‘The Young Pope’: We sift through the aftermath of Sorrentino’s surreal pope show
Season One, Episodes Nine and Ten – “The Ninth Episode,” “The Tenth Episode”
By Courtney Ryan. “The child pope has become a man.”
This line, said by the young pope to Cardinal Guiterrez when he asks the cardinal to replace Sister Mary as his personal secretary, is just one of many times Paolo Sorrentino winked and nudged us during the pope show’s finale. Another nudge came from the smiling priests, who looked directly at the camera several times throughout the last episode, evoking the central message of Lenny’s final homily. Though these weren’t exactly subtle jabs, they were nice reminders that this show was always supposed to be a dazzling indulgence and nothing more. “Smile,” Lenny instructs his followers at the end. “That’s right, smile.”
It’s a shame The Young Pope ends right as it hit its stride in “The Ninth Episode”, capturing that elusive balance between surrealism and satire with just a dash of scandalous intrigue. Perhaps if the show had brought us here earlier we could have experienced some of the emotional heft that was frequently hinted at but never realized. Instead, the last two episodes tell us what might had been if the series had been a little more tightly focused. It wasn’t that Sorrentino couldn’t still pause for the occasional sublime interlude—after all, it worked well with poor Rose and Guiterrez’s storyline—but we benefited most when his visual meanderings at least loosely connected with a central character’s arc.
Part of what made the series soar at the end was that the characters finally started acting on their own accord instead of serving as one-dimensional foils for Lenny’s whims. Too many interactions throughout the first eight episodes played like the first time Archbishop Kurtwell shared his story about the day the superintendent visited his family’s home: a central character controlling the dialogue by concealing key knowledge delivers a monologue while a silent observer stands by as if guarding an object at a museum.
It’s fitting that Lenny can’t tolerate when visitors get lost staring at the Venus of Willendorf. It’s always more compelling when the subject ceases to be an object and instead becomes equally capable of discourse. Like when Kurtwell tells the real version of his story to Lenny and Guiterrez seated next to him, or when Guiterrez challenges the Holy Father’s homophobia.
I wish an autonomous Cardinal Guiterrez had appeared earlier since his entanglement with Kurtwell’s trail of abuse was far more interesting than anything we explored in Cardinal Dussolier’s storyline. This wasn’t Scott Shepherd’s fault; he was a commendable brother and tortured priest, but Javier Cámara’s portrayal of a frightened alcoholic conflicted by shame stemming from his own history as an abused child was rawer, even without screentime devoted to his backstory.
I also wish Sister Mary had been utilized more. I’ve yet to meet a nun I didn’t want to watch shoot hoops, and Diane Keaton frequently pulled on Jude Law’s spotlight (I loved her peeping in the window during his conversation with Cardinal Spencer), but we could have gained by seeing her interact more with Spencer or Voiello. Despite the entire premise of their relationship, I was surprised when Lenny reminded us that she liked children since we never really got see what was going on inside her head.
Remarkably, I am content with how the show resolved Lenny’s origin story. Thankfully, Sorrentino shot past the melodrama of Dussolier’s demise and went straight for some Wes Anderson camp, complete with a child’s telescope. I guess it doesn’t matter if his parents showed for his Christmas homily because of Voiello’s explanation (that Baby Boomers never stop being hippies) or because they appreciated his efforts to move the papacy to Venice. Either way, Pius XIII finally accepted his orphan identity and became the holy father the world needed. Or something like that.
Like the institution whose ornamentation it so fervently captured, The Young Pope asked us to have faith in the implausible, to believe Lenny’s outrageous tale mattered. I can’t say I was completely converted, but Jude Law’s charisma mixed with Sorrentino’s devotion to majestic coolness did make me smile.
“The one profession that involves no work and a great deal of money that we let slip through our fingers.” – Michael Spencer, on psychotherapy.
“And let me remind you what St. Alphonsus said about abortion: ‘In an abortion everyone is guilty, except for the woman.’” – Spencer, to Lenny.
“He’s battling against death, which is the least interesting of any of the battles we have ever summoned to fight.” – Kurtwell, regarding Guiterrez.
“Life in the Vatican is not much fun for young people.” – Tomasu, to Pius.
“If only you knew how true a banal platitude can be.” – The dead popes, to Pius.
BEST MOMENT: Having begrudgingly agreed to lead elementary-aged children through the Vatican museum, Lenny tells the children that raindrops are Jesus’ tears and he is crying because the children must have made Jesus angry. After the kids start to cry he shouts, “Hey, I was just kidding. Have a sense of humor, for Pete’s sake!” Sofia cheers up the children with hamburgers.
EPISODE’S MVP: Cardinal Guiterrez was graceful on the ice rink and a compassionate drunk in Rose’s bedroom. Javier Cámara did an excellent job portraying someone whose inner turmoil threatens to poison his kind exterior.
– I loved the pope drying laundry with the nuns.
– Did all-knowing Lenny really think the greatest love letters ever written would be his downfall? And why didn’t Kurtwell bother to consider why they were in Lenny’s desk and not in the recipient’s possession?
– How did Jude Law deliver that Seussian homily at the end without laughing?
– Tomasu is a cardinal now. Yay, Tomasu.
– If only Lenny could have debated abortion with Sister Mary, or one of the two other women on the show.
8 out of 10
Season One Score: 6.5 out of 10
Before: “The Seventh Episode”, “The Eighth Episode”, here.