Quality TV Speed Round

Chernobyl

Image: HBO

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories?”

With its opening words, Chernobyl makes itself about more than just telling the story of an infamous disaster. It speaks to the modern day, where denial of science has a mounting human cost, and risks every life on the planet. Here, denial of basic facts… beginning with the insistence that nuclear reactors don’t explode, so this one can’t possibly have done so… stalls the proper response to a disaster that needed as swift a response as possible.

That opening monologue also serves as notice that they’re trying their best to tell us what happened, but that the real truth of it all may never be known. The only official casualty report the Russians ever admitted to was thirty-one.

There are probably more than 31 casualties in episode one, and that’s just the first five hours.

I must have been told about the Chernobyl disaster at some point growing up. A teacher, a parent, the news, somebody must have told me… but I just remember that eventually, I knew it had happened. The nuclear reactor had a meltdown (technically true, though that was at best crisis #3) and that was very bad.

Jesus, I had no idea.

There are a lot of ways that Chernobyl can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch. I spent the first episode thinking “Oh he’s dead… oh that guy’s super dead… oh they are all going to die…” plant workers, firefighters, people who decided to watch the “fire” from a bridge, now called the “Bridge of Death…” and I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I was wrong. Soviet officials doing their best to insist that nothing’s as bad as it seems. Every step of the response coming with a likely body count, and some new horror we hadn’t even thought of.

But there are also a few precious uplifting moments. Three men volunteer for a suicide mission to prevent a second, much worse explosion, wading through contaminated water in the reactor that was already killing everyone next to it. And what happened to them because of this?

I mean technically this is a bit of a spoiler but it’s hard to think of any of this as a true spoiler, it’s not like the outcomes are unknown…

Well, one of them managed to live nearly another two decades before a heart attack got him. The other two are alive and well today. They got medals not too long ago. Sure unknown thousands of people suffered and died that didn’t deserve to, and at least three people suffered much less than they should have, but here’s one little piece of justice in the midst of all the grimness.

It’s a grim watch, to be sure, but it’s also so fascinating. I hated so much of what was going on but never wanted to stop watching.

It’s spectacularly well written, with the stakes kept high throughout all five hours, and nearly every episode having some moment that stuck with me for reasons beyond sheer horror. Expert Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) pointing out that the official radiation number everyone’s being told is also the maximum reading of average dosimeters. Government official Boris Shcherbina (Stellar Skateboard Stellan Skarsgård) shutting down the last of the bureaucrats insisting that it’s just a fire and it’s under control, before having them dragged away by soldiers. Which in itself was fun to see. Or Legasov revealing the true source of the calamity, and how all of it comes down to one oh so simple factor… “It was cheaper.”

It was incredibly well-acted. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson as the one major composite character are standouts because of course they are, but there are so many others I’ve never heard of selling us on this horrorshow. The three bureaucrats whose terrible choices caused and exacerbated the disaster are loathable, yes, but that doesn’t happen if an actor isn’t putting their back into it. I also want to name David Dencik, who through expressions and nuanced reactions brought a lot of humanity to Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader staring down a disaster unlike anything in human history, and one with no good options.

It’s incredibly well shot. You’ve never seen wind made so menacing, dripping water so ominous, or a simple hug made as sinister as Jason Vorhees reaching for his machete.

My one main issue watching it the first time (yes, I went back for another round already) I kind of blame on myself. One of my most disliked characters, somewhere beneath deputy chief Anatoly Dyatlov and the rest of the “Stop telling me the plant exploded” crowd, was one of the most inherently sympathetic characters in the whole thing… Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of one of the Pripyat firefighters sent to put out the “fire” at the reactor (firefighters whose clothing is still in a pile in the basement of the abandoned hospital, and is unsafe to be near today), and someone I was shocked to find out isn’t a composite character. No, she’s a real person who suffered incredible tragedy, yet somehow I managed to turn on her. I spent an entire episode of her storyline saying “You idiot, stop ignoring every safety instruction they’re giving you! I know you want to be with your husband, but they said not to touch him for a reason, this is throw-yourself-on-the-funeral-pyre level foolish!” I don’t know, man, love makes us do dumb things.

She managed to survive the massive amounts of radiation she was exposed to from insisting on staying with her husband to the end. I don’t want to say how, but… let’s just say it wasn’t something anyone would choose.

I can’t say I enjoyed this show in the conventional sense but damned if I could turn away from it. I endorse you giving it a watch… but have something lighter on hand to mix with it. Nailed It or Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man, perhaps.

Or one of these next two recommendations.

Next page: Some diabolical fun

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *