There is a hunger in the human being for the real and the beautiful. Though the reigning Neoliberal order does much to damage this desire, in addition to whatever we contribute ourselves, it is a fundamental constituent of being human. However degraded the tediously shallow and nihilistic hellscape of postmodern American—or rather Anglo—popular culture may be, we can still find evidence of this hunger running like a counter-current to the dominant flow of degeneracy.
The appearance and success of prestige dramas like The Crown and The Young Pope express a growing taste in popular culture for the reactionary aesthetic—if not ethos—and have seen much popular and critical acclaim. The Crown took home the Golden Globe for best drama series over fan-favorite Game of Thrones (a perfect representative of the nihilistic schlock that predominates in Hollywood), as well as other awards, while The Young Pope—featuring a nouveau-reactionary, post-Francis fictional pope—created a cacophonous buzz of hype among television audiences upon its recent arrival to HBO in America. Deep in the bowels of the beast there is a new rumbling.
But how reactionary are these shows, really? And does that have anything to do with their appeal and success?
Perhaps the central driving theme of The Crown is the battle between God, duty, and tradition, on the one hand, and 'the people' (whether family or the masses), passions, and progress on the other. In a pivotal scene in the fourth episode of the series, the dying Queen Mary explains the nature of monarchy to her granddaughter, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth:
Monarchy is God's sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards. An example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you're crowned in an abbey, not a government building; why you're anointed, not appointed; it's an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or a public servant. Which means that you are answerable to God in your duty. Not the public.
This functions as a sort of manifesto for the forces of what I'll call Reaction against the forces of Progress. And the people closest to the new Queen tug her in both those directions, as well as others.
On the side of Progress there's the new Queen's uncle who had abdicated the throne for 'love' resulting in scandal and chaos; her husband Phillip wanting to throw off the stuffy pretensions of the royal court; and her sister Margaret threatening the dignity of the Crown with her wily, spontaneous behavior. On the side of Tradition are Elizabeth's father King George VI, his mother, the aforementioned Queen Mary, and the functionaries of the Crown devoted to the beloved departed King and the royal traditions. The reactionary bent of the show can be seen in the way that Queen Elizabeth, often at great personal cost to herself, always seems to come down on the side of the latter group.
When Phillip wants to update and modernize the coronation ceremony, including editing the text of the rite of the coronation service, she overrules him, throwing him the bone of allowing the service to be televised to pacify him. Progress is thwarted.
Her uncle viciously denounces the hypocrisy and coldness of the Crown toward him, as he had been cut off and cast out after his abdication which was taken as a betrayal of his duty to God and country, and the cause of great scandal. Though he curses the court functionaries, and his family, for what he sees as malevolent cruelty—manifested now in his wife not being permitted to attend the coronation of the new Queen—he later gazes in wonder as she is crowned on television, exalting the genius, beauty, and symbolism of the ceremony. This episode ends with a shot of him weeping while playing his bagpipe, apart from his wife, signalling his own deep affection for the Crown and a lingering, aching guilt for having betrayed its dignity. Which undermines his own venomous critiques of the coldness of those who shunned him for doing so. Again we see Progress subverted.
Later Elizabeth's duty as Queen runs up against a personal promise she had made to her sister Margaret, regarding allowing her marriage to a divorced man. Margaret explicitly ties her own situation to the "will of the people" who want "the future, not the past." Citing the fanfare surrounding her potential marriage as indicative of a desire for "a more tolerant, more kinder attitude to marriage and divorce." Ultimately the Queen—advised by her reflective uncle on the importance of keeping her kingdom, unlike he who had lost it—again decides her duty as Queen trumps passions, the will of the people, even personal promises to family, and Progress is frustrated.
The monarch, according to Elizabeth's uncle, is like a centaur: a divided creature. One part Crown, one part human being—sister, daughter, wife—wrestling for control. This division loosely correlates with the Reaction and Progress categories I've employed with one caveat: the 'human', in this sense, contains all of the base aspects of humanity, along with the good, whereas the Crown represents only the loftiest and noblest aspects of both the monarch herself and the nation of which she's head. The temporal and finite, however good, are subordinate to the eternal.
If we attempt to apply an Hegelian dialectic to the series of popes, and predict who would follow Francis, you would conjure up a young, severe, uber-reactionary pope. This is basically the premise of The Young Pope in which Jude Law plays Pope Pius XIII (or 'Lenny' to those close to him.)
In contrast to the celebrity papacy of Francis (though he's never mentioned in the show), Pius XIII crafts a mysterious public image, avoiding interviews and remaining in darkness, an image of the unfathomable and fearsome God in the heavens whom the Pope has a direct line to. He also embraces the pomp and pageantry of the office, all the way up to bringing back the extravagant papal tiara.
His teaching is just as fierce as his approach to public relations, booming from the darkness about God's judgment and declaring that "tolerance doesn’t live here anymore." He puts pressure on the Italian state to increase the privileges of the Vatican, while demanding they outlaw abortion and place restrictions on divorce. He ceases giving absolution to women who have had abortions. And not only does he go after the pedophiles in the ranks of the clergy, but also launches a purge of the homosexuals.
Pius combines a flair for the dramatic and ostentatious with a sharp wit and devil-may-care style in personal interactions, confident in his own convictions. Sounding practically Moldbuggian at one point he quips: "The word 'Harvard' may impress people around here [i.e. the Vatican] but to an American it means one thing only: decline." This style taken together with his being a cigarette-smoking1 American orphan who struggles to believe in God, and we have a distinctly postmodern reactionary. As Matthew Schmitz keenly observes, it is precisely Pius's background as an American orphan abandoned by hippy boomer parents that makes his staunchly upholding tradition and rules on matters of sex and family—something his parents steadfastly refused to do—intelligible.
Meanwhile, those surrounding him are miserable, conniving, manipulative, backbiting progressive clergy, corrupt and hungry for power. The forces of Progress appear as unsympathetic villains. An attempt by the cardinals to foist scandal upon the pope is even thwarted by the pontiff's irreproachable conduct, and his concourse with God confirmed by miraculous answers to his prayers.
But the creators of the show are not trads. It's more that they are genuinely titillated, in a voyeuristic way, by the dramatic possibilities of this topsy turvy world where the strict hardliner is the protagonist, rather than promoting it. And sometimes the mask slips. Like when there's the predictably emotionally manipulative homosexual suicide, and one of the cardinals pleads with the pope to go back on his promise to purge the gays from the clergy (who aren't like the pedos!), and the pope half-way relents. Or when Lenny's mentor debates Lenny on abortion and gives what seems to be, as presented, a rational, plausible defense of a Catholic pro-abort position—which is in reality risible and indefensible. Plus this vision of a hardliner pope often amounts to an unrealistic caricature.
Still: there he is. A compellingly realized reactionary Catholic protagonist, who is not merely the butt of a punchline or a stick-figure setup to knock down.
In a culture awash in un-anchored, atomistic Neoliberalism, there is a hunger for visions of the rootedness of hierarchy and tradition, whether from the past or an envisioned near-future. Is this a morbid, even masochistic, fascination with the exotic 'other' of traditional forms of society and religion? Or a deeper yearning for the Real?
Certainly it isn't something many Americans parlay into support of a return to monarchy or traditional religion. It may simply be an appreciation of smells and bells aesthetics and the exquisite trappings of nobility, but which refuses the edifice of beliefs, attitudes, and traditions those rest upon. For the postmodern cultural tastemaker (and consumer), tradition can be a wardrobe or an element of his eclectic ensemble of ironies. He can appreciate it from a distance, ironically appropriate it for his portfolio of experiences, but can not—must not—inhabit it with sincerity.
It has become a commonplace, almost cliché, observation on the Right that Reaction is the new rebellion, Tradition the new counter-culture, that the last frontier of edgy is a modest life piously raising a large Christian family. Which is to a large extent true, and goes some way to explaining how these sorts of shows (and perhaps some others, along with some recent films) have the power to compel audiences. Not primarily out of respect and admiration, but out of curiosity. In a world of total transgression, limits and boundaries become peculiar and captivating objects. But these voyeurs should be warned: if they aren't careful and keep staring intently enough, they might just find themselves through the looking glass.
Cigarettes appear in diametrically opposite roles in the two shows. In The Young Pope, they are a way to emphasize Pius XIII's edge and give him a cool aesthetic. When told it's against the rules to smoke inside the Vatican, this provides an opportunity to make clear that he makes the rules now. By contrast, the script for The Crown looks as if it had the grimy paws of the puritanical anti-smoking lobby all over it. The King dies of lung cancer, and his black, cancerous lung is dramatically shown; it is implied that cigarettes are contributing to Queen Mary's deteriorating health as well; and Phillip quits smoking in the first episode at Elizabeth's behest on behalf of his health. ↩