Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Young Pope blesses the rains down in Africa, but is it enough to save the church?

Illustration for article titled The Young Pope blesses the rains down in Africa, but is it enough to save the church?

How is Lenny going to fix this mess? At the beginning of this episode, he’s at the lowest point of his papacy—the faithful have fled from the church, the cardinals have almost entirely turned against him, even Esther and Peter have abandoned him (leaving behind the photo of him and little Pius he was allowed to have—an act of genuine affection that totally contravenes his philosophy as pope), and his best friend is dead. Lenny is alone, literally under water as he prays for Dussollier in the pool at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace. (He asks that God remind his friend of the time they ran away from the orphanage—did he and Dussollier only share the one memory, or what?) Even though he’s technically on vacation, Lenny is unhappy. He wanders through the summer palace, despondent, as Sister Mary weeps, and we get a bizarre, homoerotic series of shots of the pope wrestling with someone.

Much of this episode is dour, even for this show. Spencer is sick, leading Lenny to face the possibility that he might lose his mentor in addition to his friend. The kangaroo dies, because apparently leaving a wild animal to roam around the grounds of the Vatican wasn’t the best care strategy. (For those playing along at home: Valente seems to confirm the independent existence of the kangaroo, if that’s something you were wondering about.) And, of course, there are the many horrors the pope witnesses during his mission (more on that later). Even Lenny’s wistful, angsty dialogue has gone to new levels of misery, starting with his pointed, insane question to Valente: “Where do they go? The airplanes we never take?”

But there is some joy. Cardinal Marivaux (Sebastian Roché), who is apparently in charge of canonization, tells the pope about Blessed Juana, a Guatemalan saint who cured sick children with fairy tales about the Virgin Mary—and the girl who appeared to Lenny at the end of the last episode. Lenny’s childishness is never more apparent than in this scene, when he basically says that he likes hearing the nice story. And even a scene a few minutes later, in which women with letters spelling out the word “bastard” painted in blood on their bodies stand up to confront him, gives a sense of the old Pius XIII. The way this scene is shot, it could be another dream, or it could be an action of Femen, who Sister Mary tells the pope have been protesting his order to make all abortion unforgivable. (It would be nice to hear about this order from a woman who hasn’t taken a vow of chastity, but I suppose this isn’t that kind of show.) Lenny is nonplussed. He only really thrives when he has an adversary.

The people around the pope are also having a slightly easier time getting through to him. The sick Spencer manages to put a lot of this season into focus by pointing out that middle-aged men frequently need to engage in a “second calling.” In two words, the pope’s mentor highlights why Lenny keeps asking people about their calling, and why Tommaso’s fear of Lenny’s lack of belief is so annoying—it makes total sense for a young pope to be struggling with his faith. (Also, Tommaso is just annoying.) It’s a surprisingly compassionate approach from Spencer, who goes on to tell Lenny that “Your life, your papacy, is an unforgettable adventure.” Another person who seems to be interested in adventures this week: Sofia, who announces herself at the papal vacation palace by saying, “Here I am, Holy Father,” in pure Abrahamic fashion. She correctly identifies that Pius XIII needs to add a carrot to his many, many sticks, and pushes him to take a trip to Africa in order to visit Sister Antonia, a nun who oversees a large network of charities.

The back half of the episode is taken up with that visit, and boy is it a knotty half hour of television. Much of it is unbelievably generic; there’s frustrating “Africa” material (the show literally does not even pretend to name a country, instead acting as if Africa the continent is homogenous), taking the pope on a tour through starvation, military dictatorship, and misery designed solely to persuade him that there is real evil in the world. Shocking! (It’s true there are enormous numbers of African Catholics, and it would be cool if The Young Pope were to mention the possibility that changes in church policy could help stop the spread of HIV.) Do the excellent set pieces during this sequence justify how much of a cardboard cutout it is?

Because really, there is a lot of good stuff here. In particular, Voiello gets a lot to do, starting with his interactions with Sister Antonia. First, he indirectly bullies her for Lenny into handing over her phone, telling her bluntly that the pope will shut down all of the Villages Of Goodness if he feels like it. Then, during their communal dinner, he rebukes her defense of Prince Abadi (the country’s dictator, apparently) by asserting that “The United Nations has been in this place for some time, too.” It’s always good to remember that before Lenny came along, Voiello was the master of owns at the Vatican. Later, he and Sister Mary sit together and stare into each other’s eyes, and it is wonderful. Silvio Orlando’s expectant, warm smile is a minor revelation—Voiello has never had the opportunity to be anything other than uptight or marginally caring in his interactions with Girolamo, and seeing him open up to Sister Mary over the course of the season has been one of the show’s great pleasures. Diane Keaton, who has been pretty restrained thus far, is similarly marvelous when she moves to meet him, then pulls back, then runs off. I don’t know about you all, but I’m rooting for those two crazy kids.

Everything about the trip is carefully orchestrated by Sister Antonia, starting with the tour of the village—which Lenny ignores to go smoke a cigarette. Then he confesses to an elderly African priest, the first time we’ve seen him do a real confession to someone other than Tommaso. Mostly, they talk about Lenny’s frustration with Esther and Peter’s absence (they’ve abandoned him, just like his parents) and his brief conversation with his favorite writer, Elmore Coen. Played by Andre Gregory, Coen is basically designed to be a character who can have an honest, secular conversation with the pope. It feels like a bit more of Sorrentino injecting himself than most of the show’s dialogue when the two compare writers’ and priests’ obsession with mystery. (“They can’t afford to solve the mystery, because the next day they become irrelevant” applies well to most of the questions raised by the show.) But mostly, he’s an old horndog. It’s interesting, then, that the pope likes his work so much, since he genuinely seems to take no interest in women. Instead, what he finds appealing about Coen’s work is the way it depicts “motors that break down.”


There are quite a few different systems breaking down during Lenny’s trip, including the confessional itself—it turns out that the priest doesn’t speak English, leaving Lenny frothing mad at having seemingly wasted his time. There’s also the system that captures condensed water for the village—that Sister Antonia offers to the pope, even though he’s the pope. And there’s the entire system of the village. The priest doesn’t speak English, but he does pass the pope a note—Sister Antonia controls the water supply in exchange for sexual favors, a revelation that culminates in a gross, mesmerizing shot of the pope staring into the reflection of a chalice to see Sister Antonia grasping for the hand of another nun.

During the dinner, Lenny bluntly, repeatedly asks Sister Antonia whether she’s a good person, engaging in probably his best dunking of the second half of the season and culminating with the brutal finishing move, “Halitosis is a deformation of the soul.” Once the pope finishes, the elderly African priest breaks one of the clay jugs, revealing that it doesn’t have any water in it at all.


Lenny’s speech—in which he still does not reveal himself to the public—attempts to touch on the nature of those systems, and his (and everyone’s) complicity in their accumulated evils. “We are all guilty,” he says, but some are more guilty than others. The apparently quite moving speech concludes with an assertion that people need to be “guilty of peace,” which gets into the kind of platitudes that everyone has wanted Lenny to dole out all along. (“If you want to see God, you have the means to do it.” “God is love.”) Lenny has taken Sofia’s advice after all and has allowed his real inner child (not the angry, petulant version) to finally emerge—channeling a memory of peace with his parents. Indeed, Lenny also appears to have more fully taken on his role as the Holy Father, moving like a parent through the plane of sleeping reporters (children) as they fly back to Italy.

Lenny’s inner child also emerges when he tries to land the plane (only to be firmly rebuked), but the end of this episode is perhaps the most adult thing he’s done so far. Forcing a stop at a gas station, his mouth open grotesquely, the pope prays directly to God about Sister Antonia—not the dictator running the country he just visited, not the dearth of clean water, but the evil nun. And in an intercut scene of Sister Antonia taking an enormous bottle of cold water from her fridge, she keels over and dies, seemingly in response to his prayer. If we weren’t sure about Lenny’s saintliness before, there’s little doubt now that he has the power to call down miracles. But that might not be enough to get the church back on track. After all, he can’t individually pray to kill every sinner in the world… can he?


Stray observations:

  • “Freedom and fear are always together, like an old married couple.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about people who strip naked in order to protest something.” Same, dude.
  • The pope’s speech in Africa is set to Lotte Kestner’s cover of “Halo,” which is a bit jarring. Apparently, Sorrentino had originally briefly considered trying to use the original Beyoncé version of “Halo,” but [update, sorry y’all] thought it would be too distracting.
  • One of the journalists yells a question about Gutierrez’s stalled investigation into the Kurtwell case—apparently, Kurtwell is blackmailing the pope. In response, the plane shakes.
  • This week’s small touch I loved: the care given to the pope eating a banana. He usually only has his Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, so the fact that he’s eating a banana suggests his openness to change. Seems like Pius XIII is getting… peeled open? Anyone? Okay, I’ll show myself out.