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‘The Young Pope’ Finds Its Heart

Forget the kangaroo and the track-suited priests. The craziest thing on the HBO series was its late-breaking earnestness.

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

“The child pope has become a man.”

The line was yet another gnomic pronouncement from Pius XIII, the alternately opaque and disarmingly open namesake of The Young Pope. Given the show’s dizzying mix of irony and sincerity, it would be easy to let the quip slip by in the whirlwind of Monday night’s finale: On The Young Pope, a statement of purpose and a sarcastic aside could be one and the same. But Lenny’s declaration of maturity indicated that Paolo Sorrentino’s nonsensical marvel of a show was actually saying something — about absolution, or personal growth — without sacrificing the deadpan strangeness that made it so exceptional in the first place.

Early on, it was unclear how Sorrentino actually wanted us to feel about Lenny Belardo, the first American pope (and likely the first pontiff to compliment his own good looks in mixed company). Did the show actually side with his reactionary beliefs, like condemning abortion and banning homosexuals from the priesthood? Did the show need a purist to contrast with the more ideologically flexible higher-ups at the Vatican? Was Lenny actually a miracle-working saint, as mother figure Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) insisted? If he was, did that mean his dickish behavior was condoned by God himself? Sometimes it felt as if Sorrentino was too interested in gleeful blasphemy to provide answers, or more charitably, that ambiguity was the point. And ambiguous lunacy would have been enough to cement The Young Pope as a sardonic, rollicking good time. If all we got out of this was a CGI kangaroo and nuns playing basketball, dayenu.

In its final episodes, though, The Young Pope made a perceptible shift toward genuine emotion, plumbing the depths of grief and forgiveness. Two detours outside the Vatican finally explored the impact of Lenny’s conservative, closed-off church on the real world by showing the human cost of corruption and child abuse. The deaths of Lenny’s surrogate brother, Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), and father, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), sent shockwaves through the pope’s psyche. And the trauma inflicted by his parents’ abandonment of a 7-year-old Lenny at a Catholic orphanage slowly emerged as the defining struggle of the show. This is still a series that opened with a childlike protagonist obsessed with childhood climbing out of a literal pile of babies. It’s just that The Young Pope started to wed its titular hero’s psychology to actual narrative momentum. As Pius learned to accept his loss, he became more fit to lead, less vindictive and more empathetic. The evolution would feel capricious — a not-quite-earned happy ending about a child’s maturation — but this show never claimed to be logical. What bigger tweak of our expectations could there be than a tear-stained conclusion?

Sorrentino made this process of learning to accept rejection literal in the final scene. During his long-awaited first public address in Venice, Lenny spies his aged parents in the crowd. They turn their backs on him and walk away, and though it visibly pains him, he pushes through to end the speech on a note of pure optimism. His parents’ goofy hippie outfits, the same ones they’ve been wearing in flashbacks, suggest this was all in Lenny’s head. Or maybe it wasn’t; nothing on this show is unthinkable. Either way, the moment is more than a major (and surprising!) step forward for someone who’d previously channeled his hangups into draconian policies. It’s something that seemed impossible on The Young Pope: earnest and moving. The tell, as with so much else on this sonically impeccable series, is in the soundtrack. The music is classical, with the EDM and Beyoncé covers that undercut the series’ otherwise heavy moments nowhere to be heard.

Slowly, Sorrentino even gave us in the last two episodes the answers he had withheld for eight hours. Yes, Lenny is a bona fide miracle worker; no, Lenny’s sainthood isn’t an endorsement of his worldview. As Lenny matured, he also softened. The anti-gay pontiff asks the gay Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) to be his personal secretary, and admits his views are evolving — not an official change in policy, but a start. The change of heart helps mitigate the most destructive consequence of The Young Pope’s glib comedy: writing off the human cost of his Church’s new conservatism as a punch line. Pius’s unrepentant rudeness to his subordinates was always funny. The suffering it threatened to bring about was not, a fact the show acknowledged instead of letting it curdle into cruelty. Easy but uncomfortable parallels to certain, less dynamic world leaders mercifully fell away, and shrugging off the burden of geopolitical commentary allowed The Young Pope to claim Lenny’s story as his and his alone.

The tonal balancing act crystallized in the closing minutes of the finale, which set up a pat happy ending. Sister Mary goes to Africa to care for children. Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and Pius have come to an understanding and a cordial working relationship. Lenny has at long last revealed himself, literally and emotionally, to an adoring public. Then after his address, Lenny collapses, with a reverential, deliberately Christlike aerial shot of his prone body reminding us one last time that yes, this man is a canonical, soon-to-be-canonized saint. The shot is a preposterous blow-up of stakes, mocking its own unlikelihood. And then the camera slowly pans out, encompassing first Venice, then Italy, then the entire world — a God’s-eye view. It’s self-consciously grandiose and patently absurd and imbued with true feeling. The real miracle: None of those elements contradict the others. Sorrentino exaggerates his own pretensions while expressing them with more conviction than ever. He paints a target on his own back in the process, inviting us to poke fun at him for embodying what he’d once appeared to spoof.

The Young Pope managed this pivot while maintaining the sense of humor that seemed to preclude straight-faced passion. The finale had plenty of the show’s signature joyful visual gags and not-quite-one-liners: Pius does Pilates to Belle and Sebastian (on a reformer, so you know he’s serious); when he asks a child why he isn’t eating hamburgers with his peers, the boy replies, “My mommy wants me to stick to a Mediterranean diet.” The Young Pope had taught us not to take sentimentality at face value. But over the last few hours, Sorrentino steered his tone into the serious while still avoiding the self-serious, never undercutting the buoyant silliness that came before.

The first half of The Young Pope surprised us with the unpredictable. The second revealed an endgame and ambition, and a sort of thesis statement: Art cannot live on trolling alone. It needs a heart, too, even if that goes against the guiding insanity of this show. The Young Pope stirred as much as it entertained — quite an accomplishment for the show that gave us priests in tracksuits.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.