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‘The New Pope’: Paolo Sorrentino on Jude Law’s Return and His ‘Crazy’ Idea for Another Season

Ben Travers

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Don’t be alarmed. Yes, those keeping up with “The New Pope” are now looking at Lenny Belardo, the so-called young pope played by Jude Law, alive and in the flesh. Yes, there’s a lot of flesh, since he’s only wearing white swim briefs, and yes, he’s wet and winking. Doubt, if you must, his impossible fitness — after being comatose for a year, only divine intervention could maintain those abs — but do not doubt what matters most: He is risen.

After six episodes of spiritual apparitions and twitching fingers, Lenny finally woke from his 12-month coma. But one of the most notable scenes, and certainly the most internet famous, takes place in between the land of the living and the world of the dead. Jude Law’s beachside emergence — the one that kicks off the episode, and yes, the one used in early promos for “The New Pope” — is an ethereal moment from an unknown perspective. Is it Lenny’s dream? Is it a shared dream with his followers? Is it not a dream at all, but a peek into purgatory?

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“I confess that I don’t know,” series creator Paolo Sorrentino said during an interview with IndieWire. “I had an idea. I thought it was funny that when he wakes up, he arrives from the sea and arrives on a beach full of women. It was just a joke [related to] the very clear fact that Jude Law is a sex symbol.”

“The explanation is on very low-level,” he added with a laugh.

Perhaps Sorrentino’s motivation wasn’t as complex as the ideas his scene elicits, but that’s “The New Pope” in a nutshell: an enthralling blend of high-brow ideas and low-brow humor. From the pointed commentary on the Catholic political world to its recurring jokes about Pope Lenny’s love for Cherry Coke Zero, the HBO sequel regularly contrasts profound significance with outrageous frivolity.

Sorrentino, who said he still has not tried his holy character’s most coveted beverage, wanted “The New Pope” to focus on a realistic successor to Lenny Belardo. Because the church tends to elect a liberal pope after a conservative one (and vice versa), that meant it was time for a progressive leader — if only that were possible.

“A real liberal pope is not allowed to [exist] in this moment in the church,” he said. “It’s not arrived yet, where a liberal pope [could rule]. Pope Francis is trying to be more liberal, and he’s meeting a lot of resistance. There are a lot of people going against him. So it’s not so realistic we have a liberal pope. In my mind, they couldn’t last too long.”

His solution? Kill off the liberal pope in the first episode and introduce a new central character. It’s just another way of balancing honesty and extravagance: Even though the quick death of a new pope might seem coincidental to the extreme, his ouster represents the resistance liberal leaders face within the church. Instead, “The New Pope” focuses on a moderate thinker, Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich).

“He’s a master of the idea of the middle way,” Sorrentino said. “He proposes a sort of compromise for all the problems that are present inside the church.”

Beyond his political positioning, Sorrentino looked at John’s relationship with his family to reveal the core principles of his faith — just as he did with Lenny in “The Young Pope.” Lenny was an orphan; he was abandoned as a child, and he felt abandoned by God, as well. He never met his parents, so they never felt real, and he subsequently struggled to believe in a literal God.

John, meanwhile, is blamed for the death of his brother. His parents treat him harshly, and he thus argues that the church needs to bring kindness to fragile people, like him.

“Both have a relationship with love as an abstraction,” Sorrentino said. “The priests struggle every day with love as an abstraction. So it’s interesting to compare the abstraction of the love when the love is God and the abstraction of the love when the love is someone you love but don’t know, as a brother or as the parents. That’s interesting to me.”

And Sorrentino isn’t done exploring. Much like he had “The New Pope” planned in his head while writing “The Young Pope,” the writer-director already has an idea for a third part in his “Pope” trilogy.

“I have another season in my mind,” he said. “I don’t know if I will do that. I should find time to do that, and I should convince HBO in order to do that. I have a new idea for a third season, but it’s a crazy, crazy idea so I don’t know if it’s easy to realize. It’s an idea completely outside the Vatican — it’s really different.”

Sorrentino didn’t want to reveal much more, but did confirm all the main characters from “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope” would be involved in a story he referred to as “sort of a prequel.”

Through six episodes, “The New Pope” is averaging just over 200,000 linear viewers (not including streaming), which is less than half the average audience “The Young Pope” courted in 2017. That’s not to say Season 3 is living on a prayer — over the last three years, linear viewership is down across the board, and, as a co-production with Sky and CANAL+, the overall cost to HBO is less. Awards attention could also boost the show’s odds for renewal, as “The Young Pope” snagged Law a Golden Globe nomination, in addition to two Emmy nods.

Whether Sorrentino gets to continue his story or not, “The New Pope” offers an ending that balances the two emotional extremes. John and Lenny find inner peace through their public journeys as pope.

“We have the tendency to forget that, behind the priest, there’s a human being with many vices, defeats, that all of us have,” Sorrentino said. “Over the course of the season, through the experience of being pope, he finds a way to face his private life. That’s the idea. And that was also the idea of the first season, as well.”

Sometimes, you just gotta stare down your maker wearing nothing but your briefs. Let Lenny’s will be done.

“The New Pope” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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