'The Young Pope' Recap: The Miracle Workers

The show reaches its apex in an episode that – swear to God – is as good as modern TV gets

Tonight's 'The Young Pope' isn't just the show's high point – it's one of the best hours of TV in ages. Our recap of a heavenly penultimate episode. Credit: HBO

Mincing words is the last thing Pope Pius XIII would want us to do here, so we'll say it plain: Tonight's episode of The Young Pope is absolutely magnificent. It juggles the climaxes of two major storylines, either of which could command an entire hour on their own, as effortlessly as the Holy Father juggles oranges. Whether it's Cardinal Gutierrez trying to bring down the abusive Archbishop Kurtwell or Pius making peace with the dying Cardinal Spencer, every image feels deeply considered. Every character is full and fleshed out. Not a moment is wasted. Not an emotional punch is pulled.

Javier Cámara's work as Gutierrez deserves special praise. Understandably overshadowed by the more dynamic personalities of Jude Law's title character and Silvio Orlando's delightful Cardinal Voiello, Cámara's gentle, lonely, drunken priest may lack their way with words. He communicates primarily through his sad, soulful eyes, and moves through the world so delicately that it feels like a stiff wind would carry him off. That's what makes his failures – the constant drinking, the squalid apartment, the blank letters to the pontiff – so devastating. And it's what makes his triumphs – from spitting on Kurtwell's limo in open disgust to telling him his reign of terror is at an end – so satisfying.

Gutierrez's quiet damage and dignity pervade his surroundings, imbuing everyone around him with the same melancholic energy. Rose, the woman who runs the hotel where he lives, is morbidly obese and bedridden; in order to receive potentially life-saving surgery, she'll have to be carried by crane through a hole in the wall. Yet she's treated as a real person, not as the butt of a sick joke. Her friendship with her priestly tenant is warm and self-effacingly funny, and their two farewells – first sharing the oxygen from her air purifier, then waving to one another just before she demands to be hoisted her back into her bedroom – are mysteriously moving.

Kurtwell's victims receive the same careful treatment. There's Pete, an older man who for the sake of his dignity will neither press charges nor accept a payoff: "Bernardo, forget about me," he says before gently closing the door on the investigator. David, the Archbishop's secret son, cuts a more striking figure in the bright orange-yellow wig he wears to, paradoxically, remain anonymous. At first he seems menacing: an inexplicable presence in the hotel security cameras, a stranger following Gutierrez around. But his story of pain, one so severe that not even a "happy" family life could cure it ("We'd become a shark tank," he says of his tainted household) helps us understand his inability to fit in.

Even the Archbishop is humanized with a tremulous monologue about his childhood. He tells his assistant about the rainy day he stayed home from school with a fever and watched his friendly building superintendent come on to his mother ... while in the process of evicting them. He's haunted by the details, particularly the man's soaking-wet clothes and his incongruous advice to always sit in the last car of a train for safety's sake. The juxtaposition rings true to how memory works; it also shows that predators are often scarred themselves.

But the duel between Gutierrez and Kurtwell is only half the story. The other half belongs to Pius and Spencer, his ailing mentor. The episode opens with an uninterrupted six-minute shot of the two men debating abortion, sitting alone in the Sistine Chapel. The camera glides around the empty room, conveying the enormity of the issue and the weight of centuries of religious tradition – yet the sequence makes it look like they're batting ideas back and forth on a raquetball court. The older man is already wheelchair-bound by this point; the next time we see him he's on his deathbed, surrounded by the Vatican's inner circle and still desperately trying to get his protégé to open his mind.

In his final scene, Spencer sends everyone from the room but the Holy Father. As the two men prepare for their final conversation, there's a breathtaking shot of Sister Mary's face swimming into view through a window, like an angel sent to bear witness. The Cardinal begs the Pope whom to tell the story of the miracle he performed at age 14. We see it at last in a flashback: the teenaged Lenny, arms outstretched, bathing a dying woman in the light of God before we see her rise healthy and whole from her bed through a window outside. Satisfied that what he spent his life believing in in was true, Spencer borrows a line from Blade Runner – "Time to die" – and then he's gone. Pius breaks down sobbing. You're made of stronger stuff if you can avoid doing the same after watching this.

But it's love, not death, that dominates the episode's closing moments. In a failed attempt at blackmail, Kurtwell had provided a New Yorker reporter with stolen love letters from the Holy Father. The journalist notes with disdain that the Archbishop should have read them more closely: They were never sent, because, as the Pope tells the mystery woman to whom they're addressed, he is now married to the Church. The writer publishes them anyway. The tender words reaches his beloved, who now has children of her own. She swoons as she reads. Then she grabs some fruit for a snack and brings them to her kids, juggling them like she was taught by her friend long ago. They have escaped the kind of nightmares men like Kurtwell inflict. In the face of horror, there is happiness. In the face of death, life goes on. This is as good as TV gets. This may be as good as TV has ever gotten.

Previously: Out of Africa