By this point in his papacy, Pius XIII is almost immune to criticism—or, at least, immune to being dunked on in meetings. Over the course of the finale, he manages to extricate himself from a meeting with the Patriarch Of Moscow (who, notably, stares at the Venys Of Willendorf), in a totally dialogue-free scene building to the Red Army Choir’s rendition of “Kalinka.” It’s absurd, intense, and elusive, everything we’ve come to expect from The Young Pope. Later in the episode, he has a dream or a vision of the assembled past popes, and is (correctly) rude even to them. But in this, the first season finale, The Young Pope has met his match: children.
Somehow, even after the baptism debacle, Lenny can still be induced to do annoying things he doesn’t want to do if Sofia is involved. In this case, he’s agreed to give a tour of the Vatican to a group of children (is this a thing popes usually do?), who are very nervous to meet him since he’s, uh, the pope. When a storm begins, Lenny tells the children that raindrops are the tears of Christ, which means the children have made God angry—leading them to sob and be promptly swept out of the room by Sofia. Here is the end conclusion of The Young Pope: the pope making a bunch of children cry and then yelling at them to have a sense of humor.
Later, he tells one of the children to “settle for what you get,” then admits his own well-documented disdain for settling. Though he tells Gutierrez that “the child pope has become a man,” that change has happened precisely through a conscious embrace of his own childish qualities. Lenny will never settle for anything, because he’s deeply insistent, and wants what he wants. But where he wanted to induce fear and formal respect in the early episodes, what does he want now? Surprisingly, something a bit closer to warmth. In particular, there’s Lenny’s conversation with the seemingly hapless Aguirre, who has been in the background for most of the season. The round-faced cardinal offers a seeming platitude about being there to make people happy, but if there’s one thing Lenny has disdained during his papacy, it’s happiness—and he comes to embrace it more here.
Notably, the pope’s admitted childishness and naiveté is what has gotten him out of all of the jams he’s been in. At the beginning of the episode, he listens to a radio broadcast documenting the world’s apparently rapt response to his love letters—people have been moved, to the point where the global media is now focusing on love instead of evil. (Which, sure, okay, whatever.) This is episode is both thematically and literally a Young Pope Christmas special. (Literally, it’s Christmas.)
All of this is, admittedly, at odds with a certain part of Lenny’s general demeanor. When he meets with Sofia to discuss the Italian prime minister, who has backed off from his planned reforms, the pope says “You have no idea how many objectives can be attained by humiliating one’s fellow man,” indicating some degree of commitment to his old ways. He even reacts negatively in his conversation with Aguirre, though it’s clear that the gears in his mind are turning, trying to find a new way to approach his office. Or—is humiliation a childish tactic? Children can be cruel, too.
But children also learn, and in one respect, the story of The Young Pope is the story of Pius XIII making a real friend: Bernardo Gutierrez. The newly confident, assertive cardinal bluntly tells the pope that he’s gay—and the victim of child abuse. To continue his crusade against gay people in the clergy is, Gutierrez says, an “unacceptable generalization.” Indeed, though Lenny acts petulant about changing his mind, it does seem like he relies on Gutierrez’s judgment and is willing to soften on some of his more reactionary stances. Gutierrez’s argument is also even more obvious given the state of Kurtwell, who is a bit more of a pathetic figure than a villainous one here. In his “trial,” he tells the same story about his old super as a way of justifying his behavior—the kind of sappy origin story I was really hoping we weren’t going to get. Still, the pope comes down on the side of justice (mostly), and sends him off to Alaska, concluding: “Your disease has deceived you.”
Perhaps most importantly for Lenny’s childish side, he’s fully embraced his own imagination. Or, as he puts it to Marivaux, “Goodness, unless combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.” That’s a good way of describing Sorrentino’s own approach to the show, which has always taken opportunities for visual and dramatic flair when a more straightforward framing might have sufficed. During this conversation, Marivaux lays out all of Lenny’s miracles—incidentally pointing out that in each miracle, there was a much simpler, prosaic, adult solution to the problem, which could easily have characterized a non-Sorrentino version of the show. Esther could have gone to the doctor, or Lenny could simply have shut down Sister Antonia’s charity villages. “These are the things saints do,” Marivaux says, though they’re also insane things. This, Sorrentino suggests, seems to be kind of the point.
Lenny says several goodbyes throughout this episode, including one literal goodbye when he sends Sister Mary off to Africa. In their last scene together, he’s wearing a simple priest’s outfit—suggesting he’s become a man both as an adult, and as a pope. (This is easily the hottest Jude Law has been on the whole show.) Their human relationship has been one of the foundational elements of the show, and it’s very sweet to see Sister Mary ask if she can call the pope Lenny, which he allows as long as he can finally call her “Ma”—and all this, even as Lenny accepts his own sainthood.
“It’s difficult for a saint to answer all the questions of humanity.” This is one of several moments in the finale more or less explicitly telling viewers not to ask stupid plot questions—including a scene where Voiello talks to Girolamo about Tonino Pettola, and says: “There are certain secrets so important that only one person should know them.” Rather than trying to answer any of the various questions The Young Pope has raised, this episode races ahead to Lenny’s attempt to find his parents in Venice.
Voiello points out what should have been obvious halfway through the season—the pope’s hippie parents abandoned him, and may have chosen not to claim him precisely because of his withdrawn, reactionary ideas. So Lenny goes to Venice rather than Guatemala (where he was going to visit a group of the children healed by the Blessed Juana), because even when he’s nominally at peace, Lenny can’t resist the allure of his missing parents.
The final sequence in Venice is rife with tension—it’s been a while since we really saw the pope give a speech (he isn’t really present during the Africa address), and the scene is charged with all of the built-up mystery from the entirety of his papacy. The pope, having internalized the lessons of the Blessed Juana, works through mystery and contradiction in several pairs of opposites, then concludes by saying that God “smiles.” The crowd understands, and roars. Lenny is, finally, accepted.
Except that he does see his parents, and they abandon him again. (Other people in the crowd seem to watch them leave, which suggests to me that they’re really there—but, as with every other case of “is it real” on this show, it doesn’t matter.) And after a “passing discomfort” during Sister Mary’s departure from the Vatican, the pope seems to have a heart attack of some kind.
“One day I will die, and I will finally be able to embrace you all one by one,” he says. Here, finally, is Lenny’s most genuine expression of faith. Like his other prayers, this one seems to work—Lenny collapses, and his eyes roll back in his head as Gutierrez calls for a doctor. We see a brief shot of a cloud that looks suspiciously like the image ofthe Virgin Mary, then the camera zooms out and out and out, from the square to Venice to Italy to the entire world. Finally, the Earth itself becomes small behind the words “The Young Pope,” followed by “The End.”
What does this mean? Is Lenny dead? The conclusion seems to imply that, contrary to several reports, there wasn’t supposed to be a second season of the show. (If there is one, I want to strongly suggest that it begin with Lenny rising from the dead after three days, because he’s already a saint—why not add full-on resurrection to the mix?) I don’t have a ton of good answers here, honestly, precisely because like most of The Young Pope, it holds its cards close to the chest as an image. There are a ton of different interpretations that I hope to be able to discuss in the coming months (did Lenny die because he revealed himself to the public? had he completed his divine mission in some capacity? had he cut himself off from the source of his emotional strength?). Like the rest of this show, it‘s a complicated, spectacular, surreal ending that strongly resists any easy attempt at pinning it down—and it’s breathtaking.
- I don’t have a lot to say about the sight of Lenny working out in perfect rhythm to Belle And Sebastian’s “Ever Had A Little Faith?” but I am very glad the scene exists.
- I also love how obviously bored Lenny is by creating Tommaso as a cardinal.
- We get a brief sendoff for Ozolins, who returns to complain about his fingers, which have been totally blasted with frostbite. Lenny actually tries to be sympathetic, but clearly doesn’t really understand how.
- We also get an odd last moment with Caltanissetta, who appears, hair slicked-back, wearing sunglasses, shouting “You will say it!” repeatedly. Lenny has, apparently, discovered his second youth.
- Silvio Orlando should be nominated for an Emmy, if only for Voiello’s expression when he watches Sister Mary fly away.
- Someone who knows a bit more about the specific references than me should chime in, but my guess is that the old pope who talks to Lenny in his dream/vision is Peter. (Who else could it be?) To his credit, Lenny responds to being told to just believe in himself rather directly: “Have you got something… a little better? That’s a banal platitude.”
- One big loose end: the prostitute from episode five, who realizes the man in a track she saw nervously sitting in a hotel was, in fact, the pope.
- And that’s it for season one of The Young Pope! This is a wild piece of work, and will almost certainly be one of my favorite TV shows of the year. Maybe I’ll see you in 2019 when (if?) we get season two.