He was only elected one episode ago, but it feels like John Brannox has been pope for ages. Much of this fourth episode focuses on the day-to-day of the Vatican in the early days of John Paul III’s papacy, and everyone already seems to be tired of his leadership. A layperson—an idolator, no less—directly insults the pope, and no one seems to care or do much of anything about it. The opportunistic vultures in the Vatican are closing in, smelling blood in the water—and, as we see throughout the episode, they’re having an easy time gaining influence in the pope’s inner circle. And, perhaps most damning of all, the pope is taking public relations advice from Marilyn Manson.
That’s not a dig at Manson, who is very funny in this self-deprecating cameo. His scene with Brannox is the cold open to the episode, and it’s one of the more overtly satirical parts of the season thus far, particularly when Manson admits that he thought he was meeting with Pius XIII. (This is the closest The New Pope has come to straight-up cringe comedy, and it’s great.) But it says a lot that, not only is Brannox willing to listen to him, he hadn’t even thought about the possibility of visiting with Pius XIII. He’s too busy being upset that no one knows who he is to, uh, get people to see who he is.
Relaying news of his disastrous Manson meeting to Voiello and Sofia, Brannox insists that everyone needs to know who the pope is: “It’s not vanity, it’s necessity.” That might be true as far as it goes—but it’s also part of Brannox’s childishness, his need to be seen, to be loved. John Malkovich is phenomenally petulant here, communicating the full force of his actorly gravitas while simultaneously making it clear that Brannox doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. The closest Brannox comes to having a real goal or desire in this episode comes during his press trip to visit Lenny, when he turns to look at a resplendent Sofia. If he has any other motivation besides wanting to generically be a well-known pope, it’s that he is clearly smitten with Sofia—to the point where, during Gutierrez’s confessional, he imagines (or sees?) her having sex with Tomas through a glory hole that is apparently in their house. And he can’t pursue this one thing he clearly wants, so instead, he starts to compromise.
Largely, that compromise takes the form of Cardinal Spalletta, who starts making his move to get leverage over the pope. Massimo Ghini relishes the chance to fully introduce us to Spalletta, whose blank, flopsweat visage masks a relentless thirst for power. At first, he tries to give Brannox a Bentley—the car we heard about in the last episode—but eventually, he pursues a more threatening strategy. Where there was no real blackmail material on Lenny Belardo because he barely had a past and kept his head down, Spalletta’s time rooming with Brannox has yielded something worthwhile: the box. We still don’t know exactly what is in Brannox’s nighttime box, but it’s bad enough that he willingly gives Spalletta an appointment as his personal secretary in charge of creativity. (He is, it turns out, the world’s most annoying startup employee cardinal, down to his terrible ideas for how to juice up the Vatican.) In this capacity, he is put in charge of, as Brannox puts it, “everything I do not wish to do,” echoing the offer Voiello originally makes Lenny at the beginning of The Young Pope to take care of the “boring” (and actually meaningful) parts of being the pope.
Spalletta’s slow acquisition of power suggests the full extent to which he wants something out of the papacy. In moments like the superimposition of titles over Brannox’s appointments, the pope is distanced from the consequences of his own choices, as if choosing the most powerful people in the Vatican is a dress-up montage like Lenny’s in The Young Pope. Of course, on some level, that’s exactly what it is—Brannox is choosing the people who will clothe his papacy. And, pushed to the periphery of accessory, is the Vatican constant Voiello. Brannox confirms that he suspects Voiello had Francis II murdered, a worry that Spalletta seizes on to push him away from power. Still, in his following scene with Girolamo, Voiello reiterates his central insight about himself: He is willing to do things others in the Vatican will not, precisely because he values the overall health of the church.
Voiello isn’t just scrambling with the pope. He also enters into a war with the nuns, who are now dramatically laid out in a circle in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, occupying one of the most holy places in the church. This plot feels like it should be dramatic, but instead it is very funny, in details like the hard cut to Voiello handing €200 to the nuns, attempting to paper over the initial concern about the trip. But it’s too late: the nuns now want to overhaul the whole system that made it possible for this type of injustice to happen at all. The scenes between Voiello, the Abbess, and Sister Lisette have an almost comic lightness to them, as if we’re about to watch a verbal sparring match from The Neighbors instead of a dramatic ideological battle over the future of the church. Eventually, Voiello plays an early trump card: He turns off the WiFi in the Vatican, preventing Sister Lisette from using social media to organize other nuns. The nuns couldn’t compromise, even if they wanted to.
Nearly everyone else in the pope’s inner (and outer) orbits are also in the process of compromising, of giving up deeply held beliefs about themselves. Gutierrez gets a visit from Freddie, the young man he befriended during his trip to New York in The Young Pope—a visit that ends in sex. This is pretty shocking for the devout, kind Gutierrez, especially just two episodes after his rejection of Assente’s affection. I’m glad Gutierrez is getting some, but I’m also sad for him, and I want to know more about what’s going on. Really, it seems like Gutierrez has been suffering without Lenny, his spiritual rock—a spiritual slow burn that Javier Cámara holds tight in his sad, open face.
Esther, too, winds up giving in and going back to the boy she left in the last episode, after Fabiano calls her a “Sunday morning Christian” and the creepy priest begins openly molesting her. There isn’t a ton of material for Esther here, but her scenes all still feel like they’re from a horror movie—though there is a brief moment that suggests Esther might be enjoying the power she gets from this action, it still feels like a retroactive justification for why she is doing this, rather than something that grows out of who she is as a previously established character.
The lack of clarity around Esther’s plot feels increasingly important, considering the way the season might veer into straight-up political intrigue. In a meeting with the Italian finance minister (the one who is conspiring with Spalletta and Tomas), Brannox learns that the Italian government is considering repealing the eight per thousand rule—the law that funds religious institutions (mostly the Vatican) directly with taxes from the Italian people. This is, of course, the exact position the conspirators want the pope in. Brannox is forced to appoint Tomas director of the Vatican’s finances in order to appease Spalletta, who can then remove the threat using his own ties to the finance minister. It’s not especially poetic, but it gets the job done for the bunker boys. Brannox wants to be above the fray, but, as we confirm by the end of the episode, the fray has come to him.
- Brannox looking at Marilyn Manson’s painting and responding with the word “interesting” is one of the funniest moments of the season so far.
- According to the pope, “Jesus is civility.” I think we know who he’s voting for in the presidential election!
- Best Brannox quote of the episode: “You, Voiello, have the great gift of informing me of things that would not interest me even if I were you.”
- We see a flashback of Adam skiing down a mountain, with crosses replacing the traditional flags. For sure, that is definitely a normal thing to have.
- The Venus Of Willendorf is now in Voiello’s room, which rules.
- The Assente dance scene behind the closing credits is easily my favorite of these little moments, and one of my favorite parts of the whole season so far. If you’re curious, the song is “L’Orchestrina” by Paolo Conte.