Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII.
Now we’re cooking with gas, as my mother would say. After a very entertaining and very messy debut, we’re finally getting to see what this Young Pope is made of. (Cherry Coke Zero and cigarettes, mainly.)
The cinematic flourishes of the first episode take hold right out of the gate, especially Paolo Sorrentino’s love of blending high and low. We’ve got a glorious silent soccer game by habit-wearing nuns, cardinals getting dressed, cardinals checking their iPads, cardinals having underlings inject medication into their butts, and exuberant pilgrims en route to the Vatican gustily singing along to popular songs. THIS IS AN ART FILM, BUT ALSO IT’S GOSSIP GIRL, he telegraphs. But it works, I have to say. This show is supposed to be funny! The absurdity is cultivated and the bull-in-a-china-shop antics are tried-and-true comedy. If you are giggling, Sorrentino intended you to.
In the opening scene (an immediate example of yes, this is funny), a wanly attractive blonde is getting grimly plowed by her husband, one of the brightly dressed members of the Swiss Guard who dance attendance on the pope, as she grits her teeth and mutters prayers to the crucifix distractingly located above their heads. Sex is for procreation, she rebukes him quietly while fingering her rosary, so you know we’re going to get to know THIS lady better as the show progresses. I welcome it.
Meanwhile, in a wincingly crisp series of dismissals and insults, Pius XIII alienates and terrifies everyone he didn’t manage to set back on their heels in the first episode. He’s most measured in his treatment of Sofia Debois, the businesswoman in charge of marketing for the Holy See, whom he toys with and disappoints, but seems to get a kick out of nonetheless. What with having the face of a slightly gray-around-the-temples angel, Sofia and the marketing crew are VERY excited to plaster Jude Law’s glorious mug on as many tea towels and plates and car sunshields and tapestries and salt-and-pepper shakers as their warehouses can possibly manage to churn out. Pius, of course, loves nothing more than really letting people down, and announces that he has never allowed himself to be photographed (?!) and will allow no reproductions of his likeness to go out. There’s no business like pope business, and this is a visible blow to Sofia’s spirits, even when he explains that he’s pulling a Banksy, or a Daft Punk.
The exceptionally brutal dismissal of the day — and our first real hint that Pius XIII has a hyper-reactionary agenda for the Church — is that of Cardinal Mario Assente, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. Assente, played by a remarkably good Maurizio Lombardi, is a liberal figure within the Curia, and as he admits when directly questioned, he never voted for Pius in the election rounds. He’s a liberal reformer, and worried (with good reason) that if Pius was a mentee of James Cromwell’s Cardinal Spencer, he plans to roll back the Church several decades, if not several centuries.
Pius, after thanking Assente for his honesty and transparency, levels him with a coolly direct question: “Are you a homosexual?” Upon hearing Assente hesitantly answer in the affirmative, he presses the dreaded table buzzer to have him whisked away. One of the laugh-out-loud moments of the episode (for Pius and ourselves) is the perky “Time for your snack, Holy Father!” the nun comes up with as a plausible excuse to extricate him from the meeting.
After the first episode, I said I was excited for Diane Keaton to contribute more to the show, but I regret to report that she’s just not very good so far. Her Sister Mary works better as a sight gag than as a character. (When Pius comes to her room unexpectedly late at night, he finds her wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m a Virgin But This Is an Old Shirt.”) Mary claims to love Lenny and his surly ginger adoptive brother, Cardinal Andrew Dussolier, and vehemently believes that the former is a literal saint, but she’s just not selling it enough. Cardinal Spencer offers a better look at the man Lenny Belardo was before he was pope; his extraordinary rage and bitterness suggests Lenny’s betrayal took him completely by surprise. Spencer is not interested in being placated, he is not interested in being told it’s for the best, and he is very suspicious of any suggestion from Lenny that he has plans for him.
In lighter news, I promised you a kangaroo, and can now deliver it: While rummaging through the presents of the faithful, duly gathered in a central warehouse per his request, Pius discovers a literal kangaroo, which he releases from his cage in a very Free Willy sequence that seems to confirm Sister Mary’s suspicion that he can control the animals and sing the birds from the trees and wears the face of Literally Jesus Christ under his Jude Law mask. It’s reminiscent of the scene in The Queen where Helen Mirren and the majestic stag stand there looking at each other, being respectively regal, until she shoos him away from the approaching rifles. Hopefully the kangaroo won’t wind up dead on a slab in order to teach Lenny about mortality.
Cardinal Voiello is less of a presence in this episode than in the last, though he and Sister Mary have developed an uneasy bond over their respective inabilities to control Pius. This is partly because Pius is spending more time with Monsignor Bernardo Gutierrez, a quiet and deeply religious man who currently serves as master of ceremonies for the Holy See. Gutierrez (and Pius’s obvious fondness for him) lies at the cornerstone of a really interesting development: The show’s respect for genuine piety and religious belief. One of the reasons that I suspect American Catholics will enjoy the show (I’m a Protestant, myself, but from a Catholic family) is that so much hinges on how the faithful are portrayed. If the crowds in St. Peter’s Square are perceived to be stupid or ignorant, it’d be game over, and that has not been the case, at least so far. American Catholics are generally happy to poke fun at Rome, the clergy, and the catechism — see: the enduring popularity of Father Ted — but they are much less interested in being treated as pawns in a Vatican of Cards scenario. It certainly helps matters that the question of Pius’s own faith is open-ended: He is deeply concerned by the great silence of God, he makes and retracts assertions about a lack of belief, but he responds immediately and obviously to Gutierrez’s emotional veneration of Mary and the Holy Family. He even touches him gently on the arm, which is a long way from the smug ring-kissing he’s offered others.
Then, of course, we come to our homily. It can charitably be called a barn-burner, perhaps formed many years ago in the crucible of his abandonment by his hippie parents. Pius verbally carpet-bombs the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square with the knowledge he is closer to God than he is to them, that those who doubt God’s existence deserve only his scorn and his wrath. That they do not deserve him. That they do not deserve even to see his face. He storms off in glorious, bitchy dudgeon.
The key, I think, to much of Pius’s disdain is found in his conversation with Gutierrez about tourists. To Pius, the lay body of the Church are tourists; they’re just passing through. That’s why his homily hammers home that you can’t half-ass it with God, you need to commit 100 percent and it has to be your whole life. “Twenty-four hours a day.” No wonder God’s dreadful silence weighs so heavily on him. No wonder Gutierrez’s more tangible call to Holy Orders as a boy impressed and silenced Pius for a brief moment.
In the aftermath of this homily, we see Voiello, aghast at what his machinations have brought about, begging God to forgive him for the horrible things he will need to do to save the Church from Pius XIII. We are all very excited to know what those horrible things will entail.