'The Young Pope' reaches its conclusion, the Pope is still young

Show improves slightly over second half of first season


The slightly stronger second act makes “The Young Pope” seem less like a pretentious grasp at ornamental irony and more like an admirable effort to execute an ambitious concept.

Courtesy HBO

The first half of the premiere season of HBO’s “The Young Pope” was a bit of a hot mess. It was hot because Jude Law was heavily involved, but it was a mess for almost every other reason.

Through the first six episodes, Law’s Pope Lenny Belardo never coalesced into a cogent character in any meaningful way. These episodes were entirely concerned with creating splashes of memorable imagery. Though they crafted a beautiful, clever aesthetic, they also completely eschewed the need for any sort of narrative momentum or meaningful character development.

The second half of the season improves upon the first half in a number of ways. Gutierrez’s (Javier Cámara) journey to New York in episode nine provides much that the show could have used far sooner. For one, it takes Lenny off the screen for a while and offers much more room for Gutierrez — the show’s first truly likable character.

Gutierrez squares off against the loathsome Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) — an aged archbishop and child molester. It is good versus evil, and after watching Lenny waver in the great gray abyss of the anti-hero for eight hours, it is a breath of fresh air.

This is not to say everything on television must be a black-and-white conflict of right and wrong — that’s emphatically not true. “The Young Pope,” however, never manages to strike the right balance. The reason the anti-hero trope is so captivating is because he demands sympathy despite his shortcomings. Tony Soprano is the most lovable murderer of all time. “Breaking Bad” is brilliant because of how it toys with this narrative, giving us an anti-hero who is initially likable but descends slowly into villainy.

Lenny Belardo is never quite sympathetic enough, though. The show attempts to account for this in the latter half of the season — in episode nine, Lenny tearfully tells his staff he loves them — but it’s too little too late, and his declarations of affection are never really believable.

In addition to Lenny’s shortcomings, “The Young Pope” never gets over its compulsive chase of the image as opposed to the narrative. The later episodes are just as awash in heavy-handed, self-serving imagery as the earlier installments. The series ends by zooming out from Lenny to eventually reveal a shot of the entire world, implying in no subtle terms that God himself has his eye on Lenny. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of “The Young Pope,” because it’s God’s favorite show. How clever.

The slightly stronger second act makes “The Young Pope” seem less like a pretentious grasp at ornamental irony and more like an admirable effort to execute an ambitious concept — undoubtedly a step up, although perhaps a meager one. Even as the show winds down, its narrative leaps are still too brash, and its characters are still insufficient.

Artistic experimentation can be wonderful, but great television provides reality tempered with absurdity — not the other way around. “The Young Pope” never “jumped the shark” — it was on the far side of the shark from the very first scene. 

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