'The Young Pope' Recap: S1E8: 'Eighth Episiode'

Another Pietà; it’s been a while since we’ve seen one, hasn’t it?  A woman resembling Lenny’s mother holds the young Andrew’s body in her arms in a golden field.  In voiceover, Pius prays for his friend, reminiscing about their childhood memories, and all their ideas about what the future would hold.  He kneels on the bottom of a pool in Castel Gandolfo as he prays.  Crossing himself, he comes up for air.

The Pope is getting a sort of full-contact massage or workout, resembling a stylized Greco-Roman wrestling match.  It’s easy to read this as homoeroticism, which seems to fly in the face of Pius’ gay purge.  But there’s also something reductive in a reading that supposes all physical contact to be erotically charged.  It’s the same mistake Voiello made when assuming that Pius’ interest in Esther must have been romantic.  This sexualized secular viewpoint will return again.

But for now the Pope wanders the Apostolic Palace, praying in the shadowed nooks, and practicing his forehand volley against the walls.  Sr. Mary stays in her bedroom, weeping over Andrew’s loss.  Pius wonders about the destination of an airplane he sees overhead, and seems to long for somewhere he’s never been.

The sad-eyed girl from the end of the last episode reappears: Juana Fernandez, 1962-1980.  As the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints explains, she lived in Guatemala and died of leukemia at eighteen.  She would cheer up younger children in the hospital by making up fairy tales featuring the Madonna.  Many of these children would recover from their terminal illnesses saying the same thing, “the Madonna made me laugh.”  The Pope says it’s a wonderful story; if only it were true.  As has become his habit, he asks the prefect to talk about his calling to the ministry.

Sr. Mary tells Pius that his reactionary stance on abortion has brought a strong backlash in particular from Femen, who are holding protests everywhere across Europe, not that Pius has any respect for their eye-grabbing tactics.  She tells him that he wasn’t to blame for Andrew’s death, but he insists that he was.  Is it this sense of guilt and grief that weighs so heavily on him?  He tells Valente how tired he is, even as he lounges in the sun.

Sofia arrives from Rome by helicopter.  Pius wonders what he is doing wrong, and to her the answer is simple: all stick, and no carrot.  A pastoral voyage would win tremendous goodwill.  As to the Pope’s aversion to travel, “everyone dislikes travel until they actually go on a trip.”  She even has a destination picked out: the 30th anniversary of the first Village of Goodness, established by Sr. Antonia (Milvia Marigliano) in Africa, and with 250 franchises by now.  The good Sister is eager to invite the Pope to visit, but Pius is less eager to meet her, not least because he’s heard of her horrendous breath.

Instead, where he really wants to go right now is back to Rome.  He’s not comfortable being on vacation.  And, as luck would have it, his favorite writer happens to be visiting the city, and has also expressed an interest in meeting the Pope.

Walking through the Barberini Gardens, Pius turns to see seven Femen members rising from the hedges, “BASTARD” spelled out on their chests.  He takes an unimpressed drag on his cigarette.

As the helicopter lands back at the Vatican, there are no roller-skating children to scatter.

Elmore Coen (Andre Gregory) — maybe a portmanteau of Elmore Leonard and Leonard Cohen? — is glad to meet such a fan as Pius.  How could a writer not want to meet the most mysterious man in the world?  Their conversation ranges over the similarities and differences between writers and priests, with a rhythm familiar from Gregory’s work in My Dinner with Andre.

But when Coen veers towards a suggestive comment, he quickly backs off.  Pius corrects him: just as surgeons become inured to the sight of blood, priests who work so closely with sin are not so easily scandalized by it.  As to women, he says, foolish priests cheat on their vows, while the wiser ones realize how overvalued sex is as a source of pleasure.  Of course, that covers most of Coen’s work, where he uses sex as the engine of the world.  But, as Pius points out, he writes about an engine that breaks down, rather than purring along free of trouble.  Pius remembers every detail about his one girlfriend, while Coen forgets all but the most perverse and lustful details of his many paramours.

That night, Pius goes by Esther’s house to find it abandoned.  Everything is gone except one picture on the wall: Pius the Pope holding Pius the child.

Cardinal Spencer tells the Pope that the doctors have found something wrong with him, but they don’t know what it is.  Pius admits he’s not going to resign, which only makes Spencer feel worse.  The Pope will remain in his office until the day he dies, “curious to see how it all turns out.”  Spencer pins him down about his crisis of faith, which he notes is common to all priests.

As the zeal of youth fades, a middle-aged priest must contend with disenchantment and rationality.  It takes a second, more difficult calling to pick up faith again at that point.  Popes have usually been selected beyond that point, when they have found the way forwards from that dark night.  Spencer thinks he knows what it is, but he’d rather enjoy watching Pius find it himself than reveal it.  But he does have advice for the young Pope: go to Venice and bury two empty coffins.

In the gardens, Pius and Valente come upon the kangaroo, lying dead on the stairs as his own papacy bleeds out.

Delivering a Latin mass, facing away from a St. Peter’s Square that remains empty but for the disinterested press box, Pius announces that he will visit Sr. Antonia’s Village of Goodness after all.

But even on Shepherd One, Pius refuses to be seen.  The press corps in coach remain frustrated, particularly one young reporter who yells her question towards the first-class section where the Pope kneels in prayer: is it true that he sent the inexperienced Cardinal Gutierrez to investigate the Kurtwell case because he doesn’t want it investigated at all, and further that Kurtwell is blackmailing the Pope to protect his own position.  Just then, the plane hits a pocket of turbulence.

At the airport in a nameless African country, quite a crowd has gathered for the red carpet arrival, complete with dancers, a military guard, and a loaf of bread shaped like the continent.  Pius descends the stairs with a veil attached to the brim of his hat, makes a hard right before the carpet, and walks off the tarmac with his entourage.  The motorcade passes through villages of grinding poverty with its military escort backed up by armed guards at the roadside.  A body lies, bleeding on the ground.

The Village of Goodness is surrounded by a fence topped with concertina wire.  Voiello approaches Sr. Antonia and demands she surrender her phone and pop a couple mints before the Pope will come out.  Sr. Antonia cites her many wealthy patrons, but the Pope can shut down her entire operation in less than twenty minutes if he wants to.  It doesn’t pay to defy him.

Sr. Antonia shows the Papal party around the village, pointing out the church, medical and dental facilities, and other amenities.  She holds her hands out to the villagers who approach and kiss them as if choreographed while she pretends to beg them off, reveling in their seeming adoration.  She’s so lost that she doesn’t notice Pius slipping away for a smoke.

She complains that the army, government, and gangs steal the humanitarian shipments, and insists to the locals that the nearby river is not safe to drink.  She is most proud of the condenser, installed by a Dutch company, which produces as many as thirty liters a day: eight gallons for the entire village.

Pius sits in the village confessional, and talks about his visit with Coen.  Ever since their conversation about the author’s prurient memories, the Pope has found himself thinking about those few of his own.  Then there’s the matter of Esther, who disappeared so suddenly without even saying goodbye.  He must have sinned somehow and offended her, but he can’t quite place it.  And, finally, the weight of the world.  Are they right that he has become unwelcoming and cruel?

Of course, this whole time the priest doesn’t understand a word of English.  But he does have a note written for the Pope: Sr. Antonia controls the water supply, and uses it to coerce favors, including sexual ones.  While performing the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he examines the reflection in the silver chalice, noticing Sr. Antonia furtively rubbing her hand against another nun’s.

Voiello, in a change of pace, brings some good news: as he and Sofia had predicted, the trip and the possibility of his first public appearance have already started to drive public interest again.  Pius ascribes it to his own projection, morbid curiosity inspired by absence.

Voiello and Sr. Mary sit outside, taking in the scenery.  Mary opines that the rumors about Kurtwell and Belardo are unfounded; they just worked together in New York.  Voiello reaches over to take Mary’s hand, but she shrinks away when she sees him looking at her.

At what passes for a banquet, Sr. Antonia expounds on her assessment of the local political situation.  The Pope’s visit has at least brought a cease-fire in the twelve-year civil war, but she fears the violence will resume once he leaves.  She praises Prince Abadi, the current ruler, but Voiello cites the UN’s denunciation of his use of torture and dictatorial rule.  He points out the international opinion, but she reiterates that the Prince is “a good man.”

But Pius takes the floor, wondering rhetorically what it even means to “be a good person.”  He puts the question to Antonia: is she a good person?  She tries to live according to Christian values, she says.  Pius pushes back, “Christian values” can be used to justify all sorts of things.  A good person, he says, is somebody who puts himself last, considering others’ needs before his own.  Does Antonia think that description applies to her?  The Pope has not come to honor Sr. Antonia, but to examine and correct her.  “Halitosis,” he says, “is a deformation of the soul.”  The local priest shatters his clay mug on the floor.

Late at night, Pius goes for a walk in the compound.  He comes upon some boys trying to lick water off the condenser before armed guards drag them away and beat them.

The next day, everyone gathers at a parade grounds.  Prince Abadi takes his seat on the dais, but the Pope is still absent.  A voice announces him over the loudspeakers, but he’s nowhere to be seen.  Then Pius himself takes the microphone from backstage to address the crowd.  He tells them what he has seen in their country: dead bodies on the ground, hunger, blood, thirst, poverty.  And behind it all, the war.  He won’t name any names; everyone is guilty of war.  But in the same way, we can all be guilty of peace.

Echoing his words from the second episode, he says that he tells the children who write him from all over the world, “think of everything you like; that is God.”  They tell him they like all sorts of things, but none of them have ever said what they like is war.  He calls the crowd to look at each other, and quotes St. Augustine again: “if you want to see God, you have the means to do it.”  He will not speak to them about God until there is peace.  “Give me peace, and I’ll give you God.”

“You have no idea,” he continues, “how disconcerting peace can be.  But I know, because I saw it when I was eight years old, on the banks of a river in Colorado.”  As he speaks, we flash back to the scene, with the young Lenny and his hippie parents out in nature, the last time in his life he was at peace.

On the flight back, Pius walks through the coach section, where the press corps are all asleep.  One man wakes up, and rather than try to interview the Pope, he just says that it was beautiful.  “I know,” Pius responds, “those dancers gave a wonderful performance.”  But the man insists no, he meant the Pope’s speech, a compliment the Pope takes in silence.

Some weather in Rome means the plane must touch down in Naples and drive back to the Vatican from there.  On the way, Pius asks that they stop at a gas station.  He gets out and kneels in the parking lot, surrounded by his own motorcade and tractor trailers from all over Europe.  He addresses God, saying they need to have a little talk about Sr. Antonia.  Meanwhile, in her village, Antonia gets up and guzzles a bottle of water out of her icy personal refrigerator.  As he prays, she gasps and collapses on the ground, crying out for her assistant, who remains fast asleep.

The episode closes on a vision of Lenny’s mother, beside that river in Colorado, staring back at us.