It also cements the show’s status as one of the best TV shows of the year.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 2 through 8 is “Vichnaya Pamyat,” the fifth and final episode of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.
The most chilling scene in the final episode of Chernobyl involves a man speaking calmly in a courtroom as he tosses aside a handful of blue placards, one by one, in favor of red ones.
The blue placards represent a nuclear plant operating as planned. The red ones represent a nuclear plant cascading toward a disaster that will soon engulf large portions of Europe in radiation, require the evacuation of an entire city, and kill as many as 90,000 people. As blue turns to red, no matter how calm the man’s voice remains, we know doom is on the horizon.
This is the trick of Chernobyl, one of my favorite TV shows of the year so far and a surprise hit for both HBO and Sky, the British network that co-funded it. The five-episode miniseries breaks down big, impossibly dense topics, in part by having actors you know and love from other projects explain them to you in minute detail. But it’s never boring, perhaps because it opens with the explosion and its immediate aftermath, so you know what’s at stake (in the worst-case scenario, an entire continent could be irradiated). It’s always compelling and often terrifying.
Yet Chernobyl isn’t a polemic against nuclear power or against the Soviet Union or against communism in general. That would be too easy, and it would let American and British viewers off the hook too readily. Instead, Chernobyl is a polemic against lies.
And “lies,” in this case, include stories themselves.
Trying to find “the whole truth” is almost always impossible, especially in societies that are all too comfortable with easy lies
Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin told me in a recent interview that he wrote the first couple of episodes of the miniseries in the buildup to the 2016 presidential election, and the last couple episodes immediately after Donald Trump had been elevated to the Oval Office. Perhaps that’s why so much of Chernobyl seems so pointed, so directed not at the crumbling Soviet Union of the mid-1980s but at a very different and much more contemporary crumbling nation.
But you can go even bigger than that, because the truths at the center of Chernobyl are not only pretty universal but deeply damning. Human institutions, after a certain point, become mostly interested in sustaining themselves — and as a result, they will frequently accept convenient lies over difficult truths, provided the convenient lies will allow them to avoid rethinking the way they do things.
Right now, we live on a planet that is getting warmer and warmer because it’s more convenient to believe that we still have plenty of time to slow the effects of climate change rather than understand that our window is rapidly closing. No matter how loud the drumbeat of disaster, humans are just dense enough to assume that we’ll continue to persist much the way we always have because, well, we adapt to just about anything. It’s kind of what we’re best at.
This problem with our affinity for convenient lies only becomes more of an issue once they’re tied to narratives that are deeply interwoven with our sense of self. Ideas like “American exceptionalism” or “the Soviet Union is built atop absolute equality and community interest” aren’t really true, but they feel true because they’re rooted in stories that citizens of those nations hear time and again, from birth until death. To puncture those stories, something seismic has to happen.
So it is with the explosion at Chernobyl, which starts out as something very bad and then proceeds toward something much, much worse, before it is stopped from reaching “worst” by brave people who throw themselves into the path of a freight train. Yet the tension within “Vichnaya Pamyat” (which roughly translates to “everlasting memory”) is about whether the Soviet system — so deeply focused on not being humiliated — will even let the truth about the faulty construction of Chernobyl, which led to the explosion, out for public consumption.
That’s why the central scene of the episode involves Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and those placards. He has been asked to present a case that suggests the explosion was preventable, that human error might be the reason for the whole ordeal. And while he knows the men in the control room that fateful night made several bad decisions, he also knows that the construction of the plant itself was flawed, due to a safety measure that turned out to be anything but.
Yet because nuclear power plants in the West had already corrected for this opposite-of-safety measure, the Soviets don’t want the world to know that their plants were faulty from the moment they were designed, time bombs just waiting to go off. Legasov is asked to present some of the truth — the men in the control room did make bad decisions — but not all of it. The decisions were bad not only because the men (and one man named Dyatlov in particular) moved too hastily and made incredibly misguided choices. They were also bad because the plant’s design was flawed to begin with, and they had no way of knowing that.
And then so many lives were lost to the bombardment of radiation in the wake of the explosion simply because, at every level of the Soviet power structure, it was easier to insist that things were okay, that the plant explosion was just a minor fire, even though it was obvious to people as far away as Sweden (who detected an alarming rise in radiation levels in the air) that something terrible had happened.
But here’s the final twist of the knife: In reality, Legasov wasn’t in that courtroom. He didn’t deliver the testimony we see him deliver in “Vichnaya Pamyat.” It was presented by other people, who are not characters within Chernobyl, but Mazin knew that after having followed Legasov this long, viewers would want to see him bring everything home. To tell you a partial truth, Mazin had to tell you a completely fabricated version of what “really” happened, and then hope you will go and find out the rest on your own.
The Chernobyl finale is also a marvel of episodic structure
As mentioned above, Chernobyl’s first episode begins with the explosion, which is seen not up close but through a kitchen window in the nearby town of Pripyat. Well, technically, the episode begins with Legasov hanging himself, two years to the day after the explosion, but it then flashes back to the explosion itself and follows through in chronological order, proceeding with the many heroic attempts to halt the course of disaster and navigate its grim aftermath (which includes a heart-wrenching scene in which men walk through Pripyat and kill irradiated cats and dogs, which have become dangerous merely by an accident of geography).
So it’s a bit of a surprise when the finale begins not with the courtroom — the logical endpoint of this story — but with a sunny, happy day in Pripyat, around 12 hours before the reactor explosion that will force the city’s residents to abandon it forever. What follows is a series of cuts between Legasov’s dry, detached commentary on the disaster in the courtroom and the actual buildup to the disaster on the night it happened.
The men on trial, now looking haggard and sickly and distraught, answer questions in clipped dialogue, which feels alien compared to the mounting panic we see every time the episode cuts back to that horrible night.
The structure of “Vichnaya Pamyat” is vaguely reminiscent of the film Titanic, which features a computer recreation of the sinking of its titular ship in its early going, so that we viewers can know exactly what’s happening when it actually begins sinking in the 1912-set scenes that make up the bulk of the film.
But here, the divide between “careful recreation of a disaster” and “seeing the disaster actually unfold” is one that yields two kinds of horror. One is the futile cautionary tale of a scientific report that explains the worst — while knowing the worst has only narrowly been averted — and the other is the immediate, crushing disquietude of watching things spiral out of your control, followed by the awful realization that humanity is so, so fallible and so, so mortal in the face of awesome cosmic forces we pretend to control.
In a strange way, however, there’s another divide at work: the gap between seeing the explosion through a faraway kitchen window in Chernobyl’s premiere and then seeing it up close, from the point of view of the people working at the nuclear plant, as it unfolds in the finale.
Exploring that gap is what the series has been doing all along. It takes us from what most of us already know about Chernobyl — it blew up, right? — and then slowly pushes us closer and closer, until we’re forced to look at the human cost. And only then are we ready to see all the follies and breathtaking, ass-covering incompetence that led to the unthinkable moments that followed.
Chernobyl, then, functions as science fiction in a very different sense of that term. It is a fictional recreation of a real scientific event, and it is a fictional recreation that aims to get us to understand the science behind that event. Like the best science fiction, it leaves you feeling like you better understand the science, if only a little. And like the best science fiction, it’s very difficult to watch without seeing the present casting its shadow over a story that should feel very far removed from us indeed.
Chernobyl is available in its entirety on HBO’s streaming platforms.
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