'The Young Pope' Recap: S1E2: "Second Episode"

At the climax of the Second Episode, Pius XIII finally delivers a barn-burner of a first address to the faithful.  But, as powerful as that moment is, the episode is really still about setting out the pieces.  After using the First Episode to set up the fundamental tensions of The Young Pope, Sorrentino pivots quickly here to keep us from getting too committed to the easy narrative.

Angelo Cardinal Voiello was put forward as the architect of a political machine, which is a position we're primed not to like.  Machines are seen as signs of corruption in politics, whether it's the Italian story of Giulio Andreotti that Sorrentino told in Il Divo, or the American story of the Democratic National Committee that Bernie Sanders' grassroots movement railed against last Spring.  Political machines can put their operators' interests ahead of the idealistic goals of the institution itself, so Voiello makes a natural enemy for us to root against.

But machines can also provide a buffer against wild swings in either direction.  A stronger Republican machine might have pushed us towards a Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, or even kept a lid on the rise of the Tea Party movement that crippled the institutional GOP in the first place.  Continuity and momentum mean we don't make as much progress as we'd like, but they keep us from falling as far backwards as well.  We might see Voiello as a man jealous of his power and influence, but he's not only concerned with feathering his own nest.  And Pius is not necessarily the reformer clearing the money-changers from the temple, as he first seemed.  We start to get more of a sense that his past traumas are more serious influences on his character than they appear.  Not that Voiello's investigation has managed to turn any of them up.

As we start, Esther and Peter are having sex.  Peter (Biagio Forestieri) is a member of the Swiss Guard, and Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) is his wife.  She prays, while he asks her to say anything other than "I love you".  She believes the only rule and purpose of sex is procreation, which is the second time that idea has come up.  It's a misconception, albeit one believed even by many of the faithful, that this is the Church's position, and Esther's embrace of it points to a particularly conservative inclination on her part, which is likely to lead her to a strong devotion to the new Pope.

Meanwhile, the Vatican wakes up.  The residents are as attentive to the trappings of modern life as their spiritual concerns.  A Cardinal is glued to his iPad while his cassock is being mended.  Two teams of nuns play soccer in their habits.  Sr. Mary sits with another of her former charges, Andrew Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd).  In a flashback, the young nun (Allison Case) greets the young Andrew (Jack McQuaid), telling him to call her "Ma" instead of "Sister Mary", though last time we saw her tell the young Lenny (Frank Gingerich) the exact opposite.  Dussolier is eager for Pius to deliver his homily so he can leave the Vatican and return to his missionary work.  He sees death here, cut off from the living Church where he serves the people.

Voiello brings in the Vatican's head of marketing, Sofia (Cécile de France), who is eager to start designing and producing the new line of merchandise with the new Pope's image.  Sales of everything from keychains to decorative plates bring in a huge stream of revenue, after all.  But Pius is not having it.  As Archbishop and Cardinal, he refused to have his picture taken, and he means to continue that tradition.  He wants to be the J.D. Salinger, the Stanley Kubrick, the Banksy, the Daft Punk, the Mina of popes, famous in his reclusive rejection of fame.  He has no image; only Christ does.  Sofia comes around to Pius' perspective; another coup against Voiello.

But while he may refuse to go out, Pius more than welcomes in the gifts of the faithful.  He tours a warehouse set up to receive them, stopping to read a child's painted letter asking, "what do I have to do to believe in God?"  He wants responses sent to all children, offering a rather vague and modernist model for this one: "Think of all the things you like; that's what God is."  But he is interrupted by a noise from deeper in the warehouse: a canvas-covered cage contains a kangaroo from the Australian foreign minister.  Which, rather than donating to the Roman zoo, Pius orders freed in the Vatican's gardens.  The scene where it emerges is classic Sorrentino, beautifully drawn-out, wonderful in its absurdity, with a music cue that carries the mood into the next scene.

Sr. Mary meets Cardinal Voiello in the gardens and they speak about Pius.  Voiello urges caution and humility before the delicately balanced politics of the Vatican.  Sr. Mary recasts the view as lobbying and vendettas, all of which her saintly Pope means to cut through.  It crystallizes the tension between the two views of politics, but despite her distaste she cannot escape them.  She says "we," referring to the Pope, which understandably raises Voiello's notice.  Who is really in control?

At any rate, Voiello presents Sr. Mary with a draft address for the Pope, carefully crafted to keep the diplomatic balance.  But she dismisses the concern: Pius is indifferent to diplomacy, and she admires that in him.  Of course, it's easy to admire that when you're on someone's good side.

Later that night, Voiello slips out of the Vatican into the streets of Rome, and Sr. Mary follows along in his shadow.  She watches from across the street as he enters a building, followed by a young woman in a tight dress.  But through the window she doesn't witness the liaison she expects.  He is visiting a young developmentally disabled man in a wheelchair, telling him stories about his favorite Juventus footballer.  Voiello may be a political animal, but he has a strong heart as well.  The next morning, she decides to read his draft after all.

Pius meets, at last, with the Prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy.  Cardinal Assente (Maurizio Lombardi) regards the new Pope withs suspicion; as a protégé of the moderate conservative Cardinal Spencer, Pius is likely to be conservative as well.  Assente goes on to note that Pius XI was a supporter of Mussolini, and Pius XII was willing to cut deals with Hitler to preserve the Church's interests in Germany during World War II; choosing their name points to a continuity with the last pontificate before the reformist John XXIII started the process of the Second Vatican Council.  His concerns seem validated when Pius asks him, point-blank, whether he is homosexual, which he admits.  Pius cuts the meeting short with another moment of pure Sorrentino absurdity.

Pius collects more information from Don Tommaso, and uses it to further entrench his position.  He replaces Ozolins (Vladimir Bibic) with Aguirre (Ramón García) as the Cardinal in charge of the Vatican museums.  He meets again with Msgr. Gutierrez at the base of the Pietà, discussing the Monsignor's call to service.  He practices his address.  He grows short with Sr. Mary, seeing Voiello's influence on her, and demands that she only refer to him as "Your Holiness," rather than the more-familiar "Lenny" she has used until now.

In a way, he's only following the advice she gave him, to put his personal life behind him and embrace only the office of the Pope.  But he is also acting out of the childhood jealousies that we are only beginning to understand.  Despite her words when she first arrived, she is far more progressive than her onetime charge.

Pius goes to meet with Cardinal Spencer, asking him to replace Assente, and for advice on his address.  But Spencer resents Lenny's election, and believes that he cut a deal with Voiello for power.  Spencer is another political animal; one devoted to using the machine to gain power for himself, and embittered to see his plans fall apart.  He speaks cruelly, implying that he always has to Lenny and warning that he has no intention to change that for Pius.  He sees the offer as a charity handout and refuses to align with Pius.

Pius returns to Sr. Mary's apartment, catching her in an ironic choice of bedclothes.  He asks her about his parents, who left him at the orphanage saying they had to move to Venice.  They might still live there now, a mere five hundred kilometers north of Rome.  He misses their influence, and struggles see God as real and present since his own parents were not.  All the language of God the Father gets muddled and complicated when your own father abandoned you.  Saying that God is Love doesn't help someone crippled in his ability to feel love from anyone else.

And so when he finally delivers his address, he does so in the dark.  He admonishes the crowd: they have forgotten God.  He will not be close to them as Pope, because he, like they, must be closer to God than to each other.  Their devotion must be total.  It's a harsh, angry message that distresses the faithful who have grown used to folk singing and guitars over the last few decades, and seems to fly in the face of the response he offered to the child's letter.  He takes his childhood trauma and turns it into universal theology.

Voiello returns to the young man he comforts, now seeking comfort himself.  He begs for the strength to atone for the wrong he will have to do to save the Church from the Pope he now sees it was a mistake to install.