The Young Pope
We open on Pius praying for our departed, gut-shot brother Andrew. It’s a very beautiful and kind and generous prayer, and also completely of this Earth, all about the things Andrew enjoyed and looked to in his lifetime. It’s also very Pius, as is his decision to deliver said prayer to God while shirtless and at the bottom of the swimming pool at the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo, which has a fascinating history all its own.
His other methods for dealing with his grief and guilt at Andrew’s passing include, but are not limited to: semi-nude wrestling and massages from loincloth-clad handlers, playing tennis against a wall, more conventional prayer, complaining about how bored he is. Sister Mary is sticking with the tried-and-true “lie in bed on your stomach weeping uncontrollably while clutching a picture of your departed loved one.” She, unlike Pius, has no reason to blame herself for Andrew’s death, which simplifies her burden.
Sofia, my all-time fave woman, descends in the helicopter to visit Pius, clad in a very sharp lightweight summer suit and a brand new updo. She looks fantastic, as always. He claims to have summoned her to complain about something, but obviously just wanted to see her. Things are objectively going very badly for his papacy, and she tells him that he’s offered all stick and no carrot. What he NEEDS to do is … haul his ass to Africa. A famous philanthropist nun named Sister Antonia is celebrating the 30th anniversary of her very first “Village of Goodness,” so it’s time to go press the flesh. Having heard that Sister Antonia has horrible breath AND being utterly disinterested in attention being paid to anyone else, you can imagine Pius is underwhelmed at the prospect.
He’s substantially more perked-up by a visit from Elmore Cohen, his favorite author — and an obvious Philip Roth stand-in, based on the nature of his work and his conversations with Pius — and we can tell he’s more preoccupied with thoughts of women (his old California girlfriend, in particular) than usual. He’s also surprised to see that Esther and her family have decamped from the Vatican, and horrified to learn they’ve left behind the framed photo of him holding Baby Pius. Also, the kangaroo is dead. We do not receive further information about the death of the kangaroo. It’s very Sorrentino.
We know he’s at a low ebb, because he actually goes to see Spencer for advice. Spencer is sick, so I guarantee he’ll be dead before the season ends. RIP in advance. Remarkably, Spencer manages to be both perceptive to Pius’s malaise and reasonably helpful. “You don’t believe in God,” he says, flatly and nonjudgmentally. He tells him that it happens to most priests at the midpoint of their lives, and that the second calling is harder than the first. There’s no reason it should upset him, but he’ll have to find a new path for his pastoral life. Pius is obviously and nakedly grateful for this conversation, and we get to see the intensity of their relationship in a way that’s been absent from the show so far. Spencer concludes by telling him that he needs to go to Venice and bury two empty coffins, which, in my opinion, is not the worst advice in the world.
Pius phones his way through another half-assed public mass for about six members of the faithful in St. Peter’s Square (with his back to the congregation, naturally), and then abruptly announces he’s going to Africa to celebrate this village he has no interest in going to. Then he eats a banana from his bowl of fruit and strolls off while Sofia frantically makes preparations.
The papal plane to the village is basically Rihanna’s plane from that tour that went horribly wrong: stuffed with reporters who expected access to the celebrity in question, and who have received none. Unlike Rihanna’s plane, a reporter on this one has a scoop that Kurtwell, the pedophile archbishop of New York, is blackmailing Pius, which is why he packed off someone as inexperienced and unqualified as Gutierrez to lead the investigation.
Then we land. There are a lot of similarities between how this episode handles its African interlude and how The Crown handled its own. It’s very easy to do things in a vaguely racist way and present it as “this is how people are racist about things,” and doing so will almost always fall flat. Here, of course, we have the deliberate elision of WHERE the action is taking place in Africa — it seems to be a fictionalized, unnamed country suffering through a prolonged civil war between a dictatorial leader propped up by Sister Antonia and a group of rebels — as well as the failure to assign any speaking roles to black characters. Sorrentino dances around the problem by going super-stylized and cinematic with his shots and set pieces, but it doesn’t change the fact that Pius parachutes in to intervene in a crisis he doesn’t understand in the least, with zero buy-in from the people involved (except for a single note, begging for help, passed by a character who doesn’t speak.) It’s not great. It’s also not great that the show jumps right to the Evil Lesbian Nun trope, so popular in the mid-20th century, to buttress its characterization of Sister Antonia.
The general course of the plot here is that Sister Antonia cut off the clean water supply to her villagers and doled it out in single glasses in exchange for praise and favors (sexual and otherwise), while preventing them from gathering any from natural sources by claiming health concerns. It offers Pius a chance to opine on the nature of goodness while popping off about the sin of choosing war over peace, which is a weird and tone-deaf thing to say to a bunch of people living in crisis who have literally no control over the existence of said war … and THEN he tells Sister Antonia that her bad breath comes from her reeking soul.
Did I mention that his big speech is set to a slow-jam cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo”? I may not have mentioned that.
As Pius and his team return to Italy, he asks that they pull over at a rest stop so he can get his prayer on: “Oh Lord, let us look each other right in the eyes, we can no longer put off this matter, we need to speak about Sister Antonia.”
Wait, is he going to ask God to smite a nun?
(wait for it)
(wait for it)
YEP, GOD SMITES THAT NUN TO DEATH. It happens right then and there, as Pius prays on his knees in a parking lot at night, backlit by about ten massive transport trucks. It’s pretty great! The episode was meh, but that woman was a real bitch. I will withhold my RIP at this time.