It took a while, but the protagonist of The New Pope has finally become clear. It’s not Lenny Belardo, even though he’s a magical saint who can do miracles. It’s not John Brannox, even though he’s the titular new pope, and struggles the most with his own failings over the course of the season. It’s not Sofia Dubois, although she’s made a substantial change in her life by splitting with her husband. No, the protagonist of The New Pope is Angelo Voiello.
When Voiello was introduced in The Young Pope, he was an enemy—the avatar of the system trying to keep Lenny from enacting his vast agenda of change. He had supported Lenny’s election as Pius XIII, thinking the photogenic young American would be a puppet. But we were seeing the Vatican through Lenny’s eyes, and anyone who opposed him came off as foolish. This penultimate episode of The New Pope completes Cardinal Voiello’s face turn, making the case for him as a rare liberal reformist with his heart in the right place. As he tells Brannox toward the end of the episode, “You are the pope, and no one blackmails the pope. No one touches the pope. No one questions the pope.” And that, friends, is why Voiello was the longest-serving secretary of state in the history of the Church.
Silvio Orlando is absolutely masterful here, from his opening scene with Bauer—a low point for Voiello, who somehow did not know about Brannox’s drug addiction—to the scene when Brannox eventually visits Voiello to ask him to return as secretary of state, to his all-too-brief scene with Lenny, and, of course, the culminating moment of the season, when Voiello eulogizes Girolamo. Throughout, Voiello completes the integration of the two halves of his personality: the ruthless, omniscient operator and the melancholy, sentimental sad sack. But we’ll get back to that.
For both Pius XIII and John Paul III, this episode is about setting up a confrontation, one that feels inevitable even though it’s the penultimate episode of the season and it still hasn’t happened. Lenny has returned to the Vatican, getting a warm reception (and plenty of Cherry Coke Zero) from his old compatriots. In a few of the episode’s (many) highlights, he reconnects with his old friends Cardinals Gutierrez and Voiello. In a different show, there would have been real obstacles to these meetings—after all, Assente, the current secretary of state, forbids Gutierrez from meeting with Lenny—but in The New Pope, the prospect of that procedural storyline is just flat-out ignored. It’s more interesting to watch these people interact, and it’s too much fun to not let Assente be the butt of the joke.
In Lenny’s scene with Gutierrez, both Jude Law and Javier Cámara bring a degree of tenderness that has been absent from much of the season—Gutierrez’s faith has been validated, while Lenny’s has never been more delicate. Mostly, they lay out the stakes—millions of believing Catholics who have invested in Lenny, including the children whose letters fill an entire room. (This, of course, foreshadows Assente’s eventual ouster when the nuns record him talking about how much he hates orphans.) And in his scene with Voiello, the two act, more or less, as equals, former rivals who respect each other. They scheme together, rather than in opposition, trying to figure out how to defuse the fundamentalism that threatens to take over the world. They banter about Voiello’s book sales. And, of course, Voiello can’t resist asking the resurrected pope about Napoli’s future performance.
Meanwhile, Brannox has fled from the Vatican, winding up in hiding at a ski chalet owned by the Church. It’s the perfect setting for his seemingly final meeting with Sofia, and for us to actually learn what happened with Adam: John was too strung out on heroin to seek medical attention, inadvertently causing his brother’s death. It’s not quite outright murder, but it’s still pretty bad. Even this revelation is subsumed to the eventual emotional arc Brannox goes through in the episode, in which he comes right up to the edge of admitting his romantic feelings for Sofia, then sends her away after letting her breath on his neck. It’s some of the better acting John Malkovich has done thus far, letting the season follow its obsession with earthly pleasures to its natural conclusion: will the pope choose his attraction to Sofia, or will he recommit to the job of being the pope? It seems as though that confrontation has actually made him stronger, and better able to handle a weight he was deeply unprepared to bear.
And in the capstone of the episode, and perhaps the season, Brannox agrees to Voiello’s conditions for coming back—saying Mass at Girolamo’s funeral. For a brief moment, Voiello has the entire church under his thumb, an opportunity he uses to eulogize his friend. The speech is a little bizarre, to say the least. It’s beautiful in some ways, and Silvio Orlando delivers it with extraordinary heart and feeling. We really do believe that Girolamo is basically the only person Voiello has ever cared about, at least with this degree of emotion. But it also serves as a sort of mission statement for The New Pope’s treatment of disabled characters, one in which Girolamo is the only person who knows “the anguish of suffering, the beauty of sacrifice, and the power of love.” It is, in essence, utterly instrumental, reliant solely on Voiello’s mind and understanding of the relationship. That makes sense from the show’s Catholic point of view, but being able to explain why the show does this doesn’t mean it’s good. (Sorrentino should feel deeply grateful for Silvio Orlando, as should we all.)
After the funeral, Voiello vanquishes Assente—he returns as secretary of state, and has free rein to send Assente to Kabul, blackmailing him with photos of his tryst with Luigi Cavallo. It’s a sweet moment of Voiello using one of Lenny’s tried and true tactics, complete with the blunt speech laying out the consequences of Assente’s machinations. (Though he doesn’t use the punishment globe, still gathering dust in the pope’s office.) It also happens while Bauer and the utterly delightful, Coen-esque Essence absolutely destroy the evil triad, confronting them with video of their pedophilia.) These moments are satisfying, but they also feel like a way for the show to clear the decks, to dispose of the people who have served in antagonistic roles this season so we can spend the finale on the meeting of John Paul III and Pius XIII. As the episode ends, Lenny stands in the middle of a fountain—nude for some reason—eying his old papal garments. He’s finally ready to put them back on, to reclaim the papacy in whatever form he will take it. It’s on.
- Lenny: “You will always count, Voiello.” Not going to lie, I cried a little. (Though not as much as I laughed when they awkwardly try to hug before Voiello simply kisses Lenny’s ring.)
- The Voiello-Lenny scene also features the return of Levo’s “Recondite,” a classic callback to the soundtrack of The Young Pope.
- Lenny wordlessly embraces Suree when she comes to bring him his clothes. He has, finally, come around to the power of friendly relationships.
- Before setting up the meeting, Brannox says, “What is to be done, as Lenin used to ask?” Feels like the erudite, shut-in pope should be able to reference Chernyshevsky, but go off I guess.
- See you for the finale next week! I can’t believe this season is already over. It’s been quite the journey.