The Young Pope Premiere Recap: “There’s A New Pope Now.”

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
There's a moment in the premiere of HBO's The Young Pope where the titular young pope (Jude Law) lights a cigarette. Upon learning Pope John Paul II outlawed smoking in the Vatican, he smirks and says, "There's a new pope now." And boy, is this young, new pope here to... do whatever he wants, basically. But just what does he want? What's his end game? We'll get to that, because The Young Pope is nothing if not a slow burn. But first, we are introduced to this new pope by way of a dream where he crawls out from inside a pile of babies only to give a radical speech to St. Peter's square extolling the virtues of (among other things) masturbation, gay marriage, nuns performing mass and people having sex for pleasure rather than procreation, as various cardinals and other church figures fall faint with shock. It's is a dream, but it's very telling about what kind of ride The Young Pope viewers are in for. The show's set-up is that Lenny Belardo, a 40ish-year-old archbishop from Brooklyn, has been elected as the first — and youngest — American pope. The cardinals believe he can be manipulated, and used as a bridge between conservative and liberal members of the church. But Lenny, who takes the name Pope Pius XIII, has other ideas.
Viewers are only given a brief peek into Lenny's plans as pope, but they include re-embracing the opulence of the papacy; rejecting his role as the public face of the Catholic church, and instead asking for his advisors to boost the Vatican radio signal; and bringing in his mother figure, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), as his special advisor. This is the relationship to keep your eye on — as Lenny tells a monsignor at one point, as they gaze at Michaelangelo's famous Pieta sculpture in St. Peter's Basilica, (which depicts a crucified Jesus Christ lying in his mother Mary's arms) "It all comes back to the mother." (This also mirrors the resentment Lenny feels towards his parents, who abandoned him into Sister Mary's care as a child.) The relationship between Lenny and Mary seems fairly innocuous at first, but in a show about a pope who smokes, swills Cherry Coke Zero and makes old nuns cry because they're "friendly," it feels like it's only a matter of time before something a little more Oedipal is revealed between them. But all of these oddities are just trappings surrounding the real meat of the show: Lenny doesn't actually believe in God. At the end of the premiere, Lenny "jokes" to his horrified confessor that he doesn't believe in the higher power, after previously telling his foil, Cardinal Secretary of State Voiello (Silvio Orlando), that "jokes are never telling" because "they're jokes." (Law and show creator Paolo Sorrentino told critics at the 2017 Television Critics Award winter press tour that Lenny was not, in fact, joking at all.) So, what does that mean for the Catholic church? What is Lenny up to? He's been a member of the church for decades — the cardinals wouldn't elect a pope who was brand new to the church — so if Lenny is running some kind of long con on Catholicism... it's a very, very long con. Instead, it seems more like the show is set to examine the nature of absolute power, God and religion through a man who is both disillusioned by it but also prescribes to its most conservative (practically medieval) points of view — and who also seems like the villain of the piece, at least at first. Pius may be the protagonist, but Law's icy portrayal of this young pontiff definitely gives him an ominous feel. Law says it was a lot of fun to play, but he admits Pius can be rather cruel. "Looking back, I kind of underestimated how brutal he was at some moments ... but in the moment, I was just reveling in it, to be honest. Sometimes it's just a wonderful excuse to behave badly," Law said of his latest role at TCA. So, the Vatican is now under the control of a pope who apparently doesn't believe in God, the only person who is looking into this suspicious character is Cardinal Voiello, and it feels like we've only scratched the surface of just how badly Pius is going to behave. It's a weird show, to be sure, juxtaposing outrageous details with interesting religious commentary, and visually it's beautiful to watch. Plus, it has already been renewed for a second season after a successful run in Europe in fall 2016, which means if you dig this new, young pope, you don't need to worry about his longevity. So strap in, crack open your Cherry Coke Zero and get ready for all the weirdness The Young Pope is sure to bring. Read These Next:
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