The Young Pope S01E01 Recap: 'First Episode'

It's hard to truly get a grip on what The Young Pope actually is, or at least what it wants to be, based on its first episode, aptly titled "First Episode". A quick glance at the show's writer, director and creator Paolo Sorrentino's filmography suggests that this is a serious look at papal politics (and, let's be honest, it's very unlikely you've seen much of anything Sorrentino has done, as acclaimed as he might be). And quite honestly there's a way to absorb this premiere as a very serious kind of thing, or at the very least, self-serious. Yet everything else about this show, not the least of which is the memes), suggests me to me that Sorrentino has made a show that is not only self-aware, but possibly even satirical or even, dare I say, comedic.

I went into tonight's premiere firmly versed in all of those Twitter memes and expecting something gritty and way too serious. What we get instead is a show that is somehow so self-aware that it preemptively anticipated the joke that it would become online and doubles down on exactly what people were making fun of it for. To the point where maybe you'll keep making jokes about it the next day, but not without admitting to yourself that what Sorrentino has given us is potentially special.

Right from the beginning, too; this is a show that starts with a dream sequence in which the titular Young Pope wakes up following a dream in which he's crawling out from under a pile of dead babies, and proceeds to go out onto his papal balcony and tell his adoring masses to masturbate and get abortions. Only that turns out to be a dream sequence too, one which features no less than two gratuitous ass shots of its A-list lead, Jude Law. This is how this motherfucking show starts, instantly setting the table for what we're about to witness, which is a show that quite honestly remains a mystery.

To say that this is just the beginning would be an understatement. Young Pope spends most of his first day casually insulting and undermining everyone who works for him at the Vatican. Mostly at the expense of the money guy with the huge mole on his face, but just in case you wanted to root him on, he also toys with the nice priest who hears confessions from everyone at the Vatican and tells him he doesn't believe in God, and even chews out an old nun because she was too nice to him to the point where she cries. But mole man gets it the most. Young Pope (who's real name, by the way, is Lenny, which is incredible) emasculates him at every turn, forces him to poor him a cup of coffee, gives his job to his confidante Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), even uses a button there for him to get out of meetings after mole priest was the one who told him about it in the first place.

There is even a moment which I've literally seen in meme form no less than twice this week, in which Pope Lenny gets scolded by mole priest for lighting up a cigarette in the Vatican, to which he actually replies "there's a new pope now." This is the stuff that dreams are made from.

It's in moments like these where I can most clearly see this show's game. The Young Pope draws you in with moments that could pass for humour, and then does its damnedest to make you feel uncomfortable for even daring to even snicker at it. The moment with the old lady chef actually made me feel bad. Pope Lenny toying with mole priest went maybe one layer too far. But this is calculated. Sorrentino doesn't want you to put Pope Lenny up on a pedestal, even though it's literally his job to stand on one. It wants you to know that this is a dude with a little bad in him. But it also casts just about everyone else on the show with a broad stroke of bad as well. The mole priest, for example, is essentially only there to undermine him. He brags about all the books that have been written about him and how he likes it better when they're negative. He schemes to get dirt on or pull the strings on Lenny. Pope Lenny just happens to be eight moves ahead of him in this game of 3D chess. He sees what the church is, what it once was, and what God wants him to make of it in the future.

But Pope Lenny is also flawed. He has weird, nearly scandalous dreams, he smokes, speaks his mind, he ad to being "intransigent, irritable, vindictive", he may even be an atheist if you believe his supposed joke near the end of the episode to not be a joke at all. Therein may lie the message Sorrentino is trying to pass on. He's not quite trying to take down the Catholic Church, not quite trying to to take a stance on American arrogance (because the fact that Pope Lenny also happens to be the first American pope is, I assure you, a very calculated maneuver), maybe more trying to take down man and his flaws in general. Like I said, almost everyone on this show is sort of a dick. They all scheme for power, to shape the church in one way or another. Pope Lenny just so happens to have an argument over them because, well, he's the motherfucking pope.

So after the first episode of The Young Pope, I think I have an idea of what this show wants to be. I'm not yet sure if it matters, or if I want anything more out of this show other than scenes where Pope Lenny is a dick to people. Either way, I think that I love it, and that's why the series premiere of The Young Pope gets 9.5 piles of dead babies out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • This show almost feels like The People Vs. OJ Simpson in that it take something that may seem overly series on a base level and treats it with a directing and writing style that feels almost comedic. Sorrentino even uses some very Ryan Murphy-esque zooms and closeups.
  • It also feels like what that other new show Taboo should have been like. That show is just another movie star (Tom Hardy) walking around being a dick to people, but it's just humourless. Young Pope, on the other hand, makes me irrationally happy at times.
  • Also James Cromwell is in this as Pope Lenny's jealous mentor, as if this show couldn't get any better.
  • This is how I will hereforth react to people offering me Pepsi at restaurants: "In the meantime, would Your Holiness care for a regular Diet Coke?" "Let's not utter heresies, Domen."
  • "Was it hard, closing the Basilica to tourists?" "No, all we had to do is hang up a sign that said 'closed'."