HBO's 'The New Pope' Recaptures the Wild, Goofy Spirit of 'The Young Pope'

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John Malkovich is the new pope | HBO
John Malkovich is the new pope | HBO

Remember The Young Pope, the weird, wild 2016 show in which Jude Law played the original hot priest? Well, the series is back, in all its ridiculous splendor, with a new title, a new pope, and a new attitude. The second season of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's opulently stylish papal drama, which debuted on Monday with back-to-back episodes, goes by a slightly less funny but infinitely more confusing name, The New Pope, given that it arrives right during the awards-season hype of Netflix's The Two Popes and also itself features two popes, the one played by Law and the titular papal newbie played by John Malkovich. So many pop-culture popes these days!

In The New Pope, Malkovich chews scenes as John Paul III, a British aristocrat-turned-Catholic-Church-leader named John Brannox. It's also thematically darker, moving with less of a spring in its step than its kangaroo-filled miracle of a first season. There's still a gaudy, surreal party going on in Vatican City, one filled with inexplicable dancing and backroom dealing, but the mood has shifted. Out with the young, in with the new.

That doesn't mean the show has ditched all the parts that made the first season so oddly, pleasingly brilliant. Law's Pope Pius XIII, aka the New York-born Lenny Belardo, still has a (mysterious) role to play following his collapse at the end of the previous season. Sorrentino remains committed to setting scenes of procedural pageantry to intentionally jarring music cues. The cardinals keep scheming.

"To do good a saint only has to breathe," says a character early on in the new show. Similarly, to do good, The New Pope really just needs to keep surprising the viewer, offering up outrageous spectacle, palace intrigue, and flashy outfits. Here's everything you need to know to keep up with The New Pope's latest heretical provocations.

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Jude Law is the old pope | Gianni Fiorito/HBO

What happened to Jude Law's Pope Lenny?

In the highly meme-able opening credits for The Young Pope, Jude Law's Pope Pius XIII walked down a hallway as a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" blasted away and a number of paintings passed by in the background. At the end of the sequence, he would playfully wink at the camera. The New Pope has a Lenny-less opening, which features a group of nuns writhing to the electronic pulse of SOFI TUKKER's "Good Time Girl," but the show also finds Lenny in dire straits. It turns out he didn't die and ascend to Heaven at the end of the last season; he's still alive and he's not exactly his chipper self either.

Instead, the first two episodes introduce Lenny lying in a coma with a neon cross illuminating his dimly lit room. (In the opening scene of the first episode, he receives a sponge-bath from a nun while an EKG beeps in the background.) The Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Voiello (the delightful Silvio Orlando), must fill the power vacuum left behind by Lenny's ill-timed departure and select a new leader. Many Catholics sit outside the Vatican praying for Lenny, who they see as a saint and possibly a martyr for the Church. Any new pope will have to contend with both the memory of Lenny and the possibility that he could emerge from the coma and attempt to retake his position as Pope. 

All new leaders will have to contend with ghost/dream Lenny too. In the first two episodes, we've seen Lenny seemingly invade the consciousness of other characters, appearing to them in typically strange and elliptical dream sequences. What are Lenny's motives? Just like when he was commanding the Church back in season one, his exact plan isn't clear. More often than not, he serves as a figure of chaos within the Church and within Sorrentino's plot, pulling different characters in different directions and refusing to explain his larger ideology. 

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Silvio Orlando is still Cardinal Voiello | Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Who is the new pope in The New Pope?

Like The Young Pope, The New Pope isn't afraid to test the patience of its audience. After prominently featuring John Malkovich's familiar bald visage in promotional materials for the show, his John Brannox doesn't even appear until the very last shot of the first episode. Instead, we're treated to an episode filled with various Cardinals voting and jockeying for influence, leading to the election of a new non-Malkovich pope. Technically, The New Pope could have been called The Three Popes if Sorrentino really wanted to beat Netflix at its own game. 

So, who is this second [ope? After quite a bit of negotiating, the seemingly naif-like Cardinal Tommasino Vigiletti, who heard Lenny's confessions back in Season 1, gets the most votes, but quickly disturbs the other Cardinals with his focus on stripping them of their material wealth and influence. In the first episode's funniest moment, a bird steals his canned written speech right before he's supposed to deliver it and he realizes he can simply say what he wants, leading to another great scene where the Cardinals must give up their gold crosses.

At the end of the first episode, Vigiletti suffers a heart attack after Voiello arranges for his blood pressure medication to be poisoned. Again, there's a vacancy, and this time Voiello decides that Malkovich's Brannox is the top candidate for the job, leading to a trip to his vast estate in the second episode. Here, we finally get Malkovich, sporting post-punk eyeliner and playing the harp for his guests. It's perfect. 

Like Lenny, Brannox has a tragic backstory: His twin brother died prematurely, under vaguely tragic circumstances at this point, and his elderly parents mourn him every day in a manner that clearly haunts Brannox. This family trauma won't stop him from taking the the title of pope -- after all, you've seen the poster -- but it might play a role in his inevitable conflict with Lenny, who can't stay in a coma all season.

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Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Is The New Pope as good as The Young Pope?

Judging from the first two episodes, The New Pope lacks one of The Young Pope's greatest assets: its newness. When a show arrives in such a proudly weird, fully-formed package, it's hard to replicate the sensation of watching it unfold for the first time. Despite the title switch, the gap between seasons, and the addition of another giant star, the most surprising aspect of The New Pope is the extent to which it feels like a direct continuation of what came before, an additional chapter instead of a brand new volume. Though he bucks many television conventions, playing with viewer expectations, Sorrentino can't resist doing the normal second season premiere thing of introducing a new character and setting them up for a showdown with the protagonist. 

But here's the thing: Many of those old fashioned television plotting conventions can be fun to watch play out, particularly when executed with the visual excess Sorrentino brings to the material. And The New Pope, despite the more somber and mournful tone, is still exhilarating. The music, the twists, and the monologues are gripping and confounding in equal measure. Even if The New Pope doesn't have the element of surprise on its side, its resurrection is a welcome development.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.