Jude Law stars as Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s new limited series “The Young Pope,” which challenges notions of conventionalism and questions social and religious morality. The opening sequence of the series shows Pope Pius XIII dreaming about preaching a message of tolerance and acceptance during his first homily. We learn that he wants Catholics to loosen up as he asks the question, “What have we forgotten?” and answers with a list that includes birth control, homosexuality and masturbation. As he finishes his speech, clouds part and the sun shines on an enthusiastic crowd. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s camera, which is always as arrogant as the Young Pope himself, zooms to a close up on Law’s face.
However, by the end of the second episode it is abundantly clear that the Pope’s earlier dream was not an aspirational one. When he actually delivers his homily, he preaches from the shadows, starting again with the question, “What have we forgotten?” but instead answering it with “God” and a hardline conservative tirade. It’s meant to be frightening and it is genuinely strange to watch Pope Pius XIII, who we have started to know somewhat intimately, take on such a stiff pose. He drinks Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and smokes cigarettes in the Vatican, but he is calling for things to go back to a much more conservative time, a time where a young American certainly would not have been chosen to be pope.
The dream version of the Pope’s speech fits well into what could be called Obama-era art with its call for a liberal kind of change. The real version of Pius’s speech, as well as his profane attitude, fit perfectly into what might be called Trump-era art. This is not only a powerful figure calling to make the Catholic church great again, it is one who also cuts through the stateliness of those who surround him, creating scenes that vary between being funny and disturbing. “The Young Pope” provokes gasp-like laughs and sometimes just gasps.
It is easy to see what certain parts of the show are trying to accomplish on their own. I understand the part of the dream sequence in which Pope Pius dreams of giving a liberal first homily but other scenes—such as an earlier part of the dream sequence that show Pius crawling out from under a pile of babies— make “The Young Pope” a strange viewing experience. If it was not for the magnetism offered by Sorrentino’s direction and Jude Law’s smugly charismatic performance, the show would be harder to recommend to a wide audience.
It is difficult to tell where the emotional stakes for the show lie, if anywhere; “The Young Pope” could devolve into a more simplistic black comedy. The basic presentation of “The Young Pope” has a catchy absurdity to it and that is an achievement in and of itself. The mistake would be indulging in the absurd aesthetic without quite exploring the issues that aesthetic allows it to.
I hope the show can pull off something more as it progresses past these first three episodes. One of the many compelling parts of Pope Pius as a character is his apparent lack of faith set against the seriousness of his position. He will use bible verses as a justification for attacking homosexuality, but in another scene he implies he does not believe in God at all. He is pushing an existential threat on millions of people based on what exactly? Not belief and not experience.
Going forward, I am especially interested in how the show handles Pope Pius’s mother and father figures. One is a nun, played by Diane Keaton, who raised the young pope and another is a former mentor—who was, in his own words, supposed to be pope—played by James Cromwell. They command a level of respect from Pope Pius that no one else does, and are dedicated members of a church Pius so flippantly disrespects. The relative sincerity the two bring out of Pius begins to reveal some of his vulnerabilities.
What interests me more about these relationships in some ways—and what also relates to American politics pretty directly—is the way level-headed people are tied to megalomaniacal leaders and the extent to which those people are complicit in their leaders actions, even as they push the leader toward a more moderate agenda. In one scene Pius seems to cross a line by asking Keaton’s character to refer to him as “his holiness” rather than his birth name, Lenny. He wants her to kneel like everyone else. The way she responds with “your holiness” is too painful to be funny, and is the kind of weird moment that makes “The Young Pope” worth watching.