HBO’s The Young Pope, an English-language Italian television series currently running its first season, advertises itself as a sleek, minimalist, and controversial take on putting a forty-something, American orphan-turned-priest into the most powerful religious seat in the world. While the premiere episode does deliver on style and substance, the controversial and sacrilegious aspects have either yet to manifest themselves, or are so blatant and obvious to the point that they become annoying. However, underneath the heavy-handed jabs at the Catholic faith and the political corruption of the Vatican, an honestly intriguing plotline begins to blossom by the time the credits roll.
The major problems lying within The Young Pope fall on how “against the grain” the show wants to make its title character. Jude Law plays Pope Pius the XIII, but wait for it — he’s young, get it? The writers work tirelessly to beat the audience over the head with this unorthodox situation. This is one of the major sticking points throughout the first episode, and at the halfway mark it starts to get irritating. Furthermore, when the audience is introduced to Law’s pope, he comes across as aloof, sarcastic, demeaning, and judgmental. This is showcased in the first twenty minutes of the show, as Pius treats almost everyone around him like utter trash, smokes throughout the Vatican, and passes up on a luxurious breakfast for his preferred drink of choice, Cherry Coke Zero. Whether this attitude is due to a rough childhood, which is hinted at, or simply because Law’s character is an asshole remains to be seen. However, this attempt at trying to make Pius appear as an above-it, cold and calculated character only makes him out to be a moody prick.
Another major point of controversy is how the higher members of the Catholic church, specifically the College of Cardinals, are corrupt, immoral, and self-serving. While these scenes aren’t as blatant and over-the-top as those with Pius, they do serve to showcase the rather volatile nature of Vatican politics. In one early scene, three cardinals discuss whether voting Pius into office was the right choice, but then decide that to protect their own seats within the church, and their agendas, that he was their only option. This exemplifies the mood of every cardinal the audience meets in this first episode, as they all feel that Pius is more a means to an end rather than an exemplary choice for Pope. This creates tension between Pius and his College, as it’s made clear that the new pope wants to create great change within the church.
Despite the almost cringeworthy way this first episode approaches its sacrilegious content, it does thoroughly establish the fact that Pius has grand plans for the church. It’s clear to see that this new pope wants to shake up the core foundations of the modern Vatican, either by undermining its authority figures or redesigning its very nature from the ground up. This does, of course, start small. Actions like making his adoptive mother of sorts, Sister Mary, his personal secretary go against the common will of the Cardinals. Furthermore, by the end of the first episode, Pius has begun to influence several members of the Vatican’s inner seat, thereby creating the bonds needed to further his plans. What those plans are exactly, we don’t know, but this is by far the most intriguing aspect of the show at this point.
While HBO’s The Young Pope relies too heavily on its sacrilegious nature in its premiere episode, the beginning developments of a master plan, specifically on Pius’ side of things, add a layer of depth that is just strong enough to keep the audience hooked. With any luck, the later episodes will trade Law’s sarcastic and aloof nature for more religious subterfuge and power plays.
To read our review of The Young Pope’s premiere episode, click here.