The finale of Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope is peak television, resulting in a gorgeous, steady stream of love, faith, and death.
This recap of The New Pope Season 1, Episode 9 contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The return of Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) sparked something within The New Pope universe. Law’s portrayal of the saintly, godly priest brought the energy this season of Paolo Sorrentino’s show severely lacked, the same energy that made the precursor series The Young Pope so fascinating. For the finale of this season of HBO’s faithful drama, Pius XIII and current pope John Paul III (John Malkovich) met up in the conversation that was being teased since the series was announced. The meeting ended up being little more than a chat in a well-lit room, but the finale itself didn’t suffer from this respectful dialogue. The New Pope Episode 9 reminded all of us why we loved the show in the first place: it has the ability to put pure magic and awe onto the small screen.
Starting off with Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France) vehemently denying that the photo of Pius in the garden with the nuns was real, the series finale went back to its roots in the opening credits with the “All Along the Watchtower” cover. Cutting between Pius walking on the beach boardwalk in a speedo and John Paul III walking in the Vatican with cardinals behind him, the credits continue to amaze and be the most consistently enjoyable aspect of Sorrentino’s dive into faith-based HBO content.
Pope John Paul III then gives a speech for the Angelus on St. Peter’s Square, naming ailment after ailment, suffering after suffering. “We are the solution,” he pronounced. “We who have been abandoned and betrayed and misunderstood.” It’s a powerful beginning of the end for PJP III, and it shows that he had the ability to take the stage when he needed to. Soon after, Sofia quits her post as Vatican marketing head, due to her continued love for PJP III, while Voiello asks his now-deceased best friend Girolamo to watch over the six children and pastor that were captured by terrorists on the island of Ventotine.
And then, the two popes meet face-to-face, talking about fanaticism and how to stop the kidnappings and terrorist attacks. Pius wants to make moves and look towards war, while John Paul believes they should pray and let law enforcement handle the situation. As PJP III decides to make the final call and walk away, Pius recites what he said while he was at his twin brother’s tomb. Brannox (PJP) is clearly shaken and submits to the will of Lenny Belardo, the saintly pope that has inspired Catholic fanatics around the world.
The next scene is one of the best in The New Pope Episode 9, as Pius gets carried into the conclave of cardinals on a throne, dressed in a royal outfit. He gives a speech to all of the cardinals about believing in him and about the idea that “guiding people’s hearts is to rule their emotion,” which he calls power. Pius compliments Pope John Paul III and with the cardinals at his back, they pray together, remind them that, “when we tend toward the good, God tends toward the good.”
After the terrorists kill the captive pastor, the caliph’s right-hand man of the extremist group pays a visit to Bauer (Mark Ivanir) and Voiello (Silvio Orlando) to explain that this isn’t them. Everyone is livid, including Pius for his overconfidence. Both popes meet once again, with PJP III taking the lead in the conversation, telling Lenny that the old pope should show the new pope obedience and that it’s time to show himself to the world. PJP III will then fill his one and only ambition: to be forgotten. “I am a fragile piece of porcelain. My fragility is my strength, not my damnation,” he explains to Pius. Only a few days later, Brannox is back home in his manor, reuniting with his once-angry parents and with Sofia who has come to live with him. It’s a beautiful end for a character that existed largely to accompany the time before Pius was ready to wake up from his coma, living in a constant state of self-hatred.
With the focus back on Pius, The New Pope becomes an extension of The Young Pope, attempting to complete the life of a complex man. Pope Pius XIII visits the island where the kidnapped kids are being kept, finding the captors to be Esther, the red-hooded fanatic, and their followers. Following this return to the public eye, the miraculous pope gives his final address in St. Peter’s Square. “Our mouths are filled with the word love,” he starts. Jude Law remains the most invigorating and emotion-grabbing aspect of Sorrentino’s shows, and his speech is no different. He asks for forgiveness for leaving them, for misunderstanding love, and not seeing beauty. He preaches again for the necessity of love and the essence of questions.
“You know what is so beautiful about questions?” he asks the audience of thousands. “It’s that we don’t have the answer.” There’s hardly a better way to sum up The New Pope, a show more concerned with questions than answers, more interested in doubt than belief.
Pius then does an act he’s wanted to complete since he first became the pope: go into the crowd and embrace his supporters one by one. A wordless sequence follows, with Pius hugging and shaking the crying believers, eventually getting lifted up into the crowd and being passed among them. In that moment, spread like Christ, he dies in the arms of the people, as the expressions of those in the crowd turn into ones of sorrow. He fulfilled his purpose, and then his life was over. There were hundreds of ways Sorrentino could have ended this journey, yet he still nailed it, giving us one more chance to watch the miraculous and awe-inspiring nature of Pope Pius XIII. The nuns carry the Pope into the church and lay him in the form of Christ in front of the Pieta. Incredible. Peak television.
The credits roll as we see Voiello become the new pope, as well as get updates on many of the supporting characters within The New Pope universe. Pope Pius XIII walks into the ocean to Flume’s “Never Be Like You” and Esther’s son, named after Pius, rides his Big Wheel around the Vatican, an obvious call to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. A show filled with emotion ends with hilarity as the boy bumps into Pope Voiello, sticks his tongue out, and calls all Pius a pain in the ***. For a season filled with ups and downs, The New Pope Episode 9 gave us all one last reason to adore Paolo Sorrentino, Pope Pius XIII, John Malkovich, and a show that cares about love, faith, beauty, doubt, and change.
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Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.