The Young Pope is not House of Cards.
If you expected the HBO series to be a slick and stylish treatise on how the corrupt engineer world events, this is its conceptual opposite. Yes, it's gorgeous, and yes, there's plenty of corruption among the Vatican cardinals, but the conflict of The Young Pope is that no one understands quite how the 47-year-old Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) became Pope Pius XIII. Maybe it was divine intervention?
Look at the evidence: No one particularly wanted him. No one's machinations resulted in his election. Even Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the all-powerful church chamberlain and Vatican secretary of state whose numerous biographies portray him as the Holy See's Iago, is baffled. Was the pope in fact chosen by the Holy Spirit? the cardinals wonder.
The pope himself is wondering the same thing. Played by Law with patches of triumphalist glee and fits of unfriendliness, marketing brilliance, and angry weepy prayer — and some fire-and-brimstone ultra-conservative speechifying — Pope Pius XIII's original wound is that his "hippie" parents left him to be raised by nuns (Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton) when he was a kid. Whatever God-given abilities he seems to have — Sister Mary alludes to a miracle he performed as a child — he chafes against the idea that he was chosen because his parents (who he somehow knows are in Venice) were never found. If he is indeed God on Earth, Pius seems to think, he should be able to find them.
Watching the pope work through the question of his own divinity should make for incredible television. Instead, the show never quite commits.
That's a shame, because the show occasionally explores religious feeling and thinking with extreme sensitivity; I'm thinking particularly of a scene in which Pius teaches Ester, a guard's wife, that prayer is less about asking for something than it is about active reflection. Had there been more scenes of Pius praying in this way, we might have more access to the character, who otherwise remains much too changeable and opaque.
As for the pope's defining tragedy and the way it feeds into his doubt, I'm unconvinced: It seems fairly obvious, from a Catholic perspective, that Pius' miraculous gift might be a function of his massive sense of loss. How has "this is God's will" not occurred to a pope? And if it has occurred to him, which seems more likely, why can't we hear him praying his way through it — in just the way he taught Ester?
This matters because the show really does seem to be suggesting that Pius was chosen by God. That's a big deal. It's tricky to avoid deus ex machina storytelling in a show where the deus is that prominent; there's no bigger narrative trump card. The evidence that Pius was divinely chosen is — besides the childhood miracle — that his prayers are shown to be unusually effective: When he prays for a sterile woman to get pregnant, she does; when he prays for another to be punished, she is.
That does peculiar things to the rest of the plot, because Pope Pius XIII spends a lot of time being horrible, and there is no clarity on how we're supposed to understand his behavior. He brags about how handsome he is. He's a jerk to his cook. He blackmails people, banishes others to Alaska, and punishes Sister Mary — the woman who raised him — for not being deferential. He screams at the cardinals and the congregation to shape up or ship out. If there's a new God in town, he seems pretty Old Testament.
Except when he doesn't: Take the pedophilia scandal storyline. Pius announces he's addressing it by purging the church of all its homosexual priests. Voiello warns that this is an irresponsible conflation that will, among other things, decimate the clergy and destroy the Church. Pius' position is that homosexuality is wrong, so there should be a zero-tolerance policy. Then he lets Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara), who is gay, continue to serve. What gives? What is the show trying to say with this? That God sucks? That God changes his mind? That Pius is an imperfect vehicle? That intolerance is what's called for in these decadent days? That mercy is good but arbitrary? What?
If you put God on one character's side, your show acquires some politics (or at least some theology). But The Young Pope is so indecisive in its treatment that those politics become impossible to understand. Creator Paolo Sorrentino has said in interviews that he sought to find some middle course between Italian and American storytelling conventions, and this is perhaps the problem: "The Vatican was a taboo and had to be treated with so much respect that all the work on the Vatican in Italy was hagiography, while the Americans tended to push the dial more toward scandal," he said. His experiment does not work: The effect is muddy.
Nowhere is this indecision clearer than in the show's stunning first scene. In what turns out to be a dream sequence inside a dream sequence, Pius dreams he's a baby crawling over a pit full of babies and emerges out of them dressed as the pope. He wakes up startled. He washes, dresses, and processes slowly and dramatically to address the gathered crowds with an ultra-liberal homily about masturbation, abortions, and divorce. Church officials panic, running to stop him, and Cardinal Voiello makes an appearance and informs Pius that he's no longer the pope; Voiello is.
When Pius really wakes up, startled, he's muttering, "I just barely got started with God," and later remarks that he dreamt he "said the most outrageous things in St. Peter's Square." That's our only real indication of his response to the dream, and it's insufficient. Is this the homily he wishes he could deliver? Is this his nightmare of what the decadent Church has become?
The show can't make up its mind. Instead, it has him say things like "I am a contradiction like God. One in three and three in one. Like Mary the Virgin Mother. Like man, good and evil." He expects us to be awed. But because Pius is riddled with doubt, speeches like these are both too pat and too definite. His contradiction is too great, and the explanation is — to put it in his own fiery words — not enough.