“Am I attracted to the pope?” isn't something that entered most viewers’ minds until Jude Law first assumed the papal vestments in The Young Pope. Two years have passed since Lenny Belardo took the title of Pope Pius XIII and turned his back on the cheering Vatican crowd. Equal parts playful and self-serious, all ten episodes of The Young Pope were written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, and charted Lenny’s journey from a petulant and unforgiving leader of the Roman Catholic Church to one who preached compassion and peace. His journey entered extreme antihero territory before he embraced the public-facing role and message of love: the “boy” pontiff had become a man. And then he collapsed from a suspected heart attack. A title card read “The End,” our time with Lenny was over.
Except this story has not come to a close, The New Pope will pick up where Sorrentino left off when it returns to HBO on January 13. With Lenny in a coma, John Malkovich as the equally seductive Sir John Brannox will step into the red leather papal slippers. A teaser mirroring the opening credits switched out the hallway of religious artwork for the beach, Jude Law wears nothing but a blinding white speedo delivering his signature swoon-inducing wink while intercutting images of Malkovich’s “New Pope.” The message is simple: sublime decadence and tongue-in-cheek undertones are still on the religious drama menu.
Much like the Bible, The Young Pope leans heavily into symbolic references and images: at times it is unclear whether what we were seeing was real (including a kangaroo) or an illusion. Contradiction threads its way throughout the series, from Lenny’s motivations to Sorrentino’s mix of high camp and sublime filmmaking choices. The religious references cut deep, but so do the pop songs that accompany the action. Politics is at the heart of the series, in which secrets are a brand of currency. Sitting at the top of the chain is Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who, before Lenny came along, had a tight grip on all business at the Vatican. Over the first season, his Machiavellian mask slipped as his bond with Pope Pius XIII grew. In Episode 6 he asked, “Who are you, Lenny?” The answer isn't simple, for as Voiello previously put it: “This pope is strange and contradictory.” Here are the five aspects that shape the character and tell you everything you need to know before The New Pope:
Lenny’s entire identity was constructed around his orphan status, it's the lens through which he viewed the world and his papacy. He was denied what he refers to as a first love because his parents abandoned him at Sister Mary’s (Diane Keaton) orphanage when he was a young boy, and every relationship has been shaped by this act. He remembered his parents as two hippies he last saw in Venice, every woman he was drawn to reminds him of his mother. The first (and only) girlfriend of his youth was an infertile teacher named Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) who he met in California, backing up Freud’s theories about parental influence and desire. However, despite Lenny’s very good looks and incredible physique (shown in detail during physical activities, including wrestling and working out), he does not break his vow of celibacy. He cannot be tempted, no matter how hard the sly Cardinal Voiello tried early in the series. His decision to shroud himself in mystery by addressing the Vatican crowds in shadow and refusing to show his face was informed by this childhood abandonment. His parents tossed him aside, so he did the same in his role as Holy Father.
Just because Lenny is young and hot doesn’t mean he is going to undo centuries of doctrines and rules. In fact, he did the opposite and turned back the clock. He restricted who could apply to become a priest, saying anyone who had homosexual thoughts will be denied (which leads to the suicide of at least one young man), as well as threatening to purge any and all gay priests. He also wants to make abortion a grave sin. Both stances were objected to by those closest to Lenny, which led to debates regarding these retrograde beliefs. As the season progressed he became more malleable, rather than reactionary but if someone did anger him, he was quick to punish them. They might get sent to Alaska or be humiliated, but Lenny typically got his way. Even when various figures tried to blackmail him — first Voiello and then a New York pedophile cardinal — he quickly stamped out the threat. It's unclear what happened to Tonino Pettola (Franco Pinelli), a man who claimed he could talk to the Madonna and bore the sign of the stigmata. After a visit from Pope Pius XIII and his cardinals, Tonino disappeared. In the third episode, Voiello noted that Lenny was “supposed to be the pope of compromise,” acting as a bridge between the old conservative ways and radical new ideas, and by the end of the season he has become just that.
Ambiguity ran throughout the Young Pope, Sorrentino didn’t always confirm what was real and what was a fantasy. As the season progressed, it became clear that Lenny’s Saint status wasn’t simply hyperbole or flattery by Sister Mary. At 14-years old, she witnessed Lenny’s gift when he healed a terminally ill woman (who is still alive today). He seemingly willed God to make him pope (“I was praying so hard I nearly shit my pants”) and he cured Esther and her husband’s infertility. Perhaps his biggest ask was also one that underscored his desire for vengeance — Lenny has a lot of the Old Testament in him. After he learned that Sister Antonia (Milvia Marigliano) had been using her power to withhold water to the African community she was meant to serve (the show is non-specific about which country in Africa), instead of removing her publicly, Lenny got down on his knees in a rest stop parking lot, and asked God to take her out in a more permanent manner. To which, God obliged. It's hard to ignore the power of Lenny’s voice when it is shown so explicitly.
Lenny had a tendency to act with a level of self-interest that goes against the image of a pope, however, Pius XIII also showed a great deal of humanity and warmth in the second half of the season. Numbers attending the church had dwindled and the crisis was more than just financial. His trip to Africa preached peace and not war, which had a global impact. His unsent love letters to his one (and only) girlfriend were published in The New Yorker, which reshaped public opinion. He previously admonished Sister Suree (Nadie Kammallaweera) for weeping over her sister’s casket, but openly sobbed after the death of his mentor Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) before telling his staff that he loved them. The Lenny of the first episode would have found this display of affection to be abhorrent, but a lot has changed since then.
Pope Pius XIII shares more with Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) than just a name: they have both served up highly-covetable white caped and bold hat looks. The Met Gala’s theme in 2018 was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” so it isn’t a massive swerve to suggest Lenny’s white, gold, and red garments are couture-worthy. Costume designer Carlo Poggioli created vestments dripping in elegant opulence, turning to high-end designers (including Christian Louboutin and Armani), as well as drawing inspiration from the Vatican and previous popes. At no point does Law look anything less than perfect, even his all-white athleisure clothing is perfectly tailored. It's a little on the nose, but it's no wonder LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” was picked to accompany Lenny’s getting ready sequence in Episode 4. Even the simple traditional all-black priest attire that he wore in the penultimate episode was GQ-worthy. An outfit he will return to in The New Pope when John Malkovich as Sir John Brannox looks poised to take his sartorial and papacy crown. Let the Pope Games begin!
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.