How did a television show that featured a pope dressing in medieval garb while “I’m Sexy and I Know It” played in the background end with me sobbing at the beauty and hope of it all? This series combined giddy camp (the fictional Pope Pius XIII infamously looses a kangaroo in the Vatican gardens and often tests his spiritual powers by commanding it to jump) with heartbreaking humanity (the selfsame pope struggles throughout the series with his pain at being abandoned and orphaned by his parents at age nine). Perhaps most beautifully, The Young Pope insists that both the giddiness and the heartbreak are necessary to tell a story about humans and their relationship to God.
This is a show about hypocrisy without condemning that hypocrisy. Our titular pope is a tyrant, determined to return the Catholic Church to an isolationist stronghold that needs no one while simultaneously desperate for the approval of his spiritual father and mother. One of the arguably few “good” men in the show is a cardinal who participates in a graphic threesome (this is an HBO show), and the unarguably best “good” man is a self-confessed alcoholic homosexual. On the other hand, our worst men are never allowed to be fully villainized. The Secretary of State, though a political weasel, genuinely cares for the Church. Even the most odious of characters, a cardinal accused of pedophilia, is humanized in a way that does not condone his sins but demands our compassion all the same.
A running theme in the show is the fear that the pope does not, in fact, believe in God. This is a fear that he himself admits to, but it is not meant to lead to mockery or scorn. Instead, it asks viewers to consider questions of doubt and faith, saints and sinners, and whether God smiles upon us at all. Faith is messy, and that is something our pope learns when his commitment to law without mercy has devastating consequences. It is only when he accepts the mystery of faith that he is able to let go of his past and find peace at long last.
The Young Pope is a beautifully evocative and highly stylized ten-episode series, full of symbolism that is equal parts cheesy and stunning. The acting is incomparable, and the whole thing is a work of art, inspiring emotion long before thoughts can be ordered. It is a show of contradictions, offering its audience a unique opportunity to step into the mystery of life, of doubt, of faith.