‘The Young Pope’ Season Premiere Recap: Cherry Coke Zero to Cherry Coke Hero

Someone get me a Cherry Coke Zero, because watching The Young Pope’s premiere made me thirsty!

Jude Law in The Young Pope.
Jude Law in The Young Pope. Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Drew: Someone get me a Cherry Coke Zero, because watching The Young Pope’s premiere made me thirsty! I’ll let you in on a little secret, Vinnie, I did NOT expect this to be the kind of show I enjoyed. Especially because it seemed too close to home: a cranky, vindictive asshole ascends to one of the highest position of power in the world despite NOBODY remembering how he got voted in, and immediately makes it clear he doesn’t give a fuuuuuuck about his job? Where have I heard that before? And also because the jury seemed real out about whether The Young Pope was a comedy or DEFINITELY NOT A COMEDY.

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Vinnie: Jury still seems real out, to be honest.

Drew: But holy shit: that first scene sold me SO HARD. I’m not even talking about the 2nd dreamstate where Lenny Balardo from Queens, aka Pope Pius the XIII, aka Dickie Greenleaf in a big hat, goes out and gives a pro-abortion, pro-suicide homily to the masses. (Which was dope, and we’ll get to in a bit.)

No, I was sold in the opening SHOT: a pile of babies–not dead babies, that’s important!–that zooms out to reveal it is actually a MOUNTAIN of babies. And Jude Law is just tunneling out of that baby mountain, not even like SUPER FAST. Just leisurely tunneling through this baby mountain.

You can probably sum up The Young Pope in a lot ways when describing it to friends: “Oh, it’s about a young-ish, ‘cool’ Pope who likes to smoke,” or “It’s like House of Cards meets Real Housewives of Vatican City.” Or “It’s shaping up to be the prequel for American Horror Story: Asylum.” But if you are ACTUALLY interested in selling your friends on this show, just say “We cold open on Jude Law leisurely tunneling through a mountain of babies” and leave it there.

Vinnie: See, I think we went into The Young Pope a bit differently, because I was signed the heck on ever since HBO aired a preview before Westworld that ended with someone screaming “this Pope does not negotiate!” That…is such a wonderfully bizarre phrase both with or without any context. I want “this Pope does not negotiate!” tattooed across my chest, but like all the T’s are crucifixes and the P in ‘Pope’ is a funny little Pope hat. I don’t know, it’s a work in progress. What I DO know, is that I was so hardcore signed on for whatever a show called The Young Pope could possibly be about, that when it opened on Baby Body Mountain™, I wasn’t even surprised. I was just like “Ah, yes, vintage Young Pope. A fine metaphor, indeed.”

Jude Law as Lenny Belardo.
Jude Law as Lenny Belardo. Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Drew: In case you wanted to hear Pope Lenny’s dream speech, it started with a “What have we forgotten?” And then does this hard zoom with a bass twang right up into Jude Law’s face, like something from Tommy, and he goes:

“We have forgotten how to masturbate. We have forgotten to use contraceptives! To get abortions! To celebrate gay marriages. To allow priests to love each other and even to get married. We have forgotten that we can decide to die if we detest living. To have sexual relations for purposes other than procreation without feeling guilty! To divorce! To let nuns say mass. To make babies in all the ways science has discovered and will continue to discover. In short, my dear dear children; not only have we forgotten to pray. We have forgotten to be happy. And there’s only road that leads to happiness. And that road is called freedom.”

Then Lenny turns around and is told he’s not Pope anymore, and…whoops! That’s the second dream sequence! What a fake-out this show started on! It’s like the end of most Nightmare on Elm Street movies, which I appreciated.

Vinnie: Say what you will about The Young Pope — say it’s beautifully lit, for instance, or perhaps that its very existence is a literal affront to God. Your choice — but I 100 percent have to admire the massive St. Peters Basilica sized balls of a show that not only exists under the name The Young Pope, but begins its first episode with not one but two dream sequence fakeouts. The only thing more gutsy would have been an entire scene set to “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones played on a Church organ.

Drew: “What do you mean, done?” we see Lenny muttering in his sleep. “I just barely got started with God!”

Okay, well now he’s up for REAL, and immediately has a flashback to his mentor, Cardinal Michael Spencer, who is…YES JAMES CROMWELL FROM AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM. (Just saying.)

“Who are you, Lenny?” asks Cardinal Spencer.

“I am a contradiction, like God,” Lenny replies, like a robot that definitely thinks he’s God.

Vinnie: Lenny definitely strikes me as the type of character who frequently busts out the “I am a contradiction, like God” line in increasingly unnecessary scenario. Like, orders an omelette at 6 PM: “I am a contradiction, like God, who in his infinite wonder saw fit to eat breakfast for dinner.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but do we see Cardinal Spencer reacting to Lenny’s appointment to Pope by attempting to kill himself? Even ignoring the fact that suicide is one of them Christianity no-nos — right up there with murder, or being really jealous of your neighbor’s Xbox — but this signals there was a massive falling out between Lenny and his former mentor, which has to be a huge part of this show going forward.

Drew: Lenny’s radio, which has shitty reception (THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER) is helpfully filling us in about what’s going on. Lenny has just been announced as Pope, and all the cardinals from around the world are gathering at the Vatican City to witness Pius XIII’s first homily. But Lenny from Queens like, JUST got there, with no transition team! Like, they don’t even serve Cherry Coke zero for breakfast, and we get our first look at the people skills of our new Pope.

They are…um…not great? Like he’s just the legit rudest person ever? And despite acting like a total King Joffrey re: the cherry coke zero thing, he ALSO hates it when people are nice to him, like his new cook. He’s immediately suspicious of her because she’s overly friendly, leading to his Lenny’s first big life lesson: Friendly relationships are dangerous. Formal relationships last forever. “I do not appreciate of friendly relationships, but I am great admirer of formal ones,” says Lenny, who really does not seem to be that formal himself, TBH. He’s just a shit-head.

Vinnie: Honestly, I love Lenny, because one episode in and I know next to absolutely nothing about Lenny. Everything is hidden behind Jude Law’s handsome-yet-immobile mug. Like, why is he SO over being Pope, roughly two hours into being Pope? Who hurt you, Lenny Belardo? Why do you hide your emotions under hats a little too floppy, even for Italy? How did he become Pope in the first place? You have to be voted into that position. Did nobody bother double-checking the rough amount Lenny Belardo would fly into a passive-aggressive bitch-rage over the arrangement of his brunch before electing him into the highest religious position in the world?

Drew: We are then introduced to the cast of characters that populate the Vatican. There’s Angelo Voiello, Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State. He’s got a big mole, has impure thoughts about statues, and suffers from Gerontophobia (a fear of old people?). He’s also the preening fixer: the wannabe Frank Underwood of this show, except that Jude Law is the Pope so HE gets to be Kevin Spacey and dispense all of the great bon mots in this program. Voiello’s like Cyrus Beene from Scandal (first couple of seasons), where he’s the president’s conniving Chief of Staff, or like a Roger Stone-type?Voiello’s also vain as fuck: he’s got a new book coming out about him, he gloats to another priest, called “The Man Behind the Scenes. “That’s a good name,” his Lafou-type lackey chimes in.

“I came up with the title myself,” smirks Voiello. And that….pretty much tells you all you need to know about this guy, except that he’s also works nights as a “polite laughter” coach. Voiello is KIND OF a big deal in the papal community, and he’s being forced to wait to meet the new Pope…so you can just tell these two guys will not be besties.

Jude Law as Lenny Belardo and Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello.
Jude Law as Lenny Belardo and Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello. Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Vinnie: The mole is going to be key, Drew, mark my words. Actor Silvio Orlando does not have a mole, and yet creator Paolo Sorrentino saw fit to craft what looks like an actual piece of celestial rock and affix it to Orlando’s face. Honestly, thing looks like it cut into 90 percent of the show’s prop budget, and that’s including all the floppy hats. Why? What’s the purpose, Drew?

Seriously, though, I think my favorite moment of this entire episode was when Lenny absolutely wrecked Voiello’s entire being by forcing him to get up and pour him a cup of American coffee. “I didn’t ask him to get me a cup of coffee, I asked YOU to get me a cup of coffee.” Yas, il Papa, slay.

Drew: Now, let’s talk Sister Mary. Specifically: what’s her deal? I have a theory that she is actually crazy; in her head, she is living out a fantasy where she’s in a different genre story. Bear with me: the first time we see her, she’s kind of walking in slow motion behind this twinkly score and we see her flashback on her first meeting with Lenny, where, as a young nun, she introduces herself to the orphaned boy, tells him not to call her ma, and tries to take away his father’s heirloom pipe. Which…doesn’t sound nice at all, but the way it’s shot, you’re like “What a nice nun!” And Lenny seems to have saved all his respect for the human race for Sister Mary. He’s practically rapturous as she arrives at the heliport/kid skating rink(?), and he looks GREAT in that big white floppy hat and robe. Jude Law as the world’s most FANCY MAN: that’s another great description for the show.

Vinnie: The Young and the Vestments, is another way of describing this show. Just something to keep in mind.

But yeah, the thing to keep in mind about Sister Mary is that, besides, you know, being Diane Keaton, that if Lenny is currently the church’s most powerful man-baby since the actual Baby Jesus, Sister Mary is the one who raised him to be this way.

Drew: We learn Sister Mary going to be the Pope’s right hand woman, no matter how scandalous this is to all the gossipy old men in big (but not as big as the pope’s) hat. She’s going to be the CENTER of the church, which at first sounds very important, but then we later learn means she’s the Pope’s Special Assistant and also official Babysitter of Voiello, who Lenny just…hates. I mean, the dude is awful, what with that mole and being like, the “political” Cardinal. But it’s unclear if Lenny hates Voiello specifically, or if Lenny just hates EVERYBODY EQUALLY, and Voiello just happens to be the Cogsworth to his Beast (aka Prince Adam).

First order of business: the Pope has a button under his desk that like, super-villain-style, can be pressed whenever you are annoyed with the person talking to you. But instead of it opening a trap door filled with Vatican Gators (goooo Vators!), it just summons someone awkwardly into the room to make up an excuse.

Vinnie: I am SO MAD that button did not open a trap door. So. Mad. I was clapping my hands like the top baby in Baby Body Mountain and yelling, out loud, “Trap door! The Pope has a trap door!” I never knew the answer to my perfect television show is one where Jude Law plays a Pope-gangster hybrid of Benedict XVI and Jabba the Hutt, but I guess I do now.

Drew: He even pushes the button right after pulling a fast one on Voiello: pretending he’ll let the Cardinal keep all his power and duties, right before saying. “I was kidding! Couldn’t you tell?”

Now THAT’S a pope joke! And to be fair, Lenny legit looks exhausted when Voiello starts in on all his new Papal duties, including giving his his first official homily. It was due TODAY, and maybe the Pope like, legit doesn’t  even want to be Pope? Because everything else that needs to be addressed, Lenny is like “later.” It’s VERY unclear at this point the motivations of his character, but Lenny both a) LOVES being the Pope in that it’s a fun way to torment the Catholic Church and b) would rather be doing ANYTHING other than be the Pope.

Vinnie: The way Lenny approaches being The Young Pope reminds me of the way I watch The Young Pope. Like, I could live inside this show forever because it’s weird and magnetic and occasionally just the best, but the moment someone asks me to write and think even a little critically about The Young Pope I’m just like “But, my Cherry Coke Zeroooooo.”

Drew: So while this power scene is going on, very Godfather-esque, between Lenny and Voiello, the dialogue cuts out and there’s this ….very jarring kind of musical interlude: we see Sister Mary as she goes to a cabinet and remove a book along with a red bag containing Lenny’s cigarettes, walks over to the Pope’s desk, puts the bag on Voiello’s side, THEN moves it to Lenny’s  side, walks away toward a window, and stares down at a priest pacing the yard. This is in the MIDDLE of a scene where the Pope and his new nemesis are trading barbs. So: maybe this is Sister Mary’s internal mind? Like, in her head, she’s always just walking around to a score in slightly slow-motion like a Wes Anderson character? I don’t know.

Jude Law as Lenny Belardo and Diane Keaton as Sister Mary.
Jude Law as Lenny Belardo and Diane Keaton as Sister Mary. Gianni Fiorit

Vinnie: Not that The Young Pope exactly screams twisty-mindbender, but something is definitely going to happen with Sister Mary about halfway through this season. I’d bet my floppy white hat on it. We’re going to get to the center of the Vatican’s Maze and find out Sister Mary is just that nun from The Conjuring 2 in a different timeline.

Drew: Oh, the one final thing about this scene, which basically establishes the new Pope’s vague, resentful relationship to the institution he is now the leader of: it contains the #1 moment in the pilot. Lenny lights up one of his COOLPOPEBRO cigarettes right in front of Violello (who seriously, will be turned into a clock with a mole on its face one day because of a curse.)

Voilello: “Smoking is not allowed in  the Papal Palace!”

Lenny from Queens: “Is that so? Who decided that?”

Voilello: “John Paul the 2nd!”

Lenny from Queens: “The Pope?”

Voilello: “Yes the pope.”


Lenny from Queens: “There’s a new pope now.”

AGH! I can’t with this show. My brain is telling me that I LOVE The Young Pope, but I can’t tell if this is genuine love–because the show is baroque and strange and wry–or just a giddy infatuation with something so over-the-top and corny that you just NEED to share it with everyone you know, like a guilty pleasure. The Pope is the ultimate Bachelor, and he is NOT here to make friends. The Young Pope (both the person and the show) obviously takes themselves very seriously, but then has a whole speech about how God lives in half a duplex behind the Big Dipper. What do we make of ANY of this?

Vinnie: What do I make of it? Yes, yes, yes, YES, he actually says “there’s a new pope now.” What a Loki-ass thing to say, this Marvel villain-esque motherf*cker, I love it so much. If it’s eventually revealed that the Pope’s chair floats like M.O.D.O.K I will not be surprised even a little bit. And that, THAT, is the real thrill of The Young Pope. We STARTED with a mountain of babies and it only got weirder? Nothing would surprise me. No. Thing. I do not want to get off Pope Lenny Belardo’s Wild Ride.

Drew: Speaking of that last scene…what was that? We see that Lenny likes exactly three people in the Vatican. One is Sister Mary. The second is that Almodovar guy who plays Monsignor Bernardo Gutierrez–the Master of Ceremonies at the Holy See–and gives Lenny some good advice: “Rumors fly so quickly here that sometimes they arrive before the event has taken place.” Tommaso is like the Varys of this show, except that EVERYONE is like the Varys of this show. The Vatican, apparently, is lousy with Varyses. Varysi? Don Tommaso works in a museum, because “I like it here. It’s like time is dead.” Cool cool cool.

The other priest Lenny just sort of randomly cottons to is his confessor, Don Tommaso, a guy whose hair hurts when it falls out. Lenny literally offers him a devil’s bargain: give him the hot goss of the Cardinals’ confessionals, and he’ll promote the local priest to “red robes.” I would…not take this deal? Either way, Lenny decides that during this nighttime dude talk about God and duplexes and shit, he should just give his own confessional. Which ended with: “I don’t believe in you, God.”

Don Tommaso, you know, naturally starts to freak out, as one does when they realize they are in the presence of a very powerful lunatic. “Don, Don!” Lenny from Queens soothes. “I was joking.”

FADE OUT. That’s the WHOLE show. Tell me that’s not a statement on some kind of anti-anti-comedy. “A Pope climbs through a mountain of babies to get to his cherry coke zero. You know how the rest of that one goes.”

Vinnie: All I know is that Don Tommaso is lucky that scene took place on a rooftop and not, say, a shadowy subway tunnel. Pope Pius McCrazyShorts is about one Cherry Coke Zero-less brunch table away from pushing someone in front of a train, mark my words, amen. Or however that goes. Religion is a sham. God isn’t real. The Wire wasn’t even that good.



What, I was just joking. 

‘The Young Pope’ Season Premiere Recap: Cherry Coke Zero to Cherry Coke Hero