Drew: Another episode of The Young Pope, another intensely bizarre opening sequence! This time it wasn’t in the form of a baby mountain, however, and to the show’s credit, it wasn’t a dream sequence either. (Although it was shot like one.) We open on a field, where a handsome, rugged Italian footballer type who I definitely want to ride a horse with one day is dismounting said horse with an old man. The old man, Tonino Pettola has CRAZY eyes and stigmata of the hands. He also believes the Virgin Mary has returned in the form of a sheep that he claims will heal the sick.
Vinnie: Drew, allow me to confess…the happiest I was during the entirety of The Young Pope‘s fourth chapter–a chapter I really, really did not enjoy–was during the brief, blissful 3 seconds I thought this episode was opening with Lenny Belardo riding his kangaroo, Cardinal Pouches, toward the camera. I suppose it speaks to this show’s general M.O. that I wasn’t the least bit surprised, only filled with pure, childlike glee. But no, I quickly realized we were looking at a horse, and the disappointment I felt kind of set the tone for the full hour that followed. I couldn’t even get a kangaroo-riding Pope, just an old guy who definitely needs a softer saddle because boy were his hands bloody.
Drew: Now, if this was Americ’uh, we would just politely drop change in Pettola’s discolored Starbucks cup and move on with our day. But since this is Italy, where people are generally way more religious and straight-up believe in miracles, Pettola’s got a fair-sized crowd of the handicapped, the old and the sick wailing and moaning along with him in this field with only one sheep in it. Question: how did they move some of those patients hooked up to IV’s and in wheelchairs to the middle of a field?
Vinnie: Um, with prayers and miracles, Drew. D’uh. Illumine yourself.
Drew: What do we make of this scene? Perhaps that after Lenny’s fire and brimstone homily, the hardcore Catholic community is now looking elsewhere for salvation? As we find out later–in the world’s most accurate rendition of what television sounds like when you’re in another country– Pettola wants to be recognized by the Pope for his miracles. The Italian newscaster lady, broadcasting from someone’s wine basement, is genuinely impressed!
Something tells me Lenny will be…less so.
Vinnie: I both hated and loved Lenny’s reaction to a stigmata victim going on TV to kind of, sort of threaten the Pope with a religious revolution, because it’s identical to Lenny’s reaction for everything: Light a cigarette and stare at the Vatican’s ceiling. You could reveal to this dude his biological parents were actually Bruce Wayne and Hermione Granger and homeboy would just whip out his Pall Malls and gaze at the ceiling tiles until you got uncomfortable and left the room.
Drew: This is the episode where The Young Pope kind of slowed down for me. I’ve been enjoying this show as a baroque anomaly; occupying the same sort of “low fantasy” (low, but that’s an IRL genre!) space as The Leftovers or Twin Peaks. But now we’re discovering that Lenny, despite his claims otherwise, is just as human as the rest of us, and Voiello’s manipulations of Esther in this episode are turning this into House of Cards Against Humanity. Unfortunately for The Young Pope, I already OWN that expansion pack.
Vinnie: Like I said, I STRONGLY disliked this episode. The way I felt about Episode 4 was the way Cardinal Gutierrez feels about traveling, or the Young Pope feels about vape pens, or Voiello feels about laser mole removal surgery. I know it’s like an actual cardinal sin for a TV critic to just declare something boring and then get over their Game of Thrones Lego set, but…come on. This episode exposed the dramatic flaw of setting a story in the Vatican: it isn’t believable for anyone to be truly devious, so we’re stuck with a lot of old men who are really mad, but kind of just stand around in the dark coughing about it. I mean, The Young Pope is still gorgeous, thanks to creator/possible-madman Paolo Sorrentino. But just because HBO pays me $100 million to put an authentic Pope hat on a rock and put it under soft lighting doesn’t mean it’s not still just a rock.
Drew: You get what I’m saying, right? At first, Lenny appeared like he might have some secret relationship with God, that manifested in concrete ways, like his bond with Cardinal Pouches, his Storm from X-Men superpower and knowledge of Banksy’s existence despite being over the age of 45. (Remember guys, Lenny from Queens is not the youngest pope! He’s just A YP.) A way better title for this show, my dad told me, would be The American Pope. That is entirely correct.
Vinnie: Some more, alternate suggestions: The No-Fun Pope (same show); The Nun Pope (the same show, but swap Lenny with that nun who is really good at soccer); The Hung Pope (same show, but the Pope just has, like, the biggest dick).
Drew: This episode revealed the chinks in Lenny’s carefully crafted, oblique and mercurial persona. Which is a fatal mistake on his part: as he told…someone?…in the pilot, one of his primary Pope Powers was keeping the inner workings of his mind to himself. But it took Voiello all of three episodes to triage the information from blackmailed Gutierrez about Lenny’s former beach fling with that weird seizure he had in front of Esther and turn it into a plot to bring down the man who tried to excommunicate him. (Seriously, though, why didn’t Lenny just send Voiello to Alaska, like he did with that liberal Cardinal?)
Voiello leverages his knowledge of Esther’s affair with Domen, the Pope’s majordomo, to…get her to seduce the Pope? Again, this is a terrible plan, mainly because Esther, despite being the Vatican City bicycle (or more aptly, the Vatican’s roller skates), is not a very skilled seductress. She’s more of the meek little church mouse type. But just like with Gutierrez, Voiello’s threats have the desired effect of scaring her shitless, even though it’s doubtful Lenny would give a crap about Esther’s affair or Gutierrez’s alcoholism. I think he would be way more interested in Voiello’s own peccadilloes, which involves living with a severely handicapped little boy and praying to him every night. What is THAT about, huh? The idea behind it, I guess, is that Voiello has a “true innocent” to make his confessions to; someone who cannot speak his secrets to another, as Don Tommaso did when he revealed to Lenny Voiello’s statue fetish.
Vinnie: That’s sort of my problem; there’s all this plotting and scheming going on, mostly from Voiello, but does any of it matter? Last week, Cardinal Spencer tried to kickstart a big, dramatic plot to bring down Lenny and give God his weight back, or whatever, and Lenny was just like “nah, bro, position is filled.” Now, Voiello has a double-plot: the alcoholic blackmail with Gutierrez, and the Pope-seduction with Esther. But, think about it. A) Like you said, there’s zero evidence Lenny would give a shit who is drinking gin in private, as long as they are not also having sex with men, and B) Not only is Esther not seducing anyone any time soon (she can’t even roller-blade, which everyone knows is Seduction Tactic #1), but nothing would come of it unless Voiello literally jumped out from behind a curtain and caught it on camera. If not, it’s a game of he said-she said with THE POPE.
Honestly, that secret, handicapped kid is the only plot-point I care about; he is the best example that these holy men have secrets, and those secrets could ruin them even if they come from the purest place possible.
Drew: But um….where did Voiello get this kid? And is he like the boy’s full-time guardian? It’s just really creepy, but I don’t want to be too judgemental, because it does show that somewhere, deep down, Voiello does have real feelings. He even confesses to the boy and/or Jesus that he knows he is sinning with all this blackmail and subterfuge against the Pope, but he is doing it for the sake of the Church. Could be more bullshit, but again, this is Voiello in his most private moment, speaking his truth. That’s the scary thing about guys like him: he’s not a soldier of fortune, who can be bought off or shipped away. He is a true believer; someone whose actions, however sneaky or morally reprehensible, are backed by his sincere faith that the ends justify the means. You get the feeling Voiello would even sacrifice himself and his position in the church if it meant getting Lenny out of there.
Now that’s a scary fucking character.
Vinnie: But, again, IS it just for the good of the Church? Gutierrez called Voiello a “politician,” and despite the fact Gutierezz is an alcoholic recluse who is afraid to cross the street in New York City, I actually trust that character’s word. Let’s not forget that yes, Voiello talks a big game, but he still lives in the Trump Tower of Vatican City, complete with priceless rugs, gold walls and what I assume is Michael the Archangel inhabiting the body of an adorable dog:
Drew: So now we’re just dealing with another show about backroom dealings and power-hungry men. Even Cardinal Pouches is turning against Lenny. While walking about the gardens in his all-white Pope tracksuit, he runs into Pouches, who, after last week’s mysterious disappearance, now has a more adversarial relationship with his handler. “Jump!” Lenny commands, from like 800 feet away from the spooked marsupial. When it doesn’t, Lenny’s voice takes on a wheedling tone. “Juuuuump!” he sing-song demands, which would legit work on most actual human people…but still, Cardinal Pouches refuses. Lenny demands that the kangaroo does…well, what kangaroos usually do, just not on command. Lenny takes this as a personal insult, and I’m guessing the next time we see Cardinal Pouches, he’ll be in a crate, headed to Alaska.
Vinnie: Is it weird that one of my favorite, small things Jude Law has done so far in The Young Pope is that second, quieter “jump”? Three weeks into his Papacy, Lenny is so delusional and lost that it’s emotionally devastating when a monstrous creature from the Australian highlands isn’t responding properly to his verbal commands. He sounds both betrayed and surprised that he does not, in fact, share a superpower with Dr. Doolittle.
Drew: Hilariously, Lenny thinks demanding things from beings that are not people is working out great for him. Like later, during that same walk, he pulls a Noah Solloway and watches as Esther gets boned up against a window by her husband. He just stares like a creeper!
Vinnie: If it’s one thing I learned from last week’s opening scene, it’s that you know Lenny is in one of his moods when he throws on the white Papal sweatsuit.
Drew: Then either Esther or Lenny have a non-sexual fantasy where she’s the Mary Magdalene and he is the Pope. Fun role play!
But wait, it gets better! (Not really.) Lenny goes…somewhere else outside, spreads his arms out, and starts an informal little chat about pregnancy with Jesus’s mom:
“Virgin Mary, mother of God,” Lenny intones. “Peter’s successor has a specific grace to ask of you. Now, right now, those two young people in their home, Peter and Esther, have only one wish. You must grant it to them. You must.”
Okay, that’s like…a pretty nice favor! Oh wait, then Lenny makes it weird.
“You must,” he insists Again. “You. Must. YOU. MUST. YOU MUST. YOU MUST YOUMUST! YOU MUST YOU MUST YOU MUST YOU MUST YOU MUST. MUST! You! Must! You Must! You MUST! PLEASE! You must!”
Legit, I just transcribed that entire speech. That’s how many times he says it! And of course, it’s intercut with images of Peter and Esther humping away, and Lenny getting all red in the face and sweating like I used to in first grade until they kicked me out for masturbating in homeroom.
Vinnie: Okay, an interesting thing about this: I know The Young Pope first aired in the U.K., but its airing on HBO has definitely colored my expectations of it. Like, every single scene featuring Lenny and a woman, I expect Lenny to break down and have Vatican City sex so passionate it turns St. Peter’s Square into a circle. There’s no evidence for it, that’s just HBO’s thing, you know? How far into Westworld did we go until there was gratuitous sex? 20 seconds? The fascinating move from Sorrentino’s writing and Law’s performance is that anytime an opportunity for capital-L Lust presents itself, the show just will not do it. The sexual tension was so thick last week, Lenny literally fainted.
So, when Lenny was peeping from the darkness and went to kneel on the ground, I was like “Okay, HERE we go.” But instead, the character turned what is obviously bubbling contradictions inside him and used it instead to order God Himself to do him and his friends a favor. In Lenny’s weird, contradictory, more-than-slightly insane way, this was actually…a really nice gesture? Creepy, but nice. In the end, Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII, has the same uncontainable passion for his neighbors that Greenlanders have for halibut fishing and dancing.