Over the past few weeks, Commonweal associate editor Matthew Sitman and digital editor Dominic Preziosi have been discussing the HBO limited series The Young Pope. You can read their first exchange, covering episodes 1 through 4, here, their second (on episodes 5 and 6) here, and their third (on episodes 7 and 8) here. Their thoughts on episodes 9 and 10, which aired earlier this week, are below.
During our first exchange, Dominic, I wrote that when it came to The Young Pope’s central character, Lenny Belardo, I was “struggling to understand his motivations, what he’s really up to” and that “what we don’t know about him yet feels less like dramatically useful mystery than possible incoherence.” Now that we’re at the end of the show’s first season, which ends with Lenny, now Pope Pius XIII, having—what? A heart attack? A panic attack?—while addressing a crowd gathered in Venice, I thought I’d return to those hesitations and uncertainties.
The final episode closed without definitively revealing if Pius was dead or alive. (Were the vaguely Blessed Mother-looking clouds we see in the sky welcoming him to heaven or standing guard over his body?) When season two begins—and it will, we’ve learned—I’d be as little surprised by the pope jumping up and laughing as I would be if he were lying in state. If I had to wager a guess, however, I’d say we’ll see Pius again; there’s too much we never learn about Lenny, and what we do know took us awhile to find out. I’ve mentioned before how much waiting seemed to define The Young Pope’s early episodes, and I don’t think it was all to set up Pius’s unexpected death.
Over the last few weeks I’ve wondered a few times whether or not The Young Pope was anything more than an absurd Italian soap opera. The show is zany at one moment, warmly affecting the next, with plot lines dropped and picked up again rather whimsically. Maybe Pius will fall into a coma and come back with a different accent! But like most prestige television, even if the show is sometimes confused, it definitely wants to be serious, or at least taken seriously—and often it’s just too well written and it’s shots too brilliantly executed to be waved away as mere fluff. If the show’s offbeat humor and strange, supernatural vibe unsettle or even confuse the viewer from time to time, that’s part of the point—it might even be pedagogical.
I’ve generally tried to avoid reading much by way of commentary or analysis of The Young Pope. But one line about the show from writer and director Paolo Sorrentino has stayed with me. After observing that a very different pope might come after Francis, he said this: “I think it’s an illusion that the church has a long-term idea towards modernity.” I might be looking too hard for a grand theory about the show, but that strikes me as pointing to one possibility, that The Young Pope takes up the “problem” of faith or the religious life amidst the churn of the modern world—and does so through the exploits of a complicated, inscrutable pope who might not be entirely convinced of God’s existence. It explores the texture of what belief is like in our uncertain world, and with it notions of authority—especially the authority of institutions.
It’s important that Pius is a reactionary. After all, religious fundamentalism is a distinctly modern way of believing, as much a product of the Enlightenment as a certain type of atheism. It’s obvious that Pius’s hardline theological and moral views are formed over and against the selfishness of his hippie parents—stand-ins for the the sexual revolution and the worst tendencies of their generation. We’re supposed to feel tempted by the pope’s beliefs, to get their appeal. Isn’t it understandable that he’d take a conservative line on sex and the family, given the wreckage of his own childhood? Isn’t it daringly counterculture to uphold absolutes amidst the dictatorship of relativism? Those are questions the show is asking us not to immediately dismiss, or to wave away. It’s also why the pope is young. Pius isn’t a doddering old man, but a dashingly handsome and compelling priest on the cusp of middle age. He doesn’t believe what he does through simple inertia and ignorance. We know something has gone wrong with the world, and he at least tries to tell us what it is.
Of course we’re not supposed to think Pius’s traditionalism really is viable, even if we understand its charms. But it does serve as a vehicle to explore other ideas. We sense that Pius is both out of step with the modern world and, for that very reason, a keen observer of its ways. He gets the appeal of silence and mystery in our hyper-connected times, how absence can be its own source of power, that other, related theme that The Young Pope takes up.
What finally wins Pius admiration and affection are two unexpected events: his speech in Africa that movingly called on listeners to look on their neighbors with “eyes of joy” and, in the second to last episode, a failed blackmail attempt. When the New Yorker publishes his love letters to a girl in California—letters he never sent—it doesn’t damage the pope, it lets the world see him anew. It seems to do more than that, actually: Pius becomes a figure of hope, a man who draws a massive crowd eagerly awaiting his comfortable words. When he stands before them, he tells the people to smile.
Christians claim that God is love. The Young Pope has made me think about that a little more, and how God's love is so often experienced and refracted through the love we are shown, or not, by the people with whom we share our lives.
So, Matt, we come to the end, five weeks and ten episodes older, though maybe not that much wiser. Given periodic reminders of the natural desire for a unifying theory, I’m going to succumb to that desire and present my own unifying theory about The Young Pope. We, and by “we” I mean the audience, are Girolamo, the disabled boy Cardinal Voiello adoringly cares for: not fully aware of all that is going on; dependent on the updates and explanations of an emissary from a world unfamiliar to us; often uncomprehending of what’s being revealed, but also sometimes downright bored or even apathetic; occasionally shocked, and even (if only rarely) delighted at what we learn. Two moments in the concluding parts of The Young Pope helped crystalize this notion for me: One, Girolamo’s burst of laughter at the profanity Voiello lets slip; the other, when Voiello in a scene worthy of Laurence Sterne grandly announces to Girolamo he will reveal the fate of Tonino the stigmatic shepherd because “of course it’s one of the things you have been wondering about,” only to reconsider and declare that obviously he cannot reveal it, and it is just something (implying there are other things) that will have to remain unexplained.
Like I said, maybe not all that wiser. Is there any way to put a neatly tied bow on this show?
The penultimate episode was to my mind by far the most compelling, most coherent, and most moving. Perhaps that’s because it centered mainly on one character with a clearly identified and tautly depicted dramatic challenge to meet. Maybe not coincidentally, that character was not Jude Law’s Pius XIII. The story of Gutierrez’s trip to New York to fetch malignant pedophile Archbishop Kurtwell had some Marlow-and-Kurtz aspects, proving the persistent lure of Heart of Darkness as source material. Entrusted with a mission, the alcoholic, agoraphobic recluse of Vatican City becomes in New York a quietly dogged detective who if the assignment went on much longer might have developed an appealing world-weariness (he almost gets there anyway). At other times he evokes Fr. Damien Karras of The Exorcist, a doubting, haunted-eyed hero. He collects newspaper clippings about old abuse cases; he spends his solitary hours ice-skating; he broods in his unkempt furnished room; he enlists a key informer; and… he bags his prey.
But the real climax—satisfying, surprising, and completely plausible in the context of the narrative—came with the unravelling of Kurtwell’s blackmail scheme: Pius XIII’s supposedly scandalous love letters were in fact never sent. If they weren’t sent, says the editor of the publication to which Kurtwell wants to peddle them, then they’re not scandalous; they’re literature. Closing montage: A cover flap of the New Yorker magazine emblazoned “The Love Letters of Pope Pius XIII,” then a shot of an unidentified woman looking up from the pages, taking three oranges in hand, and juggling them in front of her laughing children (recall Lenny’s orange-juggling earlier in the season). And…that’s a wrap.
Only there was one more episode to go. The finale had the feeling of a series-ender more than a season-ender (we know now The Young Pope will be back), with key storylines hastened to their respective resolutions. The worst: Sr. Mary’s joyous dance inside a circle of African children. Hanging over everything was the “love” that Pius’s published letters have unleashed all across the globe. Has it also unlocked something in Lenny? The high point of his long-awaited public audience (in Venice) is his cheerful admonition to the gathered to “smile.” If I were the type to impose my own hopes and dreams on such moments I might say this recalls Pope Francis’s comments about serving with joy, not a frown. Coupled with the hearing Lenny gives Spencer on bringing compassion to his consideration of abortion, and the nod he gives to Gutierrez in acknowledging that pedophila has nothing to do with homosexuality, it could signal the emergence of a more pastorally inclined, compassionate Pius—and thus perhaps a tacit endorsement of a more pastoral, merciful, compassionate Church.
In spite of my complaints about The Young Pope these past few weeks, I admit to developing a certain fondness for it. It was nice to engage in the old practice of “appointment viewing”: Those hour-long episodes every Sunday and Monday night provided welcome respite from real-world developments growing more harrowing by the day. Part of the appeal was not having any idea of what to expect; it unfolded according to no known map. It’s what made it such a disaster in some places, such a bore in others, and so strangely good elsewhere. At its worst (casual discarding of plotlines and characters; the unexplained significance of the kangaroo, and its unexplained death; many of Jude Law’s line readings; cliched parental abandonment themes) it was not just laughable but worse: forgettable. At its best—Silvio Orlando as Voiello, cinematography of unexpected or haunting beauty, truly bizarro humor—it could recall (as I’ve said before) Fellini or David Lynch. The closing scene—an endless panning out from Pius on the balcony ever higher into the heavens, the earth growing infinitesimally small—actually felt right. We know that Pius, clutching his heart, can’t be dead, because there’s a season two. But…what if he is? Girolamo wants to know.