'The Young Pope' Recap: Unholy Roman Emperor

Pius XIII gets all dressed up and unleashes holy hell in our contender for the best TV episode of the year

He's sacred and he knows it – 'The Young Pope' just unleashed the single best TV episode of the year. Our recap of the hot 'n' holy HBO hit. Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

"Prepare the Sistine Chapel."

Move over, "Release the Kraken" – there's a new godlike command in town, and its word is law. (Jude Law, to be precise.) With this order, Pope Pius XIII and The Young Pope alike begin their greatest triumph: an address to the Cardinals delivered in full papal regalia, towering tiara and all. The fact that the Holy Father gets his gear on in a full-fledged dress-up montage soundtracked by LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" doesn't undercut the totalitarian coming-out party that follows; if anything, it enhances it. This man will use every tool at his disposal, right down to his own personal hotness, to beat the faithful into submission. That, or kick their apostate asses out the door – a very, very tiny door he has custom-built for the purpose. He's sacred and he knows it.

Crazy as it sounds, "Sexy and I Know It" is a perfect song for this show, independent of writer-director-creator Paolo Sorrentino's wild mini-music-video approach to watching Pius get dressed for his big speech. Sexy? Sure, that's obvious: Jude Law is, as the man says, "incredibly handsome," and the sensuality of Roman Catholic ritual and iconography has been an open secret for millennia. It's the and I know it that's key – the literal wink at the audience in the opening credits that signals yes, we're aware of we're doing. Keep in mind that when the Pope does describe himself as "incredibly handsome," he prefaces it with "I know," as if he's paraphrasing LMFAO themselves.

But that playful pop confection isn't the only memorable music cue in this episode. The other is pulled straight from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining: "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta III" by composer Bela Bartok. Sorrentino uses the portion of the song heard when poor little Danny Torance is menacingly "comforted" by his increasingly insane father Jack in the bedroom to score the scene in which Pius defeats his rival Cardinal Voiello once and for all.

The scheming Secretary of State had already come to rue his attempt to frame the Holy Father in a sex scandal. While spying on his unwilling minion Ester's failed seduction attempt, the Cardinal discovered that not only was our man legitimately incorruptible, but that his virtue springs from a place of pure pain and fear felt by all members of the clergy. Surrendering his blackmail dossier to Sister Mary, he comes to the Pope to confess … only to learn that Pius already knew everything. The blackmail over Ester's adultery, his threat to expose the Pope's pal Monsignor Gutierrez's alcoholism unless he served as a spy, and God knows what else: "What if I know all your secrets, Your Eminence?" Pius sneers.

By the end of the scene – staged so that the Pope is literally standing on higher ground, shot from below to make the power differential even more visually striking – Voiello is reduced to a sobbing mess, begging for forgiveness at the Holy Father's feet. What other choice does he have? There's no out-politicking a man who has no need to build alliances. "I'm not afraid of losing consensus," Pius says. Then – hilariously, wonderfully, insanely – he refers to himself using the title of the show. "I am the Young Pope. I put no stock in consensus." Through it all we hear that menacing music, creating an atmosphere of madness and dread as oppressive in Vatican City as it was in the Overlook Hotel.

Then comes the episode's high point – which is really, really saying something. Seriously: We haven't even covered Pius and Cardinal Dussolier going AWOL in the middle of the night, chatting with high-priced escorts while wearing track suits. Or their flashbacks to the time they ran away from their orphanage to find Lenny's parents. Or the bit where the Pope orders the Vatican kangaroo to jump … and it does. Or the part where the Holy Father and the entire Vatican power structure break into the rogue stigmatic holy man Tonino Pettola's house, saying "the reason for this visit is that you have busted our balls." The Young Pope is so good that scenes that could make another show's season-long highlight reel barely crack the top 10 in a single episode.

No, the high point is the address to the College of Cardinals, an act of absolutely unsurpassed arrogance and imperial menace. To the visible and audible shock of the assembly, the Pope is carried into the Sistine Chapel on a throne, carried on the shoulders of a dozen priests. Fan-bearers flank him like an actual Roman emperor. His costumery is so ornate and massive that he's all but immobile in it, his head pivoting and malevolent eyes twinkling amid the mountain of cloth and gold like a character out of Alice in Wonderland.

His speech is a dictatorial masterpiece: an outright call to his brother cardinals to purge the Church of all but its most fanatical followers, to act as aloof and above the unfaithful masses as God Himself. It's one of the greatest speeches in TV history, placed at the apex of the best television episode of the year. And it ends with a display of outright dominance: Pius extends his foot, and one by one, his mentor Cardinal Spencer, his best friend Cardinal Dussolier, and his defeated nemesis Cardinal Voiello come forward to kiss it. He is the Young Pope. Bow down.

Previously: Sex and the Single Saint