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

The Young Pope finds some worthy new adversaries in a slightly muted episode

Illustration for article titled The Young Pope finds some worthy new adversaries in a slightly muted episode

One of the drawbacks of the fireworks in yesterday’s episode should be a loss of momentum in today’s. “Fifth Episode” could easily have been a season finale, and seems to totally resolve the primary conflict on the show, so “Sixth Episode” should have a lot of boring table-setting work to do. Instead, it uses the fact of Lenny’s control of the church as a way to seamlessly introduce new exterior conflicts while complicating the old spiritual ones. Also, not that there was any doubt, but any semblance of subtlety has totally gone out the door.

In the cold open of this episode, the cardinals are all assembled eating breakfast when one of them just slumps over and dies. Like most of The Young Pope, the scene is a little on the nose, especially when Caltanissetta explains that he died of “the same thing our church is going to die of—old age.” And everyone is ready to age just a bit faster, as the show jumps ahead nine months.

Here’s our new status quo: Ozolins is leading mass in the middle of the snow in Ketchikan, Alaska, joined by a couple of other people who presumably have been sent there by Lenny. Gutierrez has been created as a cardinal. Esther is having a baby! Dussolier is now the only priest on the show to have the kind of steamy sex we might have predicted before it aired—and it’s a threesome with a woman and another dude! (This is, notably, the show’s first sex scene that manages to actually be sexy, and it’s the first one to take place outside the confines of a Catholic marriage.) Also, the church is in a pretty dire state, losing loads of money and prestige and contending with the appearance of several new fundamentalist sects. In a briefing about these issues, Voiello asks the pope, “Don’t you find it a burden to take on responsibility for such risky and unpopular decisions?” Lenny summarily replies “no,” but he sounds tired. Everyone is.

These scenes reestablish what the characters are up to, but they also feature some of the best shot composition and acting on the show to date—particularly during the ceremony in which Gutierrez dons the red robes of a cardinal. Sorrentino highlights how effectively Javier Cámara plays Gutierrez’s timidness and uncertainty, while Jude Law radiates authority as well as a degree of care for Gutierrez that doesn’t really attach to any of the pope’s other relationships. When they hug at the conclusion of the ritual, Lenny smiles warmly. Perhaps even more than Sister Mary, Gutierrez humanizes this pope. And their friendship seems to be in danger: Leaving the Vatican to head to New York, Gutierrez is almost run over by a scooter and lets out a guttural sound. Truly, he cannot function anywhere else.

It turns out the pope can’t really function outside the Vatican either. His outing with Dussolier was a peek at how awkward Lenny can be in situations where he has to interact with normal people, but his visit to Esther’s hospital room takes the discomfort to a new level. Somehow, in his years as a priest, Lenny has never really learned how to provide anything resembling warmth. His gift is way too significant (a bible that belonged to Thomas Jefferson), he interrupts Peter (the father, ostensibly, though I suppose there’s a case to be made that Valente is the real father), and, uh, also drops the baby. “My hands only know how to bless things,” he says, an insane string of words which becomes even creepier because it feels like such a genuine, naked response to the pope’s panic. It’s true. Lenny never learned how to do anything. (Still, the moment when he addresses the baby “Mr. Pius XIV” is very sweet.)

If there’s one thing Lenny knows how to do, it’s make a spectacle for the purpose of intimidating someone, which is exactly what he tries to do in this episode’s dramatic centerpiece: a confrontation with the Italian prime minister. Arriving intentionally late for the meeting in full papal garb (while wearing sunglasses, indoors), Lenny presents the prime minister with a series of increasingly regressive, theocratic demands, up to and including granting more political power to the Vatican through a reevaluation of the Lateran Pacts. The prime minister (played by Stefano Accorsi) is a secular progressive, an advocate of science, and a figure diametrically opposed to the pope—to the point where he announces an intention to completely gut the Italian government’s foundation of support for the Holy See. If Voiello was Lenny’s primary adversary for the first half of the season, it looks like the prime minister—and the spirit he represents—will take that role for these last five episodes. (There are several parallels between the initial battles, including Lenny initiating both by pretending to be asleep.)


As two photogenic, charismatic politicians (of sorts), the prime minister and the pope certainly seem far better matched. But Lenny might be a better student of marketing even than the secular leader. He tells the prime minister that his insistence on mystery has essentially been a way of building up a store of mystery he can use to draw attention to his appearance (“his beautiful blue eyes and his soft round mouth”), and to his final order: a “non expedit,” ensuring that Catholics will refuse to go to the polls. Lenny emerges from this meeting having rattled the prime minister—but in a press conference, the prime minister announces his intent to go forward with his agenda. Finally, someone who doesn’t crumble in front of the pope!

There might be another character who puts up a fight against some of Lenny’s more aggressive impulses: Dussolier, who returns from Honduras to take his place as Prefect For The Congregation Of The Clergy only to discover that Lenny has drawn up a rule forbidding gay priests—and intends to enforce a bounty system to find out who is willing to break their vows. Lenny tries to emotionally blackmail him with their childhood indiscretion (the pope could have found his parents, but came back for his friend!), but it rings hollow. Is this the only thing that ever happened to them when they were children? (Apparently not: A scene set to Jefferson Airplane’s “Blues From An Airplane” seems to depict Lenny and Dussolier as children having some kind of sexual awakening watching Sister Mary let her hair down to play basketball.)


Dussolier certainly seems like he’s becoming a more central character on the show. Later in the episode, he’s invited to a party by a wealthy woman that 100% sounds like it is going to devolve into some sort of orgy. Later, he’s confronted by Angelo Sanchez, a boy denied entry to the priesthood by Lenny’s new retrograde measures—and who later commits suicide at the end of the episode.

Meanwhile, Voiello gets a visit from an Italian police captain, investigating Tonino Pettola—who has, apparently, disappeared. Like everything having to do with Voiello, this scene is a minor comic marvel, as the captain (finally!) asks Voiello for cane sugar in vain, recounts that the cardinals apparently threatened to throw Tonino in quicksand if he went through on his threat to found another church, and twists the knife by confirming rumors that Voiello’s favorite soccer player is using drugs. The secretary of state manages to fend him off, but as the back half of The Young Pope begins, it certainly appears that enemies are surrounding the Vatican from all sides. Maybe Lenny will have the chance to fend them off, if he can fight the dissent building within.


Stray observations:

  • Gutierrez appears to have gotten the cardinalship Lenny promised to Tommaso—and the confessor now seems on the verge of going public with everything he knows about the pope.
  • Another great Lenny line in the hospital room: “It’s a pity we can’t remember what we smelled like when we were babies.”
  • Though Voiello and Lenny appear to have a better relationship now, the pope can’t help getting off burns on his old enemy: “Soccer mania is an archetypal emotion for the secretary of state.”
  • Sister Mary is an orphan, too, it turns out—a fact she’s never revealed to the pope, because it would distract from his sadness or something.
  • There’s a great one-off scene in this episode where Lenny summarily dispatches an order of monks attempting to start a schism. There’s no external relevance to anything else happening on the show (other than to demonstrate how unstable everything is outside of Lenny’s iron fist), but it’s worth watching again for some disgustingly excellent Jude Law mouth acting.