Picture two people. Then picture a wall between them. Now imagine that this wall is permeable, so that human connection can take place through it. Even so, the wall is a barrier that partially obscures the identity of the person on the other side, preserving anonymity, or at least the illusion thereof.
Congratulations: You have just imagined either a Catholic confessional or a glory hole. What this episode of The New Pope asks is, porque no los dos?
Bold even by Paolo Sorrentino’s iconoclastic standards, the latest installment of his magnificent drama about the mystery of faith concludes with a montage centered on faith in mystery. On one side of the ledger, you have Sir John Brannox, now Pope John Paul III, hearing the confession of his gentle adviser Cardinal Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez has slept with Freddie, a young man he met while investigating a sexual-abuse scandal in New York during the events of The Young Pope. He wants to ask the Holy Father why, if God satisfies his spirit and this guy satisfies his body, he still feels so empty.
“You are not alone,” replies the Pope. “That is all I can say to you.” Then he takes the remarkable step of reversing the polarity of the sacrament, asking Gutiérrez to hear his own confession. He has taken his first step toward sin, he says, no matter how much he pretends to himself that he hasn’t.
That sin is his attraction to Sofia Dubois, the Vatican’s almost ridiculously glamorous and gorgeous head of communications. (One thing that’s worth pointing out, though it never really gets talked about, is that she’s the only layperson at the top of the Vatican power structure.) Earlier in the episode we see JPIII eyeing her covetously as they cruise through the canals of Venice on the way to visit the comatose Pope Pius XIII; as if to replace his desire to be looked at by her in the same way, Brannox stands up in the boat to let a full fleet’s worth of paparazzi get a good look at him. (From his dandified wardrobe to his nonexistent relationship with his parents, I get the feeling Brannox is a man who’s desperate to be seen, by somebody, anybody.)
During his confession, Brannox imagines — or does he? The dividing line between fantasy and reality here is unclear — Sofia stripping nude in front of a fractured mirror that offers a kaleidoscopic view of her body and face. Bare-ass naked, she then approaches a wall, on the other side of which is her husband Tomas, whose ardor for her seems as much of a driving force in his life as whatever conspiracy he and the scheming Cardinal Spaletta have cooked up with the Italian finance minister. She kneels down on her side and aligns her mouth with a small hole in the wall; Tomas aligns a different part of his body entirely.
To an extent, the purpose of both barriers is defeated by the identities of the people on each side. Unlike slipping into a confessional at your local parish church, where the priest might not recognize your silhouette or voice, Gutiérrez and Brannox know full well who’s spilling their guts. As a married couple, Sofia and Tomas are quite familiar with the partner on the other side of the hole as well.
But just as the confessional booth distances the priest from the penitent, thus establishing the power differential at play in the sacrament, the glory-hole setup is a way for Tomas and Sofia to indulge a master and servant fantasy that cuts both ways, establishing Tomas as the passive recipient of sexual service and establishing Sofia as a potent enough force to gratify her man without so much as being seen by him; just the idea of her nudity and her skill with the sex act is enough to render him putty in her hands, or mouth as it were. The artificial reintroduction of mystery into these pairings lends them spiritual and erotic oomph.
Into this dynamic a third dyad is entered: Ester, the devout but tormented Pius XIII superfan, goes through with her earlier deal to offer herself sexually to a deformed young man. By this point in the episode we’ve seen her have two uncomfortable scenes with other men: In the first, her boyfriend Fabiano rejects her as a “Sunday morning Christian,” afraid to get her hands dirty; in the second, the priest who has been helping her stay afloat gropes her, which she passively either allows or endures. In returning to the lonely young man, whose face is obscured in shadow (another barrier of quasi-anonymity), she appears to derive both power and pleasure from looking at him looking at her with such open awe and desire. It’s not hard to imagine Pope John Paul III deriving similar satisfaction from his fantasy of being looked at by Sofia.
If there’s a through line that carries through the episode, it’s this tension between the need to expose secrets and the need to conceal them, the desire to be seen and the desire to hold things private. When the Vatican’s nuns go on strike in response to Cardinal Voiello’s callous denial of Sister Lisette’s request for cash to visit her ailing mother, Voiello responds by cutting off the Vatican Wi-Fi, so the nuns can’t get their story out to the world; his majordomo Don Cavallo assembles a blackmail dossier on the nuns using hidden cameras. A similar dossier is used by Cardinal Spaletta’s co-conspirator in the Italian government to force Voiello to advance Tomas and Spaletta in the Vatican hierarchy; we never see what’s in it, but Voiello buckles the moment it’s shown to him.
Similarly, when Pope John Paul III matches wits with his new “Minister of Creativity” Cardinal Spaletta, they begin with Spaletta offering him a crude bribe in the form of a Bentley — but they conclude by hinting at dark secrets each knows about the other from their earlier years. Spaletta asks oh-so-innocently about the mysterious silver box Brannox keeps by his bedside; Brannox recalls, as if conjuring up some harmless bit of nostalgia, the parade of “young visitors” who’d visit Spaletta’s room. They each know what they know, but the air of mystery must be maintained.
Speaking of mystery — literally, this is a mystery about someone speaking — JPIII is stopped on his way from Pius XIII’s hospital by the red-sweatshirted leader of the former pontiff’s idolatrous cult. She whispers something in his ear, something he refuses to divulge to anyone, at least anyone on camera. Is he just a big Lost in Translation fan, or is he preserving this secret for its own sake?
Which brings us, inevitably, to Marilyn Manson. The goth-rock icon, previously cited by Brannox as one of his favorite famous people, opens the episode with an official audience with His Holiness. Unfortunately for both parties, it quickly becomes apparent that Manson has no idea which pope he’s talking to, having mistakenly believed himself to be visiting Pius XIII. (Turns out he loves Pius’s big Venice speech at the end of The Young Pope, but apparently missed the part where that speech ended with a heart attack; he cites long hours in the studio as the culprit. In fact he didn’t even know about the interim pontiff, Francis II, at all.) Clearly this relative anonymity is a problem JPIII must overcome if his papacy is to be a success; mystery is well and good, Pius XIII thrived on it, but people still have to be at least somewhat aware that the mystery is even there.
This is not to say that the meeting isn’t fruitful. On the contrary, it’s Manson who suggests — seemingly a bit taken aback by his ability to offer a freaking pope any guidance at all — that Brannox visit Belardo in his hospital room. “Have you gone to visit him?” he asks. “The pope in a coma?” Brannox, who at first doesn’t even know who Manson’s talking about, admits he has not. “Maybe you should,” Manson says, as politely as he’s probably ever said anything to anyone. The coma in which Lenny lingers (mostly; his hand twitches when Ester has her rendezvous with her client) is itself a wall of sorts. If John Paul III is going to be a pope to transcend barriers, this is as good a place as any to start.