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, and their second one (on episodes 5 and 6) here. Their thoughts on episodes 7 and 8, which aired earlier this week, are below.
So, Matt, my opening question to you this time: Is it a bad thing or a good thing that HBO releases two episodes of The Young Pope per week? One the one hand it’s a lot of youthful pontificating to endure; on the other, it hastens us closer to the end.
My general feeling after watching episodes 7 and 8 is that the parts are not quite holding together. Characters, narrative lines, and back-stories keep popping up awkwardly through a stylistic frosting that seems thinner and less evenly spread than it did on initial examination. (How many visual dreamy, hallucinatory references to the Pietà can one TV series make?) There are nonetheless those who see something to get nourished on, who’d have us believe The Young Pope serves up a compelling and super-sexy feast of reasons to make an unapologetic return to “traditional” Catholicism: Look at the red slippers, the wide-brimmed saturni, the papal tiara! Can’t you see it? Can’t you see it?!? Then there are those who think these all amount to a dismissive critique of that tradition: Not for nothing was LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” playing as Pius XIII prepped for his audience with the cardinals; it was a drag show, not a summons to triumphalism. Of course, this further suggests the pointlessness of projecting hopes onto YP’s fictional protagonist or seeing in him the validation of any particular agenda. Director Paolo Sorrentino is an Italian, and judging from the show’s shrugging, promiscuous dispensing of Curial and theological implausibilities seems like many Italians when it comes to his country’s religion: what do I care? Just so, it might also explain the massive popularity of The Young Pope in Italy.
Still, it would be nice if there was a little more dramatic and narrative cohesiveness. I made a plea for more James Cromwell (Cardinal Spencer) in an earlier post, and in episode 7 I got my wish. Pius XIII’s spiritual advisor and the man-who-would-have-been-pope is tapped by the scheming Voiello and wheezing Caltanissetta to become pontiff upon Lenny’s imminent, inevitable resignation. The Italian cardinals kiss his ring, a scene soon followed by Spencer’s fantasy of delivering a passionate welcome to the multitudes gathered in St. Peter’s Square: “Ciao, Roma!” Needless to say, none of that comes to pass, and Cromwell-Spencer is duly returned to supporting-player status.
That’s just one of the major plotlines taken up and discarded in this compact forty-five-minute installment. Pius, still pope in spite of everything, hangs with baby Pius and his parents at their flat. He takes it on himself to change the infant’s diaper so they can continue to enjoy a reality TV show contestant’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which predictably morphs into a version that functions as the soundtrack to the sequence that ensues. Then, Pius learns his long-lost parents have contacted the Vatican and want to meet him. So first we’re flashed back again to idylls with the Halloween-costume-hippies, this time at a secluded watering hole somewhere Edenic, because, isn’t it obvious? Then the conservatively dressed silver-haired couple (forty years have passed) who arrive to meet Young Pope literally doesn’t pass his smell test: A whiff of the woman’s nape tells him they’re impostors. Sent by whom, you ask, and why? All will be revealed. (It was Sr. Mary. Because she wanted Pius to overcome his past and be the best pope he could be.)
Meanwhile, Cardinal Andrew, Lenny’s orphanage mate, is unhappy with Pius, whom he blames for the suicide of the prospective seminarian. His disillusionment manifests in falling-down drunkenness at a society party, where he laughs off an attempted seduction and tumbles into a swimming pool before nearly getting raped by the young man charged with returning him to his rooms at the Vatican. It’s all even more odd than it sounds, and quite enough for Andrew, who decamps for his “home” back in Honduras—who can blame him?—where his paramour meets him at the airport. She has bad news: Her narco husband knows all about them, and he’s right here in the car. What follows, however, is a scene that rises a bit above this soap-opera setup, in which the drug kingpin explains his reasoning for wanting to punish Andrew. “I’d have respected you more,” he says, “had you refused me the sacraments, since that is what a priest should do.” That is indeed what priests do, and indeed many have paid with their lives for so doing: In Mexico alone, nearly forty have been killed since 1990 for crossing the leaders of drug gangs, whether by refusing to baptize a narco’s child or declining to preside at a daughter’s wedding. But Andrew is guilty of only the most mundane and predictable of offenses, and this is why he must pay. It’s a tense and even moving sequence, with the actual violence of the encounter taking place off-camera and perhaps the more powerful for it.
Then there are hints of a budding romance between Voiello and Sr. Mary. At this point, why not? They may as well sanctify their in loco parentis relationship to the pope.
Episode 8 brings us to Castel Gandolfo and a small African nation, stops on the continuing journey of Pius XIII that, perhaps, Matt, you’ll be able to divine the significance of.
Well, Dominic, I’m not sure what answers you’ll get from me about this increasingly zany and unpredictable show. As you put it, “the parts are not quite holding together,” and that’s true. But the sheer weirdness of it all, the offbeat elements of The Young Pope especially, continue to charm me. It remains a show with immense visual appeal, and a great soundtrack. What can I say? I absolutely loved episodes 7 and 8, especially the latter, despite no longer really knowing where the show is going. It’s the journey not the destination, man, as Pius’s hippie parents might say.
Much of the early episodes of The Young Pope involved waiting: waiting for Pope Pius to address the gathered faithful in St. Peter’s square; waiting for him to address the cardinals; waiting to see what would come of all the machinations to which we were privy. And now, suddenly, a flurry of activity. As you helpfully recapped, Dominic, episode 7 was filled with murder and intrigue, an attempted rape, fake news about faux-parents, the continued “romance” between Voiello and Sr. Mary, a plan to make Cardinal Spencer the pope—and more!
With episode 8, we get the pope traveling to Africa; new territory for the show, so to speak. Pius needs some good press. He needs to get out there, to change the conversation. Sofia—the consultant who for some reason has unfettered access to the pope—has a plan: he should visit Sr. Antonia, who is marking the thirtieth anniversary of the first “Village of Goodness” she founded. Pius will join the celebration, journalists will come along, and the mysterious, reactionary pope finally will be seen more favorably. Philanthropy, African children, good photo-ops; what could go wrong?
I also loved the stand-in for Philip Roth who takes a stroll with Pius: Elmore Cohen, the pope’s favorite writer. Cohen thinks life is all about sex—that’s what it all comes down to. Pius seems to think he’s onto something. It’s a great, if unexpected scene. The pope has a favorite writer? He’s based off of Philip Roth? They meet and take a walk together? Sure! I didn’t know Pius was a literary man at all, but as a set piece I loved it. Their topic of conversation seems fraught with import, heavy-handed almost. We’ll see. Maybe we’re supposed to wonder if Christianity ever really “got” sex. Or maybe it’s a throwaway scene.
I appreciate the warning, as Dominic wrote, about “the pointlessness of projecting hopes onto YP’s fictional protagonist or seeing in him the validation of any particular agenda.” I tried to get at that a bit last week when I mentioned how all the elaborate, Cardinal Burke-style sartorial choices in the world wouldn’t restore the vanished world of the pre-Vatican II church. I don’t think we’re supposed to see Pius in his regalia and take it seriously—it is, as you say, a drag show more than anything.
Despite such reasons for skepticism—reasons to be wary of finding too much meaning in what this pope is up to—episode 8 left me honestly wondering what exactly is going on with Pius. Though we end with the pope in Africa, we first find him in the bottom of a swimming pool praying for his now-dead lifelong friend Andrew. When Pius emerges from the water, I couldn’t help but think of baptism—an obvious Christian symbol. But we’re also given other reasons to think Pius might be starting anew. We seem him eat a banana; is that the first scene where he actually eats something, Dominic? And most of all, in an exchange I thought was meant to be taken earnestly, Pius eventually seeks out the advice of his old mentor, Spencer. The pope needs spiritual counsel, and Spencer promises there is “another path,” a different one than what he’s pursuing now. He describes how it’s not uncommon for priests to lose their faith and struggle in middle-age. The second calling, Spencer says, is harder than the first, but essential. There is a way forward, a way to move through this spiritually fallow period. The old cardinal—who, cough cough, is sick—then gives him this advice: go to Venice and bury two empty coffins.
At the end of the pope’s trip to Africa—during which time we discover Sr. Antonia isn't as kind as she seems—there is a scene I still don’t know how to understand, but which I can’t help but link to Spencer’s counsel, and the possibility of a breakthrough for Pius. Like much else in the show, it’s strange: dignitaries are on a stage in a small stadium, and the leader of the (unnamed) African nation arrives. Beside him is an empty chair, and all wait for Pius—who never comes. But we do here his voice over the loudspeaker: “This is the vicar of Christ, Pope Pius XIII, speaking to you now.”
Pius then outlines the war, death, hunger, and violence marring the land. And then he says this:
We are all guilty. We are all guilty of war and death. Always. In the same way we can all be guilty of peace. Always. I ask this of you on bended knee. I’m ready to die for you, if only you will become guilty of peace. I always say to the children who write me, from all over the world: think about all the things you like—that is God. Children like all sorts of things, but none of them have ever written that what they like is war. Now look at whoever is next to you. Look at them with eyes of joy. And remember what St. Augustine said: if you want to see God, you have the means to do it. God is love.
I on the other hand, won’t speak to you about God until there is peace, because God is peace, and peace is God. Give me peace—and I’ll give you God. You know how wonderful peace—you have no idea how disconcerting peace can be. But I know. Because I saw it when I was eight years old, on the banks of a river in Colorado. Peace.
After the brief address is over, and the pope and the contingent of journalists traveling with him are back on the papal airplane, Pius strolls down the darkened aisle, where most of the press is sleeping. One journalist is still up, and when he sees the pope tells him that what he said was beautiful.
I thought it was too. But was it more than that? Part of me even suspects that we're supposed to take his words seriously. At least these ones.
Well, maybe. What was that song in playing in the background? A slow, moody cover of Beyoncé's "Halo." And how did his speechifying end? With a dreamy flashback to his almost comically hippie parents. And did they really make Sr. Antonia a nefarious lesbian who supports the country's military dictatorship while hoarding the country's potable drinking water? Yes indeed.