The New Pope
When it finally happens, the meeting of the Young Pope and the New Pope is an anticlimax. It’s not the confrontation, the clash, the climax promised by the opening credits, which feature Sir John Brannox leading a procession from the right-hand side of the screen while Lenny Belardo strides across the beach in his skivvies from the left, presaging a showdown in the center that never arrives. It’s just Pius XIII in the garb of a simple priest, walking into a room where John Paul III waits for him. It happens so simply and so quickly I didn’t even realize what I was looking at.
And that’s just one of the ways that the season finale of The New Pope, one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen, defies expectations. For example, did you expect it to suddenly turn into a white-knuckle political thriller? I sure didn’t. So imagine my surprise — or maybe you don’t have to imagine, maybe it was your surprise, too — when much of the action is dominated by a hostage crisis in an elementary school, where fundamentalists who at first appear to be disciples of the Islamic State’s Caliph step up their apparent season-long vendetta against the church by threatening children. (Don’t worry, this isn’t retrograde War on Terror jingoism; there’s more to these terrorists than meets the eye.) But we’ll come back to all this.
JPIII defies expectations as well, by emerging from seclusion and delivering the Angelus to the assembled faithful in Saint Peter’s Square. With precision and passion, he rattles off a litany of ways all of us have been wronged —jilted by lovers, abandoned by friends, rejected by employers, condemned by parents — and the bad hands life has dealt us, everything from acne to anorexia, and proclaims, “I am one of you.” Our problems don’t make us the problem, he argues, but the solution. “We are all miserable wretches whom God brought together to form a glorious church,” he quotes as a summation of his doctrine. It’s a sentiment that moves even Cardinal Voiello to tears.
As for Lenny, it’s as if he’s rocketing through the first season’s entire character arc in the space of a single episode, from tyrannical to ecumenical. He’s still supernaturally gifted in some form or other, as he reveals when he talks to John Paul III about what he said at his brother’s tomb. “You’re gonna have to resign yourself to believing in me, now that you’ve realized what I am,” he says imperiously, after pointedly refusing to kiss the new pope’s ring.
Lenny’s subsequent address to the cardinals is in markedly the same vein as the one he delivered in The Young Pope’s world-beating fifth episode — the one with the “Sexy and I Know It” montage, for those of you keeping track at home. He’s carried into the room on a litter, he’s wearing his towering crown, he’s ordering the cardinals to close their eyes and pray not for God’s forgiveness, but for his own. He’s raising a young Catholic army on the back of John Paul III’s successful outreach, he says, and he needs the cardinals to be absolutely loyal to him; they’re a prop, they’re set dressing, they’re “my red backdrop.” Belardo’s belligerence manifests itself also in the address he scripts for JPIII, effectively damning the terrorists and threatening a show of force unless they let their hostages go.
But when the terrorists execute Don Antonio, the kindly young priest held alongside his students, something in Pius XIII seems to snap. He refers to himself as a murderer, blaming his bright ideas for the priest’s death. He kneels before John Paul III and kisses his ring with gusto, allowing himself to be told that his grand plans and game theories are all wrong. And in the end, after Brannox retires back to his family estate (with Sofia Dubois soon in tow), Lenny reveals himself publicly, resuming the office of pontiff and personally entering the school where the kids are being held captive. It’s there that he discovers the truth about the terrorists: They’re members of the Pius XIII-worshipping cult, including his once-beloved Ester, and not associates of the Caliph and his Islamic fundamentalists at all.
So Pius XIII once again finds himself addressing the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, with a benevolence surpassing even his famous Venice address. “There is a life of happiness to be found in the sphere of gentleness, kindness, mildness, lovingness,” he says; it’s like he’s become a living embodiment of the charming and tender decorations that lined the hallways of that schoolhouse, an array of smiling children and animals and suns.
“We must learn to be in the world,” he continues, “and the church must contemplate the idea of opening to the love that is possible, in order to fight against the love that is aberrant.” Here, he’s echoing the words of John Paul III (or, technically speaking, the words of JPIII’s late brother, who developed the doctrine of “the Middle Way” before his untimely death). And after describing the beauty of not having the answers to life’s questions — only God has them, and that’s what makes the questions beautiful — he does the thing he says he’s wanted to do from the start: He enters and embraces the masses.
What follows is a remarkable, wordless sequence. Down in the crowd, Lenny hugs and touches the people. Eventually, he is hoisted up and passed hand to hand — a crowdsurfing pope. But soon something changes in his expression, and in those of the people around him, who all begin to cry. He is eventually brought to the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, and is carried by nuns to the foot of the Pieta, where he is laid to rest. He has died, this time for real. His last act was his humblest, and therefore his greatest.
There is a life of happiness to be found in the sphere of gentleness, kindness, mildness, lovingness. I thought of this line as the episode’s closing montage plays out, showing the fate of the season’s supporting characters: Sister Lisette reunited with her dying mother, Faisal reunited with Sister Antonia and their baby, Dr. Lindegard kissing the belly of his very pregnant wife Eva, Ester ruing her actions in prison, Sofia caressing John Brannox’s cheek, a shirtless Gutiérrez drinking a glass of water and smiling, and that Speedo-wearing vision of Lenny walking into the sea. I thought of the children Pius XIII rescued. I thought of how a value that might come across as banal — the belief in the power of love, of kindness, of gentleness — is actually not banal at all, but an act of rebellion, against everything terrible in the world. It doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after for us any more than it did for Lenny, but on our way to whatever fate has in store for us we can live in that sphere he spoke of.
Or to put it the way the show itself does in its final moments, we can be like Ester’s son Pius, riding his Big Wheel around the Vatican, bumping into the new pope — Voiello, of course — and giving him a Bronx cheer. We don’t have to play the game of power and domination, one played for years by Voiello and his new bestie Bauer (who decamps for Korea with his escort girlfriend in one of the episode’s funniest moments). We can blow a raspberry at it, and get back to living. Back to loving. Pthbbbt.