Chernobyl: The Voice of a Tragedy

“What is the cost of lies?” Sometimes, it has minimum effects. Other times, it affects an entire continent. That’s what happened at the Vladimir Lenin Nuclear Power Station, exactly in the reactor number 4, on April 26, 1986. An event that involved a large number of human lives, that currently involves it and it will keep doing it for many years to come. Chernobyl is the story of what happened during that specific night and roughly the next year. Since the first few minutes, the series sets its main mood: realism. Everything we see, hear and live with the characters in those chaotic and tense minutes feels extremely real. Strong scenes are one of the keys to the success of the series to pull the audience in a reality without illusion: the radiation effects on the workers in the power plant are the first thing that could distress part of the viewers. Not an easy thing to watch, if you are a sensitive viewer. Another factor that helps the whole picture to be real is the accuracy of the scientific and technical details that we’re told through the figures of the workers first, and then through the voice of Valery Legasov, one of the heroes that the series introduces us to. From the start to the very end the series keeps his intensity high, it just changes the way it does: starting from the radiations burning on the skin of the firefighters, through a pregnant woman that risks everything to stay close to her love, acts of heroism and a final trial where we become aware of all the consequences that this tragedy had on the characters (and a whole continent). As usual, here comes your SPOILER ALERT, so stop with the reading if you haven’t watched the entirety of this excellent HBO series.

Episodes 1-3

In these first three episodes we witness the dramatic events from the very start, and their immediate consequences on everyone involved in the nearby areas. First episode kicks off with an unknown man recording tapes, and the scenes end with his suicide, hanging from the wall; this scene will only acquire a deeper meaning in the end of the series. Then, things get straight into action with the explosion itself, which we watch from the distant point of view of Vasily, a firefighter, and his lover Lyudmila in the nearby district of Pripyat, just before being brought to the very core of the events in the power plant. The workers are starting to panic, except for comrade Anatoly Dyatlov, who’s in strong denial about what just happened. We look at the apocalyptic scenario, with people vomiting, spitting blood and turning red from skin burns, while we go through the events almost minute by minute, in a documentary-like sequence. When the fire brigades arrive at the scene, we apprehend the inevitable: the core exploded, marking the start of a catastrophe that nobody fully understand, exception made for the viewer, who’s fully aware of what’s going on. The scene of the “Bridge of Death” it’s highly dramatic: kids playing in the night, men and women observing in disbelief, while we see the radiations hit them. Nobody will survive, that’s what we find out later on, in the series credits.

As the daylight comes, the realisation of the disaster is clearer: a black, toxic radioactive cloud is floating above the core, as we see a little bird falling from the sky as kids are walking their way to school, marking the end of the first episode. In the second one we meet our hero Legasov, sent from Soviet government with Boris Scherbina to keep the situation under control, and later on Ulana Khomyuk, a character created by the writers of the series to impersonate all the people and scientists that tried to oppose the Soviet government.

The situation is immediately clear to Legasov when he gets to the scene, and immediately understands that this is a catastrophe that will require a massive amount of efforts to be contained, and one important, scary and distressing factor: sacrifice. Human lives have to be sacrificed to save other human lives, to preserve the greater good. So we witness the workers of the power plant being asked to get in its basement in a suicidal attempt to prevent a nuclear explosion: three men stand as volunteers. “Victories come at a cost”, and this cost this time has three names: Amanenko, Bezpalov and Baranov. We follow them into their claustrophobic descent, in a dark, radioactive environment, while the radiations meters go crazy with a deafening sound.

Meanwhile Lyudmila arrives in Moscow, after she apprehends that Vasily has been moved there to be treated properly after being contaminated by radiations: her love is so strong that, even if warned not to touch him in anyway, she hugs him, in a mix of undying love and obliviousness. She’s pregnant, so she’s risking both her life and the one of her future child, which we know will give his life for her: the child, in fact, will absorb most of the radiations and Lyudmila will lose both Vasily and her baby. More human sacrifices to keep other people alive. That’s what keeps going on at the power plant where coal miners are brought in for another suicidal mission to prevent contaminated water in the basement to fall into the ground and spread; most of them will die before reaching their forties.

As we start to know that there is a big secret about the RBMK reactors (the ones used in Chernobyl and the whole Soviet Union at the time) being kept by the Soviet leaders we slowly start to learn the truth that will be unfolded during the last two episodes of the show.

Episode 4

“The happiness of all mankind.” In this dramatic episode we have a closer look to what happened to Chernobyl and the surrounding area of 2600 square feet around the power plant, known as the Exclusion Zone. Soviet soldiers are used to clear up the roof from the radioactive graphite, after an attempt to use robots went bad, as the radiations are too strong for a robot to work in such a dangerous environment: the solution is then to use “bio-robots”, humans, at the cost of their life, once again. Meanwhile we see Pavel joining the military department in charge of the destruction of the environment around Chernobyl. Plants, trees, animals and the very ground itself must be destroyed and killed. We follow Pavel with Bacho in a heart-melting dog hunting session, where we see them take shots at the poor animals contaminated with radiations.

Dozens of dead dogs are loaded on the truck and buried under concrete in a scene of high emotional intensity, which is preceded from the killing of a dog and his puppies by Bacho, after that Pavel couldn’t make it. Meanwhile, the KGB still tries to cover up what happened in Chernobyl, and Legasov, Ulana and Boris argue about what’s next: they know that what happened is government’s fault, but they can’t speak up because their lives are on the line. So Legasov lies to the whole world in Vienna, entirely blaming the workers, which will be put on a trial.

Episode 5

The moment of truth has come, and this final episode gives us all the answers we have been looking for during the previous episodes: Legasov made a deal with the KGB, to keep quiet about the RBMK reactor defect if the government had fixed them all in reasonable time. This episode is entirely focused on the trial, and as the story is being narrated we watch flashbacks about what really happened that 26 of April, 1986: a safety test that shouldn’t have been attempted, as it had been delayed 10 hours, and the night shift wasn’t aware of the situation and what they were even trying to do. Legasov, after explaining all the details about how a reactor works and how it could explode, finally says the truth and blames the Soviet government, that to save money on the construction of the reactors endangered millions of lives. Legasov loses his position of power within the party and he is condemned to a life of solitude, marked as a liar by the Soviet Union, and his testimony removed from the official reports of the trial. “What is the cost of lies?“. That is the last sentence of Valery Legasov, as we are told by credits that he will hung himself two years later, after recording tapes with the truth, which spread across the country and the world, forcing the Soviet Union officials to acknowledge the design flaws of the RBMK reactors and to retrofit them. So what is really the cost of lies? This can be quantified in numbers, in this case: thousands of lives lost, thousands of square feet land which is still radioactive nowadays and it will be for many years to come (around 20.000 years), an increase in cancer rates around Chernobyl area, and many more people that had to be removed from their houses.

That’s what Chernobyl is. A story of human tragedies, a story of a disaster that could have been avoided. A disaster that deranged the lives of many people, which we see through Vasily, Lyudmila, Pavel, Bacho, power plant workers. Soldiers serving their country and being rewarded with a handful of rubles for sacrificing their lives. Coal miners. Scientists, farmers forced to live their homes, government officials. The drama that these people lived could never be fully pictured by someone that didn’t experience this in first person, but Chernobyl accomplishes its intent to make the viewer empathize with the characters’ stories, to communicate distress to a large audience, that feels surrounded by an intense wave of invisible, nonexistent radiations created by the mastery of the writers to produce tension in every single situation throughout the whole show. #Chernobyl is definitely a must watch that will be remembered as one of the best TV shows ever made.

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