I’ll say this much: Any show that starts with Jude Law getting a sponge bath so steamy that his caretaker needs to go lie down afterwards certainly knows exactly how to hook me. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t already hooked, of course. HBO’s The New Pope is a sequel to the 2016 miniseries The Young Pope, a show that I… well, loved isn’t quite the right word what I felt while watching it. It’s more like I was intoxicated by it — like it was the best thing that happened to me all week, and the one thing I’d have the hardest time explaining to anyone else afterward. What creator Paolo Sorrentino crafted was more than just a show, or an experience — it was a whole-ass mood. But it’s been a few years, and this is technically a sequel rather than another season, and the reason Jude Law is getting a sponge bath is because his character, Lenny (excuse me, Pope Pius XIII to you), is out of commission after the events of The Young Pope, so my main concern going into last night’s premiere was: Would The New Pope scratch that same itch?
The good news is that yes, it does — but not in the ways I was expecting. Though when I think about it, defying audience expectations was always the cornerstone of The Young Pope, so I suppose that giving me what I didn’t know I wanted is the perfect continuation of that legacy. In terms of story, The New Pope finds Lenny in a coma after his collapse at the end of the last season. He’s undergoing a series of heart transplants that keep failing, but he’s clinging on nonetheless — and amassing a crowd of worshippers outside the Vatican who hold constant vigil on his behalf. That they wear matching hoodies with his image on them is succinct proof that Lenny has, since his collapse, earned exactly the level of fanaticism he always strived for.
Of course, this is a show about a new pope, not the old (young) one, so aside from catching up on Lenny’s condition, he’s pretty much out of the picture for the rest of the premiere. Instead, the bulk of the episode’s runtime is consumed by a bunch of old dudes sitting in a room casting ballots, and it’s here that Sorrentino reminds us exactly how talented a filmmaker he is. These miniseries gained attention for an abundance of surrealist and absurdist flourishes, but what makes the shows tick is the way even the most banal scenes are treated lavishly. The show is all about contrast: The sumptuous beauty of the elaborate pomp and ritual, and the imperfect humans who perform it. So it’s no wonder that the cardinals filing in to take their seats is shot overhead, almost like a Busby Berkeley number, or that the reading of the votes would happen in a sustained, sweeping 360-degree pan shot every bit as captivating as anything in 1917 (albeit less combustive). The style often seems to overwhelm the substance, as if this show is nothing more than a pretty thing or a hollow flex, but in fact, every flourish is carefully calculated to create those contrasts. The over-the-top splendor doesn’t mask but reveals the hypocrisy and artifice at the subject’s core — and if you weren’t getting that message, there’s a fascinating sequence where the cardinals pray for what they want in their new leader. Voiceovers explore the selfish desires of the holy men: one who wants a Pope that will allow priests to marry (so his secret wife can be acknowledged), one who wants the Pope to forgive the pedophiles (so his own guilt can be assuaged), one who wants the Pope to condemn the pedophiles (so he can earn the damnation he knows he deserves). Some want a conservative, hardline pope, while others want a liberal one — and one man even wants a pope who will remind him of his father. None of them seem to find inspiration in their scriptures.
In the background lies the machinations of Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s Secretary of State and arguably the show’s true lead. He is the man behind the throne, with the vision to guide the Church and the unholy connections to make the holy happen along the way. When he decides it’s time to install a new pope, he also realizes it may finally be his time to enter the spotlight himself. Too bad he’s unable to gain enough votes because his archnemesis, Cardinal Hernandez, is just a teensy bit more popular. Hernandez, by the way, is also played by Orlando, only minus the giant mole and with a thicker pair of glasses. Absurd? Check!
Voiello essentially keeps losing to himself, and so he does what any self-respecting consigliere would do: he backs a new candidate, one who is inoffensive enough to unite the split votes and malleable enough to be controlled once he’s installed. And here’s an unexpected twist: It’s not John Malkovich, as you may have expected from the trailers. Or at least, it isn’t yet. Instead it’s actually a familiar face — Viglietti, or as you may better remember him from The Young Pope, Don Tommaso. Tommaso was the Vatican’s confessor, the man who listened to the sins of the Cardinals and even Lenny himself. His position made him a useful tool last season, and Voiello mistakenly assumes the man will continue to be nothing more than a tool in better robes once he assumes his position as Pope Francis II. However, Tommaso chose to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi intentionally, and once he realizes his new power he uses it to force the Church into donating its wealth to charity, inviting immigrants to seek sanctuary within the Vatican, eradicating priestly masturbation (yes, really), and bringing in an order of Franciscan monks to act as his personal enforcers.
As you can imagine, the public and the press love this new pope. The Church, on the other hand? Not so much. Voiello struggles to mediate the political fallout from Pope Francis’s tactics until he learns that Francis’s next act will be to not only strip Voiello of his position as Secretary of State but also defrock him. Now that the threat is personal, he springs into action — and into an uneasy partnership with his frenemy Hernandez. The pair agree that neither of them can be pope over the other, so they’ll work together to sway things in favor of the third runner up: Malkovich’s as-yet-unseen aristocrat Sir John Brannox. Unfortunately, they’ll need to find a way to eliminate Pope Francis first — a matter Voiello assures Hernandez can be accomplished through “prayer and goodwill”, which appears to be code for “I’m gonna hire my creepy fixer dude to spike Tommaso’s heart meds and kill him.”
By the end of the first episode, The New Pope has already cycled through one new pope and set its eyes toward the next… just as Lenny flexes his little finger, possibly coming out of his coma. It’s a lot of plot, but also somehow not anything at all, which seems to be Sorrentino’s sweet spot. The rise and fall of Pope Francis was probably unnecessary, except to illustrate the harsh divide between the Church as an idea, and the Church as an institution — what it could (should?) do for its followers, and what it chooses to do for itself. I suspect this chapter is a hint at the shifting focus this season will take over its predecessor. The Young Pope was, at least partially, a workplace drama, but it was primarily interested in the conundrum of Lenny Belardo — a hot young American stud chosen to be the fresh blood the Catholic Church needed to revive itself, only to be a dangerously conservative influence once installed. Yet he was also, arguably, an actual miracle-performing saint, as well as a deeply flawed, dysfunctional, hypocritical and lost individual. He was fascinating character — and Jude Law was pitch-perfect for the role — precisely because of that tension between the saintly exterior and the unholiness roiling within. It was never clear why God would choose Lenny to do His work, but it was abundantly clear why the Church did — and why it often regretted that decision.
Without Lenny at its center, The New Pope can dig deeper into the workplace politics of the Church, and mine the conundrums not of the boss but of the entire organization. Voiello’s pitch to make himself the next pope was built on what he called a “War Against Eccentricity” — find an ordinary man to take the reins, rather than an extraordinary one like Lenny. Of course, what made Lenny extraordinary was that he was touched by God, so is Voiello actually pushing the Church further from its own beliefs? I wonder. At any rate, from the cardinals to the partying nuns (did I mention the nuns partied? Oh yes, there are sexy nuns), the Vatican is filled with ordinary people jockeying for influence and power, and I’m looking forward to seeing where their stories take them, how they repair the messes that Lenny and Tommaso have left them — and what they’ll do if and when Lenny is back on his feet again.
Header Image Source: HBO