In the 21st century, the Catholic Church is at a crossroads. It is a 2000-year-old institution that at one time in history was the center of European culture and thought. Today, in an age of science, technology, and rapidly changing views on religion, where does that leave the Church? Is this ancient structure still relevant?
In the real world, the Conclave chose Pope Francis to lead the Church. Francis is a liberal South American Jesuit. What is the Church to Francis? It is a beacon of charity and justice. Francis wants his Church to be more than a worldwide child molestation scandal. Liberals of all stripes, even non-religious ones, see Francis as an inspiration and an ally.
In The Young Pope universe, we have Pius XIII. Last episode it was unclear just who this Pope was. His dreamed speech was honey to the ears of liberal reformers everywhere. Priests can marry, homosexuality is allowed, and of course, all can masturbate. The clouds broke, and a new heavenly light took over St. Peter’s Square. However, what did this speech mean to Lenny? In that episode, it was unclear, as were most things about our protagonist. Now we know: this dream of liberals is a nightmare to the young pope. Pius XIII is Francis’s anti-Pope.
The Holy Family
“Second Episode” does a great deal to establish the plot and stakes of this show, making up for lost time after “First Episode”. (It appears none of the episodes will get names.) We are introduced to two new characters and really introduced for the first time to many we saw in the first episode. Sister Mary, Cardinal Spencer, even the pope himself were something of an enigma, even by the end of the show. But in this episode, Lenny is stepping out of the shadows, and we can see him do more than mock ugly cardinals. There is a person under that papal bling, and a deeply flawed one.
The key to “Second Episode” is family. Lenny is an orphan raised by Sister Mary. But even after years in the family of the Church, he is alone. Lenny has no contact with his parents, of whom we know nothing. He only has his surrogate mother, Mary, but their relationship is tested during the course of the episode. There is also Lenny’s “father”, Cardinal Michael Spencer who rejects Lenny’s overtures and is furious that his protege was chosen to be Pope instead of himself. Spencer suspects a deal was cut with the ever-scheming Voiello. “You’re the Pope now, and you’re all alone now, just as you always have been,” growls James Cromwell, spitting out grape seeds to Pius XIII’s outstretched hand.
We also first meet Lenny’s “brother”, a Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd). Dussolier is about Lenny’s age, but his opposite in temperament. Sister Mary also adopted this priest, but where she told Lenny to call her “Sister Mary”, Dussolier calls her “ma”. Andrew is set up to be Lenny’s foil. “This place smells like incense and death. I prefer the smell of shit and life.”
The Pope’s Speech
The central plot to “Second Episode” involves Lenny’s speech to the faithful. This will be the first time the world will see the young pope; thus it is the first real choice Lenny has to make as Holy Father. (The world is represented here by a bus crammed with horrid tourists, including a fat kid eating a chocolate bar.) Most of the episode’s tension involves Lenny’s choice for speech. Cardinal Voiello offers his own script, a loving but simple message of faith found in community. Sister Mary is swayed by the speech’s honesty, but Lenny, out to prove he is not her puppet, is not moved. In fact, Lenny has a completely different speech in mind. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
In the meantime, the speech crisis gives us our first glimpse of Pius XIII as a weaker person. When Lenny asks Spencer for help, he seems honestly lost. Before his big moment in front of the crowds, Lenny is twitchy and nervous. He seems like a 13-year-old boy who just realized he forgot his Bar Mitzvah prayers. But he gets no help from his spiteful father-figure. And as we know, Pius XIII is not being led by God. In the end, Pius XIII turns towards his instincts.
Lenny has chosen to cast his speech in silhouette. Here we have the second major introduction of the night, Sofia (Cécile de France), a beautiful woman in charge of Merch. Lenny refuses her plan for gaudy plates and offers a different strategy: utter invisibility. He compares himself to Salinger, Kubrick, and Daft Punk, all celebrities whose allure is increased by their invisibility. Sofia is won over by the pontiff and joins in his jokes. Meanwhile, Cardinal Voiello can sense the sexual tension.
A Human Lenny
It appears Pius XIII has a self-iconoclast streak. “I do not have an image, my good lady, because I do not exist. Only Christ exists,” he tells Sofia. But as good as Lenny’s explanations are, I’m not so convinced he’s doing this purely out of strategy. In the past, we find out, Lenny has neurotically protected his image. He hunted down all pictures of himself and fought to keep them from the public. Are we sure Lenny is not just shy? His terror at the sight of tourists was not just a joke last episode. This man is truly terrified to be seen.
We see another crack in Lenny’s cocky armor when he meets Cardinal Assente (Maurizio Lombardi), the Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy. Assente is a major liberal figure in the church where Spencer is a conservative. And to Lenny’s horror, we discover Assente is also a homosexual. Feeling physical disgust, Lenny presses down on an emergency button Cardinal Voiello showed him last week. Turns out this button summons a servant. The best excuse she can sputter out is “time for your snack, Holy Father”, in the funniest scene of the episode.
We do not know much about Lenny’s “orientation” yet, a word that Assente drops with several tons of baggage. Voiello is unsure himself. Lenny’s homophobia is telling. He has plenty of stories of torturing Archbishops in New York, but confronted by an impurity in his presence, and suddenly Lenny flees. Lenny seems also enraptured by true faith, as seen in Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara). Gutierrez describes a vision from God. This scene is shot with heavenly light on the actor’s face, turning him into a renaissance painting of Christ.
Pius XIII, however, is in shadow.
A Human Voiello
All of this episode has been far more of a standard TV drama than the first episode. Particular points have been made to draw lines of conflict throughout the cast. This all eventually reaches a climax when Lenny takes the conflict that’s been set up and smashes it. Whatever tensions and conflicts the Church has in the 21st Century are nothing compared to what he has in mind. But who does that leave in terms of audience sympathy?
Cardinal Voiello is the character given the most dimension. He plays Sister Mary and her son off against each other easily enough. But between scheming, what is there to this guy? Well, Sister Mary finds out. She watches him meet somebody in secret, standing across the street before two windows. This appears to be a meeting with a prostitute. Voiello has been nothing but a fat, power hungry gremlin so far, complete with a massive mole. He already has a sexual compulsion with an ancient relic. But Sister Mary moves out of the way of the camera, revealing what’s in the second window. It’s a disabled child, possibly Voiello’s son.
It turns out he’s an honest priest forced to use dishonest measures. He’s in tears by the end because of the evil he must do to save the Church. The Young Pope has brilliantly taken its broadest caricature and turned him into a fleshed-out person.
This all sounds like very weighty stuff, and it is. But The Young Pope is still a weird show. The details are sometimes subtle, but sometimes not. For no reason at all, Sister Mary wears a T-shirt that reads “I’M A VIRGIN BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT”. There are two scenes in this episode of nuns playing sports. We see an old cardinal get an anal injection from his doctor. There is also a fake owl statue that the sound editor decides to make hoot. The Young Pope is still a twisted and slanted world, where Merch is a Pope’s main concern. However, we hear nothing more about the pope’s favorite soda, Cherry Coke Zero®.
Then there’s Lenny’s pet. This is a typical trope of a conqueror on his way to power, taming a wild beast. Alexander tamed the man-eating horse Bucephalus. But here, Lenny confronts in its cage not a horse, or even a lion. It’s a kangaroo. A kangaroo that he befriends in a small miracle, and orders released into the Vatican gardens. Sister Mary is critical of this and tries to confront Lenny of some other event. Lenny won’t hear of it.
As preposterous as a Pope with a kangaroo is, what is going on here? Does Lenny actually have magical powers?
If Lenny is a miracle worker, it is not for the force of God.
In the end, this episode all comes down to Lenny’s speech. And here is the point where the young pope reveals just who he is – he’s a demagogue. He is utterly deranged and frightening, a man who should never have been given this much power. (Interesting week for The Young Pope to premiere, isn’t it?) Pius XIII’s first speech to the faithful is a furious tirade. “You have forgotten God!” The Pope rants at the public. He will not show them the way. They are not worthy of having God proven to them. He will not even show his face.
This week the real Pope Francis told the world not to come to Church if they did not believe. His anti-Pope has a weirdly similar message, if a twisted opposite one. “God exists, and he isn’t interested in us,” says this dark figure. The world must spend all their time with God. This is not for good works or charity, but for pure obedience to the Lord. Drums pound in the soundtrack. When a laser pointer is shown in Lenny’s face, he grows only angrier and ends his speech immediately. None of the factions watching the speech know just what to do.
In Lenny’s dream, his speech broke the storm, but in reality, his speech brings it. We end on thunderclaps, the world and cast in shock. And I think The Young Pope has won me over.