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HBO's papal drama returns, as full of visual splendor and theocratic musings as anyone could've wished for.

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The New Pope Review: HBO’s Year of Three Popes Is An Absurdist Pleasure

HBO’s papal drama returns, as full of visual splendor and theocratic musings as anyone could’ve wished for.

There isn’t really any show on television that’s remotely like The New Pope, HBO’s sequel series to 2016’s The Young Pope – a series set in The Vatican that takes the institution’s political and religious aspects absolutely seriously, while at the same time engaging in flights of visual and thematic absurdity. 

Assuming The New Pope is the end of Sorrentino Extended Papal Universe… its combination of audacity, visual inventiveness and serious examination of 21st century Catholic theology is something that’s very much going to be missed. 

The series, which wrapped up on Sunday, is one of the most visually inventive on television, and is also driven by the singular vision of the Italian creator Paolo Sorrentino- one with a great deal more slo-mo, nudity and dancing sexy ladies than you’d expect a show about the Vatican to feature. In just about every way, it blows last year’s well-acted but ultimately inert movie The Two Popes absolutely out of the water. 

 In an age where big-time filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Jordan Peele will lend their names to television series and then generally remain hands-off with the exception of maybe directing the pilot, Sorrentino directed every episode of both The Young Pope and The New Pope. And this comes after Sorrentino directed an outstanding, lengthy feature film about Silvio Berlusconi, Loro, just last year.

The previous series ended with Lenny Belardo/Pope Pius XIII- the young, handsome, American pontiff played by Jude Law, collapsing into a coma. And in a coma, he stays for six of the season’s nine episodes. 

In his stead was a new papal conclave, which in the season’s first and best episode, featured the cardinals are confessing to various things. Then came the election of Pope Francis II (Marcello Romolo), who was installed as puppet pope by the scheming Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando.) But then Francis II went mad with power, admitted refugees to the Vatican and talked about giving away the church’s wealth, leading to his swift assassination. This episode, with echoes of the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I and its later fictionalization in The Godfather Part III, was like a small little movie onto itself. 

This led to the next pope, the British Cardinal John Brannox (John Malkovich), an urbane intellectual haunted by a tragic backstory and a secret addiction, who leads the Vatican while taking occasional meetings with the likes of Sharon Stone and Marilyn Manson (playing themselves.) Following Malkovich’s scenery-chewing turn as a Russian oligarch on the recent seasons of Billions, his Pope John Paul III is a much more subdued, melancholy turn for the actor. 

Since Jude Law wasn’t likely to agree to return to the show to just be in a coma, the season’s closing episodes see the return of Lenny, the final confrontation between the two lead actors, and the surprising resolution of a plot involving a mysterious group of religious fanatics. The series ends on what feels like the right note – one with unmistakable New Testament echoes – even if it makes a third season highly unlikely. 

The Young Pope and The New Pope are both unafraid to touch the third rail of religion, although they do it in a way that’s respectful. Some on the Catholic cultural right attacked the first season, especially for Law’s early “we have forgotten… to masturbate” speech, but that turned out to be a dream sequence, conveying the opposite of the character’s actual theological views. 

While the first season established Law’s Pope Pius as a conservative, the conclusion has him embracing John Paul’s “Middle Way,” as part of an overall brief against fanaticism in all its forms. And it all ends with Pius crowd surfing – yes, to his death- like Michael Stipe in R.E.M.’s “Drive” video. 

Assuming this is the end of Sorrentino Extended Papal Universe- although I would absolutely watch a season with Voiello as the pontiff – its combination of audacity, visual inventiveness and serious examination of 21st century Catholic theology is something that’s very much going to be missed. 

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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