Over the coming weeks, Commonweal associate editor Matthew Sitman and digital editor Dominic Preziosi will be discussing the HBO limited series The Young Pope. Their first exchange, covering episodes 1 through 4, follows. They’ll pick up again next week, with thoughts on episodes 5 and 6 (airing Sunday and Monday).   

Salve, Matt. Have to say for all my anticipation of The Young Pope, I actually came to it a week late and with waning expectations. Maybe it was the hassle and cost of getting HBO?

Anyway, no matter how compelling the idea of Jude Law as a pontiff who takes the name Pius XIII; who chain smokes, curses, and expresses contempt for the many faithful; who exhibits an undeniable swagger—all of which there’s a lot to be said for—I’m trying to figure out just who this is supposed to appeal to and where it’s supposed to land. I’m an adherent of the very conventional wisdom that all “quality TV” as now defined descends for better and worse from The Sopranos, and indeed we get some of that ground-breaker’s by-now familiar devices: pathologized protagonist; out-of-body episodes (panic attacks for Tony S., trance-like fugue states for Pius XIII); mundane workplace maneuvering punctuated by moments of scheming and interpersonal hostilities; troubling, unsettling narrative passages that may or may not be dreams. So far what’s missing is the food (and in Rome at that). Through four episodes we have not seen Pius eat anything; he has demanded from an aide a cherry Coke Zero (which we don’t see him drink) and sipped some fresh-squeezed orange juice. When he asks for three actual oranges I thought: Here we go! But he only used them to juggle in demonstrating some other point. The new pope, as described by another character in one of the best lines of the series so far, “is a man of minimal appetites. [beat] Unfortunately.” Nor is he a bad juggler. Metaphor?

What The Young Pope so far reminds me of is House of Cards, a comparison earlier made by Commonweal contributing editor Massimo Faggioli. Good news for fans of that show, but for the rest of us…?

It’s nice, though, to see Diane Keaton as Sr. Mary, the American nun summoned by Pius XIII to serve as his consigliera. Having suffered as Michael Corleone’s patient, supportive wife through three installments of The Godfather, maybe she’s primed to play a character much closer to the beating heart of power: No doors are shut in St. Mary’s face. It’s not clear (yet) which order of women religious she belongs to, but fully coiffed, wimpled, and veiled, wearing thin wireframe glasses, she cuts an imposing figure even if, behind the scenes, she can be more of a mothering type. She too smokes. She calls our hero by the diminutive of his given name: “Lenny,” she says, imploring him to understand the significance of his new role. “You’re pope now.” In her delivery are hints of Annie Hall castigating Alvy Singer (“you’re like New York, you're like this island unto yourself!”). Would she broke into her sweet version of “Seems Like Old Times,” but “It Had to be You” seems more appropriate to the relationship.

Which is just what, exactly? Flashbacks (another familiar device) inform us she ran the orphanage where Lenny’s selfish parents dumped him. Selfish, we know, because they were “hippies,” a word used in the way I remember my parents’ square friends using it in the 1970s. Anyway, the orphanage looks like the kind of place where there might be croquet and elaborate topiary out back, with finger sandwiches served on the terrace. “Don’t call me ‘Mother,’” a younger (non-Diane Keaton) Sr. Mary commands the sad little Lenny (not Jude Law), an admonishment meant of course to resonate in the present parentless (Fatherless?) moment of this show’s crazy papacy. We hear its echo early on, when the newly installed Pius XIII commands her never to call him Lenny again.

Does anyone need to be warned about inaccuracies and implausibilities? This is a character-driven soap opera, but a very well-dressed and beautifully shot one. Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino does a lot with composition and lighting, and references to Fellini, Kubrick, and Lynch are evident. The humor is mainly broad but occasionally truly odd and almost surrealistic: a group of nuns caught in the wash of a descending helicopter, a retro turntable-and-speaker set slowly, creakily wheeled into the grand papal parlor, cord trailing behind. Something I am hoping to see more of: the great James Cromwell, who as Lenny’s one-time mentor and the man-who-would-have-otherwise-been-pope is, through four episodes, under-used. I’ve left out tons: Emphysemic curial officials, Hendrix riffs played over the opening credits, and a sexy marketing consultant accorded far more access to Lenny than pretty much any Vatican official gets. Plus an ancient stone carving that’s the object of erotic obsession for one highly placed cardinal. What to make of these and other things?

The first four episodes of The Young Pope have made me a fan—I’m eagerly awaiting the rest of the season. But for all the reasons you lay out, Dominic, I’m not sure I could justify my enthusiasm. It’s true, as you put it, that it’s not clear who the show is supposed to appeal to or where it’s supposed to land. I’m not entirely sure the character at the center of it all, Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII, really convinces. Other than knowing that he was an orphan who became a reactionary, I find myself struggling to understand his motivations, what he’s really up to. The great line you point out, that the pope is a “man of minimal appetites,” underscores this. What does he want? That he doesn’t seem to actually believe in God adds to this sense of not knowing, well, what he really believes. This isn’t all bad: Pius’s unpredictability and penchant for emotional outbursts and dramatic gestures mean there’s a not unpleasing unpredictability at work in the show, even if another dramatic tension—brash young pope finds resistance from old-guard Vatican bureaucrats—is clear enough. We’ll learn more about Pius, I’m sure; too often, though, what we don’t know about him yet feels less like dramatically useful mystery than possible incoherence.

The show is a pleasure to watch, and that certainly helps compensate for such misgivings. The shots of Rome, the gorgeous visuals, the religious art and regalia, and, yes, the Hendrix riffs all make for a compelling viewing experience. The premise of the show is a bit ridiculous, and until I acclimated to that, it’s aesthetic appeal certainly helped keep my interest.

That’s one reason why the frequent comparisons to House of Cards, while suggestive, are only half right. The first season of House of Cards actually struck me as fairly plausible—or least a somewhat believable exaggeration of a power-hungry political couple. It’s only later, as Frank Underwood ascends to the presidency, that the show becomes truly ridiculous. The Young Pope is absurd from the start. The odd and surreal moments—above all, as you note Dominic, the retro turntable and speaker creakily wheeled into the papal parlor, to play “Senza Un Perché” for Greenland’s prime minister no less—only reinforces that.

But the more important point behind the House of Cards comparison is that The Young Pope is a deeply political show concerned with the nature of power and how it’s deployed. Our colleague Massimo Faggioli’s post on The Young Pope gestures at some of this, but I can’t resist pointing out how jarring it is to watch this show during the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s true, as Massimo describes it, that The Young Pope “depicts what happens when the newly elected decides to break with traditional modes and etiquette of communication; abandons custom regarding visibility, accessibility, and adherence to previous norms; and wields a power that seems supreme, unique, and terrifying.” I’d go further: it shows how an individual’s personality and psychic demons inform that wielding of power, often in terrifying ways. Just as Pius remains inescapably damaged by his childhood abandonment, Trump is a deeply insecure man prone to impetuously lashing out at enemies real and imagined. There is a radical loneliness that comes with power, as Massimo noted, and enduring it requires a sense of self and inner resources it’s not clear either man has.

The flailing about and missteps of the first days of Pius’s papacy parallel those of the new Trump administration. The same sense of waiting to see what will happen, of fearing what unhinged decision will come down next, is produced by both of these erratic leaders. But surely nothing can exceed the remarkable timing of the fourth episode, in which Sr. Mary delivers a defiant statement to journalists that seemed to ignore all the real questions and concerns being expressed about the new pope’s decisions and behavior. Of course, that aired just two days after Sean Spicer’s bizarre rant to the press that included obvious lies about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.

No discussion of The Young Pope and politics would be complete without mentioning Cardinal Angelo Voiello, the Vatican secretary of state. He has emerged as perhaps my favorite character, or at least the one I find the most interesting. By the end of episode four, the show’s focus had drifted his way, giving us a better understanding of who Voiello is, the complexity of his character and his role in getting Belardo elected pope. As we see more of him behind closed doors, rather than scheming and plotting, his real compassion and moral struggles emerge. His care for the disabled child we see him interact with is deeply touching without ever slipping into sentimentality. When we first meet Voiello, he’s presented as the ultimate Vatican insider, the power behind the throne of Peter—at least until Pius became pope. But we now know he’s genuinely aware of, and struggling with, the compromises and hypocrisies that come with power. His tearful acknowledgement that he will need to be forgiven for what he will have to do to save the church was strikingly powerful. We still don't know what to make of many of these characters, but this felt genuine—something real we learn about Voiello.

If Pope Pius remains a not-exactly-satisfying character, the same can’t be said of Voiello. Of all the reasons to keep watching, none interests me more than seeing the old hand gather himself for one more Vatican plot.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor at Commonweal. Dominic Preziosi is digital editor.

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