'The Young Pope' Recap: Sex and the Single Saint

A killer episode puts the agony and the ecstasy of TV's most daring show on full display

Sex, saints, silly dancing to pop songs – could tonight's episode of 'The Young Pope' be any more surreal? Our recap of TV's most daring show of 2017. Credit: Gianni Fiorito

It's not TV. It's The Young Pope.

We hope HBO will pardon our repurposing of their famous catchphrase for the sake of celebrating what creator Paolo Sorrentino, star Jude Law and everyone else involved in this extraordinary pulp-prestige TV project have wrought. But hey, if the slogan fits, wear it. Flip the channels or scroll through the streaming services all you want, but you won't find anything like this. Its combination of tightly controlled tone with beautifully bizarre flights of fancy and absolutely colossal camp stands alone. It's Hannibal for lapsed Catholics.

Where to begin with tonight's installment,? Right at the start, with a shot of a rider on horseback who turns out to be a wandering healer with the wounds of the stigmata? Or his conversation with the sheep handlers who provide for his sermon? ("It's not a sheep! This is the Madonna!" "Baaaa!") Or maybe you jump forward a scene, to the exchange between Pope Pius XIII and his assistant, Sister Suree (played by Nadee Kammellaweera). Why is their chat, about her dying sister back in Sri Lanka, edited with the staccato rhythms of Jack Webb's Dragnet? Why do we hear the Pope's dialogue through the tinny buzz of the nun's hearing aid, and why don't we find out the source of said buzz until the end of the scene? Because it puts the viewer on the same disoriented, intimidated footing as poor Suree? Because it's cool? Or both?

Or how about the crushing denouement of that storyline? The good sister's sister has passed on, it seems, and rather than send her back to Sri Lanka for the funeral, our man Lenny has the body choppered into the Vatican so he can perform the service himself. It's the perfect Pius XIII combination of genuine piety and imperial arrogance … until the latter wins out when Suree can't stop crying. "Believers don't cry," he snarls. "You don't believe." At her lowest moment, he humiliates her for the same sin of disbelief that he himself is all too susceptible to.

Perhaps we should pick another storyline, like Cardinal Voiello's most ruthless power play yet? The scheming Secretary of State has learned from his spymaster Amatucci that the Pope's other assistant, Father Valente, has had an affair with Ester, the Swiss Guardsman's wife to whom the Pope has taken a shine. (A seconds-long flashback reminds us that the pretty blonde looks a whole lot like his missing mother, which … hoo boy, paging Cardinal Freud!) In a scene straight out of a Godfather movie, he summons the poor woman to his residence late at night and paces back and forth behind a virtual wall of candelabras, threatening to expose her adultery unless she does what he says. Later conversations between her and the Holy Father indicate her mission is seduction.

And yet! Despite this dastardly deed, Voiello not only gets some of the night's best jokes ("I was about to laugh," he deadpans, "but I stopped myself, because I have a certain class."). He also gets the episode's most moving scene, as he visits Girolamo, the mentally and physically disabled boy he babysits for nearly every night. "You are the only soul in the world without sin," he tells the kid, who responds with half-comprehending delight. "You who do not know, and will never know, what it means to live inside a wrong life every day." The cardinal talks a good game, but deep down he's so tormented by his own sins that he seeks forgiveness and understanding from a child who can truly offer neither.

Then there is Ester's plight itself. She couches her first pass at Pius in terms of her and her husband Peter's inability to conceive. The pope, sensing her discomfort with her spouse even before she brings it up herself ("I'm not profound," he explains regarding his insight, "I'm presumptuous"); he instructs her to "make a gift of your beauty" to her husband, and God will repay it in kind. He winds up accidentally seeing the couple having sex against the window of their house, and drops to his knees in a prayer so passionate it's practically sexual itself. Meanwhile, the woman is fantasizing about His Holiness coming to her like the angel in Bernini's sculpture "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." The sacred and the profane collide like a truck accident.

Ester is not the only one having visions. Monsignor Gutierrez – the gentle alcoholic in whom the Pope confides and over whom Voiello holds the threat of exposure – returns to the spot where the Madonna appeared to him as a teenager, convincing him to join the priesthood. She reassures him that he's still that same boy, and she's still there to protect him. Will it be enough to get him through his high-profile transfer to New York to investigate a major sex-abuse scandal? It's enough for a gorgeous scene, that's for sure, and a complement both to Ester's fantasy and Belardo's afternoon looking through old family photos with the Vatican's nuns, bathed in the golden sunlight.

Last, and in no way least, there's the state visit from Greenland's glamorous prime minister (Carolina Carlsson) and her charming gay deputy. The latter inspires the Vatican's leader to order a merciless purge of every homosexual priest in the clergy. (To Voiello's credit, he resorts to the seduction scheme to stop this madness.) The former causes him first to lay on the charm with the instant-classic line "I know: I'm incredibly handsome, but please let's try and forget about that." He browbeats her with the notion that her country's tiny Catholic community is its true owner, and "Everyone else is a guest." But then they sit back and groove to an Italian pop song she gave him as a gift, one he later imagines her dancing to, Twin Peaks–style; a bogus wikipedia entry about Greenlanders' legendary passion for getting down segues into the closing credits. It's sexy, silly, surreal and strangely moving. It's The Young Pope.

Previously: Cardinal Sins