There was only one person I could think of during the new, revamped opening credits of The Young Pope: Kanye West. Our favorite Pontiff, Lenny Belardo, seemed to be having a string of major Yeezy moments. First he was sitting on the roof of the Vatican in his solid white hoodie ensemble that definitely looks like something Kanye would show at, say, Trump Tower, the Kardashian-Jenner clan cloaked in matching Balmain in the front row. Lenny tells his confessor, Don Tomasso, that he doesn’t care about anyone else but himself and that he thinks that he essentially willed himself to becoming Pope by “praying so hard I almost shit my pants.” (Holy shit, indeed.) I’m glad he wasn’t wearing his whites on that day. But he goes on: “I am the lord. I believe only in myself,” which is the most Kanye pronouncement of all time.
Then we see the credits, in which he’s walking down the hall of the Vatican with a shooting star following him through a number of classical paintings that have been turned into GIFs. The instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” plays as he struts and turns to the audience with irrational confidence, smiling and winking. He is not a man of the cloth, but a rock star. He’s trying to create a fame for himself that can not be supplanted, fulfilling his childlike need for validation and attention.
He’s not the only one who had his rock star moment this episode. After Sister Mary delivers his letter to the press, she gets up at the press conference as the shutters click and the bulbs flash and tells the assembled, with great hauteur, “I am Sister Mary.” Just like Madonna and Cher, one name only. Then Jefferson Airplane plays her out into the hallways of the castle.
Cardinal Spencer gets his brief moment to shine as well, during which he looks less like a priest and more like Keith Richards recovering from a bender. He sits in a drab cardigan, clutching his head with his giant, chunky silver ring, while wearing a pair of sunglasses so dark they look like they were made with anti-matter. How could he possibly go on without Sister Mary’s reassurance that he’s the only one who can keep Lenny in check?
The B side of the rock star, of course, is the deep hole that can never be filled, a ceaseless, unending validation of one’s own celebrity. We see that shift in Lenny as well, when he’s kneeling beside his bed verbally flagellating himself for what he confessed the night before to Don Tomasso. “It’s not true that I illumined me,” he says, pop music scoring his conversation with the Lord. “All I care about is you.”
How to claim credit for himself but also give props to god? Many a rapper has dealt with this dilemma while accepting a Video Music Award. It comes again when Lenny visits with Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the wife of the Swiss Guard who has been standing out in the courtyard. (The Swiss Guard are the Vatican’s private army and the Pope’s bodyguards, known for their colorful outfits and crazy peaked hats.) He invites her into his office and when she tells him that she loved his sermon the look on his face is so pleasurable as to be disconcerting. A second later, he tells her to love it is not enough. She needs to live the holy life that he was detailing. It seems like the show is setting the two of them up for some sort of sexual encounter, which seems way too Thorn Birds for my taste. A quick prayer that their interaction continues to be as complicated as it is here.
The contradiction and struggle between Rock Star Lenny and Groveling Child Lenny comes through his interactions with the staff as well He continues to dress people down in his office, making one of the cardinals point on the enormous crystal globe (the only modern piece of furniture in the entire city state) where he wants to be assigned—and then ships him off to Alaska, anyway. But Spencer talks to Lenny scoldingly, letting him know that he’s just a vindictive child trying to make all Catholics suffer because his parents abandoned him.
Spencer certainly knows how to push Lenny’s buttons. We see that when Lenny passes out into Esther’s arms, a living version of Michelangelo’s Pietà (queue the eye rolls as big as a giant crystal globe). In the vision that follows, Lenny sees himself dressed in the white frock and small wooden cross of an altar boy, running after his parents as they board a boat and silently sail away from him. Not much subtlety here.
Voiello, as Sister Mary points out while she’s practicing her killer free throw, is also a grand contradiction onto himself. He lives in an immaculate house with his tiny dog, watching YouTube videos of Diego Maradona and berating his housekeeper’s son, but at night he takes care of a disabled boy. He seeks the glory of power, but also eschews the papacy so he can work behind the scenes.
Eventually, he snaps at Lenny, going so far to drop an F-bomb: “You were supposed to share your sovereignty with my advice and Spencer’s. Not like this.” At Lenny’s insistence, Voiello reveals to him that Lenny was meant to be the compromise candidate, the one who is easy to control, a way to balance out the conservative and liberal wings of the Church. Instead, his acting out is ruining the Church’s standing with its members, with the press, and with the bishops.
Of course, Lenny immediately begins looking to depose Voiello as a cardinal. To save his job, Voiello once again needs to reach out to Spencer. The cardinals ask for Spencer’s help holding the weight of God on the world, literally holding their hands out. This in turn makes Spencer cry. The intensity of the scene is pure camp. It was kind of my favorite scene.
But the plan isn’t going to work. Lenny won’t work with Spencer anymore and Voiello is left to his old ways: blackmail. He goes to Monsignor Gutierrez’s (Javier Cámara) room filled with stuffed animals and finds a box of booze under the bed. He’s going to use Gutierrez’s addiction to control him, though a playpen of children’s toys on one’s bed seems way more damning. Now Voiello will know what Lenny has revealed his one confidante in the Vatican (outside of the impregnable Sister Mary), whether it’s that Lenny had a relationship with a girl before he entered seminary, that he knows how to juggle oranges, or most damningly that he doesn’t believe in god anymore.
The end credits stand in stark contrast to the opening. Instead of Lenny peacocking about, he’s sitting quietly, with no music at all, contemplating his truth—that he struggles with the nature of faith and the power that comes with his position. The mistakes that he’s making are an attempt to offset that lack of faith, which stems from years of neglect from his parents. He wants to come off a rock star, but he’s really that scared altar boy chasing after his parents. Just wait until Voiello hears about this.
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