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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tensions grow on a slow, vivid, and kangaroo-filled episode of The Young Pope

Illustration for article titled Tensions grow on a slow, vivid, and kangaroo-filled episode of The Young Pope

After a premiere centered on spectacle real and otherwise, the second episode of The Young Pope goes out of its way to be quotidian. Paolo Sorrentino takes his time with everyone’s incredibly ordinary morning rituals around the Vatican—cardinals play around on their iPads, pray amid the serenity of the Vatican grounds, get shots in the ass from doctors (okay, so maybe some of these aren’t ordinary), nuns play soccer. These are artfully composed vignettes, giving a picture of what it’s actually like to be a person who wakes up and goes to work at the Vatican every day, but they serve primarily to create an equilibrium for the new pope to disrupt.

Lenny remains unreasonable and irritable over the course of this episode, especially to Cardinal Assente, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy—the body that ordains and trains priests—in the show’s most uncomfortable scene to date. Assente, played with pained anxiety by Maurizio Lombardi, answers all of Lenny’s hostile questions with tight-lipped honesty, including expressing ideological objection to Lenny’s papacy and admitting that, yes, he’s gay. Lenny is instantly uncomfortable, so horrified at being around a gay person that he immediately ends the meeting, only for the nun who emerges to gives a nightmarish excuse when she says it’s time for the pope’s snack.

It’s hard to sympathize with Lenny’s homophobia here, of course—but you’re not really supposed to. Though Jude Law is obviously intended to hold viewer attention (and does, quite effectively), there’s little in the script to suggest that his character is meant to be in any sense heroic, rather than fascinating. And while most TV antihero dramas that hide behind the label of “character study” do so while giving the audience visceral satisfaction in the form of pulpy amorality, The Young Pope gives no such release. It’s fun to watch Lenny be rude, but it’s already clear that there are boundaries to what the show finds acceptable. He holds morally objectionable beliefs—but so does any dogmatically in-line Catholic. So does cool Pope Francis.

The only person who believes in Lenny unconditionally is Sister Mary, who comes into clearer focus as a character this episode. When Cardinal Andrew Dussolier, her other surrogate son (played by Scott Shepherd) muses, “who would ever have imagined that Lenny would become pope?” Sister Mary bluntly, firmly responds: “Me.” She takes her mission seriously, trailing Voiello around the Vatican grounds and following him, in the equivalent of a priestly noir, to an apartment where he takes care of a disabled boy who seems like he could be Voiello’s secret son. She shoots hoops. She wears a T-shirt that reads “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt.” (!) She has strong ideas about what Lenny should do, including asking Spencer for advice with his homily.

Sister Mary’s proximity to the pope makes her powerful—so when she slips up and refers to a shared papal agenda by using the word “we,” Voiello seizes on it as a way of driving a wedge between the two, culminating in Lenny forcing Sister Mary to call him “Your Holiness”—falling back on a formal relationship, rather than a more tenuous familiar one.

Voiello’s makes two other plays this episode: trying to write a draft of Lenny’s first homily (a draft that Sister Mary, begrudgingly, admits is very good), and setting up a meeting between the pope and Sofia, the press secretary for the Vatican. Played by Cecile de France, Sofia is the kind of person who, in most versions of this story, would be a villain. She’s a marketing professional who went to Harvard, she doesn’t seem to be especially religious, and, above all, she’s a woman. (Lenny’s riposte to her pedigree is, admittedly, pretty fun: “To an American, [Harvard] means one thing only: decline.”)


But instead, Lenny takes a shine to Sofia, and has a better professional rapport with her than he does with any of the cardinals. (It might help that she joins in on his terrible jokes, leaving Voiello out in the cold.) Even though it will cost the Vatican dearly, she likes his media plan: a total blackout, turning the pope into an enigma who can’t be seen, in order to drum up a frenzy around the mystery. (The pope, it turns out, has written Westworld.) Most notably in this scene, the pope literally compares himself to Banksy. She could have suffered a worse fate than having to talk to him about Banksy—Ozolins goes to his office only to discover his nameplate being taken off the door.

The pope is withholding with most people this episode, but he also makes a new friend on a trip to the warehouse that has been set up to house all of his gifts: a kangaroo. Shot from the kangaroo’s point of view so that Jude Law is snapping and kissing at the camera, this scene is one of the more bizarre moments, giving the pope an opportunity to perform an extremely minor and symbolically saturated miracle. More importantly, the pope demands that the kangaroo be let loose on the grounds of the Vatican, because why not?

One of the other things the pope receives is a card from a child asking him to prove the existence of God, which Lenny brings with him as he goes to finally give his first homily—which he’s been preparing for for most of the episode. We don’t really know what it’s going to entail, since he rejects Voiello’s draft, and his attempt to get advice from Spencer goes downhill fast. (The elder cardinal keeps spitting and bemoaning the fact that he isn’t the pope until Lenny reacts like a child and says, “Don’t talk to me like that, you’re hurting me.”)


Lenny’s eventual homily is harsh and unfeeling, an expression of everything he’s been doing over the course of the episode. You want an invisible pope? Here’s a silhouette telling you that he’ll never connect with you, and that you have to find the path to God by yourself. (Even though helping the faithful triangulate their relationship to God is, like, part of the pope’s job, right?) Only one person seems to like the pope’s homily: Esther, a woman we’re introduced to at the beginning of the episode having supremely unsatisfying sex with her husband, a member of the Swiss Guard. (She doesn’t do much else this episode, but keep an eye on her.)

Eventually, someone shines a laser pointer at the pope to try to make out his face, prompting a papal temper tantrum in which Lenny—the pope—leaves in the middle of his homily because he’s mad at some dude. “I don’t know if you deserve me,” he mutters, in a truly incredible burst of papal petulance. How are the faithful going to respond to this, and how will the cardinals? We don’t deserve this show.


Stray observations:

  • Lenny asks several people about their calling to the priesthood in this episode, including Cardinal Aguirre (who made a conscious decision to prioritize heaven over Earth) and Gutierrez (who was inspired by a divine vision emanating from the light in the Vatican).
  • A lot of good Batman-style dialogue from Lenny, who says “I am no one” and then “I’ve been training my whole life to be an invisible pope” during his meeting with Sofia.
  • During one of his confabs with Tommaso on the roof, Lenny busts out his papal tracksuit, one of the best outfits from this show.
  • Conclave watch: Spencer believes that Lenny was offered a deal by Voiello in order to shut him out from the papacy, which Lenny denies.
  • We also get a flashback to Andrew arriving at the orphanage and meeting Sister Mary, who tells him to call her “ma.” (Hey, that’s the opposite of what she said to Lenny!)
  • I want to avoid spoilers or pointing at things that happen during the rest of the season, but I will say this episode, maybe even more than the premiere, lays the groundwork for a lot of the character stuff that happens over the course of the season, in often pretty surprising ways.