Last night, after reading that the new HBO series Chernobyl was now the highest-ranked series ever in IMDB, I watched the first two episodes–two of the most riveting, terrifying, horrific hours I had ever spent watching anything. And this is despite–I might even say due to–the fact that I know the events of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster quite intimately. The ruins of Pripyat are old friends, and I’ve read quite a bit on the events themselves. I know what’s coming.
And that makes it even more terrifying.
This, for me, encapsulates why I am not bothered by–why I even seek out–spoilers.
I know I’m a heretic when it comes to this. Recently, with the release of the final Avengers movie and the last season of Game of Thrones, in the virtual world the air was thick with those who were trying to avoid spoilers and proscriptions of doom upon anyone that might post them. Meanwhile, I’m happily finding the back alleys of the Internet where people trade spoilers like bootleg ABBA albums–secrets that no one quite wants to admit to. Don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t dare post them myself. But I have found I enjoy a movie (or a book, even) having some general idea of where it’s going.
But it’s taken Chernobyl to shine some light on why that might be. It’s simple: History.
What makes me most happy is the detective work of historical research–finding the hints, the clues, the evidence, and starting to put together a picture–based on both logic and emotion–of what happened.
But this passion extends far beyond the confines of researching history. This is how I think. This is why it’s not enough for me to simply enjoy a story, a piece of music or art, a poem, or a movie. I want to inundate myself in it. I want to place each word, scene, note, or brushstroke into its larger context. I want to grapple with meaning and larger issues. I want to engage with the creators. There is no such thing for me as passive entertainment. Either I am wholly drawn in, or I am bored.
And for me, that means going into any situation, whenever possible, with background knowledge. Depending on the topic, sometimes this will be at a fairly high level so as to leave some of the specifics as a surprise. For instance, when I went to hear Mahler’s Symphony #2 (Resurrection), I was spurred on by the number of friends who seemed to be listening to it as a balm of sorts in the wake of the Notre Dame fire. Ahead of time, I read up on the symphony–first about Mahler’s life and the broader historical context, and then on how the work itself evolved. I had heard the symphony once before months ago, rather passively over headphones, and realized that it seemed to be the kind of work that would work best with the direct engagement of a live performance. So I did not listen to it again until the performance–and was richly rewarded. The knowledge I did have made me more engaged as a listener, and helped to open the door to enjoyment not just at an emotional level, but at a logical level as well.
When it comes to fiction, this is a little more difficult. Sometimes I do look at the ending, just to get a sense of where we’re going, but with the best authors, looking at the ending doesn’t really reveal much except who might be still alive. I’ll often read reviews and interviews with authors to get an idea of their own background material and context coming into a particular book. Again, this helps in the enjoyment of the experience.
But I’m definitely not “that guy” (or girl) who likes to spoil things for others. I may roll my eyes a bit at the frantic avoidance of spoilers at any or all cost, or at the idea that a spoiler can “ruin” a movie, but I sure as hell won’t be the person posting those spoilers for any experience that relies heavily on the element of revealed mystery as part of its appeal. I’m not the proselytizing type of heretic. I do find my own skulking in those internet back alleys, but I’m happy to keep it there and let others enjoy experiences in the ways that are meaningful to them.
Back, then, to Chernobyl. It’s a five-part limited-run series that for obvious reasons will not have a sequel. It is a co-production between HBO in the US and Sky in the UK, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johann Renck, and it’s rather amazing to note just how much momentum it’s picked over the last week or two, now that Game of Thrones is over. We fortuitously decided to pick up a subscription to Crave here in Canada in the last week, and spotted it right away in the HBO feed, not knowing anything about it. Of course, I had to watch, ruins and disaster enthusiast that I am. There really isn’t anything to spoil here, as the history is known. And honestly, even if you read what I’m about to describe, I don’t think it will lessen the experience by one iota.
The first episode opens with a man recording a cassette tape in a dingy, Soviet-style apartment. He mentions Chernobyl, and the light sentence accorded to someone named Dyatlov for the disaster. He puts the cassette in its holder, wraps it up with five others in newspaper, and goes out with it secreted in a garbage pail. Across the street, someone watches from a black car. He empties the pail and stashes the tapes in a vent. He returns to his apartment. Feeds his cat. Hangs himself.
Two years and one day earlier: A woman in the bathroom. She emerges, starts to move around her apartment, while what we assume is her husband stirs to life.
Out the window, in the distance, Chernobyl explodes.
She doesn’t notice, until moments later, the shock wave hits.
Of course, I, the viewer, know exactly what just happened there. The woman and the man do not.
We cut to a scene of the control room. Over the next half an hour or so, various workers will insist that the graphite has exploded, only to be told–by a man we learn is Dyatlov–that that could not possibly have happened. Dosimeters will be brought out and used as evidence to prove that the situation is not dire, when in fact they’ve maxed out. Other, higher-scale dosimeters will either fail or be dismissed as faulty. Workers will be sent out into the plant to determine the extent of what they believe is a fire. In darkened halls with cracked walls and dripping water, they will see fragments of something on the floor.
I know exactly what it is. It’s graphite. It’s radioactive. And it’s going to kill them.
The plant itself becomes a monster more frightening than any horror movie villain. In its darkened, cracked halls, behind every corner death awaits, invisibly, reinforced by the hollow, ominous, otherworldly soundtrack. The first sign is a reddening face from the radiation. One character pushes a door shut with his hip–only to look down and see blood spreading on his white uniform. We see him later, in extremis, given a final cigarette.
Committees of engineers and local Party officials are convened to assess the issue. Dyatlov continues to insist everything is under control, that the radiation is low–until the moment that he throws up from radiation sickness and is taken away. He has just insisted that he’ll go up to the roof and look down into the reactor to prove his point that it could not have possibly exploded and exposed the core. Since he is ill, that falls to Sitnikov, the man who has challenged him–who knows that this task will kill him. He reluctantly obeys.
By then, realization is starting to creep in that perhaps this situation is more serious than initially thought. By then, however, the townspeople of nearby Pripyat have already been watching the spectacle of the fire from various vantage points around the town. A blue beam of light seems to rise to the heavens from the plant. I know what they don’t–this is ionizing radiation. Birds fall from the sky. Trees redden. Ashes and debris float over the town. The children play in them.
The woman in the opening scene’s husband, a firefighter, responds to the “fire.” Around the ground lay chunks of something. Another firefighter picks up a piece, wondering what it is. Moments later, his hand is red and bleeding from radiation burns. Yet the firefighters push on. We know they’re doomed.
Somewhere, deep in the the bowels of the plant, the core, exposed to air, is beginning to melt.
I cannot not watch, horrible as it is, as if to bear witness.
As we move into the second episode, a scientist in Minsk tests a piece of debris that she’s found at her window and quickly understands that the spike in radiation she’s seeing has to have come from uranium decay. She phones the nearest plant. They’re fine. She phones Chernobyl. No answer. We see her go to pains to disguise her continuing inquiries about the situation–still not yet public–throughout the episode.
We again meet the man who we saw in the first scene. This is Legasov, a nuclear scientist, who has been commanded to attend an emergency meeting in Moscow with top Soviet officials, including Gorbachev. Just before entering, he reads a report about the accident. We see the realization creep across his face, and know he knows and understands what has happened. When the meeting convenes, officials continue to push the Party line that all is under control. He challenges that, and Gorbachev, realizing he knows what he is talking about, sends him to Chernobyl with Shcherbina, a skeptical Party official who does at least admit he knows nothing about nuclear technology. Flying close to the reactor, Legasov will point out the blue glow of ionizing radiation as proof that the core is exposed.
The hospital begins to be overwhelmed with victims of radiation sickness. One nurse, realizing that the burns they are seeing are not regular burns, orders the victims stripped of their contaminated clothing. One nurse looks at her suddenly-reddened hands with horror. The woman from the beginning, whose name is Ludmilla, rushes into the hospital looking for her husband, Vasiley. He’s been sent to Moscow. The last time we had seen him, he was about to go to the roof of the reactor. We know what that means.
Pripyat is finally evacuated. The show uses the actual recording of the evacuation order over scenes of residents calmly boarding buses. I know what they do not–they will never return. After, we see scenes of the empty city. Its abandonment has begun.
The last scene of the second episode is absolutely shattering. Warned by Khomyuk (the scientist from Minsk) that the boron and silicate that Legasov had ordered dropped on the plant will create a kind of lava that could melt through the concrete floor and into water reservoirs, creating a second explosion of steam, three workers volunteer for what they know is a suicide mission to wade into the water and drain the tanks. To the sound of a crescendo of clicks from their dosimetres, they enter the plant. Their breathing accelerates as they try to communicate in muffled tones through their protective suits. Their lights fail from the intensity of the radiation.
The screen goes black.
That’s where the second episode ends. And the bulk of it is absolutely true, although liberties were taken with some of the characters, some of the details, and the timing of some events. For instance, a district in Vilnius, Lithuania provided the Soviet-style apartment blocks to represent Pripyat; some of them clearly have modern windows. The crash of a helicopter that flies over the core did not happen until a few months later. The character of Khomyuk is a composite of a number of scientists. Legasov was indeed the head of the commission that flew to Chernobyl to investigate, but several other scientists accompanied him. And our three volunteers at the very end of episode 2? All apparently lived. Two are still alive today.
One of the most fascinating substitutions was the use of the decommissioned Ignalina nuclear plant (also in Lithuania) to film shots in and around the Chernobyl plant (CGI being apparently used for the exterior shots of the ruined reactor). This is a two-unit RBMK-type reactor that was only shut down in 2009. This, of course, prompted me to Google to find out how many RBMK reactors are still operational–the number is 10, as of December, 2018. They’ve all been significantly modified, of course, but it took Legasov’s suicide to draw attention to the fact that the reactor’s design flaws had been known for some time.
And that blue column? Here’s Adam Higginbotham, from his book Midnight in Chernobyl:
“And from somewhere in the heart of the tangled mass of rebar and shattered concrete—from deep inside the ruins of Unit Four, where the reactor was supposed to be—Alexander Yuvchenko could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity. Delicate and strange and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds. Then Tregub yanked him back around the corner and out of immediate danger: the phenomenon that had entranced the young engineer was created by the radioactive ionization of air and was an almost certain sign of an unshielded nuclear reactor open to the atmosphere.”
Stay tuned for my thoughts on parts 3-5 of Chernobyl.
Here are links to a few of my sources for this post:
‘Chernobyl’ Review: HBO’s Haunting Miniseries Will Emotionally Destroy You
Chernobyl True Story: What The HBO Miniseries Gets Right (& Changes)
Chernobyl Is Easily The Best HBO Show In Years
If HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Was Made by Russians
Chernobyl’s creator explains why most of the cast don’t put on Ukrainian/Russian accents