TV Review: The Young Pope - Navigating Uncertainty and Ambiguity

By Gina Watylyk

Church might be boring, but The Young Pope definitely isn’t.

I was thrilled when I first saw the trailer for HBO’s 10 episode mini-series— as a practicing Catholic who studied abroad in Rome and also has a big crush on Jude Law, a lot of things here appealed to me. Originally, I anticipated something overtly sinister and melodramatic, along the lines of The Borgias or House of Cards— but that didn’t happen. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino creates a sublime world of intrigue and subtlety unlike any other TV show I’ve ever seen.

This show is bonkers. The premise for The Young Pope is petty, handsome, cigarette-smoking American orphan Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) ascends to the position of Pope. There are two reasons this is significant: Popes are usually old (since they reign until they die or resign), and there has never been an American Pope. The Pope is also a unique figure because he is elected by the Cardinals (under the “divine influence” of the Holy Spirit, of course) but has the loyalty of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics throughout the world, in addition to serving as the Vatican head of state.

Lenny Belardo takes the name Pope Pius the XIII, although the nature of his devotion is questionable. Throughout the series, Lenny often acts as a tyrant— sending cardinals he disagrees with to Alaska, closing off St. Peter’s Basilica to the public, forcing priests to break the secrecy of the confessional (which is actually grounds for excommunication), and delivering conservative sermons that are so scathing church attendance plummets globally. At one point, he even admits to not believing in God. However, as the series draws on, we see Lenny perform several healing miracles, from curing the sick to reversing infertility. Even Lenny’s own papal election seems to be an act of divine intervention, as no cardinals admit to pulling strings to get him elected. The entire show has the viewer wondering: Is the young Pope a saint or the anti-Christ?

Part of what makes The Young Pope so intriguing is that Lenny is the exact opposite of the current Pope: gentle, forgiving, liberal (well liberal by Catholic standards) Pope Francis. The rigid, unforgiving vision of the Catholic Church desired by Lenny has the potential to exist somewhere in our real and near future if there is a radical shift during the next papal conclave.

The Young Pope is categorized as a drama, although I could not point out the plot climax anywhere in this series. Similar to Mad Men, The Young Pope focuses almost solely on character relationships and development. Just as every android host in Westworld has a backstory that drives their present motivation, many of Lenny’s actions are not motivated by his love of God, but rather, his desire to find his parents. The internal struggle between leading the church and searching for his family is the overarching narrative that drives the show.

Almost as iconic and as stunning as the young Pope is the cool basketball-playing Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised Lenny at an orphanage. There’s also Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) who often clashes with Lenny, but develops a charming yet awkward romantic fascination with Sister Mary. Their interactions alone make the entire show worth watching.

  Left to Right: Sister Mary, Popie Pius XIII, and the Kangaroo.

Left to Right: Sister Mary, Popie Pius XIII, and the Kangaroo.

There are plenty of other scenes that are just plain goofy—  like when Lenny drops a baby, orwhen a flashback montage suggests that Lenny’s sexual awakening was watching a young Sister Mary take off her habit to play basketball. Other bizarre moments include the gift of a kangaroo, or when LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” plays for the arrival of the papal tiara, which Lenny has delivered from the Smithsonian— this Pope is young and extra. He’s wearing a 10 lb hunk of metal purely for the reasons of pomp and circumstance.

This is my favorite still of the entire series— the pope regally dressed in the Sistine Chapel[1] in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Judgement. Sorrentino portrays the Pope almost as if he is God here. The entire series is so visually stunning that even if viewers are confused or annoyed by the lack of driving narrative, it’s worth it to stick around just because everything is so beautiful you can’t look away. The enigmatic and enticing cinematography allows Sorrentino to push the bounds of vagueness beyond the normal limits of acceptability— how much uncertainty is intriguing vs. how much uncertainty causes disinterest?

Although The Young Pope is driven purely through absurdity and ambiguity, Sorrentino flawlessly captures the spectacle, pageantry, and theatre that is the Catholic Church. I’d like to give this show a rewatch, because I probably missed a lot of things, but I don’t even know where to start looking. I’m sure the kangaroo means something, but I have absolutely no idea what. I recommend this show to all my friends (and select cool family members) because I think it’s excellent, and also, I need people to debrief with. Hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to get a season two, because the ending, like the rest of series, leaves you dazed and confused.

[1] At 581,251 square feet, the production’s Sistine Chapel was built to the size of the actual Sistine Chapel. It took five weeks for 25 painters and 40 constructors to build this replica.