“Is this pope claiming divine status?” The question—asked by a journalist—hangs over most of the third episode of The Young Pope, as several characters contemplate whether or not the Holy Spirit intervened in the conclave, struggle to come to terms with his new direction for the church, and make direct comparisons between the pope and Jesus. (Lenny thinks he’s more handsome, which, if you know anything about hygiene from the time period, seems like a good guess.) Certainly at the beginning of the episode, Lenny seems to think he’s primarily serving as a conduit for God, telling Tomasso he simply wanted to be “useful,” which is maybe one way of explaining why “I was praying so hard I nearly shit my pants.”
Interestingly enough, Lenny’s meditation is specifically targeted at Dussolier and Spencer, two Americans who he has personal relationships with, rather than Voiello or any other eligible candidates for the papacy. Ultimately, the speech devolves into a riff on how much faith Lenny places in his own judgment, rather than God’s. (He loves himself.) Indeed, he acknowledges that the cardinals have made a serious error: “They chose a pope they didn’t know, and today, they begin to understand,” he spits out, all as the camera moves inexorably toward Law’s face, hovering over his eyes before drifting down to his mouth as he says, “Lenny, you have illumined yourself. Fuck!” The mouth moves, slightly, as if it’s about to say something, not quite curling into a smile. Instead, we cut to the opening title sequence.
Set to a loud instrumental cover of “All Along The Watchtower” (is this The Young Pope, or Battlestar Galactica?) that, in a blessedly absent version, featured Ed Sheeran on vocals. (In a major difference from the European version of the show—the one I’ve embedded, since it’s what’s on YouTube—all of the paintings move, rather than just the last two.) And he winks at the camera. If, somehow, you didn’t know what kind of show you were watching before, you sure as hell know now.
Much of this episode revolves the question of how, exactly, Lenny became the young pope, as first Spencer, then the pope himself ask Voiello about the details of the conclave. Voiello tells Lenny that he was chosen as a prudent compromise between his progressive positions and Spencer’s conservative ones (the line taken by the cardinals in the first episode), but seems to admit to Spencer—and, later, to the pope—that he had nothing to do with the eventual choice. Voiello, it seems, let people think he was the puppet master in the interesting of preserving the appearance of his power, but instead was simply overwhelmed by cardinals voting for Belardo. If that’s really the case, then how did Lenny become pope? There are three possibilities: Voiello is lying, someone else managed to whip the votes for Lenny, or, it was as Voiello, puts it, “the breath of the Holy Spirit.” (I don’t know about you, but I think the show is a lot more fun if you assume it was this last option.)
Lenny asks Voiello about the conclave in a conversation seemingly designed to provoke the cardinal into an outburst, which could then be held over his head. (In fact, the pope asks Valente to look up the proceedings for deposing a cardinal.) Their conflict is heating up, which is why it’s such a good decision that most of the episode focuses on establishing Voiello’s character.
Over the course of the episode, we see Voiello do some less than savory things—he almost yells at a child for trying to race toy cars on his expensive carpet, he has one of his attendants start following the pope, and he blackmails sweet Gutierrez into telling him about the pope’s old girlfriend. (Also, an adorable dog sits in his very nice chair as he watches Diego Maradona play soccer on YouTube.) He lays out several copies of He, a biography of him, on a coffee table during a meeting with the other cardinals. But he also seems increasingly scared of Lenny, and his willingness to work with Spencer to fight the new direction of the church is genuine. Silvio Orlando is phenomenal in this episode, effortlessly internalizing all of the humiliation Voiello has endured and letting it squeak out in the smallest ways. It turns out, too, that Voiello is probably the most self-aware person in the Vatican. Asked if he’d ever considered becoming pope by Sister Mary (who he now seems to developed a begrudging, affectionate respect for), he shakes his head: “A pope needs to inspire trust. I inspire the opposite.”
Sister Mary, in turn, is put in the uncomfortable position of hosting a post-homily press conference, where she reads off Lenny’s dictated intransigence in a way designed to simply produce more confusion. Though she remains supportive of the pope, telling Voiello to give him time in Diane Keaton’s best acting moment of the show so far, she immediately tells Spencer that she’s worried. (The editing here is one of the funniest moments of the episode—when was the last time an HBO drama did such an obvious sitcom cutaway gag?) Lenny needs vision, and his teacher is the person to provide it.
But Spencer is in no mood. Their conversation is brusque, with James Cromwell delighting in the dual role of curmudgeonly drunk and spiritual genius. Though Lenny claims everything that has happened is part of his plan to make people suffer and pass through divine mystery in order to come to God, Spencer accurately diagnoses the plan as the product of his own troubled childhood—which can’t be the basis for an entire religious institution. As the cardinal puts it in one of the more infamous lines from the trailer, “you’ll be a terrible pope, the worst.” So when Voiello and Cardinal Caltanissetta (Toni Bertorelli) show up at his house, he gives in and agrees to try to shape Lenny’s papacy—only to be soundly rejected by his former student.
Other than dunking on cardinals and remaining aloof, what else is Lenny up to? He continues to be a bit of a contradiction, confessing on the ground in his room, cigarette in hand, apologizing for everything he told Tomasso—who he seems to partly be conning as part of his bigger plan. Notably: He asks for himself to be harmed, rather than for Spencer and Dussolier to be healed as part of a meditation that includes a seemingly genuine confession of an “awful, crawling feeling” that nothing ever really seems to change. Is Lenny primarily interested in shaking up the status quo for its own sake?
Certainly, that’s what it seems like from his best moments the episode. There’s his unbelievably rude dismissal of Ozolins (who gets sent to Alaska, continuing Lenny’s punishment tradition), which doesn’t seem to arise out of any specific animus beyond his dislike for most of the cardinals. And when he meets Esther, curious about the woman watching him from St. Peter’s Square, he doubles down: Even though Esther likes and is drawn to Lenny’s message, it’s not enough. She still needs to change. As their relationship blossoms—and Voiello learns about the pope’s fling—the papal blackmail plan seems clear. Still, as Gutierrez tells the Holy Father, he has the benefit of his position of authority: “Voiello is a politician. You are the pope.”
- Spencer: “The young are always more extreme than the old.”
- Title watch: Voiello says, “We have a young pope.”
- Sofia makes a terrible joke about getting an interview with God (“It would be quite the scoop”), which is amazingly bad and makes the pope laugh, partly at the joke and partly at Voiello’s expense.
- Esther, it turns out, had an affair with Valente.
- Voiello and Caltanissetta’s visit to Spencer is probably the most sympathetic the show has been to the church so far. The borderline ludicrous symbolism of the aging cardinal lifting the “weight of God” verges on corniness, but it’s useful as a way of convincing Spencer to continue sacrificing himself for God—the most charitable reading of what everyone is at the Vatican to do.
- This episode is a bit less visually aggressive than the first two, but we still get some pretty excellent zooms (including one onto a group of nuns toward the end of the episode), the disorienting camera movements during Lenny’s dream, and some phenomenally composed shots, including the one in the main image for the episode.