The Infinite Loop: Chernobyl, Episodes 3-5

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Photographer Gerd Ludwig’s photo of Control Room #4, to which we return in Episode 5. From his book The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, which I helped fund via Kickstarter several years ago.

Since I wrote my last post five days ago, I have enveloped myself in both the remaining three episodes of Chernobyl, as well as reading a number of articles about the show, listening to all five episodes of the podcast writer/producer Craig Mazin put together to accompany it, reading the fascinating Twitter stream by Slava Malamud, a Russian-born writer who normally writes about hockey but who has been focusing on the scarily-accurate details of everyday life in the series, and reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, from which I quoted in the previous post.  Incidentally, Higginbotham’s book is quite recent (published earlier this year) and so was not used as a source for the series–but reading it makes it very clear that the show’s research is impeccable. I’ll return to the book after I look at the second three episodes of the series.

We left the second episode on a cliffhanger:  Three men had just entered the crippled plant to drain the water tanks from underneath the reactor, and we finished the episode in darkness.   Since it was widely believed that these three men did not survive this suicide mission, one could have been forgiven for assuming the show would take this tack as well.  It didn’t.  In the opening scene, the men are able to restore their lights and manage to emerge victorious.  This marks a transition of sort in the series away from immediate reaction to the emergency to beginning the long process of stabilization and cleanup.  This is also where the viewer begins to understand the human toll.  I’ll return to that in a moment.  I’m also going to get away from a strictly chronological narrative of these last episodes in favour of the general impressions they provide.

With the water drained, a group of miners from Tula are recruited to dig under the plant in order to install a heat exchanger to further lessen the chance that the reactor remnants might melt through the concrete base of the plant.  These miners are cocky and make it clear to the bureaucrat who has been assigned to enlist them that they are their own bosses. These guys are in a way the comic relief of the series–hard drinking, cursing, fatalistic, telling typically Russian jokes about the inefficiency of the system, and giving zero fucks. At one point, they start working naked because of the intense heat. Chided for not wearing “protection”, their leader rightly points out that their flimsy “protective gear” actually provides little protection, but “at least we’re wearing the fucking hats.”

And this particular episode needs some lightness because its other focus is the fate of the firefighters and plant workers we met in the first two episodes.  We know that they are likely all dead men walking, but it’s not quite so easy.  Lyudmilla, who we met in the very first scene, bribes her way into the hospital in Moscow where her husband Vasily (last seen heading straight for the roof of the ruined reactor) has been taken.  There, she finds him in good spirits, playing cards with other firefighters.  But ARS (acute radiation syndrome) is just lying in wait–we learn that after the initial batch of symptoms, depending on the severity of the exposure, it can take days, weeks, or even years to fully manifest, at which point the entire body starts to more or less disintegrate.  And this is what we see over the course of the episode, which alternates between scenes of the rapidly-declining Vasily and Lyudmilla (who stays with her husband and comforts him, even when told not to, even though we learn she is pregnant) and interviews of the key control room players by Khomyuk.  Dyatlov, in better shape than Akimov and Toptunov (who we saw sent into the bowels of the plant in the first episode to try to manually attempt to shut down the reaction), snarls at Khomyuk. Toptunov, who we learn is just 25 and new to his job as an engineer, wants to speak.  To say he is in grave condition is an understatement–his face and body is a swollen, discoloured mass. Khomyuk, told not to touch him, reaches inside the plastic bubble that surrounds him and wipes his bloody, missshapen lips, and learns his account of what happened. We also learn she talks to Akimov, whose “entire face is missing.”   The episode ends with Vasily’s burial in a lead coffin, which is then paved over with concrete. Lyudmilla holds his shoes, which were too small to fit onto his swollen feet.

The next episode is devoted to the liquidators–the men (and a few women) charged with the cleanup of the exclusion zone. It opens with the continuing evacuation of the countryside, where an old woman, refusing to leave, explains that she’s survived the Revolution, the Holodomor (although use of that name is likely anachronistic), and the Nazis.  The soldier who has come to evacuate her shoots the cow she is milking out from under her.   Then we meet a young conscripted soldier, Pavel, is linked up with a hard-smoking, hard-drinking Georgian Afghan war vet and another grizzled comrade to search the countryside for abandoned pets–whose fur is now irradiated and therefore dangerous–and to shoot them. The task is heartbreaking because, as the Georgian reveals, these are pets and will not run away, but will come right up to you.  The Georgian is surprisingly tender about the task, threatening Pavel with harm if he lets the animals suffer.  Pavel balks at first, but he seems to settle into the role with the help of stiff drink–until he encounters a litter of puppies.  The Georgian waves him away, and as he walks from the house, a shot is heard.  Russian-born Twitter commenter mentions that the depiction of the Georgian is pretty much pitch perfect, down to his unfiltered cigarettes (apparently an actual brand).

This episode also features another type of liquidator–the famous “biorobots.”  Faced with the need to clear the roof of the shattered plant of irradiated graphite and other debris, unused moon rovers (designed for an environment exposed to cosmic rays) are used for the intact levels. But the worst area is the shattered roof directly above the reactor. The army first brings in a West German police robot meant to deal with radioactive material–but they’ve not told the Germans just how intense the radiation is, and the robot survives only a few seconds before breaking down. So the decision is made to send in humans, dressed in ersatz, improvised protective gear, for short stints of just 90 seconds (all that they can stand before receiving a lifetime dose of radiation).  One of the most effective scenes of the entire series then follows, as we follow one team out onto the roof in real time, as they work to clear just a few pieces of graphite each by shoving them over the edge into the ruined reactor, gasping as they stumble or momentarily get their feet caught.  Later, as a team raises a red flag on the smokestack of the plant, we learn that over 3800 men participated in this cleanup effort.

This episode also sets up the final one, as Khomyuk discovers evidence of previous issues with the RBMK reactors, specifically a 1975 incident at Leningrad.  She urges Legasov to tell the truth at a congress in Vienna designed to investigate the accident; Shcherbina warns him of the consequences of doing so. (Khomyuk had also been detained by the KGB and bailed out by Legasov in the previous episode). To me, this final episode is simultaneously fascinating and a little disappointing.  We learn that while Legasov’s testimony in Vienna was praised for its honesty, it still hewed close to the government line that the disaster was caused by operator error, not by design flaws. The focus of this epiosode is on the show trial of plant management, including Dyatsov.  As Mazin concedes in his podcast, although the setting (in the city of Chernobyl) is recreated in exquisite detail, it’s not really accurate in terms of what was likely to have happened at the trial.  Legasov and Shcherbina weren’t present, for instance, so the climax of the trial–where Legasov concludes that the cause of the disaster was “lies”–feels forced and inauthentic.  That’s not to say that it was not his opinion–indeed, he spent the last year or so of his life increasingly disillusioned at the coverup of the causes of the accident, attempting to speak truth to power, and being more and more marginalized in his position.  He attempted suicide twice and also began to have health problems from the radiation.  But after his death, the tapes he made, which circulated among the scientific community in the USSR, accomplished what he could not in life:  Actual changes to the design of the RBMK reactor and retrofitting of existing plants.

But what does work–spectacularly–is the narrative device of returning, at last, to the hours before the disaster as we learn how the events unfolded that lead to the demise of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4.  After a panorama shot of Pripyat on that Friday morning, we see Dyatlov heading off to the plant.  In Brykanov’s office, they and Fomin discuss the upcoming test.  They speak of promotions, should they successfully complete it, and after Brykanov and Dyatlov leave, Fomin–in line for Brykanov’s job–leans against the wall behind Brykanov’s desk, as if trying it out.  We also learn of the postponement of the test until after midnight due to worry from Kiev about the possible loss of power–and the decision by Dyatlov to run the reactor at reduced power until then.

This is where the episode comes full circle to the first episode, where the first shots of the control room reveal the confusion and panic at what has just happened.  Back in the courtroom, after Khomyuk testifies about the lack of preparation of the night shift for te test–they had no idea they were expected to run a test and were given confusing instructions–Legasov explains the science behind the running of an RBMK nuclear reactor and what caused it to fail, using a very effective combination of red and blue cards (red, representing rising reactivity; blue, those forces that would make reactivity decline) to demonstrate the balance required.  This visual device serves brilliantly to illustrate what happened, starting with the reactivity-poisoning xenon that began to build up when the reactor was run for 12 hours on low power.  As Legasov narrates the story of the reactor’s final hours and minutes, we see what was happening in the control room at each step.  Once again, even though I know what is going to happen, I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that maybe, just maybe, if things go right, the disaster can be averted—but balanced, evenly at first but then, increasingly outweighed–by the knowledge of where this is all headed (much like the situation in the reactor itself).   We see the impatient Dyatlov urging the inexperienced Toptunov to “stop procrastinating” and decrease the power more quickly.  We see Akimov try to object, only to be threatened with loss of his job.   Somehow, Toptunov loses control of the power-down and it goes nearly to zero.  Dyatlov orders them to pull out control rods to restart the “stalled” reactor.  Even after pulling almost all of them out, they can’t get the power to go above 200.  So Akimov pushes the emergency shutdown button.

It should be noted that up until this point, while there was tension in the control room, the atmosphere had been more one of bickering about the test. Pushing the button should have taken the reactor back down to zero–but it instead acts as a detonator.  Why?  As it turns out, the control rods are tipped with graphite “to save money”, and the rods actually act as a catalyst.  Power spikes.  The control room stares in horror as the indicator spikes.  In the reactor room itself, the control rods literally begin to jump up and down as the reactor goes critical and then explodes.  We have come full circle, and we see the scenes that immediately preceded those control room scenes in the first episode, and we understand what those men could not–how a reactor that had been “switched off” could instead blow up.  And we see, up close, what we had only seen from afar in that first episode, the immediate aftermath at the plant itself, the roof of reactor 4 blown open, the dancing flames, and that ethereal blue column of ionizing radiation.

*****

Chernobyl is now apparently the highest-ranking TV show of all time as per IMDB (at 9.7).  What I loved about this show was the general willingness to let the real historical facts tell the story as much as possible, and where that was not possible, making reasonable, well-thought out substitutions.  It is very, very clear that Mazin and Renck did extensive research.  If there was an opportunity to augment the authenticity at any point, they took it, from using the actual evacuation recording from Pripyat to using the exact words of some of the players at crucial points.  But I want to particularly commend the costumers and set dressers and the location scouts.  As Slava Malamud pointed out in his Twitter commentary, this was not simply limited to choosing to film in a Soviet-era apartment complex and an existing RBMK reactor in Lithuania, but extended as deep as the shoes, the pottery, the brands of cigarettes, the office decor, and, of course, the clothing, which, with its wide ties and square-framed glasses to my eyes looks about 10 years out of date for 1986.  In many cases, the resemblance between the actors and the characters they portrayed is uncanny–a combination of stellar casting and outstanding makeup.  (I won’t even get into the amazing job they did portraying men suffering from ARS).   The colour palette of the indoor scenes also evoked the drabness of late Soviet decor, contrasting dramatically to the invisibly-poisoned but lush countryside we see in Episode 4.  But I particularly want to praise the decision not to use Russian accents–not just because, as Mazin puts it, that actors “act to accents” instead of pursuing a more natural style, but because what it did to me as a viewer:  to break down that invisible barrier that different languages can erect in movies like this one. A person with an accent is an “other.”  But a person who sounds like me (even a British version of me) is much more relatable–it is as if someone had placed a babelfish inside my ear and suddenly I can understand Russian. It also recognizes that there is, in fact, no one “Russian accent” – just as with Americans of various regionalities, Canadians, Brits, and Aussies, there are also regional–and national– Russian accents.  (Death of Stalin famously used different English and American accents to represent a variety of Russian accents, and Chernobyl does a little of that with the language spoken by the Georgian liquidator in episode 4.)

But the mastery of this series is in its unsettling creepiness.  The first two episodes, shot mostly at night, read like a horror film, where a terrible monster may lurk behind any door–but where it slowly dawns on all involved that the monster is not lurking at all.  It is, in fact, everywhere.  It is invisible (other than that ethereal blue light), and it is without mercy.  And it is slaughtering, first, innocents who had no idea of what they were facing, and then later, men and women of courage who, regardless of their own fears, sometimes against their will face the beast and do what they are commanded to do.  Some will die within days; some will take years.  The atmosphere settles down to a feeling of deep, dull, radioactive ash-dusted exhaustion in the final three episodes, contrasting markedly with the crispness of the cinematography of the events before the disaster.  It’s a shocking contrast to see just how much the events–and the radiation–has aged the main characters.

The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir includes both original music and some traditional Russian and Ukranian songs. The original songs, which dominate the first two episodes, were recorded from sounds produced within a disused power plant (quite possiby the Ignalina plant where some of the scenes were filmed, although this was unclear).    Guðnadóttir says she meant to evoke the feel of the power station and its demise, describing it as “how a catastrophe sounds like.” Another highlight is the traditional Ukrainian Orthodox hymn Vichnaya Pamyat (Memory Eternal), sung by a male chorus, played in full at the very end of the concluding episode. If you are a fan of Eastern Orthodox liturgical chant, you’ll know its ability to evoke an otherworldly atmosphere and to convey a sense of deep wonder–or, in this case–boundless grief. It’s played over the long final sequence when we see the photographs of the real historical figures and learn the fates of those who survived beyond the events portrayed in the series.

Russian/former Soviet reaction to the series has been mixed.  Many ex-pats and Ukrainians, such as the aforementioned Slava Malamud, have praised the extensive work done to recreate the Russia of the 1980s, from clothing to furniture to snacks (apparently sunflower seeds are the “popcorn of Russia.”)  They have also praised the depiction of the attitudes of the Soviet bureaucracy and the reliance on, as much as possible, actual events and dialog, while recognizing that certain liberties had to be taken for the purposes of dramatization.  For example, the “biorobots” were doing their job while the Sarcophagus (the concrete shell which was built to contain the ruined reactor building) was under construction; Mazin left this out to keep the narrative focused on the human aspect of the cleanup.  New Yorker columnist Masha Gesson (whose book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I highly recommend and thought of often as I watched) was more critical, particularly at the willingness of various characters to challenge authority and those trial scenes.  She’s not wrong.  That being said, Mazin addresses most of this openly in the series of five podcasts that he made to accompany the series, pointed out the changes he made for the sake of storytelling.  And he’s not wrong, either.  The overarching cause of the disaster was the inability and unwillingness to listen to truth, as well as a system that did not tolerate dissent.  Pro-government Russian media response has also been negative;  this article (from a pro-Western source) sums it up well. Incidentally, apparently there’s now a pro-Kremlin company now shooting their own version of the events where the disaster was the result of sabotage by the CIA.

********

Finally, Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl really could be a companion book to the series.  It gives depth and context to the disaster, telling the history of the Soviet nuclear power industry, the development of the RBMK reactor, and the construction of Chernobyl and Pripyat.  One fascinating fact is that a fifth and sixth reactor were under construction, and another half dozen reactors were slated to be built across the river from the first six. Pripyat was expected to grow to 200,000 residents.  The book also explains the failings of the RBMK reactors (some of which is covered in Legasov’s presentation in episode 5), as well as explaining in detail the types of radiation (alpha and beta particles, gamma rays) and the particular types of damage they can do.  The book then follows a chronological approach to the disaster:  The prelude, the explosion itself, the fire, the fates of those taken to Hospital #6 in Moscow with ARS the evacuation, the radioactive cloud produced by the explosion and its subsequent detection in Europe, and the race to avoid meltdown into the water table.  The focus them moves to the building of the Sarcophagus (something not touched on in the series), the liqidators, and the “bio-robots” before covering the trial, the discovery of the melted reactor core (which began with the famous “Elephant’s Foot”) and the ongoing fallout (pun partially intended) to this day.   Higginbotham’s narration is as taut, dread-inducing, and deeply researched as the series, but has the added advantage of being completely factual–after 386 pages of text, he includes over 100 pages of endnotes and a 27-page bibliography.

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Perhaps my favourite of Gerd Ludwig’s Chernobyl photos, taken in a room in the Energy Block of Reactor #4, where the clock is frozen at the time of the disaster. Radioactivity is so high here the Ludwig barely had a chance to take this one shot.

 

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