One of the benefits of The Young Pope deciding to take things slow last week is that it can still have small episodes. If the entire world exploded after the Pope’s speech (as it would in reality), the show would be moving at a frantic pace before we even knew the characters. Pius XIII remains as enigmatic as his wink in the opening credits. But as we learn more about the characters around him, we learn more about him.
“Fourth Episode” leaves out some of the key characters that we’ve come to know so far. Lenny’s family is almost entirely absent. Diane Keaton does not have a single line all night, leaving Sister Mary just in the background. Of all the Cardinals, only Voiello appears.
This is an episode that is really only about two people: Lenny and Esther. They’re together in almost every scene. This is an oddly sweet episode of The Young Pope. Lenny does not humiliate a single old man. The confusion of the world outside is forgotten for a moment so that Lenny and Esther can have what is essentially a romance. Voiello is the villain of the tale, scheming from the shadows of candlelight.
And because this show is still The Young Pope, Greenland is a major factor, for some reason.
“Fourth Episode” opens with the introduction of an outsider, Tonino (Franco Pinelli). Tonino “the great” is a shepherd from somewhere in Italy with stigmata who claims he can see the Virgin Mary in his sheep. The opening of the episode has him literally appear over a hill on a white horse before a throng of worshipers. The framing of this scene is a typically stilted twist. The entire hill is on a slant, while the camera is level. It’s a geographic Dutch angle, showing there is something wrong with everything here.
We meet Tonino again on an Italian TV show much later in the episode, being interviewed by some tabloid journalist. Turns out Tonino is a miracle worker who specializes in “cardiovascular diseases and meniscus”. And he’s a favorite saint of soccer players. Tonino is joined by his lawyer behind him. This is more careful marketing than religion. Also, Tonino is speaking a threat: if Pius XIII does not recognize him, he’ll start his own church.
Lenny, challenged by this, will eventually attempt his own miracle in this episode. We’ve already seen him perform some kind of magic over a kangaroo (though Lenny can’t make it jump on command). And while Tonino rants at an animal as if she’s the Virgin Mary, the actual Mother of God will show up later. We never see Tonino perform a miracle, so he may be a fake. His stigmata is on the palms, not on the wrists, a common mistake. But how will Lenny react to this threat to his power?
Well, we already have a hint as to how Lenny views Protestants. Out of all the countries of the world, the one that wants to see Lenny most is a semi-independent Lutheran colony of Denmark. (Because 99% of the audience knows nothing about Greenland, the episode ends with footnotes telling us fun facts about the island nation. Did you know they love to dance?) Pius XIII has a few odd beliefs about Greenland. For one, since Norse Catholics visited the country 1,000 years ago, he thinks it is Catholic territory. And he claims that God might be hiding under the island sheet.
Mainly, though, Greenland is in this episode to have a beautiful woman visit the pope. Carolina Carlsson plays the Prime Minister of Greenland who is visibly turned on in the pope’s presence. “I know. I’m incredibly handsome. But please, let’s try to forget about that,” says Lenny. (No way.) He seems charmed by her. So everybody in the Vatican must stop so he can listen to her gift: an Italian pop record.
The PM appears again in the end credits to dance to the song. This only makes sense in The Young Pope’s surreal logic.
The real plot in this episode is all about Esther. The spies I noticed in “Third Episode” were actually working for Voiello. They know all about her affair with Father Ferrara. With Gutierrez spilling the pope’s sexuality, Voiello thinks he’s found the perfect weapon in her. And he may be absolutely right. Lenny is taken with Esther and her beauty.
Esther must seduce the pope, which would give Voiello leverage. Esther is so far the most innocent character on The Young Pope. She does not swing her sexuality around like a weapon as Sofia does (who pops up in the pope’s bathroom uninvited). When she says she just wants to be a good Catholic, she means it. But it’s that very innocence that Voiello knows makes her attractive to Lenny.
Esther even proves to be cunning in her own way. When Esther seems worried around the pope, he can sense it instantly. “I’m not profound, I’m presumptuous,” is his explanation. But Esther has an easy excuse: she’s barren and wants a child. If she said she was falling in love with him, Lenny would cut things off immediately. Instead, she makes herself an instrument that Voiello can use. In this episode, helping Esther to reach God becomes an obsession for the young pope, bringing them closer and closer together.
This episode is not one that puts Voiello in the best light. He has never been more oily and awful than here. When Esther makes a suggestion, he mocks her cruelly. “I was about to laugh, but I stopped myself because I have a certain class.” Then the cardinal slides out of frame like a snake.
Voiello is utterly cynical with his faith. Why is he a priest? Because he was good at it. When Esther begs that she just wants to be a better person, Voiello offers her no guidance. He can only explain religion in terms of football teams. To him, nobody improves. “We are condemned to go on sinning.” The only human who Voiello sees as blameless is the disabled boy. Girolamo is a child who cannot comprehend evil. Voiello has a perverse obsession with that innocence.
The Catholic Church of Pius XIII is awful. To combat the pedophilia scandal, Lenny has a simple solution: cut out all homosexuals from the clergy. He will purge the church of “deviants”. HBO, a bastion of LGBT-friendly programming and liberal news programs, is certainly taking a gamble with a homophobic protagonist. Voiello is horrified to see pedophilia and homosexuality conflated, as we should be too.
However, for all of Pius XIII’s evil, he does believe the soul can be improved. Voiello is a complete misanthrope; Lenny is not. Lenny has impossible inhuman goals for his flock. He screams at a nun for crying over her dead sister. “Believers don’t cry! That’s not right!” (This pope is terrified of real emotions.) But Lenny does think people can find God. That is a weakness Voiello exposes.
For Pius, the key issues of defining what he’s doing to the Church, addressing the Cardinals, and the Kurtwell Case are mostly left for another episode. Instead, he spends this episode walking through the gardens, meeting with Esther in almost every scene. And there is a definite charge in the air. The more chaste Esther seems, the more she seems to get to him.
The most sexually intense these two get around each other is when they pray. A complicated scene occurs when the pope walks by Esther’s house while she is swimming. She joins him in his prayers while wearing almost nothing. Meanwhile her former lover, Tomasso is right there with the pope, unnoticed.
Things get hotter when Lenny and Esther sit together in an intimate moment before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Esther prays to ask for a child. Lenny, in what has probably been his only good piece of religious advice in four episodes, tells her that prayers should not be a request, but a reflection. This leads to Esther almost breaching the taboo topic: she’s falling in love with him. “Esther, continue to pray in your head.” Lenny won’t acknowledge things that trouble him.
He also might have noticed the priest who has been watching the entire time.
The episode reaches its climax when Esther follows the pope’s advice. She might be in a loveless marriage, but she is a good Catholic, despite Voiello’s schemes otherwise. Esther and her husband have utterly terrible sex by her window set to depressing music. This leads to a moment that I never quite imagined I would see on television: a voyeur pope.
While Esther’s husband rails her, Lenny stands outside her house, watching. He is pleased to see good wholesome Catholic banging. Then he calls upon the Virgin Mary, demanding that she make Esther pregnant. “You must, you must,” he repeats, reaching his arms up to the heavens. Before long he’s muttering it in rhythm to the lovemaking. We cut over to a fantasy of Esther, mostly nude, being caressed by a papal hand. (Rosemary’s Baby, anybody?) Then the climax is reached. Esther spots the pope out her window.
Is a spiritual three-way really a place for God’s vicar on Earth? And did Lenny’s demands actually convince the Virgin Mary to give Esther a baby? I’m sure we’ll know next week.
The Virgin Mary actually does appear in “Fourth Episode”, but not for Lenny.
The pope sends Gutierrez off to New York to deal with the Kurtwell Case in his stead. Pius does not realize that Gutierrez has been blackmailed into betraying him to Voiello. He trusts the man’s honest faith above pragmatic politics. (This conversation happens while they spy on sleeping nuns like naughty schoolboys, for some reason.)
Gutierrez, however, is a shut-in. He has not left the Vatican City in years. Lenny trusts him to find courage. It turns out, Lenny’s instincts are correct because the Virgin Mary literally appears before Gutierrez. She teleports in and out of frame like she a specter. This is horror cinematography. Yet her message is enough to strengthen the weak priest. “Where do afternoons land?” is her cryptic message.
We have only three weeks and six more episodes of The Young Pope to go and “Fourth Episode” might have been the strongest yet. This is a tightly directed hour full of precise visual language. But so much of the content is goofball and bizarre. You can never be sure where The Young Pope is going or what kind of weirdness you’ll stumble into next.
In terms of story, Voiello has proven a more powerful opponent than Lenny realized. Two people he is closest to – Gutierrez and Esther – are both compromised. Sister Mary has been made isolated. Her tongue is tightly bitten, but she has a lot to say. Whatever Lenny’s plan is, Voiello has the resolve and the ruthlessness to stop it. Even without Pius actually moving on Esther, Voiello has gathered enough evidence with them together to conjure any rumor he wants.
We’ve seen the pope’s weakness in “Fourth Episode”. Wouldn’t you know it? It’s blondes. This character-driven episode has moved the pieces one step further.