The New Pope
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed priest is king. Or something like that. How else to explain the opening scene of tonight’s characteristically excellent episode of The New Pope, in which an eyepatch-wearing priest with the Pynchonesque name “Leopold Essence” approaches PR maven Sofia Dubois in the Vatican cafeteria, claims to be “the second most intelligent man in the world,” questions whether her financier husband Tomas Altbruck can truly be called “a man,” advises her to “Follow the love: That’s where you will find failure,” and produces a massive insect from up his sleeve for good measure? (It’s not the millipede that’s basically been a recurring character this season, but the effect is not dissimilar.)
The one-eyed priest sees clearly, as it turns out. Several scenes later, Sofia spies on the aftermath of a cocaine-fueled orgy between her husband Tomas, high-ranking Vatican official Cardinal Spalletta, Italian finance minister Giucciardini, and an underage girl. She followed her love and found failure, just as Essence promised — though his pet bug later shows up in Sofia’s car, just in case she didn’t get the message the first time around. If Pope John Paul III was correct several episodes ago when he said the one problem facing the Church is “hysterias of love” — a notion Essence quotes during his conversation with Sofia — here, then, is a clear example.
What to do about it? That’s a murkier question. From his perch as Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello tells Brannox that the three men are laundering money. When confronted about what Sofia discovered, Cardinal Spalletta claims his orgiastic misbehavior is simply a way to keep Guicciardini, and by extension the Italian government, on the Church’s good side, lest they go through with plans to retroactively tax the Church’s real estate.
So JPIII takes the remarkable step of asking Cardinal Voiello to step down rather than Cardinal Spalletta, in order to keep the scandal from leaking. But he doesn’t do so directly, since he hates giving orders. “I adore giving orders,” Voiello replies with all sincerity. “It’s my whole life!”
And before tendering his resignation, Voiello gets a few final orders in. He sends his rival Cardinal Hernández to Kabul, Afghanistan — a place where there are no Catholics, and thus no more abusive priests whose crimes he can cover up. He sorts things out among the Vatican’s cloistered nuns, arranging for therapy for a sister afflicted with kleptomania, reassigning another so she’ll no longer be subject to abuse by three of her peers, arranging for a breast cancer screening for the Abbess, and constructing a cover story for the pregnant nun in the form of a new program of taking in orphans. All he asks in return is that the baby be named Angelo, after him. (“What if the baby is a girl?” she asks. “It’s a unisex name,” he insists.)
Even as the Vatican power structure quakes, Ester, Pope Pius XIII’s ardent acolyte, faces “hysterias of love” all her own. In fairly short order she has excised her pimp boyfriend Fabiano from her life and taken full financial charge of the sex work she performs for Attanasio, the hirsutism-afflicted son of a wealthy aristocrat. Turns out the woman is part of a network of mothers whose sons’ physical conditions have stood in the way of sexual intimacy with women. So now, instead of merely visiting with Attanasio, Ester performs in front of a rapt audience of a dozen or so young, isolated men, illuminated by crashes of lightning outside.
“You are a saint, Ester,” Attanasio’s mother says before she takes on these new clients.
“I’m a whore,” Ester says.
“Do you know what the difference is between a whore and a saint?” the woman replies. “None.”
But just as quickly as we learn of this development, it’s all over. Attanasio’s mother cuts Ester off, claiming she’s growing too old. But the real issue, as Ester uncovers by sticking up for herself, is the actual, bonafide love she’s begun to feel for Attanasio, and possibly vice versa. His mother more or less admits that only she is allowed to love her son — “in every sense,” she adds, heavily implying, and not for the first time either, that before she employed Ester she tended to the kid’s sexual needs herself. “Sex has no value because it lives and dies in the present,” she explains. “Love is dangerous because it looks to the future.”
A future without this connection to Attanasio is too much for Ester to bear. In a fit of rage, she strangles his mother on a balcony overlooking a stormy sea, as an apparition of Pius XIII looks on. The next morning, Pius’s finger twitches in his hospital room, and the mother miraculously revives, sparing Ester the additional burden of murder. She and her son wind up in the arms of the idolatrous cult outside Pius’s hospital room — yet another port in the storm her life has become.
Where does all this leave our title character? With his new team in tow — Cardinal Assente is the new Secretary of State, with Cardinal Spalletta secure in his own high-ranking position — he submits to an interview, broadcast live on television. But he’s only a few minutes into an impromptu sermon on evil when, overcome by some physical malady, he gets up and excuses himself. Again, this is all going out live on TV.
“He’s just a little bit nervous,” Sofia insists.
“You don’t get it, do you,” Spalletta retorts. “He’s in withdrawal, damn it!” Ashes to ashes, fun to funky, we know that Pope John Paul’s a junkie, strung out in Heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low. (Apologies to David Bowie, who seems like he’d be a Sir John Brannox favorite were he still alive.)
I’ve thought about this tumultuous, remarkable episode quite a bit, and the connective tissue seems to me to be the issue of desire. Desire can make a person beautiful through the act of feeling it, the way Attanasio became beautiful to Ester through his desire for her. Not being desired can make a person feel ugly, the way Sofia sees her own face distorted in a mirror after the truth about her husband comes out. A lifetime of not being desired, the kind of life Brannox has experienced after the death of his brother, leaves one searching for something to fill the void — religion first, then drugs when that won’t do. Follow the love: That’s where you’ll find failure. It’s harsh, but at times at least, it’s true.