Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 24, 2017)
Though the title may imply a biographical tale of a real person, HBO’s The Young Pope instead follows a fictional pontiff. This three Blu-ray set offers all 10 episodes of the “limited series” about a relatively youthful American who becomes pope. The plot synopses come from the disc menus.
First Episode: “Newly elected Pope Pius XIII – aka Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) – defies Vatican expectations as he begins his reign.”
To some degree, I don’t worry about how much I like pilot episodes. They need to spend so much time with “shoe leather” that they tend to revolve around exposition and lack a lot of dramatic heft much of the time.
That proves largely true for “First”, as it focuses mainly on character set-ups/introductions. It does so in a competent manner that establishes the main roles and relationships. I can’t say the episode enchants me, but I’m happy to see where matters will proceed.
Second Episode: “Lenny sets down the ground rules for his first speech at St. Peter’s. Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) spurns an olive branch.”
As hoped, “Second” gives us a more dynamic episode that manages to better dig into the intrigue and personalities on display. Some parts of it don’t quite gel for me – mainly related to Lenny, as I’m not sure I buy him as a religious leader – but the show still manages to develop matters well.
Third Episode: “Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and Spencer consider their options as the Vatican deals with the fallout from Lenny’s speech.”
I don’t know when Young Pope went into production and whether or not American politics impacted it at all, but boy, I find it hard not to view Lenny as a Trump-like figure. A brash, egotistical outsider who ignores traditions and stirs up trouble along the way? While this simplifies matters, I still see strong similarities.
The main difference comes from the manner in which the series paints Lenny as a fairly slippery character, one not open to the black or white interpretations that usually accompany Trump. Three shows in and it’s tough to decide how to interpret Lenny, which seems like a good thing, as his nature keeps the series interesting.
Fourth Episode: “Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) is torn between a threat from Voiello and her devotion to the new pope.”
Through the first three episodes, Pope avoided any clear narrative thrust, and I was fine with that, as I still enjoyed its loopy, off-kilter energy. “Fourth” finally pushes the series towards an overall narrative – maybe. Whatever direction the series goes, it continues to build its characters and intrigue.
Fifth Episode: “Voiello orchestrates a scandalous scenario. The Pope addresses the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel.”
After the obvious story development of “Fourth”, “Fifth” offers something more introspective – and a bit weirder. This makes it a minor disappointment, as I liked the more concrete path “Fourth” implied. Still, it moves along the material well enough to mostly succeed.
Sixth Episode: “Lenny has a contentious first meeting with the Italian prime minister (Stefano Accorsi). Esther’s miracle comes true.”
Always more theatrical than reality-based, “Sixth” takes the series’ dramatic emphasis toward a greater extreme. Some of this feels contrived – like a wholly unnatural conversation between Lenny and the PM – but it manages to work anyway. The character elements crank into higher gear and allow this to turn into another effective show.
Seventh Episode: “Voiello ponders new and familiar scenarios to take down Lenny. Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) longs for Honduras.”
More political intrigue emerges here, as Lenny finds himself embattled and at risk of the loss of his papacy. I like the generally understated manner in which the series explores these topics, for while it favors grand drama at times, it doesn’t go down standard paths for its political themes. Those factors lead to an involving continuation of the narrative.
Eighth Episode: “Lenny and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) cope with a loss. Sofia (Cécile de France) suggests a first trip abroad by the young Pope.”
In a series that favors the untraditional, “Eighth” feels a lot more conventional than I’d like, mainly due to its predictable depiction of the corrupt nun Sister Antonia (Milvia Marigliano). She seems too trite, and Marigliano’s performance lacks nuance.
I also find it hard to swallow Lenny’s continued ability to hide his face from the press. I half-expect him to show up in a Sia-style wig, and this plot point stretches credulity. Add to that an oddly dodgy accent from Law – whose American tones never quite worked anyway – and “Eighth” becomes a less than successful show.
Ninth Episode: “Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) investigates an archbishop’s (Guy Boyd) misconduct despite blackmail threats against the Pope.”
With so little time left in the series, one might expect a heavy focus on Lenny and his life. Instead, the first third of the episode spends its time with Gutierrez in NYC and we don’t see the Pope until almost 20 minutes into the show.
Even, Gutierrez remains the focus, and that creates an unusual way for the series to push toward its finale. These choices work, though, as they create an involving and dramatic episode.
Tenth Episode: “The young pope changes his travel plans and policy. Sister Mary takes on a new role.”
“Tenth” completes the series on a somewhat ambiguous but still satisfying note. We see Lenny’s transformation and find a few loose ends tied up, with a few left intentionally vague. This isn’t a slambang finish, but it does what it needs to do and gives us a good conclusion.