Chernobyl (Not Rated)

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HBO’s Chernobyl is the best thing I’ve ever seen on television.

Yes, I know about Breaking Bad and The Wire. My assertion, from a position of respect, is that those shows indeed did it well for a longer stretch but, nonetheless, did not reach the heights of storytelling excellence delivered by Chernobyl.

It seems logical to begin delineating the merits of Chernobyl by saying something like, “It has everything you could want in a show!” That isn’t true, though. Chernobyl lacks many things an audience member might want – things like optimism, humor (of the kind that isn’t hanging from a gallows), and a happy ending. Chernobyl really has none of those things. And yet I believe it represents the current pinnacle of what television can accomplish as a medium. I expect its creator and stars will clean up this year’s Emmy Awards, and if they don’t, something has gone horribly wrong in the awards process.

Honestly, if you haven’t seen Chernobyl yet, you really have to. Stop reading here and go watch it.[1] If you have seen it and want to keep reading, let me also encourage you (if you haven’t already) to also listen to the companion podcast as there is a wealth of information available to you within each episode, information that really does enhance the viewing experience.

An aspect of the Chernobyl series that emerges immediately to those viewers who have read extensively about the disaster beforehand (or, alternately, have listened to series creator Craig Mazin talk about the show) is the high degree of historical accuracy present within the series. There are discrepancies, to be sure – the fire on the ground perhaps burned a bit less brightly and the culminating trial did not quite play out as depicted but, nonetheless, the stories of these characters and events matches the historical record to a high degree. This historicity deeply affects the viewing experience, putting the viewer in a place of both wide-eyed bewilderment and crushing sympathy, knowing in advance the end awaiting the characters portrayed on screen.

The best gateway to the merits of the series is found in three particular scenes (identified by powerful lines of dialog). We will consider them in order of importance.

1) Ep. 1, “1:23:45” – “If it’s true, then we’re dead…”

The events history calls the Chernobyl disaster are incredibly compelling in and of themselves. As one line of dialogue in the series makes clear, nothing like the events in Pripyat, UA on April 25th, 1986 had ever happened on the face of the Earth up until that time. Without hyperbole, forces of near cosmic power were unleashed on an unsuspecting city, country, and world. Studying these events in hindsight naturally raises a number of serious questions.

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One of the most oft-recurring of those questions is a version of, “Why did this person choose that particular action?” Often there is no real answer; people in apocalyptic circumstances don’t regularly follow strict logical lines of progression. There appear, however, a few patterns. Wicked men act in haste, with stubbornness, and to cover themselves from blame. More upright men seek to give themselves to find solutions, to whatever degree those solutions exist, and provide care where they are able.

Among the most curious choices in the story of the disaster is why the technicians working in the control room of the exploded reactor chose to visually investigate the site of the explosion. Not everyone in the facility knew what had actually happened, of course – the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant was enormous, so how could they have been expected to? The man running the control room, Anatoly Dyatlov, arrogantly insisted that there had been no reactor explosion but rather the accidental detonation of a water tank. Nonetheless, there was a small group of men, working under Dyatlov’s direction that night, who knew full well that what awaited them around the perimeter of reactor four was an exposed nuclear pile pumping radioactive material into the night.

And yet they chose to go investigate first-hand.

Why?

Part of the answer is the looming threat of punishment for insubordination, I’m sure. The logical mind, however, would have told these men that direct exposure to active nuclear material would surely bring death, one even more agonizing than whatever punishment their direct supervisors would have come up with. And yet these men went anyway.

Perhaps another part of the answer is naked hope. Considering the cataclysmic consequences of what had happened during their watch the men can’t be blamed for hoping, against their own conclusions, that Director Dyatlov’s insistence about an exploded water tank was the reality that awaited them.

In the companion podcast, Craig Mazin gave a third reason these men choose to seal their doom, a reason that shows up in a line delivered by the character Sasha Akimov to his colleague Boris Stolyarchuk as Boris is stubbornly refusing to go with the investigating party: “What do you want, Boris? If it’s true, then we’re dead, a million people are dead.”

Mazin asserts that no one wants to believe they are dead already, no matter how dire and inevitable their circumstances. The hope that everything will turn out well in the end, even though the conscious mind knows all hope is lost, is powerfully ingrained in human beings. Yes, this is a product of self-preservation, but to boil this particular kind of perseverance down to mere instinct is to go too far. There was no happy ending for the men who investigated the reactor they knew had exploded. Still, Christian viewers know those men rushing toward their doom are bearers of the image of a Creator who confidently believes in the resurrection of the dead, eternal life after mortal death, and a eucatastrophic End of Days. This knowledge makes the whole sequence of those men scampering toward death all the more heart-wrenching.

2) Ep. 1, “1:23:45” – “What is the cost of lies? The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

The first audio in Chernobyl is a monologue delivered by Jared Harris as his character Valery Legasov:

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?

In these stories it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is who is to blame. In this story it was Anatoly Dyatlov. He was the best choice. An arrogant, unpleasant man. He ran the room that night. He gave the orders. And no friends. At least, not important ones.

And now, Dyatlov will spend the next ten years in a prison labor camp. Of course, that sentence is doubly unfair. There were far greater criminals than him at work. And as for what Dyatlov did do, the man doesn’t deserve prison. He deserves death.

But instead, ten years for criminal mismanagement. What does that mean? No one knows. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, to them, justice was done. Because, you see, to them, a just world is a sane world. There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after, even the good we did, all of it, all of it… madness.

Well, I’ve given you everything I know. They’ll deny it, of course. They always do.

I know you’ll try your best.

These opening words reveal that Chernobyl, unabashedly, is a morality tale. Lies, according to Mazin, are the chief culprit behind the Chernobyl disaster. The series drives this point forward in a number of ways. Dyatlov’s immediate, dogmatic insistence that the reactor had not blown is the first display of how the hierarchy of the U.S.S.R. worked – and how much of a direct threat it could be to the lives of others. Once established as a theme by Dyatlov, the poisonous presence of lies is increasingly revealed throughout the course of the series. Bureaucrats lie to their subordinates. Administrators of the scientific community lie to their charges. The leaders of the U.S.S.R. lie to the international community. Perhaps most tragically, men – even the good ones – lie to themselves. The weight of these accumulating lies represents a clear and present danger to everyone in the story: the principal agents, the functionaries attempting to cover the truth up, and – quite literally – the entire world.

The center of the Chernobyl story is Harris’ Legasov and it is Legasov’s complex relationship to the lies around and within him which provide the slim hope present in the series – hope that the events of the disaster won’t be for naught. Legasov is a man of science, the first to be made aware of the Chernobyl events to articulate a clear and forceful warning about the danger everyone is now in. Legasov’s intellectual and moral clarity function as the guiding light of the series. Even Legasov, though, is touched by the corrupting influence of lies.  His own moral compromise and later efforts to correct the failure form the narrative crisis of the series and Harris could not have done a better job with his role.[2]

Mazin has been clear that he understands Chernobyl to be about lies, particularly lies that become the bedrock of a given society. Mazin has been equally clear that this point about the consequences of embracing deception is particularly relevant for people living in the era of Donald Trump’s presidency. His interview with Entertainment Weekly gives a ready example:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With a project like Chernobyl, how do you make an event that happened decades ago seem so relevant now?

CRAIG MAZIN: Well, you can’t always. I mean, in some sense I think some things that happened a long time ago aren’t particularly relevant for now, but this one I think couldn’t be more so. It’s about the cost of lies. It’s about what happens when a culture and a government and a people begin to lose touch with the importance of the truth, and when that happens, there are costs. You may be able to get away with it for a while, but sooner or later it’s going to get you, and we are all of us right now living through a time when the truth is being manipulated and distorted and almost made fun of. The idea of truth is being laughed at. And that’s what Chernobyl is about, it’s about the cost of that, because it’s real.

Whatever an interviewer thinks of Trump as a person or politician, surely we must agree in general – deception is evil and the kind of evil that moves outward to wound other people. Lives and societies that make deception an integral part of their interaction with the broader world will unavoidably, eventually, find themselves in catastrophe.

Having noted that, we should also consider Mazin as a person who holds political beliefs since he has made commenting on particular political issues part of the metatextual life of Chernobyl. It appears that Mazin objects strenuously when others point out how his series addresses political issues beyond the age of Trump.

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Perhaps, like the world of his Chernobyl, Mazin is also subject to the corrupting touch of self-deception. All the better then for viewers to be reminded that deception is a deeply influential force, both subtle and powerful enough that merely being aware of the nature of lies isn’t a sufficient guard to protect against it.

3) Ep. 4, The Happiness of All Mankind – “A Nation Obsessed with Not Being Humiliated.”

Finally, we come to the actual thesis of Chernobyl: the destructive end of vainglory. The revelation comes in episode four within a heated conversation between Legasov, Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina[3] (a true Communist Party man when we first meet him but converted to the truth by Legasov’s influence), and Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk (a hybrid character representing numerous Russian scientists acting in good faith within the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear science community).

In the scene, the trio has hidden out in an abandoned building to hash out Legasov’s upcoming address to the international community on the subject of what happened at Chernobyl. Legasov is highly aware of two competing needs: the need to reveal the truth of Soviet negligence leading to the Chernobyl explosion and the reality that he will likely be tortured and killed if he reveals that truth. Khomyuk presses Legasov hard to indeed reveal the truth before Scherbina intervenes:

Shcherbina: “What you’re proposing is that Legasov humiliate a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated.”

Philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung has written on the difference between pride and vainglory[4]: “[the] prideful desire superiority, and the vainglorious desire the show of superiority.” This desire to show itself superior is the defining mark of Chernobyl’s vainglorious U.S.S.R., the nation Shcherbina describes as obsessed with not being humiliated.

In Chernobyl lies are the great reality in which the leaders of the U.S.S.R. live and move and have their being. Lies, in service to the vainglory of the State, are the highest good. And lies are also the ladder by which men and women attain better lives for themselves within that State. The lies that Mazin sees as so dangerous and so much at the heart of Chernobyl are actually underlings of the prior wickedness of vainglory. Dyatlov lies about a busted water tank in an impotent effort to fool reality into conforming to his wishes. The KGB pressures Legasov to lie to the world about the cause of the Chernobyl disaster in order to protect the U.S.S.R.’s international credibility. Legasov lies to himself that obeying the wishes of the KGB on this matter will be something he can live with. All of these lies are told to protect the false glory of the U.S.S.R.

The inhumanity of this way of lies is embodied in the stark architecture of Chernobyl’’s Pripyat. The buildings of the community are brutal and harsh. Yes, the community of workers and their families are portrayed in idyllic scenes (according to Mazin, the residents of Pripyat enjoyed a special quality of life compared to their fellow citizens in other parts of the Soviet Union). These scenes of family life and honest vocation, however, create a jarring contrast to the dehumanized backdrop of Pripyat’s apartment complexes. Like Jared Harris, Adam Nagaitis delivered a powerful performance in AMC’s The Terror and continues that run in Chernobyl, playing firefighter Vasily Ignatenko as first a forthright common man and then an innocent and suffering victim. His pregnant wife, Lyudmilla (played by future star Jessie Buckley) gives the viewer a powerful sense of just what the vainglorious bureaucrats behind the Chernobyl disaster wrought

Small wonder that vainglory leads to the same fall its sister sin pride does. Or, in the case of Chernobyl, an explosive collapse.  Like Herod before an adoring crowd, the U.S.S.R. fell and was eaten by worms. Mikhail Gorbachev has identified[5] the Chernobyl explosion as the “turning point” which opened “the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” In this way, I suppose, the events of Chernobyl became a kind of deliverance for many people in the U.S.S.R.  But that deliverance came at incredibly high price, one paid by a large number of regular folks who had no hand in the circumstances that created the trial by fire that was the Chernobyl disaster.

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I suspect Chernobyl, like the events of the Chernobyl disaster, will continue to be a subject of fascination in coming days. This is a series that invites and rewards multiple viewings, raising fundamental matters of human life. We are used to seeing the kind of carnage depicted in Chernobyl in disaster movies, the kind where a giant animal or berserk superhuman wreaks havoc on a global scale. But in April of 1986 these things really happened. These events happened because men love their own glory and created a nearly all-powerful state to function as a vehicle for their glory. No lie was too great to marshal in service to their vainglory, even when it imperiled the whole world. It took the death of a good man (in the civic sense; one who was a liar, yes, but a repentant liar) to bring the lies to an end and the edifice of deception crumbling down. The term “cautionary tale” was created to describe accounts like Chernobyl, but nonetheless feels inadequate when considering the human cost. Let us conclude that Chernobyl records a tragedy of almost limitless scale and, despite the horrors, is a story well worth remembering.

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[1] One content warning: in Ep. 3, “Open Wide, O Earth” there is a scene where male miners are having to work in the nude due to the incredible heat.  While the historically-accurate scene is fairly brief and entirely unsalacious, it does bear noting to viewers who have not yet seen the show. You can read more about the Chernobyl miners after the episode if you choose.

[2] On that point, Harris has a lengthy career as a character actor and his recent work on AMC’s The Terror suggested he was capable of a stellar performance, but Chernobyl puts his abilities on display as a top-shelf attraction.  I expect his star to rise exponentially as a result of his work here.

[3] No surprise, Skarsgård’s performance is superb.

[4] Quoted in Karen Swallow Prior’s review of DeYoung’s Vainglory: The Forgotten Sin for Christianity Today.  https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/november/were-so-vain.html

[5] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/turning-point-at-chernobyl

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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