[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the first season of “The Young Pope.”]
Lenny showed his face to his people, and it may have killed him.
When “The Young Pope” premiered, we may have expected Lenny to die — an assassination seemed imminent, given his controversial positions — but it never seemed likely he would bend to peer pressure and give the people what they want: him. Lenny. The pope, in the flesh, unmasked and preaching…happiness?
Paolo Sorrentino’s first five episodes were filled with contradictions: Lenny was a young pope with old attitudes, and his elderly peers had far more progressive minds. Though he knew he was a handsome man (and called attention to it frequently), Lenny refused to let anyone take his photograph. From the astounding contradiction that Lenny was a pope who might not believe in God, to the simple sound of his first name — calling the Pope “Lenny” has a formal discrepancy to it, like saying “Hey Barry” to the president — “The Young Pope” built itself around contradictions in order to explore their origins and consequences.
Yet most perplexing to audiences was how to interpret Lenny’s actions, and thus the show itself. Were we supposed to laugh or look beyond the absurdities? Were we supposed to be angry or admire the ideas? Were we supposed to respect its teachings or reject its principles? What we were supposed to make of “The Young Pope” boiled down to what we made of Lenny, and as the season progressed, his personal history was fleshed out.
After the intentionally jarring opening episodes (that to me, clearly defined the show’s tremendous sense of humor), one issue moved steadily to the forefront: parents, or in Lenny’s case, a lack of parents. Their absence changed Lenny’s life, and understanding why they chose to leave him has proven not only difficult for him to comprehend, but it’s jaded his perspective of the world. Specifically, it altered his view of God.
The comparison of parents to a higher power (and vice versa) isn’t an entirely new concept, but rarely has it been so thoroughly examined. Lenny, an orphan, illustrated his desire for parents and parental figures throughout Season 1. How he was orphaned came up time and time again — in dreams, in prayers, in flashbacks, and in the present — exemplifying how drastically a lack of parental presence affected him, as well as how important Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) and Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) were as a substitute mother and father.
Of course, like all jilted young boys (and many lifelong Catholics), Lenny didn’t want to talk about his feelings. He didn’t want to expose his weaknesses. He didn’t want anyone to know how crucial these figures were to him, so he bottled up his emotions out of pride…just as he protected his feelings toward God out of obligation. No one could know the pope didn’t believe in God, just as no one could know Lenny missed his parents.
So what did the young boy do? He threw a fit. During his petulant tirade in the second episode, Lenny transferred the anger he felt toward his parents (and God) to the church’s constituents. He was frustrated by never knowing his mother and father; never understanding why they abandoned him. Similar feelings built up during his relationship with God. There were moments he was certain (or at least aware) of His existence — like when he healed his friend’s mother through prayer — but far more often Lenny felt deserted to his own decisions. Not even after becoming the pope could Lenny see, speak to, or connect with God. And even after becoming the pope, Lenny couldn’t see his parents.
Until he could: Lenny’s emotional and spiritual growth were well-marked in the series, as dreams of his parents became visions and visions became reality (when imposters showed up claiming to be his birth parents). He transferred a lot of his emotions to Sister Mary and Cardinal Michael, as well, and the first time Lenny showed true compassion was when Michael died. He admitted to moving on quickly from the death of his adopted brother, Andrew, but wept openly at Michael’s bedside. Seeing his substitute mother leave sparked the first pain in Lenny’s chest, making it fitting that when he witnessed his actual parents turn their backs on him during the speech (imagined or symbolic), he’d suffer even greater heartbreak.
Such internal struggles are as widely identifiable as they are complicated, and “The Young Pope” adequately illustrated Lenny’s shifting positions without betraying his core self. While in recent episodes such movements may have been overly confounding (Did the pope really poison the water-hoarding nun in Africa?), the finale found an excellent balance. Opening on affirmation and closing with encouragement, the middle was marked with the methodical, unsentimental approach we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the young pope:
Lenny joked about skipping out on playing Vatican tour guide for third graders before lashing out at them (in what clearly was not a joke). He even stuck his tongue out in a childish act of defiance. Later, Lenny again sent someone to Alaska as punishment, this time using Kurtwell’s “disease” paired with his white, glowing globe to guide his banishment. He even refused to turn around in a restaurant, deeming showing his face in such a way as “an exhibition.”
But perhaps the most joyous marker of change without abandoning Lenny’s core characteristics came right away: While sitting with an unidentified member of the clergy, Lenny noticed him gaze guiltily at the very statue Cardinal Voiello confessed to having illicit thoughts about. His patience exhausted, Lenny hit the secret button under his desk used to call in an assistant who would make up an excuse for his holiness to get out of the meeting. In earlier episodes, the nun only further frustrated Lenny by giving a hilariously lame excuse. But this time, she had a good one — a truthful one, it turns out — and Lenny’s fearful face upon seeing her quickly contorted into an approving smile and nod.
What such emotional range was intended to impart was change, and Sorrentino made a strong case for Lenny’s significant developments in the final episode. The idea of Lenny exposing his face to a crowd may have seemed inevitable since the beginning, but doing so with a heartfelt message met with such an enthusiastic response was far removed from the realm of possibility just a few episodes prior.
While Lenny’s published love letters played their part, I’d credit Cardinal Aguirre for Lenny’s decision to change. The below exchange with the smiling advisor contained advice Lenny passed on to his people:
Lenny: “How are you?”
Aguirre: “Who, me? I’m always in a good mood.”
Lenny: “I’ve always associated good mood and stupidity.”
Aguirre: “And not without reason, Your Holiness. However, you can’t imagine the amount of energy that comes from good mood and stupidity.”
The conversation continued, as Aguirre informed the pope of the results from a study of churchgoers who overwhelmingly said they wanted to hear a face-to-face sermon with the pope. Though both Aguirre and the pope agreed such a meeting wouldn’t change things, Aguirre argued there was good reason to do it anyway: “If you appear in public, it would help these people to be in a good mood.” He even went so far as to say it was the pope’s duty to put people in a good mood, which Lenny disagreed with at first.
He came around, as did the show itself. What started as a battle between the contradictory elements of the church (and religion in general) developed into a discussion about those contradictions while acknowledging the one-sided nature of the debate. To start the season, Lenny argued we stick to God’s words as law, in part because he didn’t believe God was up there making changes over time. We came to realize that belief stemmed from issues with his parents. (Early on, he told Father Gutierrez, “It all comes back to the mother.” How true.) Once he started to resolve those issues, he came to better understand God’s silence. The finale showed us what we never expected: Lenny’s face on TV, imparting a message of hope to a receptive audience.
The result was an unexpectedly positive and profoundly constructive interpretation of faith from a series often eager to expose its fundamental flaws. “The Young Pope” never ignored those elements — even including a rather lenient punishment for Archbishop Kurwell after exposing his monstrous sins in the prior episode — and thus mimicked the formula that alienated and attracted viewers: Funny and serious, realistic and mystical, merciless and compassionate, Sorrentino’s journey encompassed more than it should be able to, and only occasionally could we catch it reaching too far.
Whatever fate awaits Lenny — death or life, cancellation or continuance — his arc was expansive, and one well worth the contemplation. Contradictions often lead to conflict. This conflict built to understanding, and, better yet, to belief.
Lenny needn’t have begged: We were already smiling.