Imagine if against all odds a secretive and deeply conservative narcissist from New York were somehow voted into the world’s highest seat of power. No, not the Oval Office—that would be ludicrous—but rather the Throne of Saint Peter. In HBO’s latest series, Italian-import The Young Pope, art imitates life with curious accuracy, and the timing could not be more appropriate for its stateside debut.
Caution: mild spoilers throughout.
Jude Law stars as Lenny Belardo, an American cardinal whom the Papal Conclave has unexpectedly chosen over his favored mentor, Cardinal Spencer, a supporting role played by the always excellent James Cromwell. Distrustful and belittling of his now-many subordinates, Lenny nonetheless holds a mysterious sway over people and (perhaps) even animals, particularly a kangaroo gifted to the new pope and set loose in the Vatican gardens. As would any paranoid powermonger, Lenny trusts—or is slightly less suspicious of—only his own family, which consists solely of his foster mother, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton, as wry and as cunning as ever), newly appointed to be Lenny’s special assistant and tasked with spying on powerful Vatican officials. Mother and son make a formidable pair, and Keaton and Law play their scenes with Shakespearean foreboding.
Patience is a virtue, and it may take viewers until the end of the second episode to appreciate The Young Pope’s strange perfection. Strange not merely on account of its heavy surrealist style, but because of the eerie prescience with which certain scenes mirror recent events. HBO plans to air new episodes on both Sunday and Monday nights, and by early Tuesday morning comparisons between a real and fictional new leader will be inescapable.
When Lenny, taking the papal name “Pius XIII,” delivers his first address to the world as the new leader of the Catholic Church, nothing goes according to tradition. Draped in sinister yet painterly shadow, Lenny rages against the moral failings of his stunned audience. The new pope even singles out and condemns an individual parishioner who dares to literally shine a light on him, playing out much like a recent and equally unnerving press conference.
Though complex and beautifully shot, The Young Pope may not be quite as meticulously crafted a series as HBO’s recent megahit Westworld, but its personal narrative does not lend to the same manner of precision. Lenny is a man on the edge of madness, an INTJ too detached from the material world to understand or demonstrate any concern for the human impact of his actions. The episodes reflect his mercurial temperament, and the tone can turn in an instant. Some reviewers may cite these elements as proof of messy storytelling, but such criticisms seem to judge the show for what else it could be rather than what it is.
The Young Pope might not be exactly the show critics or audiences expected, but it’s a show they will live with for the foreseeable future. The opportunities for greater relevance that this particular mirror to society can offer are too great to pass up, and season two will doubtlessly capitalize on the different world that has emerged in the months since the show’s Italian premiere.
At the very least, no one will argue that it fails to entertain.