This is a real banger of an episode, unquestionably the high point of the series to date. There were a lot of feelings, you guys! I have never before experienced so many moments of untrammeled affection for our sexy Holy Father.
We open on the first of many callbacks to Wounded Child Lenny. In this case, it’s a dream of watching his parents recede from him, yet again, on a boat. (His father looks even more like White Jesus than usual.) Lenny is so upset to see them go that the opening credits sequence runs without music, so it looks like he’s sleepwalking through it.
Tomasso wants to bring Pius’s attention to the rumors circulating through the Vatican that he’s sleeping with Esther, and, as per usual, Pius looks like the concept of surprise or concern is utterly alien to him. Cut to the gardens, where Esther, bless her heart, thinks that Pius putting his hand on what she thinks is her womb (it’s way lower, girlfriend!) and breathily saying a Hail Mary will help her seal the deal. Upping the ante, she unbuttons her top and moves his hands up to her boob. CLICK CLICK CLICK go the telephoto lenses from Voiello’s spies. Voiello gets to know a brief moment of victory before Pius decides to break out a SHOCKINGLY MOVING speech about the nature of human loneliness and celibacy and how all priests are cowards and fear the pain of love. You can just see Voiello dying of shame. Good!
Spurred by his dream about his parents, Pius then gets off his butt and over to see Andrew. This is the first time we really see them bounce off one another, and it’s hugely successful. We flash back to their childhood attempt to run away from home, which Andrew gives up first because his parents are dead. (Lenny simply can’t bear to give up on his.) The adult Lenny and Andrew decide to do a little one-night rumspringa, which involves trying to buy cigarettes at a fancy hotel in their tracksuits, a clichéd encounter with a semi-magical sex worker, and, most important for the plot, we learn that Young Lenny performed a miracle that he prefers never to discuss. This must be the genesis of Sister Mary’s belief in his sainthood. It’s not just how hot he is.
Pius, for his part, is utterly disinterested in this miracle, as he later tells Sister Mary. The only miracle that matters is seeing his parents again (in life, not death), and it continues to evade him. It’s now time to get his house in order. His tiara has arrived, after all.
What follows is pretty bonkers and hugely enjoyable. Pius warms up by telling Gutierrez that he knows about the betrayal, he knows about the drinking, and he knows about the OTHER secret. Gutierrez nearly faints, so if it’s not his continuing visions of Mary, Lord only knows what it is. Despite those transgressions, Pius forgives him. He’s here for the big catch: Voiello.
The ensuing evisceration of Voiello is a DEE-LITE. Pius knows all of Voiello’s attempts to destroy him — “Threatening that poor girl who suffers from sterility!” — and delivers an amazing case of dead-shark-eye, carefully positioning himself on a ledge in such a way that he towers over his cowering and terrified cardinal.
With that accomplished, he’s finally ready to address the cardinals. What follows, of course, is a truly perfect, sulky-bitchy-sexy montage of Pius selecting the MOST too-much vestments for his big scene, set to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” The red gloves! The rings! The shoes! No, not those ones. The other ones! Yes, those are perfect. Then the tiara.
I loved the use of John Tavener’s gorgeous “Song for Athene” as Pius’s hype music as he enters the conclave literally carried on a sedan chair. It’s a funeral anthem, which works if you imagine that the funeral is for the Church as the cardinals had known it prior to this meeting. It’s also a lament for a lost young woman, which is no doubt why it plays as the camera pans across the face of Pius’s mother as she drops him off, an image he can’t escape even at this, his moment of greatest triumph.
Fuck those people, by the way! Dropping off your emotionally fragile preteen son so you can get your Age of Aquarius on? Pius is right that we could do with a little more shame about our selfish actions, good gravy.
Back to the speech. It’s aces. It nails down all the ideas Pius started to communicate to the faithful in his first homily. The Church is his castle and he’s pulling up the drawbridge. Things Pius is done with: evangelicalism, ecumenicalism, tolerance. He wants fanatics for God. He’s tired of part-time believers. He’s interested in great love stories. Pius wants to neg the faithful, and maybe that’s what they want most. He’s singing the song of the trad boys (the segment of the Roman Catholic Church that remains unsold on the Second Vatican Council), but this speech goes to eleven. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of relevance here to American Protestantism in our current historical moment. Mainline Protestant churches such as Presbyterianism and Lutheranism are liberalizing while simultaneously hemorrhaging members, while more conservative evangelical churches are thriving. People are very complex.
As Pius wraps up his address, he coolly pokes one Prada-clad shoe out from under his voluminous robes, and waits. Everyone is very “oh no way, is this happening?” until James Cromwell’s Spencer makes the first move. He carefully stands, removes his hat, and places it gently on his chair before kneeling at Pius’s feet and delicately kissing his shoe. Andrew follows, slightly roguishly (I haven’t looked, but I imagine the slash fic for those two is amazing), and then it’s time for a hesitant Voiello. Voiello hovers over the shoe, not quite able to do it, so Pius “helpfully” uses his OTHER foot to shove Voiello’s face down.
Oh, Pius. Never change.
The emotional peak of the episode seemingly behind us, director Paolo Sorrentino still has some more art-house tricks up his sleeve. Pius and Esther are in the garden once more, and our kangaroo friend pops out to jump for him. It’s the truest moment of unmixed joy I’ve yet seen on Pius’s face. Esther begins a halting apology, which he dismisses and forgives her. It’s at this moment that a flower chooses to burst into ripeness next to her, which both she and Pius know is a sign that his emphatic prayer on her behalf has been answered. She will receive her child.
In a delightful coda, our stigmata gentleman from last week’s episode is shown returning to his home, alone, when he glances up and sees Pius, tiara and all. He’s flanked by about six cardinals, sitting grimly at his table. When he is asked for the purpose of their visit, Voiello informs the man, “You’ve busted our balls.”
What’s so successful about this particular episode, which has the heft of a season finale without being one, is the opportunity to see Pius react authentically to moments of great joy and strain. He’s calculating as always, but when he’s with Andrew, for example, he seems also to be himself. Of course, the LMFAO helps too.