This episode of The Young Pope seemed less like a gonzo hour of high camp and fever dreams about the nature of corrupting power than it did a very conventional hour of a network drama. There were disparate storylines all clustered around a central theme, and they were all tied together in a neat little package in the end via musical montage. It was almost as if Paolo Sorrentino had done a stint on Grey’s Anatomy and he, too, can tug at heartstrings. Seriously, that show had a falling 700-pound man all of its own.
The episode centered on the Kurtwell Case, which we’ve heard about since the pilot, but only off-handededly. Gutierrez, the Pope’s only living friend, was dispatched to New York to investigate a bishop in Queens who has been accused, we assume, of multiple counts of sexually abusing children. Finally, in the second to last episode, we get to meet the guy.
I had a bit of a problem with his characterization. We hear characters say that he’s the incarnate of evil and that he’s sexually assaulted children for years, but we don’t see any of that bad behavior. The only evidence we see of his sexuality is that he’s a gay man who is interested in other adult men. His aide, with his tender hand caresses, seems a lot closer than a normal majordomo would be. The only overt sexual relationship we see is when Freddy, the liquor store worker and awful tennis player, gives him some oral pleasure in a bodega.
Can you blame Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) for wanting Freddy (Alex Isola), who is the sexiest guy that we’ve seen on the show not in religious garb? Freddy legally entered into this sexual arrangement, albeit so that Kurtwell could turn him into the next Novak Djokovic rather than out of real desire. While that may be immoral, especially for a priest, an older man enticing a nubile youth into a sexual relationships to further his career is a tale as old as, well, Catholicism. That doesn’t make Kurtwell a monster, it makes him a gay dude exploiting his power.
What we see is a normal gay man, but what we’re told that he’s an awful sexual predator. It’s the old conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia that is not only problematic, but dangerous to public perceptions of gay men. Kurtwell might not even be strictly gay, considering he is possibly the father of David, the crazy dude with the gross yellow wig (the question of his possible affair with David’s mother is left a bit ambiguous).
Anyway, Gutierrez, who had rarely left the Vatican and was scared of Vespas, finds himself in New York tasked with investigating this powerful and crafty gentleman. Everyone knows that he’s a drunken mess and the only friends he has are his landlady and Freddy, who overcharges him for vodka.
After the word reach the Pope that Gutierrez is an unmitigated disaster and nothing is moving forward in the investigation, they have the world’s saddest Skype date, in which Gutierrez shows Lenny the squalor he’s living in. Lenny experiences a rare moment of charity and tells Gutierrez to come home, bringing him back into the warm embrace of the Vatican where Lenny can fix all of his problems.
But, oddly enough, Gutierrez has a change of heart, thanks to his landlord, who is very obese. She tells him that she’s not afraid of dying because of the operation she needs to save her life, she’s afraid of having to be carried out of her room by a crane. She says she has vertigo and the thought of being outside is what is most frightening to her. She would rather die in her safe little cell than go out into the world and do what needs to be done to survive.
Gutierrez has been freaking out ever since he left the cocoon of the Vatican. He decides he doesn’t want to be turn out like his landlord, and that is when he sets his plan in motion. He uses the proof he has of Kurtwell’s sexual relationship with Freddy to take Kurtwell back to the Vatican on the next flight. He is even forcing him to take the train to the airport.
As someone who has taken the train to JFK numerous times, I will tell you that it is a unique form of torture to visit on any human being, especially one used to a car and driver. It also brings around the weird story that Kurtwell told at the beginning of the episode, about being evicted from his house and the superintendent telling him to always sit in the back of the train because it was the safest. Kurtwell made himself into a powerful figure, possibly because of that powerlessness he felt as a child. He was figuratively near the front of the train, part of the action. But that is what made him such a target. Now that the train is going to crash, he is going to be among the first people to impact.
Gutierrez gets to return to the Vatican, not as a drunken lump but as a victor who accomplished his mission. When he returns, however, he’s going to find that Lenny is a drastically changed man. Cardinal Spencer’s condition is rapidly deteriorating and it seems to be having quite an effect on Lenny. Though he’s always questing to find his own parents, watching his spiritual father die is making him into a better person. That’s most clearly illustrated when he calls in the Vatican’s household staff and tells them all he loves him. This is not the Young Pope of the first episode, telling them he doesn’t believe in personal relationships and demanding Diet Cherry Coke Zeros.
Of course, it’s not like he’s completely reformed. He still takes his helicopter to the beach to leave a photo of himself and Pius for Esther, which is the creepiest stalker thing that I’ve ever seen on TV. It was a vain move to remind her of the importance he had in her life. But it is also one of surrender—leaving her with the reminder, yet not forcing himself into her life. It’s as if he’s decided to focus on all of the children of the Church rather than that one specific baby that he once threw across a hospital room. Also it was an excuse for him to stand on the beach in his khakis, cashmere hoodie, and backpack looking like the world’s best Men’s Fitness spread.
The key scene of the episode, however, was Lenny telling Spencer the story of his miracle on his deathbed. Framed as a lush flashback and shot in warm tones, we see Lenny extend his arms to god for what must have been the first time, exercising that supernatural power that we’ve witnessed several times since, whether it was to impregnate Esther or kill Sister Antonia. After telling him, Spencer had his faith in god restored and then can die in peace. However, if Lenny proved to Spencer that he can heal the sick, why not extend the same gift to Kurtwell?
Still, Kurtwell gives Lenny one final gift. He tells him that his parents are still alive and he will find them. That is the miracle that Lenny needs to believe in to keep going. Spencer had previously told him to bury two empty coffins if he wanted to save the Church, but now he realizes that won’t save Lenny’s soul. Jude Law did his best acting of the whole season in this scene, the sadness registering on his face slowly as he tried to fight it back, then finally collapsing into full-on sobs. Someone call the Golden Globes committee and cue the musical montage.
The best part of the montage is that the love letters that Kurtwell had been using as blackmail against Lenny are deemed completely ineffective because, as the journalist points out, they were never sent. In the end they’re published in The New Yorker and serve to humanize the pope. While he’s still a mystery, people see him as a man capable of immense love and willing to sacrifice his own happiness to do the work of god. We even get a glimpse of his California girlfriend, who goes outside and juggles oranges for her children. She’s moved by the letters, happy to be remembered in such a way, but I don’t think she’ll be meddling in the life of the pope. He has enough going on without her trying stepping out of the montage and into his real life.
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