If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, The New Pope, like its predecessor, The Young Pope, is a show about everything. Everything important, anyway. Love, faith, sex, death, shame, grief, God, lust, politics, violence, orgasms, depression, art, poetry, music, hope — all of it coming at you faster than you can keep up with, all of it wrapped in a package as beautiful as one of the bespoke suits worn by Sir John Brannox, the man who will soon be … well, you know.
That man is played by John Malkovich, who makes his full debut this episode as the dandy English cardinal whom the powers that be at the Vatican hope to crown the next pontiff. Malkovich makes a meal of the role. This, of course, isn’t saying much, as Malkovich chows down on pretty much every role he takes, in the most Malkovichian way possible. It’s both his charm as an actor, and his limitation.
That’s certainly true here. But creator-co-writer-director Paolo Sorrentino uses Malkovich’s Malkovichness to the part’s advantage, by judo-throwing all his signature tics — the off-kilter speech patterns, the languid demeanor, the inscrutable expressions — into the portrayal of a dandy, depressive aristocrat who seems to toy with his suitors’ expectations of him out of sheer force of habit.
Sir John, we learn, once dazzled Great Britain as a great converter of Anglicans to the Catholic faith, accomplished (he says) by talking to them about poetic things (e.g. Arsenal FC, or the way women cross their legs) so they would recognize the poetry in all things, enabling them to locate God’s grace there, too. Now he’s retired from the stage on which he was once an actor, living in semi-seclusion with his ailing parents, who’ve spent 35 years blaming him for the death of his twin brother. In fact, saying he lives “with” them is overstating the case, as they occupy a separate wing of the family estate and take great pains never to look at him, going so far as to snip him out of family photographs. (Indeed, their devotion to grieving their dead son is so total that not even a crawling millipede on his ear interrupts Sir John’s father from his pieties.) This leads to several memorable shots of Sir John peering in on them as they convalesce, making his mother tremble with rage at the very sight of him.
You’d think that after the abortive experiments that were the papacies of Pius XIII (remote and dictatorial) and Francis II (openhearted, ascetic, and also dictatorial), the team led by Cardinal Voiello would shy away from such an obvious eccentric. But Sir John is a known proponent of the so-called “middle way” between conservatism and liberalism in the Church, a Goldilocks solution to the Vatican’s four-fold dilemma: the sex-abuse scandal, terrorist threats, the idolatrous fixation on the comatose Pius XIII, and the cloud of suspicion surrounding the death of Francis II, who many suspect was assassinated.
For some members of the delegation, simply being in the presence of Brannox and his castle full of sensual splendor appears to engender a crisis of faith. In a pair of powerfully minimalist scenes, Cardinal Assente (Maurizio Lombardi), a high-cheekboned and bespectacled clergyman whose homosexuality is an open secret, first attempts to seduce his brother cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara, a marvel of restraint), then fights the temptation to try again. “I felt lonely all of a sudden,” he says when Gutierrez opens his door; “But if I let you come in now, you’ll feel even more lonely later,” Gutierrez responds, with evident effort. An apparition of Pius XIII tells him he did the right thing, but the specter of a not-even-dead pope is only so much comfort in such situations.
Of course, as ordained priests, Assente and Gutierrez face restrictions that not every member of the delegation shares. Sofia (Cécile de France), the glamorous Vatican PR guru, enjoys a rather rollicking sex life throughout the episode. She flirts shamelessly with some of Francis II’s lingering Franciscan monk goon squad before flipping them the bird. She kneels fully clothed before her husband, allowing him to jerk off in front of her, though he disobeys her order not to make a mess on her suit. And she has cybersex with him while in Brannox’s estate, with the spirit of Pius XIII looking on. Little does she know that her husband is conspiring to take advantage of Sir John’s ascendancy, though to what purpose we’re not yet clued in. Regardless, her arc in this episode is a powerful taste of the profane against the sacred — or the sacred against the sanctimonious, depending on your perspective.
At any rate, Sir John has yet to make his decision to accept the delegation’s offer by the time the episode concludes, though he does summon them to an audience in a stunningly white and overwrought chapel to inform them his decision is pending. It’s here where, at Sir John’s behest, Gutierrez — seen as a Debbie Downer by Voiello, and not without reason — attempts to define love for Brannox. “Love is an abstract concept,” he says, “but a necessary one, like happiness, like intelligence, like God.” Gutierrez goes on to reveal that he was molested as a child, and that his abuser would tell him there is no God as he abused him. “Even if he doesn’t exist,” Gutierrez would reply, “we desperately need to believe he’s there.”
Brannox flips this parable of belief on its head. He offers a parable of his own, about a vagrant on the street. While various figures in his life offer to help, the Church, Brannox says, simply thinks about the man. In a similar fashion, Sir John will think about the Church, and thereby come up with his answer.
And after this emotional, intellectual, aesthetic smorgasbord, the episode ends with Bauer, the Vatican’s ambassador-slash-assassin, watching his date dance in a 24-hour fast-food joint. The sacred and the profane, the sainted and the sexual, the mind and the soul and the body — The New Pope stakes its claim on it all. Amen.