Forgive me, father, for I was sinning without even realizing it. I haven’t thought about Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope in what seems like eons. According to The Ringer—a great website!—it was the no. 1 show of 2017. The Young Pope was indeed dope: a ruminative exploration of faith and power that also featured a CGI kangaroo hanging out in the Vatican, an LMFAO-scored pope-changing montage, the actual earnest quote “the child pope has become a man,” and a finale that may or may not have ended with Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) dying in the middle of a moving address to the masses. It was a lot to process—think of it as the holy television consumer’s Jon Snow cliff-hanger.
Thankfully, the white smoke has finally emerged from the windows of the HBO offices. Folks, we have a New Pope.
I just confessed four sins looking at this photo.— HBO (@HBO) January 9, 2019
Here's the first image of Jude Law and John Malkovich in the upcoming series, The New Pope. pic.twitter.com/hQD7fTiXWd
This is an early highlight for the most exciting cultural artifact of the new year. It’s glorious. Is this the first Zapruder production still? I can’t stop thinking about it, and there’s so much to unpack. Let’s start with what we know.
It’s been confirmed for a while that this memeable papal saga would continue: In May 2017, there were initial reports about The New Pope, a follow-up to The Young Pope that implied, well, that there’s going to be a new pope in town. This news didn’t bode well for Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII—again, he may or may not have died mid-address, which may or may not have been due to the fact that he regularly ate breakfasts entirely composed of Cherry Coke Zeros—but the reports suggested that Law’s character would still be involved with the new series in some capacity. Considering how eloquently the actor delivered lines like—again, this is real—“I was praying so hard I nearly shit my pants,” that’s a blessed, lawful good for this whole, holy endeavor.
It was then revealed in July 2018 that the new pope would be played by John Malkovich, and that Law was indeed coming back. This is an interesting wrinkle: For starters, Malkovich’s pope doesn’t necessarily have to be an American pope, like Law’s Pius XIII. Malkovich is a man of many accents. If Sorrentino picked him under the pretext of letting him toss around, for instance, a caricatured Russian accent, well, someone pass the kulich and vodka; this is gonna be good. And Malkovich loves to chew up scenery, so this is either going to be a perfect prestige pairing between auteur and thespian, or a colossal tonal trainwreck. Regardless, like its predecessor, The New Pope is primed to be can’t-miss television.
Then there’s the photo itself. “I just confessed four sins looking at this photo,” the official HBO caption reads in the first person, which, if you do the math, amounts to two confessions per photographed pope. (I counted nine sins for myself, clumsily clutching a bedazzled rosary and nearly unfurling the beads from unrepentant excitement.) But I think there’s more to this first New Pope photo than meets the eye. Let’s go down the divine rabbit hole.
It’s Vatican 101 that you can’t have two active popes, and yet, Law and Malkovich are matching from head to visible torso in customary papal swag. To paraphrase Twin Peaks: The Return—incidentally, The Ringer’s second-best show of 2017—we are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but WHO IS THE REAL POPE? Is Pope Pius the Mr. Robot to Pope Malkovich’s Elliot Alderson? Will there be a power struggle between two popes? Is it possible that Pope Pius XIII really did die, only later to have a Christlike resurrection after a new pope was unveiled? Is the papal power struggle going to tear the Vatican in half as cardinals choose their favorite pope? Will the fate of Christianity’s next pope be decided by … a singing competition? Is Cardinal Voiello upset that Maurizio Sarri is no longer Napoli’s manager?
We won’t know the answers to any of these pressing questions for certain until, perhaps, a first-look trailer. I asked the official HBO Twitter account how many Hail Marys would be required to gain access to this footage. The sinners have yet to respond. (As of this writing, there isn’t a New Pope release date, either.) But if the race to the New Pope is a marathon, surely we’re closer to the finish line than the start? A release sometime in 2019 seems like a safe bet; I will wholeheartedly repent if proved otherwise. I honestly can’t wait.
I neither condemn nor deride the HBO viewers stoked about their ice dragons, their Watchmen, their big little liars; everyone is entitled to their own television predilections. But The New Pope is imminent, and it has the potential to be the television and meme-making event of the year. The wait, blessed subjects, is almost over. Thank god for that.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.