Let's begin at the end. Literally, at "THE END," superimposed in all caps over an image of the entire planet just moments after the series' title occupied the same cosmic space. Paolo Sorrentino's daring, dizzying, dazzling show finished its first season by literally emblazoning its name across the Earth. That's a level of ambition that Pope Pius XIII himself would love.
But it turns out that the man once known as Lenny Belardo loves more than just outsized dreams of power – and more than just himself, too, as he makes clear during a dream (or is it a vision?) involving a whole squad of dead popes. "In the end," says one ghostly pontiff, "more than in God, it is necessary to believe in yourself, Lenny." Our man's mouth hangs open in bafflement for a very long time before he finally manages a skeptical reply: "Oh. Have you got something … a little better?"
No, what Pius loves is hard to describe, but if we had to sum it up in a word, it'd be contradictions. Not compromises – even the more benign pontiff we see in this finale has little use for those. But he's slowly turning his face to the world, first with the schoolchildren to whom he gives an abortive tour of the Vatican museums, and then (after passing on the opportunity to bless the staff of a rest-stop restaurant) with an enormous Venice crowd for his first public homily. As he looks upon all and allows all to look back for the first time, his message goes big. He'd rather encompass opposites rather than declare one side off limits.
"God is a line that opens," he says, quoting the saintly young healer Blessed Juana. But no one then or now seems to understand what it means: "Are we dead or are we alive? Are we good or are we bad? Do we still have time or has it run out? Are we lost or are we found? Are we men or are we women?" "It doesn't matter," Juana replied. When the children finally ask "Who is God?", she told them, "God smiles."
"And only then did everyone understand," the Pope concludes. At that point, he smiles, sincerely, ecstatically. He encourages everyone else to do the same. That's when his dream finally comes true: Gazing at the audience through a telescope, he sees his parents. (Or is it a vision, like the Virgin he sees in the clouds before he loses consciousness?) Staggering from chest pain, he manages to conclude: "One day I will die, and I will finally be able to embrace you all." In a way, of course, he already has.
To the show's great credit, it only dulls the sharp edges of Pius' beliefs and behavior so much. Yes, the speech was beautiful. Yes, in the previous episode he tearfully told his personal staff "I love you all" after treating them coldly, if not cruelly, for most of the season. Yes, he gives his mild-mannered informant Don Tomasso the cardinalship he so desperately desired, resuming their late-night rooftop discussions even though he's no longer using him to spy on his subjects. Yes, he hires Gutierrez as personal secretary even though he's gay. It's not just the mere fact of his orientation the Pope is willing to accept; it's his adamant opposition to the purge policy overall, whether or not he himself is made an exception.
But even if the purge is possibly about to end, The Young Pope is not concocting some alternate future in which Catholicism suddenly accepts homosexuality. In the same episode, our handsome young antihero crows about forcing the Italian prime minister to postpone legislation accepting same-sex civil unions indefinitely. Nor is the Vatican suddenly cooperating with secular authorities regarding abusive clergy. Kurtwell is banished to Alaska, not sent to prison; Sister Antonia is struck down by God Himself instead of exposed and prosecuted. All of the Church's retrograde teachings on abortion, birth control, marriage, divorce, women in the priesthood, celibacy and so on are presumably left intact. In other words, that dream homily from the pilot does not come true. Sorry, folks: We have still forgotten to masturbate.
And that's a good thing. A pat conversion of Pius XIII the dashing fundamentalist dictator into Pope Lenny the Kinder Gentler Catholic would be a lie; it would say, falsely, that only art about people who reflect our values can itself reflect our values, or that only art about empathetic people can have an empathetic message. Better to grapple with contradictions and flaws, with the hard-to-swallow and the tough-to-bear. Look at the miracles he's said to have performed: He saved a sick woman's life and helped an infertile couple have a child. He struck a criminal dead. (His friend and rival Voiello reflects this in miniature: He's in love with Sister Mary and he adores his disabled young friend Girolamo. Still, both he and the show are keeping the fate of rogue prophet Tonino Pettola under wraps anyway.) The Pope is still the same smug bastard he started as. He could well be crazy. But in his presence, characters feel God's presence. Couldn't he be a madman and a mystic, a sociopath and a saint all rolled into one?
As the Holy Father himself puts it, "Goodness, unless it's combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism." The Young Pope trusts our imagination – our ability to handle its narrative leaps, cinematic risks and characters with views far different from our own – and has faith that we'll see the goodness all the clearer for it. That's where its greatness lies.
Previously: The Miracle Workers