The papacy is, generally speaking, seen as a leadership role. The pope gives guidance to the world’s Catholics, directing their moral and spiritual energies, and using their God-given wisdom to speak to the faithful—and to the rest of the Church. But in The Young Pope, and especially now in The New Pope, the papacy appears to be a rough equivalent to a Catholic’s bar mitzvah: a time for a young boy to puff up his chest, muddle his way through a made-up interpretation of the Bible, and claim to be a man.
During this episode, John Brannox moves from reticence to acceptance to, finally, excitement about being the pope, before he is officially elected. As he does this, we get a much better sense of who he is—a kid, trapped in a state of arrested development.
He delights in childish things, like eagerly showing Sofia one of his favorite movies (Easy Rider). He notes that Gutierrez has formed an opinion of him as a socialite, to which Gutierrez responds: “Socializing is important. Think of how many remarkable things happened for Jesus during the Last Supper. That was a social event.” (Absolutely incredible.) And he makes a big show of feeling put-upon as a social being who apparently has to give fashion advice to Meghan Markle, a joke that is almost funnier for being already out of date.
He makes a big, juvenile show of maybe not wanting to be pope, forcing the other cardinals to engage in a sort of drawn-out dance of persuasion. Even though Brannox has all but decided to accept, he still tells the assembled Vatican officials that he is not up to the task of being pope. Voiello, thankfully, is up to the challenge of getting Brannox to Rome—he masterfully manipulates the man into taking the papacy out of pride by claiming that they’ve found a different cardinal from a noble family (this one French). Sorrentino’s camera focuses on Voiello, the real person with power in this scene, as Brannox, unable to help himself, asks—purely out of curiosity, of course—who the new pope is going to be. Brannox’s voice cracks up while he asks, another rare moment of letting the mask slip.
And, most importantly, Brannox blows up at his parents before leaving them for Rome. During this scene, the hinge of the entire episode, John Malkovich finally gets the chance to let loose and remove the mask from Brannox’s chilly persona. It almost feels like a supervillain speech, particularly when Brannox snarls, “I will be pope.” It’s hard to blame him, given that his father literally says “God doesn’t like you.” Maybe Lenny got off easy.
The scene concludes with the camera behind Brannox, on the receiving end of the gaze of his ailing parents, their younger selves, and himself and Adam as teenaged priests. Later, as Brannox talks to his brother’s grave, Lenny makes his only appearance of the episode to declare: “God didn’t like me either.” It’s a tender moment, the two boys bonding over the shared burden of adulthood.
Brannox’s first speech as john Paul III is, accordingly, about not knowing, about not having authority. He stresses the importance and beauty of family, even though his own family is in tatters. He stresses tenderness, though he has never known it. The homily is the most abstract, meandering part of an episode that lives in an abstract, meandering space, slowly spinning out the subplots that have been building for the first third of the season. Like Brannox himself, it’s mesmerizing in the moment, but leaves more questions than answers by the end—does he really know what he’s talking about?
As John Paul III begins his papacy, ordinary people are lost in the shuffle. The nuns’ plea to get money for one of their number to visit her sick mother falls on the deaf ears of Voiello’s second-in-command. Faisal, the refugee boy living in a shed in the Vatican, manages to survive only because Voiello refuses to sound the alarm. And Esther, poor Esther, is saddled with easily the worst part of the season so far.
Esther is now without a husband (we learn that Peter has left her for some reason). The creepy priest she’s been staying with claims that landlords have rights, then tells her she needs to get out and find a new way to make a living—a new miracle. That “miracle” presents itself in the form of Fabiano, a caricature of a slick Italian guy and a pimp who, after seducing Esther, makes her an offer: having sex with a “deformed” young man to appease his wealthy mother. Basically everything about this sucks, from the classic horror framing of Esther reaching for the boy’s door (what kind of monster will emerge?) to the way Fabiano frames it as a proposition of Christian charity. The development highlights Sorrentino’s issues with disability and physical difference—and the result is not flattering.
If there’s an even slightly-redeeming element of this subplot, it’s the degree to which Esther seems to be detached from the events themselves. Her scenes are often shot through a window, and she turns to the camera to tell the audience that she’s been abandoned—even by Lenny. It raises a set of questions around why she is being led along a set path to a hoary sex work plot, questions that I hope, but do not expect, Sorrentino to explore further. It’s also of a piece with the episode’s other referential, self-consciously childish touches, including Brannox claiming that John Malkovich “doesn’t do much for me.” It’s funny the first time, depending on your feelings about Being John Malkovich.
The adult in the room is, it turns out, Voiello, who has emerged as a shockingly consistent voice of firm, yet pragmatic moral clarity. He allows Faisal to keep living in the Vatican. He asserts that Hernández cannot be pope, because of his past covering up sexual abuse. And though he is not informed of the plight of the nuns, it’s hard not to imagine him doing something to help them. Instead, the nuns are pissed—and they are, as the episode ends, giving each other ominous tattoos of a nun with a raised fist. John Paul III might be entering his spiritual adulthood, but he’s walking into a churchyard brawl.
- According to Adam, the millipede we’ve seen throughout the season so far is apparently God.
- Brannox’s favorite celebrities are Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Manson. Meeting celebrities: a good reason to want to be pope!
- In what will hopefully be the final conclave for a while, Brannox gets 115 of 116 votes, with a single cardinal voting for Lenny Belardo.