A good priest would probably forgive you for the sin of thinking that The Young Pope was created solely to generate memes. When HBO and Sky Atlantic announced the 2016 series, directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and starring Jude Law as a boyish American Holy Father, people had some, uh, gentle fun online. Their imagined version of a young pope was chill. He came right out of a sketch show. He fucked.
The premise of The Young Pope invites jokes in which the pope, a position generally held by old and deeply conservative people, is all of a sudden young, with all of the transgressions implied by the concept of youth. But Sorrentino, it turned out, was one step ahead of us: The Young Pope was about the fact that, faced with the existence of a young pope, the world would uncontrollably giggle—the show features a pope grappling with his forced status as an international meme.
Among the many important decisions Lenny Belardo, aka Pope Pius XIII, has to make at the beginning of his papacy is how best to cultivate his global image. In The Young Pope's second episode, Lenny is forced into a meeting with Sofia, the Vatican's marketing director. She has dollar signs in her eyes, and wants to slap his face on a bunch of plates. But Lenny has other ideas and takes the opportunity to lay out his theory of papal branding.
The comparisons to Banksy and Daft Punk aren't just for show—Lenny intuits that, in order to survive as a globally important figure, he must be as "unreachable as a rock star." Throughout The Young Pope, Lenny conceives of himself as a commodity; a figure with real, but limited star power that can be deployed as a resource. He often remarks on how handsome he is, using his looks to overwhelm and confuse his enemies. He threatens to reveal his beauty in order to win a political pissing contest with the Italian Prime Minister. He refuses to dilute his brand by getting too deep into merch.
But by the start of The New Pope, Sorrentino's follow-up series, which premieres tonight on HBO, Lenny has lost that battle. At the show's start—apologies for biblical spoilers—he is in an irreversible coma, and the church must elect the titular new pope. A group of diehard believers, convinced that Lenny is the messiah, has created a line of matching hoodies emblazoned with his visage. (HBO told VICE that these will not be officially available, but for the record, they should be.) Lenny's clout has simply gotten too out of control.
It feels crass and reductive to say that Lenny's hospital room has, essentially, been staked out by an army of stans. But overwhelming fandom does have a tendency to make things crass and reductive—if the pope is an inadvertent influencer, then the church is his sponsor, greedily reaping the rewards of Lenny's personal magnetism but terrified when that power grows too attached to the specific personage of Lenny Belardo.
The first few episodes of The New Pope are deeply concerned with how to moderate that influence as the church moves forward, a question resolved in a series of debates over who should be the new pope. These debates function more like ad agency pitch meetings than they do spiritual negotiations. The role of marketing head Sofia has been greatly expanded, in part because none of the priests seem to know what to do. In hushed conversations, they lay out a view of the office of the papacy as a figurehead, someone who will post the holy content the bosses (in this case, the other cardinals) demand.
In a panic, they elect Tommaso Viglietti, a bumbling monk too stupid to do anything for himself. (In The Young Pope, Tommaso complains to Lenny that his hair hurts.) But once Tommaso, taking the name Francis II, is actually in front of the crowd in St. Peter's Square, he realizes that he has the power of the office: simply by speaking his plan out loud to the faithful, he's able to force the Vatican to commit to accepting refugees and getting rid of much of its accumulated wealth. The rest of the church is powerless to stop him. In speaking plainly and attempting to follow through on a commitment to a set of pure, withholding values, one without a corresponding carrot in the form of Lenny's beautiful mug, he's taken control of the holy brand.
By seizing on his ability to communicate with the public, Tommaso takes after his papal namesake: Last January, Pope Francis rocked the world with a tweet declaring that Mary, mother of Jesus, was the world's first influencer. Almost a year later, we have yet to fully comprehend the tweet's impact on the global production of youth pastor jokes.
It's funny to imagine the pope, an elderly man elected to lead a 2,000-year-old institution, talking about Mary's ability to go viral. But it isn't even the pope who's writing or sending his tweets. His online persona appears to be a walking, praying version of the "how do you do fellow kids" meme.
But the real-world attempt to reframe religious doctrine in the parlance of social media is part of a pattern: Francis' papacy has been marked by memes, whether positive (photos of the Holy Father appearing to spit hot fire), negative (a video of the Holy Father slapping a woman who got too handsy), or just sad (the Holy Father giving a TED Talk). The Mary tweet was related to an address in which he characterized Mary as being outside of "social media networks." At the beginning of his papacy, he called the internet "a gift from God." Sorrentino, it turns out, is not the only one who conceives of the papacy as a vehicle for influence.
It's impossible to write about the convergence of "influencer" as a job, the broader industry and religion without sounding like the type of person who would send Pope Francis' influencer tweet in earnest to their grandchildren. Still, all of the popes—both real and fictional—promise us that there's a cure for that sense of embarrassment if you believe. As Lenny learns by the end of The Young Pope, and as Francis has perhaps known all along, God is corny.