After a long build-up, the ninth episode finally starts digging into the Kurtwell case, as well as delivering more about Lenny’s childhood experience that he has until now avoided talking about when someone else brings it up. Sorrentino dials Bigazzi’s camera work back to merely excellent, leaving fewer stunning moments than previous episodes, and there’s much less levity, which may frustrate the crowd who are watching for the campier aspects. This is where Sorrentino turns quieter and more introspective, using sadness not to get mired in melodrama, but as a different avenue into awe.
But first we start with Pius and Cardinal Spencer arguing in the Sistine chapel. The Pope paces around the empty floor, while Spencer remains seated in his wheelchair. As conservative as the cardinal may be, and as much as he agrees with the assessment of abortion as a grave moral disorder, the system Pius has constructed is overly rigid. Their argument over the matter ranges widely through academic sources and legal references but it seems that, despite the words of St. Alphonsus that Spencer quotes, Pius’ feelings are again bound up with his experiences as an orphan. He projects his own pain of abandonment onto any woman who would leave even her unborn child, and his program of de facto excommunication reflects his complicated feelings about his own mother.
In New York, Cardinal Gutierrez wakes on his hotel bed, scattered with papers, and immediately tries to salvage a last drop from the pint bottle on the nightstand. The wall is covered with clipped articles about Archbishop Kurtwell and his own investigation. It’s a far cry from the luxury of the Vatican.
Across town, Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) struggles to eat a boiled egg. The tremors in his hand may help crack the shell, but actually getting it to his mouth is an exercise in frustration. His assistant — no less than the governor’s son, so well has Kurtwell insulated himself with powerful allies — reads off his schedule for the day. Kurtwell talks about his own humble origins, and of the advice one building’s super gave him as the family moved out just ahead of eviction: “Always sit in the back of the train. It’s safer.” He says he never understood it, but he lives his entire life with this eye towards defense and risk-avoidance.
They discuss Gutierrez; who seems to do little but walk and sleep and drink, the latter in a hole in the wall that’s less a bar and more an alcoholic shooting gallery for drunks to feed their addictions as efficiently as possible. But his walks do take him past victims’ homes, where he begs them to go on the record and press charges, the shots echoing the legwork scenes of Spotlight. But with no success; most have taken payouts, and the rest just want to be left alone, forgotten in their misery.
Gutierrez goes by a liquor store where he’s on a first-name basis with the clerk, Freddy. He has proposed that Freddy help nail Kurtwell, but Freddy demurs with a flirtatious comment back. Gutierrez will leave when his investigation ends, but Freddy would have to stay after speaking out against one of the most powerful men in Queens. In the alley, a towncar pulls up alongside the cardinal, who spits at the window hiding Kurtwell’s face.
The archbishop makes his own approach to Freddy, offering him whatever he wants. But Freddy is no more a friend of Kurtwell’s; “I want to become a great tennis player and win the Grand Slam,” he sneers, but Kurtwell still says he’ll have it.
Back at the Hotel Barclay, Gutierrez speaks with Rose (Jan Hoag), the bedridden manager, with whom he’s become friendly. She’s about to go into the hospital for an operation to help with her morbid obesity. More than likely she’ll die even with the treatment, but she feels like she must try to do more than monitor the six silent security feeds on her wall. Gutierrez wonders if it isn’t nice to be able to turn one’s life so inwardly, to live in bed. But Rose snaps at him that it’s horrible; everyone deserves a chance to start over. And yet she can laugh at the absurdity of her situation: to get her to the hospital they will rip out the wall of her room and pull her out, dangling through space.
As Gutierrez goes to write to the Pope, someone in a yellow wig walks by on another of Rose’s monitors. The cardinal’s letter is blank, except at the bottom: “This is all I can say.” Pius files it with the others, similarly blank.
Sofia wants to put together a press release denying the rumors that Kurtwell has something on the Pope, but she is rebuffed; a blackmail-proof man would have no need to say so. But confidentially, she asks, is there anything? Pius thinks and smiles a bit to himself before the scene cuts to Cardinal Spencer’s manse.
Spencer is on his deathbed, surrounded by Pius, Sr. Mary, and a few of his fellow cardinals. He tells Pius, “you think you’re the hinge, but you’re the door,” which shakes the Pope.
Later, at dinner, Pius calls his staff into the dining room, telling them he loves them all. That night, sitting again with Don Tommaso on the roof, he asks where Esther, Peter, and little Pius went. They have a house by the beach in Ostia, and Peter is a private security guard. Asked if they weren’t happy here, Tommaso tells the Pope that life in the Vatican isn’t much fun for young people.
Then Tommaso confides that everyone here says that the Pope is a saint. “Calumny,” he responds.
On Facetime, Pius asks Gutierrez to show where he lives. The cardinal turns his laptop to show the disheveled room, and then Pius tells him that he can come home when he wants, even though he has unearthed no hard evidence against Kurtwell.
Gutierrez sharpens an ice skate while watching a news interview with Kurtwell. The Archbishop announces a new youth sports program to help revitalize some of the run-down neighborhoods in the borough. When asked why much of the program focuses on tennis, he mentions his love for the sport, the history of tennis in Queens, the physical and mental skills it inspires. He doesn’t mention Freddy, of course.
Outside Gutierrez’ window stands a man with a cheap yellow wig.
Kurtwell says a Latin mass inside his residence. He watches Freddy practice on a professional court.
Gutierrez skates at a public rink. The man with the yellow wig close behind him. The two sit in the stands while a figure skater practices alone. They begin to speak, and the man introduces himself as David Tanistone (Troy Ruptash). He used to skate on the weekends with his family. But his family fell apart, and now he skates during the week, and alone. He tells Gutierrez that the cardinal is the missing link between him and the source of all of his problems. Gutierrez takes his picture.
They move to Gutierrez’ bar, but David rushes out the back when he sees someone coming in the front door. Kurtwell sits down in his place opposite Gutierrez and asks why he and the Pope are so determined to get him. He declares Gutierrez’ accusations libelous and threatens to press charges. He claims that Lenny Belardo always envied him his charisma, and that’s the true motivation behind the investigation. He feels well enough insulated that the Pope will not actually try to get to the bottom of things for fear of the pandemonium it would unleash. Gutierrez shows him David’s picture.
Outside, David thrashes against the chain-link fence in anger. He waits by Gutierrez’ door. Inside the cardinal’s room, David tells Gutierrez that it was while they watched the figure skater that he felt he could trust the cardinal and participate in the investigation. He removes his wig and confesses that yes, Kurtwell is his father. But his point is less about his own neglect than about how he can be the thin end of a wedge that brings the archbishop’s horrors out into the light.
Rose says she isn’t afraid of dying, but her vertigo makes her afraid of being swung out of her room and dangled in mid-air. Gutierrez tells her not to worry, he’ll be there to comfort her, and then he will return to Rome. Rose stops him and tells him to say goodbye now, rather than waiting until he leaves. As he leans over her bed, she pulls him close and tells him to breathe with her; she’s the one of them who’s going to die.
A teenaged Lenny and Andrew stand outside the window of the caretaker’s house, watching Billy attend to his mother on her deathbed. Sr. Mary walks up and calls them inside. Despite Lenny’s fear, she insists that he comfort his friend at this moment. Inside, he hugs Billy, looking over his friend’s shoulder at the dying woman who looks back at him. He tells Sr. Mary that he wants to pray beside Billy’s mother, then sits at her side with his arms outstretched. He delivers, possibly for the first time, the formula that’s starting to become familiar to us: “Lord, we must talk about Billy’s mother, now.” He prays, moving his lips in silence. The light changes in the room and the others are stunned as Billy’s mother rises from her bed. Lenny walks out the front door and breaks into a run.
Spencer smiles and weeps at the story. Pius tells him solemnly that Billy’s mother is still alive. Spencer tells him that his own mother is still alive, too, and that he will find her. And then, at last, Cardinal Spencer dies. The mourners walk away from his manse in silence, as a sudden wind rustles the trees.
The crane lifts Rose’s bed towards the gaping hole in the brick wall and out into the air, six or seven stories above the ground. She looks down and waves at Cardinal Gutierrez, waving back up at her, but then she panics, yelling for the riggers to bring her back inside. She abandons her attempt to start over, and Gutierrez walks away.
In Kurtwell’s residence, Gutierrez tells him that they will leave together for the Vatican the next afternoon. Kurtwell says the two have no solid evidence but David’s ravings, but Gutierrez pulls out a series of photographs taken from the liquor store’s security camera, showing Kurtwell and Freddy in a compromising position.
Kurtwell calls the Pope with one last attempt to forestall his humiliation: the promised blackmail. But Pius tells him to go ahead with what he thinks he has. People might even like it.
Kurtwell calls a journalist friend, telling him he has confidential information about the Pope: a series of love letters he found in the back of a drawer in Lenny’s old desk when he took over as Archbishop. Lenny seems to have maintained his romantic, and even sexual, feelings towards his California girlfriend. But the journalist is a more thorough reader than Kurtwell, finding a note in the last letter, saying that obviously he can never send them. Without evidence that they were sent, they aren’t news; merely literature. And, it seems, a honeypot the departing Cardinal Belardo left to entrap a successor he knew he’d have to deal with.
Defeated, Kurtwell accepts that he must depart. But Gutierrez has had his car confiscated, forcing an uncomfortably public train ride to the airport. Kurtwell accepts this, too, asking only that they get seats in the back, where it’s safer.
Pius stands on the beach, next to the surf. Esther walks out to a pile of toys in the sand, where she finds the portrait of Pius holding her son, but sees no sign of who left it.
The letters are published after all, but in the New Yorker. Freddy practices his forehand. Rose laughs in her bed, watching the cleaning staff playing with David’s discarded wig. A woman reads the magazine, and the Pope’s last words to his once-girlfriend, wondering what became of her. She stands and walks through a beautiful house, pausing, smiling, in the kitchen before grabbing three oranges from a basket on the counter. She takes them out to two children in the back yard, and begins to juggle them.