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Heaven Forbid

Watching The Young Pope on HBO

It took The Young Pope three episodes to settle on one, but the title sequence of Paolo Sorrentino’s new HBO drama, which concluded Monday night, may well have been the greatest in television history. As Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” pulses in the background, Jude Law’s title character strolls, in slow motion, down a Vatican hallway decorated with Renaissance art that quakes and falls apart at his approach. As he reaches the end of the hall, the Banksy-loving, Cherry Coke Zero-chugging Holy Father himself—Lenny Belardo by birth, Pius XIII if you’re nasty—turns to the camera and gives us a slow, broad wink. It’s the one of the most unapologetically campy gestures of the golden age of television, and it is absolutely wonderful.

Sorrentino, best known for 2013’s Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty, is Italian, but Pius is American, and if The Young Pope succeeds in anything it’s as a deconstruction of the notion of American kitsch. Our own art is loath to get near it—the closest thing we have to a camp-fest is House of Cards, which shares with Pope a dark, unapologetic tonality and a tendency to repeat itself. But Sorrentino is completely unafraid (some would say shameless) about the collision of high and low culture that makes the Pope’s home country so much fun for foreigners. It’s this intention that leads to some comical inaccuracies—J.D. Salinger is described as being “the most important author of the past twenty years”; the Archbishop of New York is “one of the most powerful men in Queens.” The visuals hammer it home. An office watercooler in the middle of the Vatican conclave, emitting a divine glow? Sure. A reverential shot of a painting being obscured by garishly pink selfie sticks? Why not? Pope Pius even has himself a pet kangaroo, a gift from the Australian government, which he lets hop freely around the Vatican gardens. “Jump,” he commands under his breath whenever he sees it. The ‘roo is uncooperative, but Sorrentino has no problem following his advice.

Equating Pius XIII with someone like Donald Trump, or, to put it in Sorrentino’s terms, Silvio Berlusconi, is an inevitability. Belardo, at 47, is elevated to the papacy as part of a compromise between the forces of liberalism, led by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando, jowly, pragmatic, and excellent) and conservatism, represented by Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell). When the newly named Pius’s views turn out to be more medieval than forward-thinking, one’s first assumption is that, like his presidential counterpart Frank Underwood, he’s a canny operator, with a long-term master plan he has yet to put into effect. The reveal of the show, such as it is, is that Pius is in fact (at least to begin with) a spoiled child, lashing out with wanton aggression merely because he can. In a bit of pop psychology, much of the Pope’s hostility is linked to his abandonment by his parents at an orphanage run by Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, but explanation is needless. As played, largely terrifically, by the scenery-gnashing Law, Pius is a colossally evil, selfish, jaded jackass with unchecked power. Watching The Young Pope at its best, therefore, is a bit like watching a monster truck rally, with the same moral depth and infinitely better cinematography.

How disappointing, then, the swing of the limited series’ conclusion, which takes us through an abrupt and unbelievable redemption story whose greatest revelation is that Pius may literally have divine power—how the nihilistic have fallen. The Young Pope’s world is insular. The entryway to Vatican City is subject to not a little bit of doom-and-gloom visual foreshadowing, and leaving the Vatican, on this show, leads to either decline (as with Javier Cámara’s Monsignor Gutierrez, who goes to New York to investigate child abuse and descends into drunken dissolution) or worse (Scott Shepherd’s Cardinal Dussolier, a childhood friend of the Pope’s, rejects Pius’s tyranny and returns to his diocese in Honduras, where he’s promptly murdered by a drug kingpin). Therein lies the surprise of the last three episodes, which jump from Africa to New York to Venice to provide a vague political backdrop for the Pope’s come-to-Jesus moment (sorry). The whole thing plays like an on-the-nose commercial for the new-and-improved Catholic Church, and it just doesn’t square with what’s come before. The New York episode, especially, is a colossal misstep, highlighting the weakness of the show’s moral underpinnings when it’s not exclusively focused on over-the-top villainy. It’s not clear what the young Pope is being redeemed by, or for, and though his increasing concern for the welfare of the world, as well as revelations about his long-lost love, are touching, they sure ain’t the Pius I know.

The last moments of the series finale offer tantalizing hope that Pope will regain control of itself, revert to Lenny’s childish machinations, and offer us a glimpse at the hollowness of holiness. But instead, Pius descends into boring, self-abnegating martyrdom, and a final shot that reminded me more of Men in Black than the Bible reinforces that God was with the Pope all along. “Goodness, unless combined with imagination,” opines the newly pious Pius in the finale, “runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.” When The Young Pope allows us to luxuriate in its carefully constructed world, a perfect facsimile of Rome rendered in gray and brown and red and gold, and let ourselves be repeatedly jolted by the sight of Pius, square of jaw and receding of hairline, puncturing the quiet political atmosphere without warning, exhibitionism is all we need. But even the Catholic Church has barely survived the dual burdens of grandeur and significance, and Lenny Belardo, poor thing, doesn’t come off nearly as well.