With the preliminary recap that opens episode six of The Churchmen, it is clear that the first season is heading into its final stretch. This recap is the first one of the season to recall scenes from nearly every episode we have seen thus far, and conflicts affecting all the characters are handled reasonably well within the forty-five minute episode.
While developing five separate conflicts without resolving them and connecting those conflicts within one episode is challenging to pull off successfully, this episode mostly succeeds, largely because by this point the personality of all the characters has been well established, and the characters are consistent and familiar enough that their choices seem believable. The lack of resolution for any of the conflicts does give this episode a strong feeling of existing primarily to set up another episode. Naturally, it remains to be seen whether the final two episodes of The Churchmen will be a satisfactory conclusion to episode six’s buildup, although I have so far been impressed enough to think it will be.
The first conflict shown in episode six is a return to the vendetta from episodes one and two between Monsignor Roman and Father Fromenger. Having received the Vatican’s letter to force Fromenger to retire, Roman cancels his meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor so he can drive to the seminary and hand Fromenger his dismissal in person, making him more of a villain than I initially thought. However, tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese government have been mounting through the past few episodes, and as it turns out, the Chinese ambassador to the Vatican is good friends with Fromenger, and it appears that Fromenger is the only person who can act as a peacemaker. This twist to keep Fromenger at the seminary borders on deus ex machina, but even if it is slightly unbelievable, watching the two cardinals (one Roman’s friend, the other sympathetic to Fromenger) argue over the best way to resolve the tensions with China is compelling drama.
Meanwhile, back at the seminary, several characters are going through crises. Father Bosco is handling his revelation about Fromenger from the last episode with extreme bitterness, which would be expected considering that he idolized Fromenger, and Fromenger failed to live up to Bosco’s expectations. Yann is reeling with disillusionment and an unwillingness to forgive himself after his mistake from the last episode, which also would be expected given his optimistic worldview contained a sort of denial which did not leave much room for sin or mistakes. Raph has suffered a painful family tragedy, and with his natural leadership skills he takes over his family’s affairs, temporarily leaving the seminary. Finally, both Guillaume and Emmanuel are gay and are struggling with affection for each other.
The show seems to be laying the groundwork for four of the five seminarians to withdraw from the seminary at the end of their first year. At the same time, there is a recurring theme that everyone is a mortal human being who makes mistakes, and those mistakes do not disqualify us from fulfilling our God-given vocation. (For the record, while I know many Catholics will disagree with me, I don’t see a particular reason why a man with a same sex attraction could not be a priest. An inability to deny one’s sexual temptations (either homo- or hetero-) and live a life of celibacy is, in my mind, far more disqualifying, and both Guillaume and Emmanuel may lack that control.)
The one seminarian who seems most determined and most suited to become a priest is the ex-convict Jose, and there is a very nice moment where he shines as a natural leader, teacher, and peacemaker, using the story of the Tower of Babel both to quell an argument and teach others about the dignity of all human beings.
At this point, while The Churchmen has overall been positive in its portrayal of Catholicism, accepting the characters’ faith as a natural outlook on life, I do wish to express a little disappointment that the more difficult teachings of the Catholic Church, while not ignored, have been given short shrift when they arise. Guillaume’s argument against abortion in the fourth episode was pathetically weak. An earlier episode alluded that Fromenger disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception. While the writers clearly are aware of what actions are grave enough to be a mortal sin, they sometimes seem to be unaware that any sin requires a free act of the will. (Thus Yann’s mistake is somewhat mitigated by his accidental imbibing of a spiked drink.) In this episode, nearly every priest strictly adheres to the now discontinued policy of no funeral for someone who commits suicide, seemingly forgetting that while suicide is gravely immoral, culpability for it (and thus its degree of sinfulness) is very often lessened or completely removed by external factors such as extreme fear, duress, or mental instability as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I don’t think those inaccuracies are a damning flaw, and they certainly detract neither from the drama nor the compelling and consistent characterization which drives the show. It doesn’t even bother me that the characters struggle with those teachings; many Catholics do as well. However, I think one empathetic character who accepts all the Church’s teachings would make a more complete picture of Catholicism in a show centered around life in a seminary.
Recaps of past episodes: