John Paul III is a bad pope.
We’ve been dancing around this conclusion for a while, as The New Pope makes it increasingly clear that John Brannox doesn’t really know what he’s doing. By the end of this episode, John Paul III has allowed himself to be fully manipulated by the grotesque conspirators, gotten rid of the most competent person in the Vatican, and, uh, embarrassed himself on live television. The rest of his crew isn’t doing so hot either—Sofia’s perception of her husband has totally shattered, Spalletta has been partly exposed, and Voiello is in exile with Don Mimmo and Girolamo.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time this season talking about the failings of John Paul III, so let’s talk about why he’s a bad pope. Part of the answer is that he’s intensely focused on reputation and perception, issues that he ultimately has less control over than the actual policies and dictates of the Vatican. Though he claims that reputation is a “petit bourgeoise” concern, Brannox confronts Spalletta about the cardinal’s interest in younger women specifically because it will make him (Brannox) look bad. In his big televised interview, Brannox claims that he is interested in “evil,” though he says little about how he plans to combat it—and throughout the season, it’s seemed like he only really took an interest in handling the abuse in the church because it felt like something he was supposed to care about.
More to the point—rather than planning or rehearsing or figuring out how to announce his interest in priestly marriage (remember that?), Brannox asks Danny if he thinks that his (Brannox’s) parents will be watching the interview. His mind is constantly elsewhere, trapped in his childhood stasis instead of being directed outward toward the faithful—or inward, toward God. And in this episode, we learn the cause of that stasis, or at least one of its symptoms: opiates. Brannox tells Danny not to give him his box—and, midway through the interview, he starts to slump over, in the beginning stages of withdrawal.
It’s unfortunate for Brannox that Spalletta, of all people, is the only one who actually knows what’s going on. Spalletta is a sort of half-assed manipulator here, capable of putting himself in a position of rare authority and power but totally unable to perceive the potential complications of his actions. Yes, he has the pope on the ropes, but he has also created a situation in which the entire papacy might come crumbling down around him—taking him and his allies along for the ride. Voiello would never.
Admittedly, Voiello’s plotting also backfires in this episode. He first attempts to alert the pope to the machinations of Spalletta, Tomas, and the Italian finance minister—caught with an underage girl by Sofia. This should, in theory, give him the leverage he needs to get back in the pope’s good graces. But instead, paranoid and in thrall to Spalletta, the pope asks for Voiello’s resignation. This scene feels archetypal, floating above the rest of the scheming in the Vatican: Voiello in all black, Brannox in all white, a primal conflict between steel and porcelain. It’s almost tragic, especially as Voiello deflates throughout the conversation. (He adores giving orders.)
If we had any doubt about what sort of man Voiello is, the episode spends some time showing us what he does when he has nothing left to lose: he helps people, like a sour Mary Poppins. Voiello ambushes the nuns, using the intelligence he gathered on them to help solve their problems—several reassignments, a fake orphanage for the baby, an oncologist appointment for the abbess, and so on. He also gets to take after Lenny, assigning Hernández to Kabul—where there are no priests committing sexual abuse. This is just a delightful double acting scene by Silvio Orlando, who manages to play funny, sad, righteous, and put-upon, all in the span of a minute or so. He is easily the MVP of the season so far, and I cannot express enough how much I want him to get more work after this.
Voiello also tries his best to be a decent person in his workplace interactions with Sofia, who is undergoing a sort of crisis of faith. At the beginning of the episode, Sofia receives a visit from an enigmatic, incredibly creepy priest with an eyepatch and pet cockroaches living in his sleeves. As bizarre as this man is, he gives her good advice: Sofia follows Tomas, eventually finding the entrance to the secret cocaine bunker, a thing that exists on this show. Voiello has a hard time expressing sympathy since Tomas is a layperson, but the collegial relationship he has with Sofia makes his exit from the Vatican all the sadder.
Over in the Esther plot, things are also... bad. At first, it seems like Esther is in fact in the best position of any of the main characters, negotiating a ridiculously lucrative deal to service a group of other men who have similar disabilities to Attanasio. This leads to a distinctly Lynchian scene of Esther dancing for the assemblage of young men, taking their gaze (and the camera’s, and ours) and sending it through a kaleidoscope of weirdness. On one hand, Sorrentino does depict the men with less of a horror vibe than he has in the past few episodes. On the other hand, that’s a low, low bar—and it only really happens because Lenny’s ghost shows up. Eventually, Attanasio’s mother cuts Esther loose—she’s getting too old to please her son and his friends, and they can find African girls for cheap. (Also, Attanasio’s mother strongly implies that she has an incestuous relationship with her son.)
Esther responds the way any normal person would... by strangling her. It’s a moment of pure brutality, which is shockingly rare for this show. Sorrentino just sort of lets it happen—there’s no drawn-out shots, no room in the editing to let us luxuriate in the scene, just a woman’s life being wrung from her neck. Esther, it seems, is now at the lowest point of any of the characters—though she has, perhaps, found salvation in the Lenny cult, finally arriving in Venice as she probably should have done at the beginning of the season. And the rest of the world is about to receive Lenny’s grace as well: Not only are his breaths counting down steadily toward zero, he appears in his spectral form to, it seems, resurrect Attanasio’s mother, responding to Esther’s last minute prayer and freeing her from sin. If that’s what he can do with a flick of his finger, what’s going to happen when he wakes up?
- The opening credits this week confirm that the nuns’ Sofi Tukker dance is in fact diegetic, which rules.
- Voiello wants Sister Caterina to name her baby Angelo, even if it’s a girl. Voiello is the best.
- I didn’t have time to get into this here, but I’m interested in exploring the nature of class as part of why Brannox is such a bad pope—he has no concept of financial crimes, or any of the institutional realities the Vatican faces. It makes for an especially interesting contrast with the orphaned Lenny Belardo. (Even though both of them grew up in idyllic mansions.) Thanks to Sarah Jones for bringing this up—you can hear us talk about it on this week’s Papal Bull if that sounds appealing to you!