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The Young Pope goes full prestige drama in a stilted episode

Illustration for article titled The Young Pope goes full prestige drama in a stilted episode
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One of the best things about The Young Pope (maybe my favorite thing) is how unlike any other TV drama it is. Any genre that exists for long enough will accumulate a degree of thematic detritus and convention, which has certainly happened in prestige drama. But The Young Pope is much more focused on images—just from this episode, there’s the image of Lenny sniffing the actors pretending to be his parents, the image of Dussolier’s body unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road, and the image of Voiello in full Naples garb, moping during a loss. But this episode also features The Young Pope at its most staid, trying to be something it’s not: episodic.

In particular, Lenny’s “arc” during this episode, in which he finds a mysterious package containing the other half of his father’s pipe, then meets actors hired to play his parents, goes full-on paranoid, and finally thanks Sister Mary for engaging in the ruse, feels like the kind of thing someone would write as episodic filler for a show on FX or ’00s HBO. This is precisely the sort of plot that would happen on the American version of The Young Pope, introducing an element of plot-based mystery and levels of “reality” that the show usually doesn’t really care about. Thankfully, it ends with everyone coming clean about the ruse (and with Voiello recommitting to Lenny, in a sense, by refusing to have him sign his own resignation), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of somewhat leaden material. (In particular, I’m thinking of Sister Mary’s line, “You’ve got to cut it out with the fear, Your Holiness,” which is neither purple in the way of the show’s best earnest moments nor absurd like its best comedic moments.)

On the other hand, Sister Mary and Voiello conspiring to use the pope’s weakness to get him to sign a simplified procedure for ordaining priests as a partial response to the death of Angelo Sanchez is fun, if only because it gives us increasing confirmation that Sister Mary and Voiello are meant to be together. (This is my only Young Pope ship, and I believe in it strongly.) Meeting to discuss their machinations, the secretary of state puts his hand on Sister Mary’s, to which she responds not with “no,” but instead, “someone might see us.” (The appearance of impropriety is always more important than the real thing here.) It’s very sweet, and it leads into a moment where Sister Mary admits her sin to God (and us) in a mirror of the pope’s confession in episode two about his deception of Tommaso.

Still, it’s strange that Sister Mary got such terrible actors. The vibe of the fake parents is all wrong—the actors look like successful businesspeople, rather than hippies, and they supposedly had to clear immigration even though, to the best of the pope’s knowledge, they live in Venice. He questions his fake dad about some of their plot holes—how did they know he lost a piece of the pipe?—how did anyone even track them down when the original package had no identifying information? Then he leans in and smells his fake mom, who is understandably terrified, until he confirms that they’re not his real parents. Lenny is like an animal, which is one of the best ways for him to be. But besides ejecting the actors from the Vatican, he’s mostly passive in this episode. Even when Sister Mary convinces him not to resign (she apparently genuinely believes he is “the sweet Christ come back to Earth”), it’s more of a brief moment of psychic relief, without anger or any real resolution.

Everyone else has been sucked into Lenny’s sinkhole of misery, too. Caltanissetta briefly demands that he be made the new pope after Lenny’s theoretical resignation, then moves to endorse Spencer. In turn, Spencer practices his first speech to the faithful in St. Peter’s—one of James Cromwell’s strongest acting moments on the show, as we see what a powerful presence Spencer can be when he’s not depressed. Esther and Peter have apparently grown bored of hanging out with the pope. (They just want to watch X Factor!) And Tommaso spends most of the episode running around in his sandals like some kind of rodent, caging himself in to tell Sister Mary about the pope’s crisis of faith and later attempting to deliver a big speech to the pope himself before scurrying off. No one is doing particularly well.

Of course, the person who ends this episode worst off is Dussolier, who really has a rough go of it. First, he goes to the party he was invited to last episode, where everyone is wandering around getting drunk and taking selfies. Through an uncomfortable conversation about cocktails and an aborted seduction attempt, Dussolier mostly just laughs and looks pained over his failure as Prefect For The Congregation Of The Clergy. Eventually, he just floats around in the pool. This scene is funny, but it’s also interesting in that it’s the closest the show has come to the kind of settings that characterized, say, The Great Beauty. (The secular world barely even exists for The Young Pope, which is the way it should be.) And then Ludovico, the son of the hosts, tries to rape him. Even though I have a hard time believing Sorrentino is familiar with the tropes of most prestige dramas, an uncomfortable attempted rape plopped into the middle of the episode for seemingly no reason can’t help but bring to mind, uh, other HBO shows.


Somehow, Dussolier gets over this, and decides to go home to Honduras, defeated. But it’s not so great for him there either—his paramour from the last episode is the wife of a drug trafficker, who kills him. Oops! This is a fine development as far as it goes (Lenny will respond well, I’m sure) but it’s also an abrupt death for a character the audience had some attachment to, but who wasn’t central enough to really change the nature of the show. (Consider: Dussolier only really became such an important character in episode five.) This is a pretty classic move for any show that enjoys killing characters, which seems like something The Young Pope should not really be into doing. Anyway, it’s possible all of these things are coincidental, but they still leave a bad taste in my mouth. Was anyone watching The Young Pope wondering which character Sorrentino was going to kill off? (No.) Also, Scott Shepherd did pretty good work on this show, and it would’ve been nice to have him come back. (Maybe Lenny will bring him back from the dead at some point.)

Thankfully, the end of the episode is much more surreal than its middle. Lenny sees a vision of a crying girl in the middle of the Vatican, with no explanation. Who is she? Are we supposed to know? Does anyone have any answers? Hopefully not—that’s the only way for the show to get back on track.


Stray observations:

  • The baby pyramid makes a reappearance, this time in a shaky, middle distance shot that embodies the sheer scope of Sorrentino’s vision, and is one of the best parts of the episode. This time, Lenny’s mother emerges from the pyramid, meeting his father in the middle of the square as they walk toward the beaming pope.
  • When Lenny asks Voiello to tell him the truth about Angelo Sanchez’s death, and the secretary of state responds bluntly: “You killed him.”
  • Best Lenny line of the episode: “A priest never grows up because he can never become a father.”
  • Tomorrow: The pope leaves Rome!