The New Pope
“No,” says Pope John Paul III. “No,” he says again. “No,” a third time, voice noticeably louder. “No! No!” By now he’s straight-up shouting. “No! No!” The crowd has taken up the chant. Before long, as he cruises in the popemobile through the streets of Lourdes — site of a massacre of disabled Catholics by followers of a mysterious Islamic fundamentalist, who keeps his face hidden in much the same way that the Church’s own extremist, Lenny “Pope Pius XIII” Belardo, once did — the masses have taken up the word like a battle cry. “No! No! NOOOOO!”
Newly crowned as the Holy Father, Sir John Brannox has managed to articulate what so many feel when faced with acts of horrific violence and cruelty, but also feel the need to be granted permission to say so forcefully. In this episode of The New Pope he’s like a calmer version of Network’s Howard Beale, allowing the world to shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from the rooftops. (It doesn’t hurt that the attacks have shifted the Church’s public perception from that of a clique of abusers to a group of innocent victims, at least according to Cardinal Voiello’s grim operative Bauer.) The forceful clarity of boiling the sentiment down to one single two-letter declaration is, perhaps, a sign of the intellect and the ability to convert nonbelievers that so impressed the Vatican delegation responsible for Brannox’s election as pope. The guy has a way with words, or in this case, with a word.
But JPIII has more on his mind than murder, and the proper response to it this time. More than any episode of The New Pope yet — and this is saying something — this one has sex on the brain. So too does the pope himself, as he struggles to find the right line to take on the twin issues of marriage in the priesthood and same-sex marriage, while at the same time battling his own attraction to women in his orbit.
That’s how the episode begins, after all: with one of Brannox’s favorite famous people, Sharon Stone, paying him a Marilyn Manson–style visit. Stone, it should be said, is much more keyed into exactly which pope she’s meeting than Manson was, and indeed she even has a demand of him: Approve of same-sex marriage for Catholics, the prohibition of which she calls a “pointless taboo.”
Brannox demurs. For one thing, he says, the Bible is not something you can upgrade like an iPhone when it’s no longer as useful as it used to be. For another, he seems distracted — to the point such a character can ever be said to be distracted, given his aloof baseline demeanor — by Stone’s legs, which he politely but firmly asks her not to uncross and recross during their meeting. This holds true even when she makes a gift of her high-heeled red-bottoms to him; her struggle to offer him these things of beauty while restraining her body in this way is, well, very very Catholic. So is Brannox’s response when she complains of being in pain and needing to shift the position of her legs after all: With a gesture of his hand, he commands all the priests in attendance to join him in looking away.
“Someday,” he says ruefully after the deed is done and they all turn back to look at her, “we will all come to appreciate the beauty of sacrifice … though not today.”
That said, Brannox appears to take Stone’s words to heart. After slipping his private phone number to his PR guru Sofia Dubois, he winds up on a late-night assignation with her at the tomb of his immediate predecessor, Francis II. (Sofia calls him only after her shifty, cokehead conspirator husband Tomas goes out for the evening; the sense that she’s booty-calling the pope is hard to shake.) It’s here that JPIII tells her he plans to authorize both straight and same-sex marriage for the clergy, despite what he said to that other regal blonde earlier in the episode. This appears to be the resounding yes that accompanies his roar of no.
But getting ahold of what Brannox is really thinking is as much of a challenge to the audience as it is to the characters. Here’s a guy who gives Sofia his private line, then lets it ring a dozen times before picking up. “I wanted you to believe your call wasn’t important to me,” he tells her. “And instead, you have been waiting for me to call,” she replies. “My whole life,” he says. It would be flirtatious if he didn’t seem so deadly serious.
Brannox plays a similar game of self-contradiction when, after telling Sofia about his marriage plans, she makes the same comparison about the Bible and iPhones he did with Stone. He rejects the comparison almost out of hand as too glib. Is he sincerely responding to Sofia, whom he evidently respects a great deal, enough not to pull his punches? Or is he mocking his own glibness with Stone? Or both?
While Brannox is busy entertaining glamorous women with his air of aristocratic mystery, other characters are busy skipping past the verbal foreplay and getting it on. Cardinal Gutiérrez has another liaison with his lover Freddie, after which he eyes the hotel minibar in their room; as an alcoholic, is he capable of fighting off this temptation after giving into another?
In the Vatican toolshed, Sister Caterina and her refugee lover Faisal get past his earlier reticence, as we learn when we watch them share a post-coital cigarette. Later, we discover that she is now pregnant. The scandal-rocked Church will have a hard time convincing anyone this is a virgin birth, especially with Cardinal Voiello’s right-hand man Don Cavallo recording the nuns’ conversations.
Finally, Lenny Belardo’s old acolyte Ester reaches her breaking point with her pimp of a boyfriend Fabiano, whom we discover has sold access to her body not only to the deformed rich kid from the last episode but also to the sketchy priest we’ve seen groping her. She scoops up her son, Pius, and makes a break for it late one night.
And why wouldn’t she? In a sequence that dominates the final minutes of the episode, the whole world seems to listen in rapt attention as an Italian radio station broadcasts the sound of the comatose Pius XIII breathing, peppered with an occasional sigh that is slowly increasing in frequency as he lies there. “He has come back!” shouts the head of his idolatrous cult. “Pius XIII is back!” If I were Ester, I’d take that as a sign that it’s time for a change of scenery, too.
But what to make of the highly symbolic millipede that crawls across Lenny’s hand as he lies in his bed? We’ve previously seen these critters crawl on Brannox’s father, in a glass box possessed by his brother Adam in a flashback, and out of the mysterious silver box Brannox keeps by his bedside. Are the millipedes real animals? Are they figments of the fevered imaginations of the viewers? Are they a supernatural sign from God, or the Devil? Is anything really as simple as yes or no?