“I don’t know if you deserve me,” the pontiff formerly known as Lenny Belardo tells the horrified crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the end of his bonkers first homily. Neither do we, Lenny, neither do we. Two episodes in, and The Young Pope shines like a city on a hill – a beacon of madcap brilliance, savage humor, and go-for-broke filmmaking excess right when we need it most. It’s a light in the darkness, even if it ends with its title character in a very dark place. We mean that both literally and metaphorically.
The bulk of the episode concerns Pope Pius XIII‘s preparations for his all-important first address to the faithful, his single greatest opportunity to stir souls … and fill coffers. According to Sofia (an intensely glamorous Cécile de France), the Vatican’s smooth-talking, Harvard-educated marketing wizard, this is the moment to have merch bearing the new Holy Father’s extremely handsome face ready to roll.
After scoffing at her Ivy League education, an institution he sees as a symbol of decline, Lenny offers his counter-proposal. Citing famously faceless artists from J.D. Salinger to Daft Punk, he argues that he can make a much bigger impact by becoming an “Invisible Pope” – never photographed or filmed, seen only in shadow and silhouette. Sofia had thus far seen her considerable expertise and charm fall on deaf ears; at one point, Belardo actually just got up and left the disastrous meeting. (“To get a gun, I imagine,” jokes his exasperated nemesis Cardinal Voiello.) Now, however, she perks up. This “reverse hyperbole” is something she can sell.
At least she thinks it is, until she actually watches it in action. Tossing Voiello’s lovely and optimistic script for the address out the window, Pius takes to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, backlit like a supervillain whose identity has yet to be revealed. Instead of offering a message of hope and love and optimism, he rants like a madman. “You have forgotten God!” he yells. “I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God. I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God. All I can do is remind them of my scorn, and their wretchedness.”
It goes on like that from there – a call to Catholic extremism of the sort we haven’t seen since the Middle Ages. And before some wiseacre’s laser pointer drives him from the balcony, it ends with Pius drawing a more or less direct equivalence between him and the Lord Himself. “You wanna look me in the face?” he taunts a member of the audience. “Go see God first. I won’t help you. I’m not gonna show you the way. Search for it. Find it. When you’ve found God, perhaps you will see me as well.” As the speech ends, a thunderstorm erupts, as if the Man Upstairs is as aghast as everyone else. You can all but hear church pews and donation boxes emptying all over the world.
The irony is that for all his lunatic arrogance, Lenny spends a surprising amount of screen time in doubt and disarray. Sure, he can bully the likes of Secretary of State Voiello and Sofia, or use his spy Don Tomasso to rat out dissident cardinals who say his right-hand woman Sister Mary is “the real pope.” But he nearly drives her away when he publicly humiliates her for praising the Secretary’s draft speech and using his real name. He’s fuming with resentment for Cardinal Dussolier, Mary’s other orphan protégé (whom she encouraged to call her “Ma,” the exact opposite of how she raised Lenny.) He begs his estranged mentor Cardinal Spencer for help with the speech; instead, the older man tears the kid a new one for usurping what he sees as his rightful place at the top.
By the same token, Lenny’s rivals are given a surprisingly respectful treatment. The closing scene shows Voiello sobbing in the arms of a disabled kid he regularly visits, asking him to “help me atone for all the wrong I’ll have to do in order to save the Church.” In other words, he’s not just some House of Cards schemer – he cares about the Catholic faith. He’s terrified for its future under Belardo, and wracked with guilt over the sins he’ll need to commit to combat his boss. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Vatican, Pius forces Cardinal Assente, a high-ranking official who’d opposed him in the conclave, to out himself as gay, ruining his career in the process.
In other words, this Pope is not just gonna be evil in fun, cool ways – he’s going to be a genuine piece of shit, and in the sort of politicized fashion that the typical prestige-TV audience may have trouble swallowing. Yet at the same time, this deeply unpleasant scene does contain the episode’s funniest gag. When the pontiff hits the switch under his desk to summon an assistant to cut off the meeting, her excuse is so transparently lame – “Time for your snack, Holy Father” – that he laughs out loud.
That’s the beauty of The Young Pope: Like all truly great television shows, it trusts its audience enough to risk alienating us. What will people make of this episode’s most bizarre scene, in which Pius supernaturally soothes a savage … kangaroo? It’s so truly, madly, deeply odd, and showrunner Paolo Sorrentino has no interest in softening the blow. You make your peace with an exquisitely campy series about a chain-smoking homophobic tyrant who looks to the band behind “Get Lucky” and “One More Time” for stylistic inspiration; who was raised by a nun who thinks he’s a saint but wears a t-shirt reading “I’m a Virgin, but This Is an Old Shirt” to bed; and who can calm rogue Australian wildlife like, as Voiello puts it in his thick Italian accent, “Saint Francis of-a Sydney.” Or you don’t. If the meme-able moments make it all sound silly, well, remember when an O.J. Simpson show from the creator of Glee starring John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. sounded silly, too? We rest our case.
Previously: Heat Pray Love