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The Young Pope Season One – A Character Study of an Improbable Hero

The HBO series The Young Pope, a rollicking carnival of the absurd which I declared “almost Seinfeldian in its nihilism” after the pilot’s premiere a mere five weeks ago, ended its first season with our protagonist — the deeply unpleasant, intractable, yet undeniably charming Pope Pius XIII — proving that he does have a heart after all.

When we first encounter our young pontiff, he spends most of his first day in office alienating his staff with his capricious demeanor, regardless of their position or rank within the Holy See’s hierarchy. Though he claims to do so in the name of fostering formal relations instead of friendly ones in the workplace, Pius’ insistence upon formality is, of course, a paltry attempt at obfuscating his contempt for his fellow human beings, which stems from having been abandoned at an orphanage at a young age by his irresponsible parents. Perhaps this deep childhood wound explains his petulant, hard-line stance on Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as his iconoclastic refusal to let himself be photographed or seen in public during official duties — all of which serve to alienate the faithful from the Church he hopes to save from itself, and from the ills of modernity. Pius’ high-handed, holier-than-thou views on the pontificate, which are blatantly incompatible with the twenty-first-century Western liberal values, hint at his inherent weakness of character, especially when he fails to intimidate the equally young, handsome, intelligent and gloriously progressive Italian Prime Minister.

And if that weren’t enough to write him off as hopelessly mad and malignantly narcissistic, the faithless Pius also believes that he can command the God he doesn’t believe in to do his bidding — whether to compel the College of Cardinals to elect him Pope, to heal the sick and barren, or to kill the wicked for their sins against humanity.

But for all his puerile petulance and boundless arrogance, Pius also has a kinder, gentler side. He cares deeply about his adoptive mother, Sister Mary, and gladly ignores Vatican custom by appointing her as his personal secretary instead of a higher-ranking priest. He also befriends the young and lovely Esther, the wife of one of his loyal Swiss Guards, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his own flaxen-haired, hippie mother. When Esther reveals that both she and her husband are sterile (a rather improbable double affliction, but whatever), Pius shows the young woman compassion and instructs her how to pray to the Virgin Mary to grant her wish of becoming a mother. He even later sidesteps admonishing Esther for her clumsy, blackmail-induced attempt at seduction, telling her instead that he, like all clergy, is cowardly and therefore unable to love other human beings the way they need to be loved. Finally, when Pius spies Esther and her husband copulating in their living room, he implores the Almighty to give the young couple their longed-for progeny. Nine months later, we see Esther in a hospital room, giving birth to a son, whom she names Pius.

On another occasion, while visiting a Catholic Mission in Africa — Sister Antonia’s “Villages of Goodness” — the young Holy Father discovers that the good nun had made shady deals with local warlords in redistributing the precarious and valuable water supply. For her crime, Pius once again beckons the Lord, this time to smite the miscreant. Sister Antonia promptly drops dead in her own bedroom after drinking deeply and greedily from a bottle of water. In another, thinly developed subplot, after Pius sends the hapless Cardinal Gutierrez to New York City to investigate allegations of serial sexual abuse against the powerful Cardinal Kurtwell, he shows mercy to the offender by dispatching him to Alaska instead of turning him over to the secular authorities.  And so on.

In the span of ten episodes, this well-timed, darkly humorous cautionary tale against bestowing too much power upon any single human being turned out to be a character study of an improbable hero who opens his heart to the world — by having not one but two cardiac arrests while giving a homily to the faithful in Venice, after spying his estranged parents in the crowd. Perhaps The Young Pope was meant as an artful metaphor for the propensity of human beings to change for the better once we open our hearts to God and to one another, or perhaps it serves as an exposé on frailty following a lifelong struggle with loneliness and alienation. Or perhaps not.

HBO has confirmed that The Young Pope will return for a second season, most likely in early 2018. Maybe then we will find out what became of Pope Pius XIII and whether he is, indeed, magic.

  • Marisol Charbonneau
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