Over the coming weeks, Commonweal associate editor Matthew Sitman and digital editor Dominic Preziosi will be discussing the HBO limited series The Young Pope. You can read their first exchange, covering episodes 1 through 4, here. Their thoughts on episodes 5 and 6 (which aired earlier this week) are below.
Salve, Dominic! If you’ll pardon the expression: what in God’s name is going on? Episode 5 was brilliant, probably the best of the season so far. Episode 6, on the other hand, was incredibly strange. I’m having trouble sorting out where this show is going, though I continue to find it deeply absorbing and compulsively watchable. One downside to delving into The Young Pope’s offbeat, almost alternative reality is that once you commit to the show’s bizarro world, all your expectations for what should happen—what a logical or realistic reaction to this or that scenario might be—are left unsettled. When combined with characters that seems less than fully realized, or who still harbor deep secrets, I honestly don’t have a clue what the outcome of the machinations we’re observing will be.
In episode 5, we see Voiello try to blackmail Pius, photographing the pope with his hand under the shirt of Esther, who hasn't been able to conceive a child with her Swiss guardsman husband—he gets the shots, but is moved to repent by the pope’s riff on the cowardice and fear that can be behind a priest’s embrace of celibacy. Priests are afraid of love, of its risks and vulnerabilities, Pius says. When Voiello hears this—his lip-reading assistant reports back to him as they sneak shots with a long-range lense—he’s convicted, and ends up giving the undeveloped negatives to Sr. Mary. Has the cagey old cardinal been disarmed?
The Young Pope’s quirky, sometimes dreamlike feel is used to great effect here; it's essential to Esther's interactions with Pius in particular. When she places the pope’s hand on her belly—and inches it upward as she unbuttons her blouse!—she prays a Hail Mary; we know, too, how Pius prayed for her—or something like that—when he saw her having sex with her husband through window while out for a stroll in a previous episode. We learn through a flashback that Sr. Mary is convinced Pius, then Lenny, performed a miracle; she seems to earnestly believe he is a saint. And at the end of the episode, in a scene that feels almost magical and a bit unreal, we see Esther and Pius in a garden; she tries to apologize for trying to entrap him, but he forgives her and then—in a moment meant to feel like a revelation—a flower blooms in front of us, a beam of light shining down on it. Clearly, she’s pregnant.
Episode 5 also features important flashbacks, fleshing out Pius’s relationship to Andrew, his fellow orphan who is tapped to run the Congregation for the Clergy. They gallivant around Rome at night in their tracksuits—Pius’s is white, of course—looking to buy cigarettes. They briefly share a table with a lady of the evening who definitely likes the pope’s oh-so-blue eyes.
Most importantly, we finally see Pope Pius address the cardinals. The scene where the pope agonizes over what vestments to wear for the audience, all while LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” provides the soundtrack, is perfect, and perfectly absurd. The fancier the sartorial option, the better. Pius, it turns out, is a kind of sexier, younger Cardinal Burke, joined by a shared fastidiousness when it comes to looking good for God.
The pope’s regalia isn’t the only thing Cardinal Burke would appreciate. Pius is borne into the cardinals’ midst aboard a sedan chair and set on a throne—all while wearing a papal tiara, delivered back to Rome from a museum in Washington, D.C. Since the show treats even recent history as real, it’s certainly meant to signal Pius’s ambition and self-understanding. The tiara is more kingly, exalted, and hearkens back to the pre-Vatican II church—and the days when popes had temporal power (hint hint). When he speaks, he delivers a tirade against compromise and for fanaticism. No more tolerance, no more moderation!
My sense is that the writers and director are toying with us a bit; in episode 5, it’s almost believable that Pius’s reactionary vision for the church could succeed. A supernatural aura hangs over much of the episode. We now seem to know the pope can perform miracles. He can pray to God and God will listen. The cardinals, after hearing his address to them, kiss his feet. Voiello, who alone seems to have the wherewithal to stop him, appears nonplussed, even obsequious.
In episode 6, which I hope you’ll talk about more, Dominic, some air is let out of that balloon. But I think that push and pull, the sense of thinking Pius might really be man of God, then wondering if he believes in God at all (or even is a bit crazy), captures something essential about the show and what it's trying to explore. The Young Pope takes up a number of themes, but one is the fate of an institution like the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world, and what might sustain religious faith in these low-down, late-capitalist times. The pope’s elaborate vestments, penchant for mysteriousness and inaccessibility, and call for an unyielding, uncompromising faith are one way forward. We even see their occasional charms.
But we also see how silly it all can be and feel how strained it is. Faith can’t be conjured, nor institutions saved, by force of will. The trappings of an older world can be deployed once again, but the culture that found them compelling is gone. These might seem like cliches, but it feels fresh when explored through the richly textured episode of The Young Pope. You can newly understand, because it is played out in front of you, why certain types of traditionalism are just dead ends.
And about dead ends: Dominic, I wonder what you made of episode 6? Has Pius reached his?
Thanks, Matt. Allow me to set up my thoughts on episode 6 with a brief story. The first “real” Christmas gift I bought for my parents was a coffee-table book commemorating John Paul II’s visit to the United States of just a couple of months earlier, in October 1979. It cost me the then-considerable sum of $12. Their reaction on Christmas morning was parentally indulgent, and the book quickly found its intended place on the living room coffee table, where it remained in decorative repose for years to come.
That book came to mind while I was watching the most recent installment of The Young Pope. I might have spent the $12 on socks and a scented candle (or another Billy Joel album for myself) if back then I could imagine a pontiff, real or fictional, bragging about his own “soft, round mouth.” Because that’s just what Pius XIII does at one point, in the presence of the Italian prime minister no less. He cites it as only one of the things that will inspire the Italian citizenry—still 81 percent “Catholic”!—to abandon secular politics and fall in behind him as the Lateran Pacts are dismantled and temporal power is restored to the Vatican. (Lateran Pacts: name a show that’s ever sprung that on unsuspecting viewers before.) The conservatizing impulses of the youthful pope from America are strong—we know—but strong enough to overcome the 41 percent electoral plurality held by the similarly youthful and equally confident prime minister? There won’t be an answer until voting day. But when Lenny drops the non expedit bomb, the PM seems to wake up to just how tenuous by nature an Italian plurality is, even if he doesn’t fully understand the pope’s Latin. At least Pius acknowledges that people will be Googling this one.
In this episode, Pius also drops a baby.
The scene does two things. First, it establishes that nine months have passed since Esther’s flower bloomed in episode 5. It’s her child the normally sure-handed Lenny bobbles, though fortunately the boy—of course! Named Pius, natch—lands safely in a bassinet. Second, it reaffirms how much The Young Pope revels in visual comedy, starting with its opening credit sequence and perhaps having hit a high point with Pius’s elaborate sartorial preparations in episode 5. Matt, you also mention the blackmail scene in that episode: The image of a crouching Voiello behind a photographer with a paparazzi-like long lens and a lip-reading cardinal with an antique spyglass is just great. Also, the clutch of hapless, shoeless mendicants who come to Lenny’s ornate parlor with their mumbled threat of schism. And Voiello gazing on a collection of books about himself, one of which has a cover featuring the soccer-loving Vatican secretary of state in the uniform of his hometown football club. And Tonino, the bedraggled stigmatic shepherd, being interviewed by a glitzily telegenic Italian talk-show host. And—seen twice now—Sr. Mary in sleepwear emblazoned: “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt.” Some of these moments also get the full cinematic-virtuoso treatment by director Paolo Sorrentino: See the closing shot of episode 5, with Pius and his gang of curial officials—in full regalia, arrayed like a tribunal—in poor Tonino’s darkened flat. This image also comes with a great line, a threat worthy of a New Jersey crime family: “Tonino,” Lenny says. “You’ve been busting our balls.” By the end of episode 6, we learn that Tonino—Who? Tonino? Who's he?—has gone missing.
And yet, Matt, none of this undercuts what you astutely note about the show’s stubborn way of provoking deeper thought about the nature of authority, the role and power of institutions, and the place of faith in these times. I hate having to think that everything must now be seen through the lens of a Trump presidency, but as you suggested last week: How can we not sometimes watch The Young Pope this way, especially given how eerily it tracks events of recent months? Pius’s spontaneous, blanket edict banning homosexuals from entering seminary—and by just what test is that supposed to be enforced, according to what criteria, with whose input and advice?—has cruel and immediate consequence in episode 6. Not that he would seem to care; his attitude is “we don’t want ’em here.” Whether such messages have reached the world’s faithful is unclear: his public papacy has been gestating these nine months, with no at-large audience having yet been held. Outside the walls of the Vatican, Pius’s face remains unknown. Right now I get the sense that even if he is presented with a dead end, he’ll just insist regardless of evidence to the contrary that the road goes straight through it. And why not? Miracles, as you note, have been performed. Plus—and maybe you already knew this Matt, but I only recently heard it confirmed—The Young Pope has been renewed for a second ten-episode season. Does that mean we’ll have to do this again next year? In any event, I’ll see you in a week for an exchange on episodes 7 and 8....