An Enigma, ‘The Young Pope’ Unsettles and Dazzles

In today’s day and age, television viewers have more choices than ever before. From network TV to cable and online content, the supply of high-quality television is outstripping any one viewer’s possible ability to watch it all. With this over saturation, it is important to make a strong first impression, not only with the pilot as a whole, but also with the opening scene. The first moments of a show have to both keep people from changing the channel, and also set the tone for the series as a whole.

HBO’s The Young Pope does both of these things with a bizarre dream-within-a-dream sequence. The very first visual of the show, is a morbidly-beautiful aerial shot of the new pope, Pius XII (Jude Law), crawling out from the bottom of a pile of dead babies, emerging to find himself standing in the center of Saint Peter’s Square. He awakens from this dream and finds himself in another dream, where he delivers his first homily in front of an adoring crowd. The speech goes off the rails, however, as he cites the virtues of masturbation, abortion, divorce, and more. He awakens a second time to find himself back in reality. Academy Award-winning director Paolo Sorrentino’s decision to introduce the viewer to his story through this bizarre Russian egg doll of a dream sequence establishes all the elements that will be important to the series—the darkness, the humor, the surellity, and the fact that this show will subvert the viewer’s expectations.

After the dreams, the scope of the story becomes clearer, revealing it is the day after the papal election of Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo). We see him go about his daily business, meeting the characters that will revolve around his papacy. In a later conversation with other cardinals, it is revealed that a major reason behind his election is that he is a telegenic priest who the older cardinals feel like they have the power to control. Pope Pius flies in Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), a nun that took the orphaned Lenny at 7 years old and became his parental figure. Pope Pius rewarded her loyalty by appointing her to be his personal secretary. The episode ends with Pius XII bribing a bishop, Marcello Romolo, into telling him the sins of the other cardinals.



What the first episode lacked in a racing plot, it made up for with fascinating character development. Law delivers a nuanced and skilled portrayal as the titular character. Law plays a character shrouded in secrecy that makes it very difficult to determine what is going on in his head. He often torments those around him by uttering outrageous comments with a straight face, only to later reveal he is joking—but his delivery makes it impossible to tell which statement he actually believes. He best describes his own character when he menacingly tells Romolo, “I’m going to let you in on a secret. Ever since i was little, I’ve learned to confound people’s ideas of what’s going on in my head … not only that, I’m intransigent, irritable, vindictive, and I have a prodigious memory.”

Focusing on just the technical aspects, the show stands out as one of the most beautiful television shows ever filmed. Surrounded by the extravagant and cinematic world of the Vatican, each shot is so skillfully composed that any individual frame could be a painting. The camera also uses several unique zooms and transitions in order to add extra punch to the development happening on screen. The cinematic chops of the director clearly shine through and the show feels more like a movie than simple TV.

The Young Pope makes itself hard to review because it’s hard to even pin down the genre of the show or the narrative structure. Is it a serious character drama, a workplace comedy set in the Vatican, or a surreal experience? Usually this indecisiveness is a flaw, but with The Young Pope it feels like a conscious decision to make itself an enigma, and the show goes out of its way to make itself inaccessible. The first ten minutes are free of dialogue, and the first time Pius speaks, it’s in a dream and he’s saying things he doesn’t believe. Often characters have extended conversations in Italian, and no subtitles are offered. Overall, like Pius himself, the show is both young, telegenic, confusing, and by all means interesting.

Featured Image By HBO