello’s ploy with Esther doesn’t seem to be coming out of left field: during one of their strolls, Lenny compares Esther to his old girlfriend. During this scene, she reveals that she and Peter are sterile, and much of the episode is given over to her (and Lenny) praying to the Virgin Mary to that end. (As the camera floats up to the statue of Mary—in a mirroring of a shot later in the episode where Lenny leaves Voiello without answering the question of how, exactly, he was called to the priesthood—Lenny says: “Now you’re praying.”) Though she makes half-hearted efforts to give her “beauty” to the pope—and later has sex against the window of her apartment while he creepily watches and fervently prays to Mary to give her children—Lenny is pretty resolute, cutting her off before she can do anything she might regret later.
One thing the pope already regrets: having to baptize all of the babies. He has a routine—Gutierrez whispers the name of the baby, then the pope performs the sacrament while saying “She takes after you,” repeating himself until he encounters a clearly adopted black baby and spits out, “Yes, it’s perfectly clear she’s been adopted. That doesn’t change a thing.” Escaping from the annoying parents, the pope finds Sofia hanging out in the bathroom, and they continue to develop their friendly rapport. This is one of my favorite relationships on the show, because it’s lightly flirtatious without ever really suggesting a romantic pairing, and because the pope seems to genuinely like and respect Sofia—particularly when she displays surprising discretion. The pope marvels at why the tall, handsome assistant to the prime minister of Greenland has gotten so much more attention than the prime minister, who is a beautiful woman, and Sofia responds: “I know exactly how to answer that question. With silence.”
Silence is also the approach taken by the prime minister, who spends much of her meeting with Lenny looking at him expectantly, waiting for some form of agreeable rapport that never comes. In fact, the pope kicks off the conversation with the incredible line, “I know. I’m incredibly handsome. But please, let’s try to forget about that.” Is there anyone Lenny can’t insult and get away with it? We’re already in full “mocking world leaders” mode. And the prime minister is kind of a doormat, rolling over as Lenny mostly ignores her gifts, compares Greenland’s Catholics to Native Americans, and claims that God could be hidden under all of the ice.
The prime minister presents a song as one of the gifts, and everyone has to listen to it and react at the same time. (I don’t blame Lenny for being uncomfortable with this—having someone randomly play a mixtape they made for you in front of a bunch of people is one of the most excruciating things I can imagine.) The members of Greenland’s delegation turn and smile at each other. Caltanissetta covers his hand with his face. Voiello haplessly tries to bop along. And the pope sits, motionless. (All of this cut with Suree’s sister’s body being placed on a freighter to be delivered to the Vatican.)
And, at the end of the episode, the pope listens to the song (titled “Senza Un Perché”), remembers his mother, looks out into the square (where children and playing with lights), and then turns to the camera, where one of the absolute weirdest things on the show happens. The prime minister of Greenland dances seductively at the end of a hallway in the Vatican while some text straight out of a “The More You Know” PSA plays, explaining some facts about Greenland.
Greenland, “Land Of Men,” is an island off the American continent located in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean. The main productive activities in Greenland are shrimp and halibut fishing. Greenlanders, like South Americans, are known worldwide for their uncontainable passion for dancing.
Huh. I don’t have a ton of thoughts about this, other than that I love how insane it is. When was the last time you saw this kind of direct intervention in the narrative of an HBO show? Talk about bluntness.
- Lenny line of the week: “I’m not profound, I’m presumptuous.”
- At one point, Lenny purses his lips, sputtering as if he were a petulant child.
- The pope references Spinoza, which is great because everyone should read Spinoza.
- The pope continues asking people about their calling. Suree met a man in a bar who told her that God helps the poor. Voiello tells Lenny that he simply had a “predisposition” to become a priest.
- Another amazing Voiello line: “I have a great many shortcomings, but there can be no doubt about my heterosexuality.” Later, Tommasso tells the pope that all of the priests have begun to confess to being totally into boning women, which is interesting in that it suggests everyone knows that their confessions are no longer private.
- Tonino later appears on an Italian TV show, begging for recognition from the pope—and threatening to found a new church if he doesn’t get it. (Tonino can heal people, particularly cardiovascular diseases and meniscus problems.)
- The intentional badness of the sex scenes on this show—of which there have only been two—is one of my favorite things. It makes sense for a show about priests, but it’s also somewhat refreshing on HBO.
- Gutierrez gets sent to New York to investigate the Kutwell case, which will be very scary for a man who almost never leaves the Vatican.
- This review is already insanely long, but this is a really dense Young Pope and I’m pretty happy with the episode of the podcast we did about it, so give it a listen if you’re so inclined.