I Couldn't Decide How To Review The Young Pope, So I Wrote 8 Versions

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
You may think you know about The Young Pope, but you don't.

The first episode of HBO's new drama (which premieres this Sunday, January 15) opens with a large pile of naked babies. In the next scene, we see the newly elected Pope Pius XIII's (Jude Law) butt.

Twice.

This is The Young Pope, and it makes no damn sense. But, God, I love it.

The obsession with The Young Pope, which began even before its stateside premiere, reveals just how much we need it. We need it because it's smart, it's different, and it's decadent — three of my favorite things.

The show has been compared to Netflix's House of Cards, mostly due to the similarities between the no-fucks-given attitude of the lead male characters, but for me, it veers more towards a Sofia Coppola-meets-Wes Anderson film than a political thriller. (I know that is an absolutely absurd comparison, but having watched the first five episodes twice, that is what I think and I refuse to change it. The Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino, is also behind the unconventional This Must Be The Place with Sean Penn so look up that too and maybe you'll see what I mean.)

But beyond appreciating the show for its gorgeous cinematography, witty writing, and provocative pope, it's hard to nail down exactly what it's about. Is it about a pope losing faith in his God? Not really. Is it about him coming in to shake up things in the church? A little. Is it a parody of the idea of religion in a changing millennial world? I guess. Mostly it's about a really shady guy who is elected pope, and wants everyone to know that he is the most powerful man in the world.

In other words, the show is as confusing as the idea of religion itself. As someone who grew up regularly attending a Southern Methodist church, I constantly ebbed and flowed between loving the formality of church and questioning the cult-like atmosphere of the entire establishment. As soon as I thought I believed, I started to question.
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO.
Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) and Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando).
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Law is enigmatic as Lenny Belardo, an orphan boy from Brooklyn who, at some 40ish-years-old, is the youngest (and only) American archbishop elected to become head of the Catholic Church. When he isn't wearing jewel-toned papal pallium while addressing the masses and the curia, he wears an all-white cassock, with either a white cappello romano (to shield him from the sun) or a white zucchetto (a.k.a. papal casual-wear) while walking the grounds of the Vatican. In his private quarters (or when he sneaks out at night for a smoke), he wears a fitted all-white track suit — in other words, he's into white. He smokes cigarettes with panache, and prays with remarkable intensity.

His closest confidant is Sister Mary (Diane Keaton, who is predictably brilliant), who took him in and raised him when he was just Lenny, an orphan dropped off by his hippie parents, who were unable to cope with the burden of parenthood. The narrative around his abandonment at a monastery is the main conflict in this pope's life — he won't be at peace until he is given the chance to meet his parents (which, considering that he is in his 40s, may very well never happen). This sense of parental betrayal is reflected in his relationship with his mentor, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), whom he upstages during conclave, stealing his chance to be elected High Pontiff. (Spencer is quite upset that Lenny is now pope. In fact, I would say that Spencer fucking hates Lenny.)
But Lenny's deep-rooted abandonment issues aren't his only problem. There's also the fact that he's kind of a major dick. It's often unclear when he's just messing with someone to test their patience, allegiance, and faith, or when he is genuinely being a jerk. Regardless of his animosity towards nearly everyone, Sister Mary wholly believes that he has saintly qualities. In fact, in one scene, she tells the pope's frenemy, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), that the pope is a saint. He stares back at her, his skepticism obvious. She replies: "By saint, I don't mean he is a good man. I mean... he is literally a saint."
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO
Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton).

Second to God, power is the most important thing in Lenny's life. In one scene, he unabashedly scolds a nun for crying at a funeral when he feels she has already cried enough. In another, he dramatically presses a tiny (not very) discreet red button underneath a desk, indicating that he is ready for his guest to leave. Watching him slowly move his pointed finger to the button, holding eye contact with said guest, is almost painful. With this one gesture, he's making sure this man knows that he is in control not only in the conversation at hand, but every future interaction between them for the rest of his time as pope. (And as the show's name suggests, that could be a while.) It's all for the sake of power. Lenny doesn't have the power to go back in time to meet his parents, so he abuses every bit of power he does have in bitter retaliation.

This young, brazen, chain-smoking, winking American man is the head of the largest church in the world. Welcome to the modern papacy — one that is now eccentric, merciless, and shady AF.

As I started writing this review, I tried out a few headlines that I felt encapsulated the vastly different but most defining moments of this fascinating show. And I couldn't narrow them down.

So, instead I thought I'd run you through eight mini-reviews. Like Lenny, I was never much for following the rules.

Cherry Coke Zero, Cigarettes & God

In this version I would talk about how Lenny tells his new chef at the Vatican that he barely eats but requires a Cherry Coke Zero every morning. He also makes an old woman cry because she's being too friendly, tells his confessor that doesn't believe in God, and then retracts it with a "Just kidding!" — because that's something funny for the pope to do on his first day (it's not). From there I would talk about how this guy is a millennial's pope, especially after he references Banksy and Daft Punk.

Wait, What Did I Watch & Why Did I Love It
This one would really focus on the absurdity of the opening scene of the show, which, as I briefly described, involves a lot of babies and butts. The butts part is pretty standard HBO, but the babies thing was really disturbing. I would also talk about the shock factor of the show; every episode has its own shocking and interesting scene that (nearly) makes up for all the slow, boring ones. There's also a random kangaroo (just go with it).

Introducing The Yung Pope
This one would strictly evaluate the psychology of Lenny, whose hippie parents abandoned him to the care of Sister Mary as a young boy. The opening credits of the show features Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower," which could be a nod to Lenny's Woodstock roots. In flashback scenes, his parents look like kindhearted stoners, the kind of people who just weren't ready to raise a kid. I also just like the idea of Yung Pope being the name of an up-and-coming rapper, and someone yelling this before he arrives to address the College of Cardinals. I don't feel like it's out of the question.

The Young Pope Is Here To Confuse & Delight You
I couldn't use this one because every other site wrote a version of it.
I Cannot Handle That LMFAO Scene
There's a scene in episode five which has the pope dressing in full swanky pope garb to the dulcet tones of LMFAO's "I'm Sexy And I Know It." The pope puts on his red shoes and twiddles his toes while — seriously — the chorus of that obnoxious song plays in the background. It's totally silly — when I first watched it I thought it was a straight-up mistake. But at the same time, it's a pretty accurate track: the pope does think he's sexy, and he does know it.
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Photo: HBO.
Pope Pius XIII (Law).
I. Am. Dead. Over. The. Credits.
I admit — I usually ignore the credits. Never before had I noticed how much opening credits alter the mood of a series. I've always appreciated the importance of the soundtrack, but credits? Meh.
I was wrong. The credits don't appear until the third episode of this series, and when I heard the recognizable Hendrix guitar rift, combined with the pope's devious wink at the end, I truly understood the tone that Sorrentino was trying to create: kind of an Amy Poehleresque "I'm not like regular popes — I'm a cool pope" vibe.

The Enigmatic, Invisible Young Pope
One of the pope's most resonating spiels takes place during a meeting with the Vatican's head of marketing, a pretty, blonde French lady who is immediately smitten with the young pope. His conversation with her in episode two is telling of his actions for the duration of the series. He tells her that, unlike the popes before him, no pictures will be taken of him; his image will never be used to promote the church or raise money. "I have been training my whole life to be an invisible pope," he tells her, "They will not see me because I do not exist." He emphasizes that he wants to be as unreachable and elusive as other icons of the time: the author J.D. Salinger, the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and even the electronic group Daft Punk. "We shall generate hyperbole but in reverse."

Why Do I Love This Show About Sexism & Religion?
Even though Sister Mary could secretly turn out to be a total badass (she is played by Diane Keaton, after all), it's clear that one thing Pope Pius XIII is not hellbent on changing (unlike the rules about smoking in the Vatican) is the role of women in the Catholic Church. He's definitely not a feminist, and is a big fan of mansplaining and talking down to women (but, admittedly, he also does it to other men). He is also homophobic, and obsessed with everyone's sex life while offering little insight into his own (which, just a reminder, he's not supposed to have). In this piece I would raise the question: How can one rude man's arrogant behavior both excite and repel us?

In any case, I will be tuning in twice a week (the show will air both on Sunday and Mondays) to find out what in God's name it all means. And maybe to catch another glimpse of Law's bum.
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