It was the best of Popes, it was the worst of Popes. Tonight's episode contained both individual shots and lengthy segments that are as successful as anything the HBO show has put on screen so far – but it's also the first installment of the series that feels like a substantial failure. It's oddly appropriate: The storyline, in which Pope Pius XIII exits his comfort zone by leaves the cozy confines of his papal palaces and travels abroad to meet his public, is the one in which co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino wanders off course himself.
But before Pius journeys to foreign lands, he first plumbs the depths of his grief for Cardinal Andrew Dussolier. The man was his childhood friend, perhaps his only friend; he was also the victim of a murder the Pope himself feels responsible for. After all, it was his stringent polices that sent the softer-hearted man scurrying back to Honduras, and put him within reach of the wrathful narco he cuckolded. The show processes the Holy Father's mourning period through a jaw-dropping series of richly sensual scenes and images that contrast with the illicit pleasures that helped get Dussolier killed – as well as "the simple, drab life of the priest" (to use the Pope's own words) to which the two friends were supposedly called.
In these opening minutes, Pius imagines his missing mother cradling Andrew in his arms, Pietà-style. He prays for his late friend to recall the time they sat enraptured by Sister Mary playing basketball at age 20. The camera whirls in circles as he paces around a room, then submerges with him as he prays in a pool, his sexy-and-I-know-it chest hair floating in the water.
After the familiar opening credits, the fantasia continues. Our man in the Vatican has his body stretched, pounded and prodded by a masseur in a sumo-style loincloth, with translucent images of each intimate contact overlaid atop one another like half-remembered vintage gay erotica. He gets a massage from a young man as statues of (Italian?) stallions strike muscular poses. Ambient post-rock music hums, then cuts off abruptly as the Pope plays tennis against the wall of his residence with sunglasses on, looking like a bored kid. It's a funny moment … until it crash-cuts to a devastating shot of Sister Mary, lying prone on her bed, sobbing unconsolably.
We flip back to the Pope watching a plane soar overhead in absolutely luminous magic-hour lighting. We see a repeat of the black Madonna and Child and the weeping girl who ended the previous episode, and learn from a visiting cardinal that she was a young mystic now up for canonization. Pius wanders through a hedge maze. A horse trots past in the distance as a helicopter lands and Pius complains "I'm so tired." He manspreads against a red sofa while seated opposite Vatican PR guru Sofia as she encourages him to meet and greet. That night, the topless activists-provocateurs of the Femen group rise out of the hedge maze like gophers, "BASTARD" written across their bare chests one letter at a time. His holiness looks on in contemplative silence as he continues smoking his cigarette.
He has a long talk with his favorite author, Elmore Cohen, played by Andre Gregory of My Dinner With Andre fame, in which the writer boils all of life down to sex – specifically the most deliciously perverse variants one is lucky enough to experience. (Despite his protestations, Pius secretly agrees about such moments' power, confessing later in the episode that he's been haunted all his life by the time his only girlfriend told him "You can touch my legs.") The Pope goes to Ester and Peter's house and finds them gone, their prized photo of Pius and his namesake baby left behind. He berates the now-sick Cardinal Spencer for his ambitiousness, then begs for his spiritual advice when the older man promises "there is another path." He finds his kangaroo dead. He delivers mass to the scattered faithful and bored journalists at St. Peter's Square with his back turned to them. He announces his intention to travel to Africa. He eats a banana. From start to finish, everything – the editing, framing, scoring and acting – is fearless, and perhaps peerless.
And that's where things go wrong. The Pope and his entourage travel to an unnamed African country ruled by a dictatorial prince; the lack of specificity is presumably to avoid offending any particular nation, though given the show's past depictions of fictional dignitaries from real places, this borders on "Africa Is a Country"–style chauvinism. It's true that much of the squalor and misery he sees there is the result of Sister Antonia, a Mother Theresa wannabe who secretly hoards the heavily polluted region's little clean water and horrifically abuses all those who need it. But without a single speaking part for the African characters – even the whistleblowing priest who tips the ponitff off to the reign of terror does it in writing – the narrative treats the locals as incidental. Perhaps this is intended as a mordant satire of the way white Westerners view their real-life counterparts, but it's too close for comfort. Note to the creators: An anemic indie-rock cover of Beyoncé's "Halo" played over the Pope's big speech about the need for peace (wisdom that had apparently eluded the entire country until a European man told them) isn't exactly helping the perception of whitewashing, either.
It's not that the Africa sequence is a total disaster. The trip there is marked with an accusation from a reporter aboard the Pope's plane that he's being blackmailed by a child-molesting cardinal, shouted out loud and shot with accusatory whip-zooms like something out of The Last Temptation of Christ. As for the trip home, that's marked by a scene pf Pius on his knees in a truck stop parking lot, praying inaudibly to God about Sister Antonia. The horrid old phony collapses and dies screaming in her luxurious bedroom suite back in Africa, before the episode cuts to a shot of Lenny Belardo's own mom staring into the camera and breathing heavy. The magic is still there, in other words. But that only makes the misfire of the neocolonialist field-trip material that much harder to explain, or excuse. You can do better than this, The Young Pope.
Previously: The Parent Trap