HBO calls The Young Pope a limited series, implying that the "The End" we see at the close of the tenth episode is pretty definitive, but Wikipedia reports that the show's production company is planning a second season, which leaves us with quite the cliffhanger and a lot of questions about the show's future direction. It's the brainchild of Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director of Il Divo, The Great Beauty, Youth, etc. On a TV budget and schedule Sorrentino can't be as consistently "visionary" here as he's been with his more recent pictures, but overall you'll recognize it as the director's characteristic work. I couldn't help wondering whether Sorrentino originally envisioned a young Italian Pope, but with HBO investing, and with Sorrentino having worked in English before an American Pope may well have been the idea from the start. But as is often the case with American television, the American Pope Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, comes from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Putting on an American voice, Jude Law's delivery reminded me of Bill Murray for some reason -- perhaps because Lenny/Pius has Murray's air of aloof smugness despite an avowed seriousness of moral purpose.
Chosen as a compromise candidate to thwart Lenny's supposedly more reactionary mentor (an envious James Cromwell), Pius proves quite the rabid conservative in some respects, and as a supposedly underqualified, abrasive boor he's been seen in some quarters as a prophecy (the series was filmed in 2015) of President Donald Trump. Some people will see Trump everywhere for the next little while. Anyway, the homophobic new pope is determined to purge all gay priests from the clergy, even those genuinely celibate. He enters into tough negotiations to strengthen the Vatican's position vis-a-vis the Italian government. His most provocative idea, however, is to turn himself into a kind of anti-celebrity. Believing that many of the most fascinating artists of modern time were recluses, e.g. J. D. Salinger and Stanley Kubrick -- and a series set in Italy might have been expected to mention Elena Ferrante -- Pius thinks that he can increase the glamor and mystery of the Catholic church by making a mystery of himself. Departing from the standard set by John Paul II, the young Pope shuns public appearances and refuses to authorize the usually-lucrative marketing of the pontiff's image. When he addresses the crowds in St. Peter's Square, he stays in shadow. On other occasions, he remains invisible while speaking over a public-address system.
Part of his idea is that Catholicism should be more difficult for people, that they should have to earn the right to see the Pope, and that more disciplined and positively fanatic Catholics will result from his strictures. But the true plot of the series shows us that Pius' authoritarian reticence also has much to do with Lenny Belardo's uncertain sense of self. He's an orphan, having been abandoned by his hippie parents for reasons that remain unknown and raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who becomes an important, worried adviser for the new Pope. There's more orphan bonding in this show than we've seen since The Dark Knight Rises; Pius even uses the "orphan sense" explained dubiously in that picture to deduce that Sister Mary herself is an orphan. Another of her charges, and Lenny Belardo's closest childhood friend, has also risen high in the church, but Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) doesn't share Pius' fanatic preoccupations. He's actually lived a fairly carnal life in Honduras that will come back to haunt him, and for that reason, perhaps, he objects to Pius raising the bar for priesthood to a nearly-impossible high level of celibacy that drives a spurned would-be priest to suicide. Few in the Vatican hierarchy share Pius's alienating vision; fearing the consequences for Catholic congregations and Vatican revenues, the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) soon begins conspiring against the young Pope, sometimes with the conflicted cooperation of Sister Mary. His enemies try to lure Pius into an affair, but instead he gets credited for making a barren wife he'd befriended miraculously pregnant. One of the tricky elements of the series is that Lenny Belardo really does seem to have some sort of supernatural power. As a boy, he healed a terminally ill woman with prayer, and as Pope he will intercede with God to have an evil nun in Africa struck dead. Sister Mary sees Pius as a living saint but can't help also seeing him both as a surrogate son and as a threat to the future of the Church. Her response is a kind of psychological warfare, teasing Pius with the prospect of reuniting with his still-living parents in the hope of calming his turbulence and distracting him so that Voiello can slip through some modifications to the strict new church policies. Pius sees through this pretty quickly, but over time he comes to see the personal consequences of his imperious attitudes, some of which strike pretty close to home, and proves himself capable of moderation. He entrusts an investigation of a powerful U.S. archbishop, an alleged pedophile with potential blackmail material on Lenny Belardo, to a homosexual priest (Javier Camara) whom he eventually names his personal secretary despite knowing his sexuality.
On a deeper personal level, there seems to be some linkage between an understanding that his parents, if living, probably don't want to make themselves known to him and a brightening of his attitude demonstrated in his first open-air homily, which just happens to be punctuated by a cliffhanger heart-attack. The moral of that story may be simply that Lenny Belardo smokes too much, but given the supernatural potential of the story the Pope's seizure could have much more significance. Of course, the show itself warns us almost every week not to vest too much significance in its fantasy. To an instrumental of "All Along the Watchtower," Pius marches through a gallery of sacred paintings, each of which is ignited by a passing meteor. At the close of this tour the Young Pope winks at us and the meteor escapes from one last painting to knock over a statue of John Paul II. The wink probably means, "It's just a show" more than "It's all a joke," but it may also mean that it's about both more and less than it seems on the surface -- less about theology and more about fame, family, etc. I'm actually glad to learn that there's going to be more, not because I'm sure it'll be great but because it felt incomplete and abrupt in its current conclusion. If everyone's coming back for more, then Young Pope still has a chance to live up to people's hopes for all the talent involved.