Send cardinals, nuns, and money – the shit has hit the fan.
Nine months after Pope Pius XIII announced his intention to rule the Catholic Church with an iron fist (wearing a red velvet glove covered in gold rings, natch), the effects of his fundamentalist fervor are being felt far and wide. August officials are dropping dead in the cafeteria. Renegade mystics are disappearing. Church pews are quite literally collapsing. Police are investigating and the priesthood is being purged. Jimmy crack corn, and the Young Pope doesn’t care.
After the previous episode’s jaw-dropping address to the College of the Cardinals, the sixth installment of HBO’s surreal hit pontiff drama focuses on its aftermath. The man once known as Lenny Belardo has now run the church his way for as long as it took his adoring acolyte Ester to give birth to her miracle child. According to Cardinal Voiello, the Holy Father’s chastened Secretary of State, his reign has given birth to nothing but misery. Tourism and donations have declined precipitously; there’s been a rise in fundamentalism akin to what you see in the most extreme sects of Islam. Ah, but that’s just how the Pope wants it: “Islam,” he points out, “has more followers than the Catholic Church.” If letting fanatics loose upon the world is what it takes to even the odds, so be it. “Your Holiness, who are you, really?” Voiello asks, genuinely baffled. Pius says nothing. You either get it or you don’t.
His childhood friend Cardinal Dussolier clearly falls in the “don’t” category. Returning to his diocese in Honduras for a brief goodbye visit before taking up permanent residence in Rome, the ginger bishop has a threesome that’s graphic even by HBO standards – one involving the possible wife of a local druglord and a dude who quietly cries when the cardinal announces that he’s leaving. When he gets back to the Vatican, Dussolier discovers that the scandalous command he’s uncovered, in which the Church will hire male prostitutes to seduce potential priests in order to root out homosexuals. The order, naturally, comes straight from Pius himself. The cardinal objects. He gets shot down. How can he possibly live with crushing the dreams of young applicants when he himself doesn’t live up to those standards?
Dussolier finds out the hard way, when an applicant he’s rejected shows up at a restaurant to throw wine in his face, mere seconds after an Italian contessa approaches him for an orgy. He dashes off to comfort the young man, who swears he’s not gay and that he’d have made an excellent priest. The next we see of the kid, he’s tossing himself off the Vatican rooftop. This is the human cost of Pius XIII’s hardcore regime. Not all of those who fail to live up to his exacting standards are deliberate rebels; even favored sons like newly minted Cardinal Gutierrez suffer. The Pope’s disgust and disapproval may well be a death sentence for those who take the Church as seriously as he does.
For all we know, this includes Tonino Pettola, the renegade stigmatic we last saw when Pius and his top dogs attempted to intimidate him. An Italian police captain informs Voiello that the mystic has gone missing, and that the highest echelons of the Catholic Church have been implicated because, the man’s relatives assert, the Pope and his entourage “threatened to throw him in quicksand.” “Does that strike you as plausible?” the Cardinal asks. “It does seem strange,” replies the cop, “but not implausible.”
The scene quickly devolves into a sports-fan comedy bit in which the detective mocks Voiello’s attachment to soccer superstar Maradona despite drug allegations (“Why do you want to hurt me, Captain? Why?”) but the point stands. Can any rational observer of this Pope’s behavior rule him out when a world-famous heretic disappears? As his darkly hilarious mishandling of Ester’s baby proves, it’s not that he’s merely awkward; it’s that he truly isn’t interested in being normal. Can you put anything past a guy like that?
The answer is no – not when Pius continues to behave like a supervillain in shepherd’s clothing. In addition to his continued dirty deeds, from screwing over informant Don Tomasso to devising a backdoor method of excommunicating any woman who’s had an abortion, he wages a direct war against the equally young, ever so slightly less handsome prime minister of Italy. This charismatic politician comes to the Vatican ready to fight, with a 41-percent share of the electorate behind him and the catastrophic decline in the Church’s reputation as ammo. But Pius has got this guy licked. By keeping himself in the shadows, the pope has ensured that his first true public appearance will be a media event for the ages. All he needs to do is directly address the Italian Catholic community, using “his beautiful blue eyes and his soft round mouth” to order them not to participate in the next election – and the Prime Minister’s voters will disappear just as surely as if God Himself wiped them off the face of the earth.
Pius is even less forgiving of the Franciscan friars who come to him demanding his resignation. With the Bela Bartok music from The Shining used in the previous episode playing in the background, the Pope absolutely annihilates the poor brothers, promising to take away everything down to their underwear unless they bend the knee. Followers of St. Francis or no, they’re not prepared to live in the abject poverty of their namesake; the leader of the church literally licks his lips in satisfaction as they buckle before his power.
Yet there’s light in the darkness here despite it all, and it emerges from a flame that’s distinctly sexual. In the episode’s most memorable sequence – a flashback – young Belardo and Dussolier watch in pubescent awe as basketball enthusiast Sister Mary loosens her habit, frees her auburn hair, and goes hard in the paint, her snow-white legs flashing in the sunlight. Decades later, the now-elderly nun smokes a cigarette, then sensuously approaches Dussolier from behind and places it in his mouth for him to smoke himself. Despite the threesome and the nudity and the Jude Law workout scene elsewhere in the episode, this is by far the hour’s sexiest moment, the kind that leaves you wondering what a Scott Shepherd/Diane Keaton sacrilegious oedipal May-December love scene might look like. A show this perfectly perverse is, as Jesus Christ himself might call it, a pearl of great price. Treasure every second.
Previously: Unholy Roman Emperor