The Young Pope glances at his adversary, preternaturally long eyelashes blinking, tanned face stretching into a sneer. He takes a drag of his cigarette, ash falling on the cold marble of the Vatican floor, then he exhales and says with barely concealed disdain:
“There’s a new pope now.”
And indeed, there is.
By the time HBO’s The Young Pope premiered in the US on Sunday, January 15 (it’s previously aired in several other countries), the drama already had a somewhat ridiculous reputation online, because let’s be real: “The Young Pope starring Jude Law” sounds like it should be a farce.
But as written and directed by Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope is … well, sometimes it is a farce, but at least it’s always a self-aware one. At other times, it’s a grave drama that delves into what the ramifications might be if a young American cardinal were to become pope and embrace the absolute nature of the power handed to him.
But at all times, The Young Pope is a meticulously filmed series featuring a fantastic central performance — plus a bonus Diane Keaton as the Young Pope’s nun mentor! — that knows better than to take itself completely seriously.
Whether you’ve seen the premiere or want to know what, exactly, The Young Pope is trying to be, here are the three most important takeaways from its first five episodes.
1) The Young Pope knows exactly how ridiculous “The Young Pope” sounds
Make as many jokes as you like about the title The Young Pope. The show is in on them.
The opening credits, as an example, feature the Young Pope — given name: Lenny Belardo; chosen Catholic name: Pius XIII — slinking down a Vatican hallway as the actors’ names light up in neon along the lush walls. The sequence ends with a flourish: Law winking straight into the camera.
Another example: Keaton’s Sister Mary almost always puts up a stern front until a night when Pius — whom she calls “Lenny,” having known him since he was a child at her orphanage — visits her in her chambers, only to find her wearing a T-shirt reading, “I’m a Virgin (But This Is an Old Shirt).”
Or what about the Young Pope donning his many layers of papal robes to the tune of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”?
But maybe the best example of The Young Pope’s self-awareness comes in the very first episode, when Pius looks upon an elaborate breakfast spread, only to turn up his magnificent nose — because there’s no Cherry Coke Zero. When a cardinal inquires as to whether Pius might be satisfied with a Diet Coke in the meantime, the Young Pope shudders that doing so would be “heresy.”
“It’s death,” Pius intones with the gravity you might reserve to announce an actual death, “to settle for things in life.” (A reminder: This is him expressing disappointment in a soft drink.)
But the deciding factor in the case for The Young Pope’s streak of self-awareness has to be the men who created it.
2) Sorrentino and Law make the show both ridiculous and menacing
That The Young Pope finds humor in its own premise is entirely down to the combination of Sorrentino and Law.
Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty has — as the Ringer’s Alison Herman puts it — “a similar yen for the outrageous” as The Young Pope. The Oscar winner is a careful filmmaker, but one who loves capturing so much excess that he makes you feel like you’re teetering right on the edge of falling face first into it.
Sorrentino’s camera relishes the ridiculous, taking its time pulling back to reveal the scope of Pius’s adoring masses gathered in the square or homing in on a steely glint glancing off the pope’s eye. Sorrentino closes in on the dawning horror on the faces of every aging cardinal realizing exactly how dangerous their new pope could be. His camera charts every ebb and flow of their fear (though, yes, sometimes to the point of belaboring the point).
The series is beautifully designed. Most impressive are lush shots of the Vatican grounds and papal palaces — not the real ones, of course, but beautiful substitutes nonetheless.
In Law, Sorrentino found an actor who can embody Pius’s ferocity and self-absorption with a silken smile and steely-eyed gaze that are as welcoming as they are sinister. (MTV’s Inkoo Kang appropriately calls Law’s particular brand of smirk a “leonine curl of the lips.”)
It wouldn’t be surprising to find out Jude Law was created in a laboratory exactly for this role. Some of the show’s best moments come when the Young Pope catches someone’s eye at the very moment they become an admirer and gently asks them not to stare too long at his chiseled jawline, thanks to the equally amused and threatening way Law sells these beats.
So, yes, The Young Pope can be a confectionary treat. But it becomes clear by the end of the first episode — and alarmingly so in the second — that this show also has a bitter, pitch-black center.
3) The Young Pope’s obsession with power might be familiar in more ways than one
There are moments when Pius will say something that sounds like actual heresy — like, say, that he doesn’t know if he actually believes in God — and attempt to pass it off as an offhand quip when the believer on the receiving end blanches with horror. In one revealing exchange, his inherited right-hand man, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), tries to call one of these jokes “telling,” inciting yet another imperious smirk from his new boss.
“Jokes are never telling,” Pius replies. “They’re jokes.”
But not everything on The Young Pope, as it turns out, is a joke.
Yes, the show wants to poke fun at the Young Pope’s handsome charisma and shed amusing light on some of the church’s absurdity. But both of those seemingly ludicrous aspects of the Young Pope’s life quickly funnel into more disturbing trends — especially once it’s clear exactly how high the stakes become when an insecure narcissist gains absolute power.
“One billion people will depend on what you say or do,” Sister Mary urgently tells her former charge at one point. But if she hoped that would make him sober up, she turns out to be dead wrong.
As the season progresses, the show becomes less about the Young Pope’s ability to dazzle admirers with a smile than his willingness to compensate for his own insecurity by doubling down on extreme, conservative views.
He doesn’t know if he believes in God, for example, but he’ll make sure to flush out all the obviously gay priests from the Church, the better to prove his piety. He’ll preach the value of being frugal and austere and selfless, but he’ll also put in a special request to get the papal tiara back in his own chambers, just to have.
The alarm over his surprise extremism comes in waves, with Pius always aware of the increasing panic around him. “They all went white when they heard the name,” he says of the cardinals’ reaction to his election. “They chose a pope they didn’t know, and today, they began to understand.”
Thanks to moments like this, The Young Pope has had some critics wondering if the series offers a deliberate parallel to the rise of populist right-wing leaders around the globe, including Donald Trump. Sorrentino insists otherwise, saying at the Television Critics Association winter press tour that he started writing The Young Pope years before the US election and Brexit became startling realities.
Still: The Young Pope puts the spotlight on a charismatic iconoclast who gains sudden and absolute power. That’s obviously a theme that just might resonate today, as inexperienced politicians gain enormous power based on what seemed at one time like doomed grassroots campaigns.
The first two episodes play directly with the perception of what a young, rakish pope would do. The first opens with a surreal sequence that begins with Pius crawling out of a pile of babies into St. Peter’s Square and ends with him informing the crowds that they have “forgotten to masturbate! To use contraceptives! To get abortions! To celebrate gay marriages! To allow priests to love each other and even to get married!”
The show’s 180-degree turn from that dream sequence is revealed in the second episode, when Pius’s actual homily turns out to be the exact opposite. He delivers a harsh condemnation of … well, everything that isn’t directly related to paying homage to God. He’s obscured by dark shadows, so his dazzling face can’t distract from the point at hand.
“You have to be closer to God than each other,” he booms to a mass of slackening faces. As they — and we — look up at him, he might as well be the great and powerful Oz.
So, no, The Young Pope isn’t about Trump. But it is about power — and the magnetic figureheads who wield it, young and handsome or no.
The Young Pope premiered on Sunday, January 15, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. The second episode airs at 9 pm on Monday, January 16. Future episodes will air Sundays and Mondays at 9 pm, for the whole of the series’ 10-episode first season. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.