The Young Pope Review: HBO’s controversial new series is delightfully decadent

Spoilers are ahead for the premiere episode of HBO’s The Young Pope, so if you aren’t caught up yet, feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to polish off this can of Cherry Coke Zero.

Now that The Young Pope has finally debuted stateside, it’s clear why the show was such a hit in Europe – especially among Catholics – when it began airing back in October. The Young Pope has all the makings of a hit television show here in America as well: there’s political and religious intrigue; beautiful photography and production design; compelling (if at times rather stiff) dialogue; top-rate acting; and, of course, a megalomaniac new leader at the center of it all – one whose agenda seems to be driven by unapologetic self-interest rather than providing divine guidance through humility and acts of faith. If HBO wanted to take a gamble on co-producing a show that has something as potentially divisive as religion as its focal point, then it seems the network made the right call with choosing The Young Pope.

Series creator Paulo Sorrentino – who also wrote most of the season and directs all of it – seems to want his audience to think hard about the title of the show. Sure, Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII is young in age, at least when compared to the elderly Holy Fathers who most recently held his post before him. But historically, Pius XIII isn’t uniquely young among his predecessors. The youngest pope to ever serve was likely John XII, who was only 18 when he rose to the papacy over 1,000 years ago, and there were a handful of others throughout the centuries who were still in their twenties when they became pope.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

No, I think Sorrentino had something else in mind when he chose the title for the show. Pius XIII is young not because he is still on the greener side of fifty, but rather because he still has some growing up to do. I’m not quite willing to say that Sorrentino is asking his audience to be Pius’ moral arbiter as we watch him break with church tradition on everything from appointing personal advisors from within the Vatican to smoking cigarettes in the Papal suite (or anywhere else, for that matter). Instead, I think Sorrentino simply wants us to join Pius as he navigates the realities of his newfound power and come to our own conclusions on Pius’ inexperience, his shortcomings – his young-ness. Whether or not Sorrentino is being a bit too on-the-nose with his usage of “young” is certainly up for debate, but I certainly found myself enjoying the spectacle of watching a self-interested holy man in the early stages of stacking the ecumenical deck in his favor.

We don’t yet quite know what Pope Pius XIII desires most, or what his end game is, but one thing is certainly clear: Pius is no demagogue. He’s in this for himself, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, whether they be the devout followers he refuses to address with his first homily at St. Peter’s Square, or the many holy folks who oversee the spiritual and administrative functions of the Vatican and, by extension, the billion-strong Catholic faith. The premiere episode (unceremoniously titled “Episode 1.1”) did a fine job of setting up the plot points and conflicts that will come to serve as the series’ story engines, all of which will certainly coalesce around the machinations of Pius XIII.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

One of Pius’ defining traits is that, for most of his life, he wasn’t Pope Pius XIII, but Lenny Belardo, a Catholic priest who was raised from age seven in an orphanage under the guidance of Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary. If nothing else, the premiere episode serves to inform the audience that Mary is perhaps the only human being that has any sway over Pius, whom she still personally refers to as Lenny, which shows how strong – if not potentially unhealthy – their bond is to one another.

For her part, Keaton brings the same degree of grace and aplomb that she’s brought to all her roles over her storied career, but at the same time, I had difficulty connecting with her character in the premiere. When she finally showed up in the episode, it was without any preamble or context; she simply breezed in from on high and situated herself upon Pius’ shoulder as his guide and his conscience – a Jiminy Cricket for a more aged demographic. I’m interested in seeing where this character goes as the season moves forward, but as far as the pilot was concerned, Sister Mary was the one character who felt out of place. Part of my disconnect was just how other-worldly Sister Mary felt in all of her scenes, particularly in the one in which she admonishes Pius in her new chambers, reminding him of the importance of his position and responsibility to his followers, all while bright white curtains blow and glow behind her, imbuing her with an angelic ambiance that was just a bit too much.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

At the same time, I have to remember just how tightly sutured we the audience are to Pius’ subjective experience; nearly every scene we saw in the premiere was through his own lens of reality, which might explain why Sister Mary appeared so god-like in the aforementioned scene – we see her that way because Pius sees her that way. I’m sure we’re in for a few shocking revelations about their history and relationship as the series continues, but for now, it seems that Pius counts her second to no one in both his public and private life.

But let’s talk a bit more about the subjectivity of the narrative, and think about the ways we’re being asked to respond to seeing the world as Pius sees it. For instance, what in the bloody hell are we to make of the opening shot, in which we behold what can only be described as an alien ocean comprised of infants. As the camera slowly pans across the babies – mostly motionless (dead?!?) save a few infantile twitches, here and there – we eventually see Pius himself crawl out from underneath them, dust himself off, and stand to face what I can only guess to be a vanguard of his perceived enemies.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

This sequence was quite horrific and evocative, especially since it was with zero context, being the first scene of the episode. But after learning that Lenny’s parents essentially abandoned him at age seven, it might be worth speculating to think that Pius sees himself as unique among his orphaned brethren. While so many others were left to disregard, destitution, and young death, Lenny emerged, somehow victorious, and rose to the highest religious office in the world. Perhaps this means that Pius believes himself as truly chosen by God – an idea that becomes quickly problematic when we take into account Pius’ last words of the episode, in which he tells Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo) that he does not believe in God. Sure, Pius quickly retracts the statement, but his actions throughout the episode reinforce it; for Pius, he himself is God enough for his millions upon millions of followers.

And it’s this idea that adds to my personal investment in episodes to come. A pope that sees himself as infallible, the final word of the power behind the Church. It’s a fascinating concept sure to be marked by lurid fantasy and indulgences in proscribed behavior. But we can’t forget the challenges Pius will face along the way – challenges that may serve to bolster our connection to our antihero protagonist, or perhaps serve to sour that connection and leave us reveling in his downfall. We know that Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) has ordered a private inquest into the exact nature of Pius’ past transgressions as a means to gain leverage, and we know that Pius’ former mentor (and disgraced almost-pope) Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) will play a prominent role in coming episodes. These men and others may lead to Pius’s downfall, or maybe Pius comes to melt his own wings when flying too close to the sun, but either way, I’m in.

 

4/5 stars: Though the premiere was great on the whole, I had trouble connecting with key characters, and there was never a single scene or moment that truly wowed me. I’ll wait to make any judgments on these issues after a few more episodes, but as it stands, I’m all-in with The Young Pope.

 

 

 

 

Like us on Facebook

Seth Cardin

Seth's academic background is in cultural, literary, and film studies, and he loves applying it to popular culture to see what kind of crazy claims he can come up with.