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A Requiem for The Young Pope, The Craziest HBO Show of All Time

The HBO limited seres The Young Pope is now over, and it’s never coming back. There’s no point in trying to predict Lenny Belardo’s next move, or debating the show’s final, unanswered questions: Did he actually die? Did he have a heart attack, or did he die from natural causes? Did he really see his parents in that final vision through the telescope? Do any old hippies actually look like that? Paolo Sorrentino, the estimable writer and director of Young Pope, even made sure to inscribe “END” across the final frames of the finale. It is superimposed over a computer-generated vision of Earth from space, as if to say that if anyone was still wondering what this show was about, the answer is … everything. But really, if you stuck with this compellingly outrageous show for the full 10-plus hours, then why would you still be wondering that?

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who actually made it through the full series didn’t end up thinking it was great. It wasn’t something that could be watched casually, or just out of morbid curiosity–to stomach it required an honest investment and some level of concession to its outlandish, pseudo-realistic vision. It felt both ambitious and haphazard, mixing sharp, silly, meme-ready moments with lugubrious atmosphere. Sometimes Sorrentino’s ideas felt more patently stupid than obliquely profound, like even that imagined depth of vision might be the accidental upshot of scattershot improvisation. But without its chanciest, most loosely-threaded elements–say, the pope trying on outlandish outfits for his cardinals’ address to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” or Lenny’s right-hand man Guiterrez’s (Javier Cámara) unexplained relationship with a mysterious, bedridden, morbidly obese woman in Queens–the show would certainly not have been so engaging and singular.

So the show was best for those ready to give themselves over entirely to its highly mannered dramatic and aesthetic space. Unlike Game of Thrones or Westworld, there’s little in the way of cliffhanger drama or intense anticipation to sustain one episode-to-episode. Most installments just kind of fade out gracefully: Sorrentino’s camera soars over an empty garden, an ambassador-from-Greenland character dancing to an Italian-language pop song, Voiello (the show’s best character) in obscure, private reflection, whatever. Sometimes, they cut to black out of nowhere, like they simply ran out of time. It’s hard to remember the last show a major “event” TV show was so actively challenging to watch–so absent of the normal plot catnip.

After all, all of the major questions of the show are either abandoned suddenly, or evaded up until the series’ final moments. Will Pope Lenny ever meet his parents? How destructive will his hyper-conservative policies become? Will he ever betray his vows with his devoted acolyte Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), while nostalgic for his youthful California beach tryst? Will his opposition to diplomacy bankrupt the church? As one focal point was abandoned in favor of another, it became hard to identify what the central tension of the show was–if there was one. Sorrentino required that viewers fall in love with getting lost in his weird parallel universe, and revel in their subjective impressions of it without searching for clear cues about what to think.

Still, there are clues to the potential overarching meaning, or a crazy-person logic, that underlies Sorrentino’s unwieldy show–far closer in style to art-film epics like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz than Six Feet Under. Belardo, as Pius XIII, believes that creating an aura of mystery and anticipation around himself is key to engaging and “illumining” his followers, and Sorrentino obviously feels this way as well. Creating cycles of conflict and resolution is not the director’s project, but rather maintaining a thick, intoxicating sense of mystic ambiguity. Both Pius and the viewer spend the series reaching toward a larger truth that is never accessed: Crucial to the crisis of Pius’ papacy in the Vatican is the rumor that he may not, in fact, believe in God.

By the end of the series, The Young Pope proved to be as manifold and contradictory as the passages of scripture the pope spends his days wrestling with. Lenny doesn’t know whether to interpret them tyrannically literally (see his almost-10-minute debate about pro-life biblical passages in Episode 9), or to just cite them as points of subjective inspiration on his larger journey toward self-actualization. His final speech in the finale–as hallucinatory as the one he dreams during the premiere, and consisting almost entirely of a list of unresolved questions and riddles–is the only time in the show the 50-year-old pope manages to connect with his public in a way that seems inspirational and mutually beneficial. He speaks honestly, voicing both hope and indecision, and then, appears to perish from the strain. For a moment, he finally becomes a symbol–a public, flawed face, open for interpretation–rather than an engineer of dire, uncompromising action behind closed doors. Perhaps–as his spiritual guru and erstwhile rival, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), recommends on his deathbed–Pius finally becomes the “door” and not the “hinge.”

Okay, cool, that all seems very nice, but, still … what does any of that have to do with that kangaroo? Do you recall, by now, the CGI kangaroo who shows up slain on the garden path one day following a couple of tense stare-downs with Pius? What was that little door with the glowing light behind it that Lenny pulled out for his address to the cardinals? Why and wherefore that subplot with the narco kingpin, and that orgy scene, and that part where Flume blasts over Lenny’s speech dragging that African dictator? If we’re being honest, is The Young Pope just incredibly dumb?

At times, sure–but gloriously so. Many of its kangaroo-esque moments are, in many ways, as breathtaking that the more explicitly cathartic parts of the shows. Even if Sorrentino’s show is all just treacly bullshit underneath the hood–a stoned, self-important, Religious-Studies-201 fever dream–it wouldn’t change the fact that little-to-nothing like it has ever aired on television. As Belardo murmurs in the series finale, “power” can is a “banal platitude.” The Young Pope set up conditions that encouraged meaningful, fraught reflection. It asked something of the viewer rather than prostrating itself, in unseemly or desperate ways, to get us to keep watching. The Young Pope was designed to attract “fanatics,” not “part-time believers,” just as its protagonist wanted for his Church–and luckily, that’s a business model on which a show can feasibly survive in the era of Peak TV.