“You remind me of my favorite actor, John Malkovich.”
“Doesn’t do much for me.”
It feels too easy, somehow, to lead a review of an episode of television as rich as The New Pope’s third installment with the cheap pop of a fourth-wall break. But that’s the thing about The New Pope: It can make easy meta-jokes, like Cécile de France’s Vatican PR maven Sofia Dubois telling John Malkovich’s character that he looks like John Malkovich, and still be an enormously affecting and visually spectacular meditation on desire, duty, family, sex, and the need for human connection even in the face of extraordinary obstacles. Hell, it even can crack wise about Megan Markle floundering in her role as royalty—a reference that wound up being unbelievably timely—and still feel more like a poem than a gossip rag. That is its power.
And what is the power of Sir John Brannox, the man who at long last travels to the Vatican and is crowned the new pope by the time this episode ends? Suffering. After spending decades living with parents who despise him for what they feel was his role in the death of his twin brother Adam, the one for whom they’d constructed grand plans that John himself now appears to have commandeered, he’s uniquely suited for the role of Holy Father.
“All my life I have negated myself in the pathetic attempt to alleviate your suffering,” he says to his parents in a monologue that bursts into a one-sided shouting match. “To no avail! I became my brother in the hope of bringing a smile to your faces, even just once. To no avail! But now, it all makes sense, for it has served to make me pope. Me, not Adam! I will be pope and I will continue to forsake myself, as I’ve done for you for all these years—only now I will be doing it for all the Catholics in the world. For that is what love means to me: forsaking myself. You’re the ones who taught me that, hating me every day. And so, after living my life in the service of my mother, my father, my brother, and receiving nothing but contempt, I should now live my life in the service of the Church and its people, hoping to receive, for the first time, an ounce of affection! I can be pope, because I know how to endure suffering. Others don’t.”
It’s a startling and remarkable speech for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s the first, and thus far only, time we’ve seen Sir John display any passion, or allow his voice to rise above the volume of a murmur or a purr or a sigh. Secondly, it connects him to his predecessor Pius XIII—aka Lenny Belardo, an orphan abandoned by his parents and in constant search of them. Turns out you can be abandoned by your parents even if you never leave their side.
Third, it presents a stark contrast with the speeches he delivers upon his ascension to the papacy, first to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, then to the College of Cardinals in his first formal address to them. To the public, he espouses the value of family, something denied him, and the need to protect everything that is fragile in the world, a protection obviously never extended to him by the people whose job it is to protect him. To the cardinals, he offers his vision of ideal love: tenderness, something he has never been shown, as opposed to passion, which despite outward appearances he obviously harbors in spades and unleashes upon his parents in that fiery diatribe. “Passion is the eternal enemy of humility,” he says, and judging from what he said to Mommy and Daddy Dearest, he’s not far off the mark.
The lynchpin of Sir John’s psychology is suffering, yes, but just as key is who he’s willing and able to suffer for. Gentle Cardinal Gutiérrez (an absolutely phenomenal Javiar Cámara) tells Brannox that his lack of dismay over the Catholic victims of a terrorist attack indicates that “perhaps you are committed to suffering only for those who are close to you.” Brannox himself repeats this as self-condemnation during his long dark night of the soul prior to accepting the role of pope when he communes with the spirit of Pius XIII; good old Lenny suggests this simply means he has been given the opportunity to learn and grow, which will endear him to God. The big question of his papacy is whether, as the father of the Church, he now considers the world his family, and thus takes its suffering seriously.
Suffering and passion are the throughlines for the entire episode, as a variety of subplots reflect back on Sir John’s dilemma. One of the Vatican’s cloistered nuns requests a small amount of money to be able to visit her dying mother, but she’s denied this by Cardinal Voiello’s majordomo Don Cavallo, who lies and says this was Voiello’s decision when in fact he’d never been informed of the request at all. In response, she gets a tattoo of a nun with a raised fist, auguring rebellion within the heart of the Church.
Another nun, Caterina, makes good on the furtive glances she exchanged with a handsome young refugee named Faisal, who’s stayed hidden on the Vatican grounds after all the other migrants have been forced out. But when she offers herself to him, he runs—clearly out of fear rather than revulsion. It’s as if he can’t bear to bring passion into this woman’s life.
Finally, Esther, Lenny Belardo’s biggest fan, accepts an offer set up by her goofy-looking new boyfriend Fabiano to have sex with the deformed son of a rich woman in exchange for a life-saving infusion of cash, now that she’s broke and homeless with a son to worry about. The young man stays mostly shrouded in darkness, though it appears he suffers from hypertrichosis (colloquially known as “werewolf syndrome”); when he reaches out to touch her bare breasts, she too breaks and runs away. And again, it doesn’t appear that fear or revulsion is a factor: Esther is too devout and too ashamed to “prostitute” herself in this way, no matter the lofty purpose of it all.
“I have decided not to choose,” Sir John tells the Vatican delegation before he accepts their offer, “not choosing being the only thing at which I truly excel.” What bedevils him (before Voiello finally wins him over by appealing to his English chauvinism and effectively threatening to crown a French pope instead, something Brannox gets a good laugh out of when he learns the cardinal in question is dead) appears to be the tension between what he wants to do, what he needs to do, and what is right to do. Faisal and Esther could no doubt relate. In all three cases, passion distorts and clouds judgment—but without passion, what kind of people would we be?