‘The Young Pope’ Makes the Most Sense When You Think About it as ‘The American Pope’

The Young Pope often destabilizes its own tone, making it hard to distinguish when it’s attempting satire, melodrama, whatever the hell Twin Peaks is, or political drama. Sometimes its leads, Jude Law and Diane Keaton, seem like they’re playing their characters’ emotions in earnest — other times the performances are gloriously ironic. And with The Young Pope‘s ever-morphing soundtrack, its vacillating credit sequences, and even its shifts in acting style, the act of nailing down the show’s tone becomes just as hard as identifying what exactly it’s doing ideologically.

At worst, The Young Pope could be seen (and has been seen) as sloppy satire gilding itself in exquisite, weird cinematic flourishes to hide its own lack of focus or nuance. (Like Twin Peaks, it often aims for winking subtext-lacking melodrama; other times, it feels like it’s trying to elicit something more sincere, an effort that’s less successful). But at best, that flexibility and opacity hint at something resembling a point, taking us on a divine aesthetic roller coaster on the way there.

There’s one lens, you see, through which — whether right, wrong, myopic or reaching — the show starts to make more sense, and feel like all the symbols are aligning. (No, it’s not Pope, as every other TV character, as Donald Trump — but it’s not far.) This is the lens of seeing Law’s Pius XIII, formerly Lenny Belardo, through his Americanness, especially as an embodiment of America’s relationship to religion. We can substitute “young” for “American,” as the two here seem almost synonymous. America is, after all, the world’s spoiled male tween who was never told “no.” And look at the man it’s growing up to be.

It’s true that erratic ideology seems to be the hallmark of Belardo’s worldview. Sometimes he revels in being secretly atheistic, other times he seems legitimately devout; sometimes he appears as a cartoon villain, other times he echoes the annoying, charismatic antiheroism we’ve come to know from TV dramas’ men; sometimes he humbles himself before God, other times he declares that he’s “handsomer than Jesus.” But, like the title — and many a meme that perhaps assumed the show would be self-serious (which is certainly isn’t) — suggest, perhaps his unpredictable and contradictory nature are just meant to bundle the quintessence of the worst aspects of male id into a character.

When the series opens, we see Law emerging, in a dream sequence, from a pyramid made of babies and wandering out into the Vatican’s courtyard. America was Europe’s violent and indeed, violently devout baby; from that position it would become the world’s leading superpower, its stores and armies dotting streets around the globe, to the point where, now, when, say, American economic morale is low, Europe likewise experiences a Great Recession. Pope Pius XIII, the first (fictional) American Pope, is an unequivocal imperialist, one who uses his inflammatory unknowability — and comparative youthfulness compared to the gilded raisin box of the Vatican — to slowly undermine any systems that would prohibit his omnipotence.

The most coherent element of his governance is less legitimate piousness and more a thrust towards omnipotence. (Seriously, thrust: “Sexy and I Know It” plays as he dons the papal tiara in “Episode Five.”) The disparity between his personal beliefs — which waver, and scarcely even seem to matter — and the staunch and punitive conservatism he proselytizes, parallel America’s own harnessing of religious extremism as a means of more basely quenching a thirst for global domination.

Islam, for example, was portrayed by the Bush administration as such a monolith — and one that so deeply threatened our safety and our good old Christian values — that the President could suddenly switch the entire aim of his wars from the counterterrorism in Afghanistan to the WMD-scare interventionism in Iraq, assuming people wouldn’t be able to distinguish. Bush marked the beginning for the outwardly extreme anti-separation of Church and state that we see now within the Republican party, whose driving goal, when it’s not corporatocracy, is theocracy. When they Party’s at its most sinister, it’s both!

The show imagines if an institution as old and stale as the Catholic Church were injected with the furious botox of Americanism. How would the American flair for geopolitical and corporate omnipotence — something in part brought about by a country transfixed by its own youthful bravura — function if it suddenly had access to the most coveted position within organized religion? Pope Pius XIII brags about being an ascetic Pope — one who doesn’t care for papal niceties or frills, and wishes to in fact never even be seen by the public — but he very well knows that his absence is itself an act of bold, ostentatious branding. His evasion of spectacle is harnessing of the language America speaks best — the power of suggestive marketing. His meal of choice says it all: it’s minimal, calorically barely even there, but profoundly and powerfully American. It is, of course, Cherry Coke Zero.

The beginning of the series sees Pius dreaming of addressing the crowd beneath St. Peter’s Basilica with an unequivocally liberal speech, encouraging people to masturbate, encouraging them to love themselves; this dream ends as a nightmare in which he realizes he’s not really Pope, that he doesn’t have power, and then awakens. One wonders, then, if that vision is part of why his ultimate public stance is exactly the opposite: staunchly anti-pleasure, anti-self-love. He came into the papacy with people thinking he was a moderate; he seems to have swayed so far from radical liberalism and into radical conservatism solely because the former was not, as he saw it, the road to power.

In American politics, the default is to reference Christian mores — even the less religious presidents are of course still obligated to say God Bless America. (If Bernie Sanders had gotten further, similarly, he probably would have been better off emphasizing his Jewish background rather than his secularism.) Currently, we’re about to get a President who seems to have no core religious values, yet activated his followers to protest Starbucks cups that weren’t Christmas-y enough, and who’s beloved by the religious Right for inducing a culture of Christian (and white) supremacist fear. Despite a chaotic array of varying ideologies, the default in American politicking is to use religiosity as both a vessel for power and as a moral validation. Regardless if it’s a moderate like Hillary Clinton, an extremist like Mike Pence, or a militant opportunist like Donald Trump, God must be referenced for power to even be an option: indeed, an outwardly atheistic President is nearly unfathomable.

And so, as in The Young Pope, the only cohesive notion of a Christian God within government is that the stated belief in his existence is a necessity to rule. The Young Pope seems, at least right now, to be most about how easy it would be for the ideological void of contemporary America to inhabit the ancient ideology of Catholicism and use it on a crusade for power. And that beyond that, the idea of God can be manipulated any which way to advance the personal agendas of the petulant child.

The central notion of Trump’s “make America great again” adage — beyond the xenophobia it connotes — is a means of reaffirming that America can once again be the sole superpower on the planet; people’s fears that America was losing its edge to the likes of China fueled their support for the candidate. As the show unfolds — and as we see Lenny start to ambiguously exert something akin to otherworldly power — his unpredictability begins to make more sense when we understand that, like the country he represents, he’s not sure if he believes in God or believes he is God.