In the first episode of The Young Pope, Pius XIII (Jude Law) is meeting with the Vatican secretary of state (Silvio Orlando), a man who dearly hopes the fortysomething pontiff will be easy to control and open to suggestion. Pius declares he will leave matters of politics, finance and diplomacy to the secretary, while he will travel the world and greet the masses. He then waits a moment to let the secretary’s joy sink in before revealing he was just joking; this pope will reign with total control. The look of confounded horror on Orlando’s face is not only perfect, but also something you might recognize on the faces of a good many mortified Americans preparing for a presidential inauguration.
That’s not to say there’s a direct correlation between our young Pope and our president-elect. There’s not, and I don’t believe creator Paolo Sorrentino intended one, but watching the news over the last two months and then taking in Law’s performance as this cunning, often devious Bishop of Rome brought The Young Pope, which premiered last night on HBO, into sharper focus. Like Trump, he has been given the power he’s always wanted, and like Trump, where he chooses to take that power is a mesmerizing mixture of terrifying, amusing and downright confounding.
Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, is the first ever American pope, an orphan brought to the faith by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him. Lenny’s suffering as a child remains with him, granting him all manner of abandonment, attachment and anger issues that cross over into his papacy. He is knowingly and often deliberately vindictive, shunning everyone from Sister Mary to his Cardinal mentor (the great James Cromwell), often seemingly at random. He twists priests into his service as spies in the Vatican. He refuses to speak to the press or even sit for photographs. He is capable of extreme tenderness with one servant, only to be cold and brutal with another. He loves and hates being Pope in the very same moment, putting off his duties even as he often luxuriates in them when the time comes. Above all, though, he is addicted to the beautiful and terrible power he prayed for.
Sorrentino embraces these contradictions and lavishes them upon the show, pivoting on a dime between surreal beauty and raw human ugliness. What seems to interest him most, though, is Lenny’s relationship to his own power. He craves and recoils from it, and Sorrentino’s camera pulls and pushes in turn. It’s a delicate dance, but an elegant, well-executed one that keeps us guessing.
Which brings me back to the president-elect, a man who styles himself as one of us even as he peers down from his gaudy palace in the sky. The key to The Young Pope isn’t that he’s young, or sexy, or even villainous. The key is that his power is absolute, he answers only to God, and no one, not even him, seems to really know what he’s capable of. This makes the show less about a display of power and more about a meditation on it. We’re inside the head of the man wearing the crown, and what we see is often viciously uncertain. That makes the show both compusivey watchable and reflectve of our current political predicament. It confounds and delights in equal measure, and we get to relax when it’s over, because at least this story of an unpredictable man in power is fiction.