The Young Pope is 2017’s first major television Rorschach test; ask different people what they see in it and you will inevitably hear different answers. Some may perceive it as a surreal, occasionally cheeky portrait of those who serve at the highest levels in the Vatican. Others might say it’s a commentary on the hypocrisy of faith and the danger of extremism. Viewers who haven’t cared for the first two episodes may dismiss it as an overblown, empty auteurist work that wallows in dream sequences, political intrigue, Cherry Coke Zero product placements, and the great beauty that is Jude Law’s face.
Then there are those who watch The Young Pope and, inevitably, see parallels between the ultraconservative, isolated, inexperienced Pope Pius XIII, whose selection as Holy Father came as something of a surprise, and our Republican president-elect, who spends most of his days, at the moment, in an actual Tower, has never served a day as a public servant, and was voted into office in an unexpected Electoral College upset.
I know what you’re thinking: “Is every TV show analysis from now until 2020 going to invoke Donald J. Trump? I mean, sometimes a show about a pope with a kangaroo in his garden is just a show about a pope with a kangaroo in his garden.”
That is so true. It’s also true that characterizing The Young Pope strictly as a reflection of the current political climate is reductive, since the series tackles a variety of themes, and there are many ways in which Trump is nothing like the show’s protagonist. (Trump is not young, he’ll soon be leading a country as opposed to the Catholic Church, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, he looks nothing like Jude Law.) While the show is obviously set against a backdrop that is political, that backdrop is hardly identical to the American government, and any similarities between the two are coincidental.
On top of that, its creator, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, has said he conceived and wrote it well before Trump rose to power and other populist movements (see: the Brexit vote) fully took hold. (It first aired on Sky TV in Italy last October, but was shot well before that.) As Sorrentino told our Maria Elena Fernandez: “I got very lucky. I was trying to understand how a pope of the future, of tomorrow, would be. And I had this idea, so perhaps that means I have a future as a political pundit, as someone that can foresee the politics of the future.”
Even the pope himself — meaning Jude Law — agrees that it’s hard to watch The Young Pope without connecting some dots. As the actor told USA Today recently, his character is “unpredictable and unknown in that environment, just as Trump is in the political world.” The HBO version of the pope — real name Lenny Belardo — also exhibits a dictatorial bent and says things that reveal his arrogance (born, like almost all arrogance, out of childhood insecurity), as well as an unwillingness to hear conflicting viewpoints. All of those qualities, not to mention his fixation on his image and the way he seems to get off on threatening his enemies, smack of the Donald. So does Lenny’s rejection of excess scrutiny, from both the media and his followers.
“Stop what you’re doing!” Pope Pius XIII shouts in episode two, after a streak of laser-light beams from the audience and onto his face as he, purposely shrouded in shadow, addresses a Vatican City crowd. “How dare you shine a light on your pope! I don’t know if you deserve me.” Those words don’t precisely match up with the rhetoric Trump has used to downplay uncorroborated reports of his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, nor with the way he specifically has denigrated news organizations that cover him in a negative way. But the message — “How dare you shine a light” — comes through as loudly and clearly as it does when the fictional pope says it. Pope Lenny and President Donnie, would both prefer to maintain all overhead lighting at its dimmest possible setting.
Some of the values they espouse also fall on the extreme end of the ideological spectrum. Lenny considers homosexuality a disqualifying flaw, a cardinal sin in the most literal sense, which may remind some more of Mike Pence than Trump. But he’s also a hardliner who scoffs at inclusion and advocates for rebuilding barriers. “From this day forward, everything that was wide open is going to become closed,” he says in a blistering speech in episode five. “Tolerance doesn’t live here anymore. It’s been evicted.” If this echoes the soon-to-be president’s promises to build a wall on the Mexican border and start a Muslim registry, that’s accidental on Sorrentino’s part. But it’s still striking nonetheless.
Both the pope and the president-elect have highly elevated senses of self. Lenny, who expresses doubt in the existence of God, views himself as the being who sits on high. “I love myself more than my neighbor, more than God,” he says in the third episode, which airs Sunday, while recalling how he was elected pope. “I am the Lord, omnipotent. Lenny, you have illumined yourself.”
“I said that I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created. And I mean that,” said Trump during last week’s press conference, making it sound like he was created by an almighty being for the sole purpose of lowering the unemployment rate. Even more pointedly, when asked recently by the Telegraph who his hero is, he said he didn’t “like the concept of heroes,” briefly mentioned his father, then talked about himself at great length. For both of these men, the fictional and the real, there is seemingly no higher power than the one they possess.
In another parallel that reveals itself in the third episode, a press conference takes place during which a surrogate, Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, is asked to speak on the pope’s behalf and “reiterate his infallibility” as well as his intention to carry out his “plan.” The scene immediately calls to mind the moment during Trump’s press conference when Sheri Dillon, his attorney, explained to the press why it’s totally fine for her client to maintain ownership of his businesses while acting as president. On The Young Pope, when a reporter says to Sister Mary, ‘We didn’t understand anything about the plan. What’s more, we don’t understand who you are,’” it’s as if she’s speaking on behalf of the White House press corps, not to mention a good portion of the American public.
It’s also worth noting that Lenny’s surprise elevation to pope comes at the expense of Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), who was considered the heir apparent to the job and is frustrated that someone he mentored not only won it, but is acting erratically in the role. “To set every Christian and journalist in the world against you, in the first week of your papacy?” Spencer asks incredulously, in yet another piece of dialogue that sounds like it could have been ripped out of an outraged U.S. citizen’s mouth. Spencer isn’t quite a Hillary Clinton–esque figure. He deems himself a conservative and, also, is not a woman. (Pope Pius XIII makes it very clear that a woman will never be pope.) But the dynamic here — the veteran passed over, shockingly, for an uncontrollable figure who didn’t put in the time to earn his position — is certainly evocative of the presidential election results.
But perhaps The Young Pope takeaway that’s most relevant to American politics is the misguided idea, apparently believed by many leaders in the Church, that someone like Lenny will rise to the demands of his office. Various cardinals around this new Vatican leader, particularly Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), seem to think he can be manipulated and molded, or potentially brought low by scandal. But Pope Pius XIII is far harder to tame than that, and so far, the same has proven true for the tweetstorm-elect. If anyone should be watching The Young Pope for life lessons, it’s members of the Republican Party.
And what about the rest of us? Is there something that we, the people, should glean from all these echoes of Trump and the incoming administration? Having watched the first five episodes of The Young Pope, I am not sure what the audience should conclude about the show’s deeper meanings. Hell, I can’t even decide how I feel about this tonally wild series in general at this stage.
Some, like Spike Friedman at the Stranger, have argued that thinking too much about Trump should be avoided during The Young Pope because it detracts from the experience. “I think the questions that The Young Pope asks about power are more abstract,” he writes, “and that tethering them to Trump’s particularly hideous version of a power grab neuters what the show is really about, and removes any joy that could be had from watching it.”
He may be right, especially about the abstractness. But once a person’s Trump-parallel detector picks up a reading, it’s really hard to turn the thing off. This is the burden that comes with watching The Young Pope at this moment, when the sins of the Father bear notable resemblances to the sins of the man who is about to become our commander-in-chief.