‘The Young Pope’ Recap, Episode 9: Of Love Letters and Fetal Souls

Javier Cámara as Cardinal Gutierrez and Jude Law as Lenny Belardo.

Javier Cámara as Cardinal Gutierrez and Jude Law as Lenny Belardo. Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Drew: After last week’s doozy of a field trip to Africa to listen to a cover of “Halo,” we return this week to The Young Pope’s penultimate episode with a RIVETING discussion on Lenny’s stance toward abortion. Cardinal Spencer, who might actually  be dying of spite, tells Lenny that he needs to ease up on his crazy pro-life rhetoric. Which Lenny, being Lenny, refutes using an obscure verse in Exodus that’s actually about how many gold coins you owe a husband of a lady you caused to miscarry during a brawl. (Man, those Old Testament laws! Kind of like they were being made up as they went!)

To which Cardinal Spencer delivers a totally un-ironic reference to the OTHER best show on television, saying “Lenny, it’s more nuanced than that.”

Vinnie: I mean, it makes sense, right? Lenny Belardo is basically God’s crazy ex-girlfriend. They used to be tight, but now haha surprise Lenny’s going to burn down God’s house and everything he’s built because God hasn’t been returning Lenny’s 4 AM texts quick enough.

Drew: AHA! I KNEW you watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Vinnie! I try to bring it up all the time, and I feel like you never want to talk about it! Anyway.

As fun as it is to watch to grown men argue about “Souled vs non-souled fetuses,” Cardinal Spencer is kind of phoning in these last moments of his life. “God taught us that souls don’t develop until the…third month of pregnancy,” he tells Lenny, and you can REALLY feel those ellipses. As if Spencer was genuinely either making that data up on the spot (do papal texts have references to “trimester?”) or had legit forgotten what the Bible says. Either way, this is bad, right? I mean, Spencer was supposed to be the MOST CONSERVATIVE of the Pope candidates, and he’s wasting his last breaths of life trying to reign in Lenny’s most despotic impulses. Spencer even pulls out the ole “cost of millions of women’s orgasms” argument, which is about as far from a conservative reading of the doctrine as the Vatican is from the Women’s March.

Vinnie: Yeah, the farmer from Babe: Pig in the City screaming “think of the orgasms, your eminence!” at the actual Pope while simultaneously dying of some mysterious, terminal illness isn’t exactly my idea of a nuanced discussion on a woman’s right to choose. It’s just such an erratic, scattershot scene to kick off an erratic, scattershot episode. I can’t even tell if either of these characters mean what they’re saying anymore. I am 90 percent sure at one point Lenny was quoting Magneto from early-90s X-Men comics and calling it holy doctrine while Spencer was reading off fortune cookies that he keeps in his pockets.

Drew: Not to mention the camerawork in this scene, which made more loops around Lenny and Spencer than Ryan Murphy’s cinematographer stuck in the body of a host in Westworld. (Think about it!) “You should be tough in principle, soft in practice,” admonishes Spencer, and the fact that Lenny doesn’t snidely follow this up under his breath with a “That’s what she said!” tells you everything you need to know about this week’s no-fun episode.

“Abortion is saying no to life,” Lenny retorts.

“Who gives a damn about life? Life is not some stupid centerpiece on the side table of nothingness. Life is to be used, and used well. Life is to love, and to be loved!”

Vinnie: That entire position from Spencer is the type of crazy old-man retirement home ranting that sounds kind of intense for an actor to say but doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like if you asked me “chocolate or vanilla” and I was like, “who gives a fart about chocolate! Chocolate isn’t the lampost outside the window of absence! Chocolate is living, but also dying, but also strawberry!” That honestly seems to be The Young Pope‘s entire view on religion at this point: A middle-aged to ancient white dude yelling nonsense-babble in a pretty room while a camera does fancy tricks to make it all seem artsy.

Drew: Also, I’m pretty sure he was cribbing from Moulin Rouge.

Then there’s this whole thing about how in abortions, everyone is guilty except the woman, and Lenny, being Lenny, very quickly makes this about his mom. “”What if in life, everyone is guilty, except for the woman?” And then Spencer rolls his eyes at the camera like “Whoa boy.”

Cue title credits: oh no wait, this week we don’t have any!

Vinnie: “What else could I be talking about” was the most self-aware Lenny has been since he learned that dropping a baby on its head is Good ☐ Bad ☑.

Drew: Now, Vinnie. We’ve had a lot of fun with The Young Pope this season, cracking wise about how Paolo Sorrentino is PROBABLY a demon with time-traveler abilities. So I don’t know about you, but finding out that a whole New York Observer issue had been mocked up to feature prominently in Gutierrez’s crazy Carrie Matheson collage of the Archbishop Kurtwell case in New York made me REALLY rethink how many jokes we make about this show. Clearly, it KNOWS ABOUT US.  

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Vinnie: Oh man, it is such a strange, surreal–dare I say, religious?–experience to know I exist in the universe of The Young Pope. I’m going to assume Cardinal Gutierrez is a huge fan of my Gotham recaps. I also really love the fact that in this alternate, Young Pope timeline, the Observer still has a print edition. The Pope may be excommunicating homosexuals and shipping priests to an Antarctic death, but here at NYO business is booming!

Drew: As a villain, Kurtwell leaves much to be desired. Turns out the guy is less of a threat than Cardinal Pouches. Like, first of all…is the problem with him about him being a gay pedophile, or is it about his secret son, which he (presumably) had with a woman. (I mean, they JUST went over how baby were made in that first scene, so…) Not to mention that he, like all priests everywhere now that Lenny is in charge, is coming up on death real fast: he’s got a case of Parkinson’s so bad he can barely crack an egg. Now, granted, Gutierrez couldn’t go toe-to-toe with a Jello pudding pop without caving and reaching under his frock for a gallon of gin. So technically? This is a pretty even match. Gutierrez is trying to gather enough dirt on Kurtwell to…hold a priest trial? Excommunication? Criminal charges? Since this isn’t the movie Spotlight, it’s not so important that we know the full depths of Kurtwell’s depravity. Just, like: he’s a bad priest, and it’s up to Gutierrez to get the evidence. Unfortunately, nobody is talking, despite such amazing leads as “old black man who talks like Kevin from The Office” and refuses to press charges. Or “young, gay man working in a Queens liquor store who refuses Gutierrez’s A+ solid idea to…be part of a honeytrap while Gutierrez hides in the bushes and takes photos of the Archbishop frolicking with a twink.”

Vinnie: Man, what deeply, intensely depressing trip to New York City this was. It’s firmly established that from the moment he touched down at JFK, Gutierrez has split his time getting clipped by Chinese food deliverymen while crossing the street and blacking out on $5 plastic-bottle vodka. “He walks, he sleeps, he drinks” is how Kurtwell describes Gutierrez’s NYC routine. You may notice that schedule does not include “doing anything more productive than stare at the New York Observer‘s cover page in his underwear.”

I mean, okay, he’s made some friends, one of which is a woman so morbidly obese she needs a crane to smash through her wall and carry her to the street below. “It’ll be a spectacular sight,” Gutierrez tells her, which, in the classic religious tradition, is both technically true and emotionally terrifying.

Drew: Back to Gutierrez yanking a blackmail plan straight out from under Voiello’s mole! That went so well the first time, yeah? Yikes, it’s almost like the Catholic Church has just ONE IDEA that they’re constantly beating like a dead kangaroo. (RIP Cardinal Pouches.) From “how to effectively do blackmail,” to “what’s worse: consensual adult sex by two unmarried people or priests sexually molesting young boys?” and even “How many coins should your husband gets for your miscarriage?” Catholicism is truly the religion that has all…three…of the answers you’ve been searching for!

Vinnie: I also feel like The Young Pope has this odd, skeevy idea that if you’re young and gay you’re practically dying to have sex with a priest. A couple episodes ago, Dussolier was attacked in a car by some dude whose name we never even learned, and this week Sorrentino just HAD to throw in that line about the young tennis star/liquor store cashier would “drool” when he sees Gutierrez.

Drew: I do love how Kurtwell couldn’t even be bothered to hide what a creeper he is, literally going into that same liquor store in what appears to be a full-on exorcism regalia and promising the young man working the counter that he can grant him like, any wish, if he agrees to a date. For instance, becoming a world famous tennis star! Hey, in the world of The Young Pope, this could happen! Because ANYTHING could happen on The Young Pope, and it would most likely be described as a miracle, even if it’s the exact opposite. Like that “plane falling out of the sky” miracle, or the “killing a nun with the power of prayer” miracle or “dropping a baby on its head, but to be fair, you wouldn’t even HAVE that baby if it wasn’t for my” miracle. Unlike the number of good ideas left in the Catholic Church, the possibility of divine spectacle on The Young Pope is practically infinite. You could be writing about this show for over a month and then find out retroactively that the show has written you writing about it into its story…a year ago.

Is that a miracle? Some would say no, making the sign of the cross and screaming “Get out of my head with your devil magic, Sorrentino!”

But maybe it’s not for us to say, Vinnie.

Vinnie: I think it’s a little more nuanced than that, Drew. Loljk, it’s not, people are just sort of asking for stuff really hard on this show and receiving it. Is Jim Carrey playing the role of God here? Is it still a “miracle” if it works every time? Because I’m pretty sure that’s called witchcraft. You don’t need much faith for witchcraft, just the right ingredients and maybe a young liquor store employee willing to blow a gross old man in exchange for an hour of high-quality tennis training.

Drew: Nope. Not witchcraft if they are all dudes, buddy! But way to be gender-progressive! Guttierez ends up, through no fault of his own, actually getting enough dirt on Kurtwell when it turns out he’s conveniently being stalked by the Archbishop’s secret son, a crazy man in a blond wig who loves to ice-skate. And Lenny, either in an act of martyrdom or possibly boredom, decides that bringing Kurtwell down is more important than any piece of blackmail the guy has on him. But either way, Lenny is saying a bunch of goodbyes tonight, just in case he’s not pope tomorrow. “I love you all!” he tells an assembled group of nuns and Domen, who also mug to the camera like:

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Notably absent this week? Voiello.

Vinnie: Voiello was too busy commenting on the New York Observer Facebook page calling something “Kushner propaganda.”

Drew: Lenny also says goodbye to Spencer on his deathbed, sending his spiritual father off with the revelation of his Tom Riddle-ian origin miracle. Which is…after all that build-up, kind of lame? Lenny healed that sick lady who lived on the same campus as his orphanage. But he didn’t really care about it, as she wasn’t his mom. In fact, the creepiest part of this whole episode is when Lenny casually tosses aside “And that woman is still alive today” like that’s not some horrifying Green Mile-shit. That lady’s got to be like 100-years-old now! LET THE WOMAN DIE, LENNY!

Vinnie: Yeah, I’d really like an update on the woman who was casually called back from the brink of death by some Zac Efron-looking orphan child. Has she never told anyone that story? Has no one in that family ever watched The Walking Dead and started looking at their mother a little more closely while gripping a sledgehammer?

I did find it interesting that even at a young age, Lenny started off his Miracle Prayers with “we MUST talk about this…”, proving The Young Pope‘s thesis that if you poke God on Facebook often enough he’ll eventually like your profile pic.

Drew: I bet there are soooo many secret Vatican Facebook groups, where Spencer and Voiello spend their days writing theeads that say “unfriend me or I’ll block you if you voted for Pope Lenny.“Your mother is alive too,” Spencer responds “and you’ll find her.” Whether or not this is actually true, or how Spencer would even know this….totally debatable. Maybe Spencer, like us, is invested in Lenny’s orphan sob story only because it’s impossible to

Though in actuality, Spencer leaves on a high note.“Your mother is alive too,” Spencer says “and you’ll find her.” Whether or not this is actually true, or how Spencer would even know this….totally debatable. Maybe Spencer, like us, is invested in Lenny’s orphan sob story only because it’s impossible to look-away from Jude Law’s ugly cry-face.

Sensing Lenny might have some follow-up questions, Spencer NOPES out by dying IMMEDIATELY after hearing that story. “I’m dying now,” he says (basically), while closing his eyes.

Vinnie: It was a tough, but I manage to grab a GIF of the moment Spencer died: 

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Drew: Actually, the REAL miracle of this week’s episode, and perhaps Lenny’s whole life, is that Kurtwell’s “blackmail” on Lenny is So. Fucking. Lame. It’s…the love letters that Lenny wrote to that girl on the beach he juggled for that one time. Now, given that I’m pretty sure writing love letters before you are a priest isn’t even a thing to be ashamed of, the journalist Kurtwell brings these damning letters to has for real the best smackdown on this show. He points out that Lenny never even SENT these letters to the girl (and again, so fucking what if he had?), so “that’s not news. That’s strictly literature.”

Vinnie: THIS WAS SO DUMB, DREW. Okay, so let’s pretend for a second whatever Kurtwell has actually was incriminating for Lenny…in what world does he not read all of it before bringing it to a journalist? I mean, I get it, hubris blabbity-blah, but come on now, Kurtwell. People are out here calling you evil incarnate, and you’re proofreading your devious blackmail documents as carefully as Drew and I proofread these Young Pope recaps for typos. See: NOT CAERFULLY.

But then, then, it’s just…love notes? Love notes scribbled on the back of a Lisa Frank binder by a priest decades before he became Pope? My dude, an abusive asshole with a caveman beard is about to win an Oscar despite stuff he did, like, six months ago. You’re going to need more than grade-school descriptions of a young girl’s kneecaps to bring down the Pope.

Drew: So, in the first brilliant coup of the Vatican’s marketing department thus far, the Pope’s letters ARE published….in The New Yorker. (Which publishes both literature, news AND cartoons!) Kurtwell’s hold on Lenny is thus obliterated and he’s sent to the Vatican for his trial AND (ostensibly) Lenny becomes marginally less despised by the general public. (He’s now squeaking ahead of Lena Dunham in terms of likability, but BARELY.)

Vinnie: Call me a softy, but I kind of loved the moment where Nameless California Girl realized the Pope’s letters were about her, and juggled some oranges for her children in pure, nostalgic delight. If nothing else, it amuses me to think that someday, when they’re old enough, those kids can hear about the time the leader of the Catholic Church came inside his board-shorts because their mother suggested he touch her legs.

Drew: And in a final shot, we see Esther on the beach with her young son Pius, finding possibly the only existing picture of the Pope next to a sandcastle. Is it a miracle? Nope, as a) Esther looks legit terrified, because she’s seen Cape Fear and knows what’s coming down the pipeline and b) we pull out to see the pope’s helicopter roar over the ocean. And since the copter doesn’t immediately crash into the sea, we can assume Lenny isn’t on it.

Esther! Lenny is probably inside your house as we speak. And…it’s….a miracle?

Vinnie: Again, this was tough, but I managed to zoom in and grab a screenshot of that picture:

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A miracle, indeed.

‘The Young Pope’ Recap, Episode 9: Of Love Letters and Fetal Souls