'The Young Pope' Recap: Cardinal Sins

The old men strike back in a juicy episode of behind-the-scenes political power plays

The elderly strike back – our recap of the (literal) cardinal sins and pontiff power plays on tonight's juicy-as-hell episode of 'The Young Pope.' Credit: HBO

Last week, Lenny Belardo seized the spotlight. Well, technically, he ordered it to be strategically switched off ... but it amounted to the same thing, as his shadowy presence was undoubtedly the star of the show. Tonight, however, The Young Pope relegated Pope Pius XIII to the back seat and let his rebellious elders-cum-underlings take the wheel. This is where we learn what sort of men the newly crowned pontiff is up against.

Granted, it's a bit odd to say that Lenny played second fiddle in an episode stuffed this full of greatest-hit gif-able moments; it'll be hard for any viewer to forget the unholy trinity of Pius-centric scenes that helped kick off the proceedings. First, during one of his rooftop heart-to-hearts with his mild-mannered informant Don Tommasso, the Pope confessed that he spent the papal conclave praying "so hard I nearly shit my pants" for the downfall of his chief rivals:, his mentor Cardinal Spencer and his childhood friend Cardinal Dussolier. "God, not him, me," he repeated over and over, "like a mantra. And now I'm the pope. Not them. Me."

When his selfish prayer turned out to be successful, however, his greatest joy wasn't in feeling that God had favored him. On the contrary, he thinks the Big Man Upstairs basically blew the whole thing. "I believe only in myself. I am the Lord Omnipotent. Lenny, you have illumined yourself!" No, Belardo took pleasure in freaking his fellow cardinals out with the throwback name he picked. "They all went white when they heard the name I'd chosen, and I reveled in their fear. They were beginning to realize who I am. Because that is the enormous error they committed: They chose a pope they didn't know. And today, they begin to understand." Co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino films the whole scene in stately closeups, gorgeously "illumined" by the streetlights below, eventually zooming in on Jude Law's luscious lips for a final f-bomb.

Next up is the opening credit sequence that launched a thousand fan tumblrs. As an instrumental version of "All Along the Watchtower" plays, Pius walks in slow motion past a series of famous religious paintings as a comet soars through the sky in each of them, tracing his progress. (This is a symbol dating back to one of the Medici popes, Clement VII, and is said to indicate either great good or great misfortune.) With a shit-eating grin on his face and the credits emblazoned in flickering neon blue on the wall behind him, he eventually turns directly to the viewer … and winks. Nothing is sacred here, not even the fourth wall. At the end of his stroll, he passes a life-sized statue of beloved Pope John Paul II, which is then promptly bowled over by the now-extinguished comet. (This is itself a sculpture called "La Nona Ora (The Night Hour)" by artist Maurizio Cattelan.) Eat meteor, JPII!

True, the next time we see Pius XIII, he's screaming a prayer for forgiveness at the heavens, begging mercy or even punishment for his arrogance and deceit. But he's also got a lit cigarette in his hand the whole time, a not-so-subtle reminder that he metaphorically smoked his predecessor just a few minutes earlier.

In between, however, we get the first of several revelatory scenes involving Belardo's greatest rivals. Cardinal Spencer, who seems to get drunker each time he sees him, is chewing out Cardinal Voiello from the top floor of his apartment, in full-fledged "We had a deal!" power-broker mode. Voiello protests that while he allowed it to look as though he'd engineered the young pope's rise in order to maintain the appearance of power, it was the Holy Spirit who truly put him on the papal throne. "Don't fuck with me, Angelo," comes Spencer's response. He may be the more theologically conservative of the pair, but he can smell bullshit no matter how much incense you use to mask it.

Indeed, Voiello spends much of the episode playing defense. When he gathers his braintrust, their big plan is for him to resign his position. "It's a genuine miracle that this assembly generated an idea," he scoffs at his septuagenarian-at-best inner circle. The next time he meets with Pius, the pope rubs his nose in having his speech rejected, blows off the important child-molestation case and PR crisis the Secretary of State is begging him to deal with. Finally, extravagantly exiles a member of his rebel circle, Cardinal Ozolins, to Alaska. "Why do I get the impression that you're out to diminish me even further?" asks the hapless prelate. "Because it's true," Belardo answers with evident glee.

The downward spiral continues from there. The schemer is passed over in favor of Sister Mary for the press conference – or as the Cardinal puts it, "the depressed conference" – reconfirming everything Pius said in his lunatic homily, this time accompanied by a Game of Thrones–style recitation of all his holy titles and rankings. He's threatened with outright demotion when he curses out the pope for failing to be the bridge between liberal and conservative factions he'd intended when he engineered the election. Even when he and the ancient Cardinal Caltanissetta convince Spencer to beg Belardo's forgiveness – in one of the episode's most genuinely moving and respectful depictions of religious faith – the gambit is rejected, leaving the American cardinal crying on his knees.

But there are other ways to skin a pope. Pius may feel that the kangaroo he let loose in the Vatican grounds, glimpsed in the episode's eeriest scene, represents divine providence. But it's not enough to protect him from the foibles of his inner circle. His assistant, Father Valente, is having an affair with Ester, his most devout disciple; his confidante, Monsignor Gutierrez, is an alcoholic, a secret Voiello intends to use to extract information. But it may not work: "Voiello is a politician," says the kindly drunk when Belardo indicates his potential willingness to let the Cardinal run the show. "You are the pope." The question this relatively quiet episode asks is whether you can be the latter without also being the former.

Previously: No Church in the Wild