As HBO’s presentation of The Young Pope wraps up, I’m certainly glad to hear that a second series is in development already. For all the weird and thoughtful tangents that Sorrentino has explored on the way to this point, it seems like he has to cram in all the wrapping-up just as the story was really starting to breathe. It puts an awkward kink in the momentum, and there’s no room to explore any meaning behind that kink. Some shots feel like a neat, tidy ending, while others seem like they’re made to set up a cliffhanger. The resolution feels off-key, and incomplete.
But we start in the winter, with snow falling on St. Peter’s Square, as a radio announcer tells us the impact of the Pope’s love letters. Media sources have stopped their focus on war , violence, and strife, and instead people are talking about love. Were the letters planted in his desk all along, not only to entrap Archbishop Kurtwell, but so they would be published and reveal a human side to the otherwise-inaccessible Pope? Pius looks out over the stillness of the square, and smiles. His whole attitude this episode seems to have changed, though whether over the resolution of his Kurtwell plot or in the wake of his mentor’s death, it’s hard to say.
After the credits, the Pope sits in awkward silence with the Patriarch of Moscow until reaching for the button under his desk. Sister Suree has improved on her snack excuse, interrupting them to announce a meeting with Sofia. Pius motions her towards his ornate chair while he takes one of the simpler ones in the room. She asks if the rumors are true that he is behind the Italian Prime Minister’s recent moderation, which he admits to. She then warns him that he’s scheduled to lead a third-grade field trip through the Vatican museums, at which he grimaces. He seems to resent the idea of an enjoyable childhood, since his own was taken away.
While helping hang laundry out to dry, Pius asks Cardinal Gutierrez about the results of his investigation, confirming David Tanistone’s allegations against Kurtwell against his mother’s account.
The Pope says he intends to shake things up and have Gutierrez replace Sr. Mary as his personal secretary. She has finished her job as his maternal figure and will move on to her next assignment. But Gutierrez balks at the offer, saying it would be hypocritical since he is one of the homosexuals that Pius has been trying to purge from the Church. But Pius’ attitude seems to be more flexible than he has let on. Not only did he know this already, but he knew that Gutierrez was himself abused. And he’s seen the effects that the investigation has had on the once-timid cardinal, transforming his traumatized fear into righteous anger.
Kurtwell sits in his room at the Vatican, his hands’ tremors accentuated by nerves until he can barely hold a cup of coffee. He knocks over a cross as he paces.
A parade of prior popes assemble in Pius’ dining room. He begs them to tell him the wisest thing they’ve ever learned. The reply comes: “in the end, more than in God, it is necessary to believe in yourself.” It catches him off-guard, this banal platitude. But they assure him how true a banal platitude can be. The church bell rings, and Pius wakes up from his doze.
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints tells Pius that they will be dealing with the Pope’s own case some day, he’s sure. Setting aside the story of the caretaker’s wife, the whole Vatican has seen the cases of Esther’s pregnancy and Sr. Antonia’s death. In both cases, he chose prayer rather than secular means, and in both cases God seems to have taken up his own intentions.
The Blessed Juana lounges in a tree behind the hedge, as the Prefect tells him another story about her life and her imaginative witness to the sick children around her. Pius muses that goodness alone, without imagination, becomes mere exhibitionism. It’s what reactionaries lately have been snidely referring to as “virtue signaling”, and it’s easily dismissed.
The Prefect suggests that they travel this Christmas to Guatemala to spend it with an annual gathering of those people who believe they were healed by the Blessed Juana. And, on the understanding that it be a small, private gathering, Pius agrees.
Now the hour of the field trip has arrived. Pius notes the change of snow to rain, and as raindrops are the tears of Christ, the children must have made Him upset. He’s joking, but it doesn’t come across well and Sofia dismisses the group for lunch before the tour begins.
But he finds at least one boy separated from the group, looking at the same paintings of children he spends his own time contemplating. Referring to one of them, the boy says he wouldn’t want a mother with a beard, and the orphan Pius tells him he should learn to settle for what he’s got. The boy says he doesn’t want to settle, and Pius agrees; he doesn’t want to settle any more either. Returning to the first room, Pius finds two more girls asleep on the benches.
In the Piazza San Marco, Lenny the altarboy and Pius the Pope face each other.
Pius sits down with the always-cheerful Cardinal Aguirre. He’s always associated good moods with stupidity, and Aguirre agrees, but notes the energy that comes with those two qualities. He wants to let the Pope know that even after all he has done, 99% of Catholics would be interested in a face-to-face sermon from the Pope. Of course it wouldn’t change things; the Pope doesn’t change people. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for him to appear. It would put them in a good mood to see him. And, though he protests, that is very much his job.
The Blessed Juana’s village prepares for Pius’ visit.
Don Tommaso, as promised, is elevated to cardinal. Over his shoulder, Pius sees Cardinal Ozolins back from Ketchikan, and smiles at him. They meet in the gardens, and Ozolins tells the Pope how the cold in Alaska has wreaked havoc on his hands, stiff and shaking even in the Roman sun. The Blessed Juana runs by and sits down in the grass with the children she cared for.
Kurtwell tells Pius and Gutierrez the same story as he told his assistant, about the super at his building, but this time the ending is different. The super molested him, but he still uses that to deflect away from the harm he, in turn, caused children when he grew up. But Pius holds him to the spot, insisting that he admit to what he became.
And then, out of compassion for the twelve-year-old boy Kurtwell once was, the Pope says he’ll send the archbishop back to America, and calls him over to the globe. Kurtwell obviously wants to go home to New York, but Pius wants to be sure that’s really in his heart. He asks the archbishop to place his finger on New York on the globe. But Kurtwell’s hands shake, and his finger lands — where else? — on Ketchikan, Alaska. His disease has deceived him.
Pius, in the garb of a simple parish priest, visits Sr. Mary’s rooms. She’s heard the rumor that she’s about to leave, which he acknowledges. He’s known of her own history as an orphan, and how it makes her want to care for children. And so he’s sending her to replace Sr. Antonia, heading up all the Villages of Goodness, and even to open some more, just for the children. They leave closer than ever; she calling him Lenny again, and he calling her Ma.
As she boards the helicopter the next morning, Cardinal Voiello watches sadly. Pius watches, too, from his office, and nearly faints. Gutierrez wants to call the doctor, but Pius insists it’s just a passing discomfort and he’s fine now. He asks Gutierrez if he believes in God, saying he does not. “Those who believe in God don’t believe in anything.”
Voiello confesses to Girolamo that he had fallen in love with Sr. Mary, struggling with the idea that a man cannot love God and love a woman at the same time. Then he ponders Girolamo’s football loyalties, and he nearly stumbles into confessing what happened to Tonino Pettola, which only the cardinal knows for certain.
By the covered fountain in the gardens, Pius admits to Cardinal Caltanissetta that he was right about orphans discovering a fresh youth. Caltanissetta continues with his earlier thought, that at that point the orphan will have something to say. And he feels that this is now finally true of Pius.
Over Voiello’s pool table, the cardinal suggests to the Pope that his parents must realize who he is, and with no reason to believe them dead he wonders why they have not come forward. Maybe it’s over politics; they were hippies, and he has established himself as one of the firmest conservative voices in the world. If they once had the courage to abandon a child, they might now have the strength to repudiate him over their differing opinions.
That night, Pius decides to cancel the trip to Guatemala at the last minute, which will disappoint the Guatemalan village. Instead, they drive north, to Venice, where Pius tells the newly-elevated Cardinal Tommaso is where God can now be found.
At a rest stop, Gutierrez buys Pius a small gift of a toy telescope. A crowd has formed around the emptied restaurant where the Pope sits with his back to the entrance. Gutierrez tells him that they would enjoy it if he would turn around to face them for a moment, but Pius declines. That would be an exhibition.
A huge crowd fills the Piazza San Marco as Pius steps up on the balcony of the Basilica. He begins his speech, talking about the Blessed Juana. When at 14 she was asked, “who is God?” she replied, “God is line that opens,” but nobody understood her. When she was dying at 18, the children would ask dozens of questions. “Are we dead or are we alive?” “Are we tired or are we vigorous?” “Are we healthy or are we sick?” As he continues, we flash on all the people whose lives the series has touched on: Girolamo and his father; the nuns of the Vatican; Sr. Mary dancing with African children; the Honduran narco and his wife; Archbishop Kurtwell in Alaska; Rose in her hotel bed; the prime ministers of Italy and Greenland; Elmore Coen and his latest girlfriend; Freddy in his liquor store; the Roman prostitute; Cardinal Ozolins, warming his hands; Esther, on the beach at Ostia; Lenny’s girlfriend, grown up with children of her own.
“It doesn’t matter,” said the Blessed Juana. “God does not allow himself to be seen. God does not shout. God does not whisper. God does not write. God does not hear. God does not chat. God does not comfort us.” Again asked, “who is God?” she replied, “God smiles.”
Pius asks the assembled crowd to smile, and he looks out over them with his telescope. His gaze passes over a pair of aging hippies, then back to see his parents as he remembered them. Old again, they turn to leave the square, and Pius collapses, insisting that it’s nothing, into Gutierrez’ arms. He recovers, saying that one day he will die, and he has faith that he will finally be able to embrace everyone, one by one. Stepping back, he collapses again, falling a third time.
Looking up, he sees the figure of the Virgin Mary, a white veil of cirrus clouds against the azure-blue sky.
The camera zooms out from his balcony, taking in the Basilica, then the Piazza, then Venice, then the boot of Italy, the familiar outline of Europe, and the whole world, sitting like a marble in space.