Okay, first of all, we’ve all read The Young Pope jokes on Twitter. If you have not, take a moment, search “Young Pope”. You’ll find plenty of gold. Here, I’ll even post a good one now. Laugh. Get it out of your system.
YOUNG POPE: *planks on the Vatican*
BISHOPS: You can't do that, it's against the rules!!
YOUNG POPE: *vapes* What are rules
— Michael 🕶 (@Home_Halfway) January 15, 2017
Okay, we’re all back now? Good. “The Young Pope” is a ridiculous title that fully deserves to be mocked. I’m honestly in awe of some of the work done by our greatest tweet artists. The best I could come up with is a Davie Bowie reference: “All the Young Popes/Carry the News/Boogaloo Popes/Carry the News“. It’s only a 4/10.
But the reality for HBO’s newest miniseries is much, much stranger than a meme. The premiere of The Young Pope is one of the most bizarre hours of television HBO has put out since John From Cincinnati. And I suspect we’re in for a ride over the next ten episodes. Episodes will air every Sunday and Monday night over the next five weeks. Does, however, The Young Pope transcend the Twitter punchline? That all depends on what this show eventually becomes, which is still very unclear.
The Young Pope
The Young Pope opens with Jude Law’s Pius XIII crawling out of a pyramid of CG naked babies on a darkened Vatican night. This utterly inexplicable image is followed by a sequence where the new (and young) Pope meets the world. He addresses the throngs of the faithful at St. Peter’s Basilica and triumphantly declares that Catholics must start masturbating. We also see a water cooler, a half-naked woman, Cardinals fainting, and cinematography straight out of a horror film. Our hero wakes up from this double dream sequence, but the oddness of this premiere only continues. Director Paolo Sorrentino can make a genuinely creepy dream sequence, but this is a very constrained opening.
Back to reality, the College of Cardinals has just made Pius XIII – Lenny Belardo to his friends – Pope. He’s cold and distant to pretty much everybody, causing a kindly old nun to cry after she squeezes his handsome cheek. Immediately he is irritated by Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), a comically evil old courtier trying to keep his place at the top of power. We know Lenny is a calculating man. We also know that Cardinal Voiello has underestimated him. Pius XIII reacts to him with acidic disgust.
Our young pope is already beginning to stretch his power. He does not vape, but he does smoke in an outright rejection of John Paul II’s old rules. “There’s a new Pope now,” says Lenny in a scene curiously similar to the one that @Home_Halfway predicted. Only Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), Lenny’s adopted “mother” and right-hand, seems to hold any emotional attachment to him. Everybody else are just tools, or as he would prefer it “a professional relationship”. Pius XIII does not want friends; he wants power.
In this first episode, we do not learn a lot about Lenny or his intentions for the Holy See. There are clear hints that his reign is not going typically. He orders the return of the Papal Tiara, a relic of the medieval ornamental days of the Church, last used in the 1960s. Adding to Lenny’s ruthlessness, he’s willing to use blackmail and violate the sanctity of confession to manipulate people. At the end of the episode, Pius XIII reveals that he does not believe in God. He does not seem much bothered by this fact either. In the meantime, we have learned that our young pope only drinks Cherry Coke Zero and is terrified of tourists.
Most of “First Episode”, therefore, is not about the Pope or Sister Mary or even James Cromwell’s Cardinal Spencer, a character more referenced than seen. It is about the Vatican and its corruption. That the Vatican is a Red Keep-esque nest of intrigue and spying should come as no surprise to anybody who has seen Godfather III. Voiello is at the center of this wickedness, teaching his own sycophants just how much they need to laugh at his jokes. But in 2017, is anyone going to be shocked by this? The Young Pope adds an element of twisted sexuality, as Cardinal Voiello leers at the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient relic with giant boobs.
Who or whatever Pius XIII is, creatures like Cardinal Voiello are not prepared for him. Lenny is God’s Vicar on Earth. He’s all-powerful in name. It is only a matter of time before he’s also all-powerful in fact too. Poor Voiello just does not seem like that much of a threat yet.
Unclear Path Forward
The Young Pope is a show with a lot of promise and a potential to move in any number of directions. Is the young pope simply an anal reformer that is going to break the old ways of the Church? Or is he an Antichrist tyrant that has just been given more power than his handlers could have possibly imagined? I don’t know. A lot is hinted about our protagonist’s psychology, but not a lot is revealed. Pius XIII does little to endear himself to us in this first episode. Jude Law keeps a psychopathic façade even to the audience.
Unfortunately, for a first episode, “First Episode” really is missing some of the best hooks a show like this needs. HBO managed to get the mandatory nudity in during Pius XIII’s dream sequence, but there is otherwise no sex, no violence, and not a lot of urgency. Lenny is taking his time getting settled in as Pope – there is no crisis to be solved immediately, and so far, this is just a beautifully shot TV show with a good eye for Catholicism bling. And speaking of bling, Lenny’s hat? Fabulous.
We have yet to see much about Pius XIII’s background or even how he was elected Pope in the first place. Sister Mary and Cardinal Spencer are definitely the keys to understanding the hero of this tale. How they develop will tell us everything.
Where Is God?
So far The Young Pope has not really been about Christianity at all. This disappoints me since struggles of faith is a topic that is lacking in modern media. Whatever your background, one’s relationship (or lack of a relationship) with God and the divine is a deeply important subject. Martin Scorsese’s Silence is out in theaters right now and is all about a deep, troubling religious dilemma. Unfortunately, The Young Pope does not stand up to that comparison. Lenny does not seem that interested in God, which in and of itself is weird. He is the freakin’ Pope after all.
However, as long as we have a protagonist who can sip Cherry Coke Zero and mock Italian schemers, it’s going to be a wild ride. But what kind of ride? There are tons of bizarre details like our villain fantasizing about a stone age fertility icon, but what does all of it mean? What kind of show even is this? Religion is not a huge point, so is this just Game of Thrones with funnier hats? Is this a Catholic horror show? Is there some satire I’m missing? Where are we going? But with Lenny picking the name “Pius”, it could be a dark sign, considering the last Pius, Pius XII was the pope who had the bad luck of presiding over the Church in WWII. Pius XII’s leadership during the fascist reign and later Nazi occupation is still very controversial.