The New Pope
Hallelujah! He is risen!
And wow, what a way to come back. Prior to his proper emergence from a 12-month coma, Lenny Belardo, the erstwhile Pope Pius XIII, appears in an opening dream sequence or surrealist fantasia or whatever the hell it is. He emerges from the sea like a Bond girl, or Venus sans clamshell. He approaches a bikini-clad Ester, his most loyal acolyte, and pulls a cigarette out of her enormous cross necklace. As his “All Along the Watchtower” remix theme plays, he struts through a phalanx of beautiful women tossing volleyballs back and forth, while others, including Vatican PR guru Sofia Dubois in a swimsuit, gaze at him lustily. He passes stand-ins for his long-lost mother, for his mother figure Sister Mary, and for Mother Mary herself. He winks at the camera.
He’s back, baby!
That is part of how Lenny Belardo returns to our screens as an active figure in this episode, but only a small part, and a part well removed from the tone of the rest of this episode. Camp has its place on The New Pope, just as it did on The Young Pope. The extreme physical beauty of actor Jude Law deserves to be showcased now as it did then. And writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s bravado, his willingness to submerge the sacred into the profane like he’s directing Piss Christ: The Series, is at its peak here.
But then … well, then there’s the rest of the episode. A meditative, somber, sorrowful business about a sick boy, immobile and insensate, and his parents, who’ve spent his whole young life grieving. A harrowing look at wasted lives, described by the boy’s mother thusly: “We are dead, in a dead house, in a dead city.” A wrestling match with the mysteries of faith, and a real slobberknocker at that — one that involves Pius XIII shouting repeatedly at God to make this sick boy a man, one that culminates with his inability to effect a lasting miracle cure for the child. A brief respite from the pain as Lenny offers to serve as a glorified babysitter so that his parents — one the cardiologist who presided over Belardo’s miraculous recovery, the other his ex-model wife — can go out for a night on the town, empty though it may be during the tourism off-season, allowing her to do her model’s strut down the boulevard for her husband’s appreciation, just like she did the night they got engaged. A parable that ends with the sight of the boy glowing and floating in the air as the Young Pope and the boy’s parents pray, hand in hand.
And that’s just the Lenny material. His successor, Sir John Brannox, spends much of the episode in seclusion, devastated that a half-hearted “attack” on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican — it appears to have just been the refugee kid Faisal’s attempt to get back at the Church for kicking him out of his residence on the grounds by vandalizing the place — killed his beloved dog. Brannox confesses to Cardinal Guttiérez that he’s “indolent … pompous … irresponsible … conceited … a disappointment … an undistinguished thespian … a weak man … a drug addict.” (It’s an echo of the litany of superlatives that Eva, the boy’s mother, heaps on Lenny, when she says he’s “beyond the Pope … a saint … Christ … the Messiah.”) Brannox even admits that his influential treatise on the so-called “middle way” between reaction and reform was actually written by his twin brother, Adam, who died before he could publish it, allowing John to deceitfully claim it as its own.
He says all of this to Guttiérez’s soft, brown-eyed face — which is immediately transformed into a picture of shock and unhoped-for relief when he receives the call, postponed for at least a day or two at Lenny’s request, that Pius XIII has awoken. “Holy Father,” Guttiérez says, turning back to Brannox, “I have something to tell you.” Actor Javier Cámara exercises more power in these moments with just his eyes than many performers do during the entire run of a series.
There’s more. (Of course there’s more: This is The New Pope we’re talking about, where “more” is the law.) There are Vatican power politics in play when Faisal is thrown out, since it’s done at the order of Don Cavallo, who was once Cardinal Voiello’s assistant but has stayed on to help the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Assente. Only he’s not helping, he’s calling the shots, and he’s doing so by sexually harassing Assente, whom he says is attracted to him. (“Try and deny it, you little whore,” he adds.)
There’s the continuing mystery of Bauer, the Vatican’s black operative, too. Somehow, he receives a call that Lenny has woken up before anyone else, even when the only people who know (as far as we can tell) are the doctor who treated him, the nun who attended him, and Lenny himself. “Except for the doctor and the nun,” Bauer says to his unknown source, “no one should know he woke up until I say so.” What game is he playing, and on whose behalf is he playing it?
And is he tied to the decision to cease the radio broadcast of Lenny’s breathing on the very night that Lenny comes to? Belardo’s cultists, Ester included, take this as a sign that Lenny is dead, that the Vatican power structure has killed him. Half of the contingent abandons their vigil outside the building where Lenny is resting and walks naked into the sea, a dark mirror image of the beach imagery of the opening. I have no idea if they intend to walk back out again.
I want to close these thoughts on this exceptional hour of television by noting that Lenny says something interesting about heaven to Eva and the doctor. After whispering his detailed knowledge of the place into the ear of their son, who weeps a single tear after hearing it, he later explains that heaven is exactly like Earth, “except it’s not the same, because in heaven, we glimpse God.” On a smaller, less cosmic scale, I think this is what The Young Pope and The New Pope offer audiences. This is a very real world, a world of cigarettes and sex, politics and personal grievances, dead dogs, dead brothers, sick children, sickened parents. Except it’s not the same as our world, because on The Young Pope and The New Pope, we glimpse … not God, I suppose, but Art. That’s close enough.