'The New Pope' Episode 9 Finale: The long-awaited Pope-off becomes a mediation on love and fanaticism
Paolo Sorrentino knew we were looking for a Pope-off and so he begins his final installment of 'The New Pope', with the now-familiar opening credit scene — Pope Pius XIII aka Lenny's (Jude Law) Speedo-clad stroll through a sea of adoring beauties — but intercut with John Paul III aka John Brannox's (John Malkovich) march through the halls at the Vatican with a sea of grim-looking cardinals and priests behind him.
But after all that, when the two popes finally do meet, their tussle of power is relegated to subtle gestures of kissing the ring or not. Their clash is subsumed in the urgency of an active terrorist threat in Ventotene, where six children and their priest-teacher are being held hostage in a schoolroom with the armed police squad standing outside.
Lenny, in his usual take-action decisiveness, wants to take the momentum Brannox has created among the young and disenfranchised and weaponize it. He believes that the Caliph, who has been broadcasting his "Iblis" message since Episode 1, needs Islamic fanaticism to survive and is threatened by the reports of him "awakening".
If the gathered faithful were to take one look at Lenny, the church would have an army of its own fanatics. In short, Lenny is all, "if it is war he wants, it's war he gets".
Brannox, still clutching to his Popehood, says he wants the police to handle it until Lenny relates what Brannox had said at his brother's gravestone about God not loving him. "Did you think you were alone," he asks the startled Brannox.
By this time, Sorrentino has us right where he wants us. We have had enough of the wishy-washy Brannox and we want Lenny to cleanse the world with his holy fire so we can emerge clean from the ashes. Lenny is the miracle-spewing saint who has to be right, right? His "secret speech" to the cardinals about power being the ability to manipulate emotions so that people follow them blindly is textbook fascism but we are too awed to notice. Just like the cardinals, who have their eyes shut (figuratively and literally) as they listen to his words.
Bauer (Mark Ivanir), of course, is losing his sh*t, giving Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) hell about his out-of-control ex-Pope wanting the Vatican to wage war on Islam. Voiello corrects him "Islamic fanatics" but it is all too clear that it is Holy War, in capital letters, we are talking about here. A war that all countries, willing or not, will be pulled into.
But faced with the "threat" of Lenny making an appearance, the terrorists murder the priest-teacher. Lenny is immediately reduced to a pile of doubt and indecision, calling himself "a child" (finally!), especially after someone close to the Caliph drops in on Voiello to inform the Vatican that they are not the ones controlling the masked terrorists in the schoolroom.
When Brannox meets him, Lenny kisses Brannox's hand fervently, agonized that his actions have led to an innocent death with maybe more to follow. Brannox then plays the adult to Lenny's child, telling him ambiguously that it is Lenny that has to set things right, while he "returns to himself".
Brannox retires to his country estate in England and is joined by Sofia Dubois' (Cécile de France) who gives up her job and husband to be with him. Having watched them dance around each other in denial and guilt for so long, this moment is particularly satisfying.
In the final denouement, it is revealed that the "terrorists" are the Pope Pius fanatics who also have Esther as a participant in their "hostage" plan. They are so driven by their love for Lenny that they are willing to kill a priest to see him, dead or alive. They drop their weapons the moment Lenny walks into that room with the armed guards behind him.
Brannox had warned about "distorted love" as the root of all evil and suffering in his first address to the cardinals. Pope Pius XIII talks about confounding "love with madness, beauty with ecstasy" in his last address to the people.
He then calls Brannox's "Middle Way", the only way, asking that Catholics' love be gentle, be kind, be humble. As he crowd surfs through the Vatican square, his lesson learned and his eyes closed beatifically, he dies. The nuns lay him under the Pieta statue as the Vatican's doors slam shut.
Sorrentino, who likely knew we were wailing at that abrupt, ambiguous end, gives us end-credit scenes that tie up the loose ends so to speak. Voiello is back to his old tricks saying they need a "mediocre Pope" after Pius XIII and John Paul III. This time, instead of suggesting himself, he gets another priest to suggest his name as he smiles at the camera.
Faisal, the immigrant is reunited with his nun (no longer a nun) and her baby. The nun who wanted to see her dying mother is finally is able to meet her on her death bed.
And Lenny? We get one last shot of him in his Speedos as he disappears into the blue waters of the ocean like an enigmatic merman. We'll miss him.