The most Twitter TV show of 2017 just premiered (part two airs tomorrow), but my favorite thing about The Young Pope so far is a subtle, unmeme-able detail—it’s the way that Jude Law moves his hands. His Lenny Belardo, or the “yung” Pope Pius XIII, is a clenched fist of a man, punching himself through the hierarchy and traditions of the Catholic Church to reshape them in his own image. But look at the way he holds a cigarette or motions his arms out toward the crowd amassing in St. Peter’s Square. He has a wrist like a pinball wizard, or a PR flack who presents her limp handshake with her palm down.
So the show is partly about hand gestures. And hats, so many hats. It’s like a parade of hats. Or maybe it’s like a disco of hats and I’m standing in the middle of the dance floor at Studio 54 and the DJ is playing “It’s Raining Hats” and I’m twirling with my arms outstretched, my face raised to the hatted heavens.
The thing about the hats, though, is that they make all of the white guys wearing them look a little bit the same. This first episode was especially dense, as we, along with the newly empowered Lenny, try to get acclimated to the world of the Vatican, with its deeply entrenched characters, their thinly veiled motivations, and the mechanics of how political power shifts in the Catholic Church.
The most obvious bit of information is that Lenny Belardo, an American cardinal, has been elected the Pope, who (to get technical) is the spiritual and political leader of the Catholic Church that doctrine believes speaks directly to god and is his human embodiment on Earth. The Pope is chosen by a conclave of cardinals, who are the second-highest-ranking officials in the Church, each overseeing a geographic region, so that the election of the Pope is a bit like a parliament choosing its prime minister. Since only cardinals under 80 years of age are allowed to vote (ageism!), 115 cardinals elected the current Pope. You can spot a cardinal because, like the bird, he wears all red to symbolize that he would spill his blood to protect the sanctity of the church. Seriously, that’s why.
From that scene of the four cardinals in the garden, we learn that Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the guy with the mole on his face that Uncle Buck would pay a quarter to have a rat gnaw off, was the one who got Belardo elected. Considering that electing a Pope requires a two-thirds majority of the cardinals, this indicates that Vioello has considerable juice within the Church. However, many believe that Cardinal Spencer, the Cardinal of New York, should have been chosen but showed too much of an independent streak to be kept in check. It’s kind of hard to tell, but Cardinal Spencer is the older man played by James Cromwell who tries to kill himself when Belardo is elected Pope.
Voiello preferred Belardo because he figured that the young, green American would be easy to control. The cardinals don’t mind this arrangement because they in turn think Voiello will be easy to control, probably because he will do whatever the cardinals want in order to stay in power. Belardo, obviously, does not intend to be a papal pawn, as we see in their deliciously drawn out confrontation in his office—over and over, he puts Voiello in his place, turning him into a kind of glorified barista by the end. Of course, his aggression likely stems from Belardo’s own insecurity, which is hinted at in his Lynchian dream at the beginning of the episode. (And of course, much has been made of the parallels between The Young Pope and America’s President-elect.) doesn’t feel like he’s the Pope, and that Voiello is actually the one in the office. When we meet him, Belardo is trying to take control of not only the Church but his own mind; he says to himself, repeatedly, “I am the Pope.”
Right now, it’s hard to see either of the men as a clear-cut villain or hero. Right now, we sort of want both of them to fail but they must fail spectacularly, especially the bad-breaking Belardo, who will shame everyone on the Vatican staff so that he can get a Cherry Coke Zero. And there’s something about the confluence of all of that classical filigree with the Cherry Coke Zero-ness that imbues the proceedings with a giddy sense of camp. Even if I don’t like the Pope wearing Havaianas or using a cell phone, it has a sort of New Yorker cartoon-ness about it. I also don’t like when the Pope shows off his bare ass, even if it is Jude Law’s perfect peach emoji derriere and it gives me thoughts as impure as Voiello has toward the Venus of Willendorf (which, according to the scientists at Wikipedia is actually in a museum in Vienna).
Of course, Paolo Sorrentino, the writer and director of this arch affair, knows exactly what he is doing. This is not an accidentally funny show. Some of it pokes fun at the excesses of the Catholic Church, like when Belardo’s red shoes flash beneath his creamy white gown, a reminder of the ones worn by Pope Benedict XVI. There’s also the bizarro scene that starts off Belardo’s dream within a dream in the opening credits of the episode. He’s crawling over a mountain of babies, as if he is the one that is selected, the chosen one of god. Then we find out, after seeing one of the babies come alive like something out of The Ring, that it’s a pile of dead babies laid at the foot of the Vatican. Is it that Belardo is truly special? Or is it that this is the carnage one leaves behind on the way to the papacy?
At this point the show is about the power struggle between two men, and Belardo and Voiello are both using the same cynical tactics. Belardo gets Don Tomasso (Marcello Romolo), the man who receives confessions at the Vatican, to spill everyone’s secrets, not the least of which include Voiello’s dirty thoughts about the Venus. And that’s exactly what Voiello is doing when he goes to visit Cardinal Spencer at the end of the episode, digging for information about Belardo that he admitted in the sanctity of the confessional. Belardo, of course, once confessed to Spencer about how he’s a contradiction, back when Belardo was a bishop. (We can tell he was a bishop because he was wearing a hat that was purple, the color of bishops. Thanks again, hat!)
Ultimately, Belardo seems to hold god in contempt. He announces that he lives in half a duplex with a private swimming pool rather than in a vast cathedral or ornate palace, which is the most scathing declaration in the whole episode. Belardo says he’s jk-ing about not believing in god, which contracts his earlier assertion that there is no such thing as a telling joke. Belardo is also fighting some serious inner demons, hinted at by Sister Mary (the truly divine Diane Keaton), his trusted confidante who tells him he needs to put them behind him to fulfill the responsibilities of his new office, and that the only thing that seems to be keeping them at bay is his blind lust for power.
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