The opening titles of this episode give us the showdown we’d been expecting since the announcement that Jude Law would be in this season: They pit the two popes against each other. We cut back and forth between Brannox, walking in slow motion through the Vatican in a conscious echo of the first episode of The Young Pope, and Lenny, walking through his spiritual beach dreamscape as he returns to the world of the living. It’s a neat idea, especially since, as we realize, the sequence is edited to make it seem as if the two men are walking toward each other. Sparks are about to fly! Right?
Not so much. This final episode of The New Pope is great, and not just because it contains something like a third of the season’s plot. It bounces between tones, settings, and ideas, moving a confidence the rest of the season has seemed to lack. That is, ultimately, largely because of the chaos spark that is Pius XIII. When Lenny and Brannox finally meet, it’s not even a contest—Brannox attempts to extend his ring so that the emeritus pope might kiss it, but Lenny (clad in a classic priest’s outfit) ignores him entirely, and takes control of the room. It’s by design that this happens, since Brannox’s insecurities are such that he should shrink away from a living saint. But it still doesn’t quite make up for the energy imbalance: Lenny is the only one in the opening titles who winks at the camera. Brannox is a man, but Lenny is something more.
John Paul III does, admittedly, get a huge boost out of being the relatable, fallible, human pope. The opening titles are a fake-out: He’s heading to deliver an address, rather than confront Lenny. The photos Sofia leaked have earned him a huge following, including a group of punks who are seemingly devout Catholics now because the pope had piercings in the ’80s. In the speech, he speaks on behalf of people who have been marginalized, bullied, oppressed. He’s channeling his anger toward his parents, and it shows. This is the most fire Malkovich has shown since all the way back in episode three, and it’s truly welcome to see here. When Brannox tells the crowd “We shall no longer be forgotten,” he’s identifying himself with the millions listening to his speech, with the common mass of humanity. And his story concludes accordingly—rather than Lenny’s dramatic removal from the world, Brannox gets to live as a part of it.
The Young Pope was less a season of television than a fever dream, a bizarre exploration of the institution of the church, the personage of Lenny Belardo, and the nature of faith writ large. The New Pope is, for better and for worse, a season of television. Several plot threads are intentionally wrapped up in this episode. Faisal is released from jail, and reunited with Sister Caterina. Bauer gets sent to his next posting in Korea, and seems prepared to marry his paid companion-slash-girlfriend. None of this would have happened in The Young Pope, simply because it did not care about closure. The season even has a happy ending for The New Pope, in the form of a laicized John Brannox actually earning the affection of his parents—and winding up with a newly single Sofia Dubois, who has sent her ex-husband, Spalletta, and Guicciardini, the Italian finance minister, to prison.
When Sofia tells Voiello that she plans to resign from the Vatican, he responds with a sense of grim acceptance: “Sooner or later you all fall in love.” It’s a sentiment that helps ground Voiello, since he does his best to avoid attachments that could prevent him from doing his job. But—and I say this as one of the world’s biggest Voiello fans—it highlights one of the biggest holes in The New Pope. There’s no indication here that Voiello is still suffering the sting of heartbreak from his failed romance with Sister Mary, or even thinking about it when he discusses love with Sofia. I don’t think The New Pope needed to explicitly reference her, but I don’t think Silvio Orlando is communicating that as part of what’s motivating Voiello here, a rare thin moment in his characterization of the master manipulator.
Still, this episode is, overall, a fantastic showcase for Voiello—and for all that I’m mixed on certain parts of this episode, I’m thinking about those faults precisely because the rest of it is so good. Putting aside the ending, in which Voiello finally does accomplishment his dream and become the real new pope (with a fantastic assist from the ever-creepy Don Cavallo), there’s also Voiello’s return to being classic comic relief. Confronted with a crisis, Lenny’s first instinct is to foment revolution, dangling the prospect of an outright holy war motivated by his resurrection. And Voiello is the one who takes the brunt of that plan, in many ways: “Take notes, Voiello,” Lenny says, discussing the speech John Paul III will have to give in response. “I have to dictate what he will say.”
In fact, it feels like The New Pope worked backward from this ending, in which the church has to come together to deal with the crisis: a hostage situation, in which the caliphate seemingly takes several children, along with the priest serving as their teacher, hostage on the small Italian island of Ventotene—a situation we learn about in a lengthy shot of Voiello delivering exposition to Girolamo’s grave. The hostage situation completely diverts any potential crucifix-measuring conflict the two popes might have had, instead subsuming it into a pressure cooker situation.
This apparent conflict—between the Islamic fundamentalists and the supposed Catholic moderate, between Lenny and Brannox, between prayer and action—becomes a synecdoche for the broader themes that have animated the rest of the season. If I had to distill those themes down, I’d say they congeal into a lesson roughly along these lines: fundamentalism emerges from doubt and insecurity, motivating both the caliphate and, more importantly, the Lenny cult. Being able to live in that doubt and mystery, and continue to live anyway, is a virtue. Certainly, it’s what Lenny preaches during his final speech to the faithful, in which he raises, then promptly dismisses, the questions surrounding his own existence. He asks the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, and us the viewers, to let the mystery be. That mystery is the object of worship for the church, and, in a sense, for us.
I suppose The New Pope has to embrace this type of ambiguity in some ways. But isn’t it more fun when the characters have to respond to certainty? After chastising Lenny effectively (because the kidnappers have murdered the priest), Brannox essentially bails on Rome, leaving Lenny to become the one and only pope again. Eventually, Lenny takes the one, decisive action of his second papacy: He shows up on the island, and his presence gets the terrorists to stand down and reveal themselves as the Lenny cult, pretending to be Islamic terrorists in order to draw Lenny out of hiding. I have mixed feelings about this development—I’m delighted that the season did not boil down to “scary Muslim terrorists,” which would have been quite rough, and it’s genuinely interesting to see The New Pope pull off a sort of twist. And though it would have been nice to have some payoff to Esther’s spiritual emptiness, there’s something honest and tragic in her not getting that closure. The forever-unnamed leader of the cult compares Lenny’s body to a “body of Christ,” something she’s constantly looking for but can never quite get, an intangible challenge to faith that mirrors Esther’s season-long dark night of the soul. Is their glimpse of Lenny enough? Where do they go from here? We’ll likely never find out.
Sorrentino isn’t obligated to give answers to any of the questions he’s raised, but he is great at providing them. Compare the entire Ventotene scene to the finale’s highlight, an absolutely masterful sequence in which Lenny brings the cardinals to heel. It’s not where he ends up by the conclusion of the episode, and it’s a bit odd to see Pius XIII go through his entire Young Pope arc in half an hour or so, but it’s still a joy to watch carried in on his palanquin as he was in the fifth (and best) episode of The Young Pope. In this speech, Lenny uses his full saintliness, asserting that the fact his return demands fealty from the other cardinals. What would you do if you were in their position? We’re simply watching Lenny crush everyone, up to and including the current pontiff—and it scratched an itch I’d forgotten I had.
This finale gives at least some answers. Lenny confirms he was present when Brannox stood at Adam’s grave, which seems to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, again, that Lenny’s spiritual appearances were not simply metaphorical. “Did you think you were alone?” (On the other hand, his initial response to the kidnapping is to assume it was the caliphate, and to double down on this belief once an emissary of the caliph tells Voiello in person that they were not responsible.) He appears to confirm, in his final speech, the basic decency of the Middle Way, which Brannox has succeeding in preaching to the church even if it was never his doctrine to begin with. Having done that, he can, as he puts it, “return to [him]self,” and give in to his desire to make a life with Sofia. All is calm in the world.
One thing, however, isn’t a mystery: Eventually, Lenny goes back into the ocean, returning to the sea from which he came. In a startling sequence, he fulfills the promise he made back in Venice and embraces everyone in the crowd, showing a level of basic human connection that might have been unthinkable even a few minutes earlier in the episode. And, looking up into the stars at God’s house (one of many, many more callbacks to the first episodes of The Young Pope), everything goes quiet. Lenny dies for real. It’s an evocative, calm, poignant depiction of having fulfilled his purpose, and a surprising level of closure to his story. I’m glad we got that, even if I didn’t expect it. And really, after all this time, I’m glad the church got the pope it really deserved all along: Voiello, who we leave fighting with Esther’s son Pius. Are all Pius’ a pain in the ass in this world? Maybe, but we love them all the same
- Brannox tells Gutierrez: “When I want, Gutierrez, I know how to take the stage.” I wonder what he was waiting for?
- “A good idea is one that minimizes damages and maximizes profits. Outside of here they call it capitalism.” Gutierrez, no! Or maybe, yes? (Capitalism is bad.)
- Lenny says that the heart is “an organ that beats,” which is an incredible jumping-off point for a dance album.
- “I don’t understand. Who is the pope now?” I’m so glad Aguirre got one more chance to make me laugh.
- Thanks for hanging out! I think this season is pretty clearly a touch less magical than The Young Pope, but it’s still so, so much better than almost anything else on TV, and it’s miraculous that it exists at all. See you all when we return in 2023 for The Fresh Pope.