Plot Summary: Months after Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) falls into a coma during his first public address, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) relents to mounting pressure to elect a new pope. The eventual choice turns out to be more trouble than any of the cardinals anticipated.
In the second scene of the opening episode of The New Pope, a group of nuns in a convent, after being ordered to bed by the head nun, break out heels and lipstick and essentially have a dance party to SOFI TUKKER’s Good Time Girl around a flashing neon cross. Apparently the new opening credits to this sequel series, it’s a perfect encapsulation of both the sumptuous imagery and surrealist absurdity of Paolo Sorrentino’s series. Those are the qualities that made what could have been a banal conceit (a relatively young man is elected pope and upends the Vatican) into a fascinating and delightful season of television. But with the arrival of The New Pope, it’s time to see if they can pull off the same trick a second time.
Much of The Young Pope was built on the magnetic charisma of Jude Law, so his absence is keenly felt. The episode itself is structured around that absence: having made himself the center pillar of the church and inspired devout followers through his miracles, the cardinals of the Vatican don’t know how to proceed without Pius XIII’s guiding hand. But we’ve spent a season with Voiello now, and we’ve seen how fascinating his character is. That makes him more than capable of carrying the action. Reverting somewhat to the ambition and cunning he first tried to turn against Pius, it’s fun to see him seize his moment and make a play for his long-held dream of becoming pope himself.
That spark of the divine that suffused The Young Pope is still around, though, and it has other plans. Trapped on the losing side of a deadlocked conclave against his nemesis Cardinal Hernandez (Orlando again, a bit of casting that drily highlights how what they most despise in each other is their similarities), Voiello once again decides to play kingmaker for a weak pope, Francis II (Marcello Romolo). And once again, things get out of hand. That divinity intervenes, and a bird literally steals the speech Voiello had written for Francis for his first address. This one moment seems to make Francis realize his newfound power, and his papacy immediately go off the rails.
Sorrentino has never been unsparing in his portrayal of the modern Catholic church, and perhaps never more than in this episode. His vision for the cardinals’ ultimate nightmare, even more than Pius, is a pope who insists upon actually practicing the humility and charity they preach.
What follows is an excellent demonstration of Sorrentino’s off-kilter sense of humor. The cardinals are now bullied into giving up their lavish trappings and letting poor refugees use the Vatican facilities once reserved for them by the young Franciscan monks with which Francis surrounds himself. All the while Francis delights in the power he now wields, cackling like a supervillain as he commits acts of incredible charity. It is a joy to watch, and, despite his very different means and ends, it does help to evoke the fun Jude Law brought to the central role of the series.
Yet it’s worth mentioning that there’s something tender-hearted about this series as well, a genuine interest in faith and the wonders it can work that shines through the humor and cynicism in showing how the earthly church operates. In the middle of the conclave to elect the new pope, we suddenly hear the innermost thoughts of the cardinals and what they want from a pope. The thoughts themselves range from the grotesque (some wish for a pope to either forgive or cast them into hell for their crimes against children) to the heartfelt (like gentle Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara), who just wants someone to show him his place in the world). But each one is bathed in their own heavenly light, showing the faith and hope that underlies even the cynical politicking of the conclave. And perhaps
Pius has rubbed off on Voiello after all, for when all else fails, he resorts to the sort of prayer and contemplation that Pius always did to solve his problems, resulting in a moving scene of mass prayer.
Or perhaps not. We’ll have to wait and see if “Ambassador” Bauer (Mark Ivanir) had anything to do with Francis’ sudden death, and if he did so at Voiello’s behest. As with the first series though, the intrigue is almost beside the point. What makes these shows special is where the earthly intersects with the divine, when the politics and intrigue comes up against the almost mystical power that surrounds Pius and changes everything he touches. Even without Pius himself, The New Pope showed it can capture that feeling again in its first episode. With that fear dispelled and our faith reaffirmed, all that remains is to sit back and see where the ride takes us.
Rating: 9 out of 10
The New Pope airs Monday nights on HBO, and is streaming on HBO GO and HBO NOW.