The Young Pope
This is the GREATEST episode. I don’t care if the season finale is just Lenny playing bocce or Gutierrez getting really into paint-by-numbers kits or, God forbid, a musical episode. I got what I needed. I am good.
We have a lot to cover, so I’ll briefly breeze by the opening scene, which is just Pius and Spencer debating abortion for ten minutes. Legalism, compassion, grave moral disorders, ensoulment, Lenny has mommy issues, etc. etc. There, I just caught you up. The vast majority of this, again, just truly stupendous episode takes place with Gutierrez in New York City. I care TOO MUCH about Gutierrez. I care about his sad face, I care about his drinking, I care about his visions of the Madonna, I care about his beautiful faith in God and his absolute lack of faith in himself. I care about how much he haaaaates Archbishop Kurtwell and his willingness to do anything, INCLUDING ENTRAPMENT, to bring that bastard down.
It’s very easy for a show to get us to rally emotionally around a hero when his antagonist is a Child Molester In a Position of Power, but, whatever, there’s a reason for that. I was baying for blood two minutes into the episode. I would have cheerfully accepted it if Kurtwell wound up impaled on the spire of the Chrysler Building. THE FICTIONAL VILLAIN IS SCUM.
As a character, though, Kurtwell is a bit thin. He gets a catchphrase (“always get a seat at the back of the train”) and a mildly-sad childhood (not sad enough) and tremors that suggest some kind of Parkinson’s-esque condition, but, again, this is mostly just Child Molester In a Position of Power. That’s fine. It really doesn’t hold the show back.
Facing off again Kurtwell, Gutierrez gets to wring every ounce of nuance for himself, and that’s a joy. He’s wandering, hungover or drunk, around the streets of New york, making his sad little evidence wall and living in squalor and utterly unable to pull himself out of his own misery. It’s A LOT. We see him slam up against the wall of the Church’s institutional power over and over again, and it’s clear that we’re a long way from Rome. His interactions with Kurtwell’s victims are very human and very fumbling and beautiful. He’s so desperate to take the archbishop down, and yet completely unwilling to force anyone else’s hand. It’s always interesting to see what version of New York a show decides to go with, and Sorrentino opts for a very anonymous and very depressing place filled with empty alleys and liquor stores and extended-stay hotels, all of which makes sense if you’re seeing it from Gutierrez’ perspective.
One of those liquor stores employs a ridiculously good-looking man, unwilling to drop a dime on Kurtwell, but nonetheless very sympathetic to Gutierrez. He also makes a half-joking, half-cruel pass at him, to which Gutierrez barely reacts. It occurs to me that the show has never really indicated if Gutierrez is gay or straight; his loneliness really transcends categorization. I’m reminded of Alan Bennett’s classic line about his own sexual orientation: “That’s a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.”
There’s a minor subplot about a large woman who owns Gutierrez’ hotel and needs to be hoisted out through a wall on a crane for surgery, but it’s laid on rather thick. It seems to exist largely to telegraph, “LOOK, GUTIERREZ FEELS TRAPPED BY HIS CIRCUMSTANCES TOO, BUT MUST CHOOSE NOT TO BE IMPRISONED BY THEM.” Let’s give it a pass.
Back in Rome, Pius gets a blank letter from Gutierrez — he’s really going for max pathetic points in his interactions with the pope — and then a thoroughly depressing Facetime tour around his horrible, filthy hotel room. Pius is like, “You can come home. Don’t worry about the job. Just … come on home,” which is like providing spiritual comfort, but not. Pius has his own preoccupations: Spencer is 100 percent dying, Esther and her husband and the baby are living by the beach, and Pius clearly knows that Kurtwell has SOMETHING on him.
Our salvation comes in the form of a hugely-traumatized man in a bright orange wig, who basically stalks Gutierrez until Gutierrez gets up the courage to call him on it. He is Kurtwell’s son, and also his victim, and he’s willing to talk. When confronted with this, Kurtwell barely blinks. “The pope can’t get to the bottom of things with me and he knows that full well.” OKAY, WE GET IT, YOU HAVE SECRETS ABOUT PIUS.
Back in Rome, the real emotional gut punch of the season finally unfolds. It’s built around Spencer’s death, but I’ve never really cared about him, so I was prepared to be pretty stoic. What accompanies it has been telegraphed for quite a few episodes, but still knocked me on my ass. Spencer doesn’t want to go to his grave not knowing if he was a sucker for believing in God, and asks Pius to tell him about the caretaker’s wife, the miracle that Pius has steadfastly refused to discuss. To Pius, of course, ever burdened with his own preoccupations, she’s always going to be “Billy’s mother.”
We are transported to the caretaker’s cottage, where Billy’s mother looks to be about 20 minutes away from death. Young Lenny asks for permission to pray beside her. He does the hands-lifted-in-prayer wingspan look that his adult self will later possess, and says, “Lord, we must talk about Billy’s mother now.” He prays. Light breaks in. She sits up, healed. It’s all VERY Hallmark and VERY Thomas Kinkade and I was crying so hard there was snot running down my face. Back in the present day, Spencer smiles, and Pius says, “Billy’s mother is still alive.”
(I am still crying.)
Spencer, rallying himself to say something kind for once, tells Pius that his mother is alive too, and he will find her. Then Pius and Spencer both cry like babies and I continue to cry and I feel hugely manipulated but also profoundly moved.
The rest of the episode is a triumphalist masterpiece that gives us everything we want. Gutierrez rolls up to Kurtwell’s house and summons him to the Vatican. Kurtwell’s response: YA GOT NOTHIN’, YA LITTLE NONENTITY. Oh, is that so? IS THAT SO? Or, in fact, does Gutierrez have photographs of Kurtwell getting sucked off by the hot guy from the liquor store, kindly provided by said hot guy from the store’s security footage?
Like the pathetic loser he is, Kurtwell immediately calls Pius to tell him he’ll reveal everything (we still do not know what “everything” consists of), to which Pius barely reacts, other than to say, “Go for it, the world is always ready for love.” Kurtwell calls a Sy Hersh-type guy over at the New Yorker and yanks a thick dossier out of a wall safe. It’s all VERY over-the-top, and we’re prepared for whips and chains and poppers and so on.
Uhhh … it’s just letters. Unmailed, unsent letters that Lenny wrote to his California girlfriend about love. It’s basically a Peter, Paul & Mary song. You couldn’t blackmail Andy Griffith with this shit. After that blows up in Kurtwell’s face, Gutierrez gets to twist the knife a little by confiscating his car. Yeah, you’re taking the train to JFK. Suffer, bitch.
Cut to Esther playing on the beach with a now very-big Baby Pius. She discovers the framed photograph they left behind at the Vatican, and looks up just in time to see the papal helicopter zipping away. Nice try, lady! The pope decides when you’re done being friends.
In just a beautiful, funny, sweet coda, the New Yorker runs Pius’ love letters, which everyone adores and finds hugely relatable. We see a mother read them, mist up, and step outside to juggle oranges for her children just like Pius taught her. Then I cried a lot and then the episode ended. Love is very beautiful!