HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’ is a beautifully mysterious must-watch

Posted on Jan 24 2017 - 8:09am by McKenna Wierman

If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve probably heard about it. The night “The Young Pope” premiered on HBO, the internet exploded with tweets, memes and general buzz. But there’s still quite a bit of mystery surrounding the 10-episode limited series, but as it turns out, mystery might just be what makes this show a must-watch. 

Young Pope

(Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

“The Young Pope,” starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, follows the story of the newly elected and first American pope (Law), who, as the title would suggest, is relatively young by pope-standards. Everyone appears to be confused as to how he managed to get elected and concerned as to what it will mean for the future of the Catholic Church (*cough, cough U.S. presidential election*). They’re even more terrified when the pope, formerly a cardinal, Lenny Belardo, chooses the new name Pope Pius XIII (Pope Pius XII’s pontificate is considered by many to be quite controversial).

The young pope is frequently accompanied by his trusted advisor and surrogate mother of sorts, Sister Mary (Keaton), who took an even younger Lenny in to her orphanage after he was abandoned by his parents. So far in the series, we’ve managed to put together a rough picture of Lenny’s life before he was pope: he feels abandoned by his parents, he has dealt with some kind of terrible trauma, he is untrustworthy and prefers “formal” relationships to “friendly” ones and he was mentored by Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), former Archbishop of New York (and apparently the guy who was supposed to be the pope). Yet, there still seem to be pieces missing; even the high-profile cardinals within the Vatican have a hard time painting a picture of the mysterious young pope. 

Overall, “The Young Pope” is irresistible. After watching the very first episode, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Besides beautiful sets and costuming, a funky-fresh electro soundtrack, a kangaroo and yes, sex appeal, “The Young Pope” has also given a fictional but interesting and perhaps not so unbelievable look into the interworking and politics of the famously guarded and lofty Vatican. The series has, of course, stirred up some controversy among Catholics, (Maria Jeffery of ‘The Conservative Review’ called it “a disgusting insult to Christians,) but despite its irreverence, it still manages to strike a holy note in the souls of viewers. There’s something both human and divine at work.

Lenny Belardo is a fascinating character; he’s handsome, he’s articulate, he’s cruel and he’s alluring. On his very first night as pope, he asks a Vatican priest and confessor to break his holy vows and tell him the sins revealed to him by other priests who make their confessions to him. He tells the confessor he doesn’t believe in God. Then tells the horrified priest he was only joking. The young pope refuses to be seen by the public eye, and he even delivers his first (shocking) homily cast in shadow.

As a viewer, I am unsure if Lenny is a sociopath, a narcissist, a devout Catholic or, as Sister Mary often refers to him, “a saint.”  In fact, I’m not even positive Lenny is a reliable narrator, whether or not he suffers from day-time hallucinations or divine visions. 

Director Paolo Sorrentino said on HBO’s website that the series is about “the clear signs of God’s existence. The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost.” Sorrentino does a beautiful job of tackling a tough balance between holy mystery and lack of faith, using bizarre and unconventional symbolism mixed with Catholic tradition.

Catholic or non-Catholic, religious or non-religious, “The Young Pope” is some good TV watching. It’s holy, it’s devious and it’s beautifully human. Even if you’re not into the faith side of this show, it’s worth watching for Law’s performance. Law beautifully portrays the icy, radically conservative yet rock star-like Pius XIII in such a way where, as a viewer, I do not immediately like or dislike him, I just want to figure him out. Where will the cigarette-smoking, Daft Punk-loving, kangaroo-charming and mysterious young Pius XIII lead the Catholic Church?

The 10-episode miniseries already premiered in Europe in the fall of 2016 but made its American (and Canadian) debut Jan. 15 of this year. The show airs at 9 p.m. ET on Sundays and Mondays.