Lately, I’ve found myself very attracted to stories about massive mobilization to prevent some existential threat (mostly sci-fi stories about sci-fi threats.) Organizations, especially governments, doing what needs to be done, surviving by the skin of their teeth, saving the world from crisis through collective, concerted action. (Gee I fucking wonder why that would be so appealing to me anyway its hot out here.) So yeah, I liked Chernobyl a lot.
Chernobyl is an HBO miniseries created by Craig Mazin and starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emma Watson, about the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the effort to contain the catastrophe. So it’s not really a story about stopping a catastrophe, but rather stopping a catastrophe from becoming a thousand times worse. Before watching this show, I had no idea how bad the Chernobyl incident was, much less how bad it threatened to become, but holy shit. Essentially, the show has built-in escalating stakes. First they have to just stop the fire, but once they’ve done that they’ve got to keep the meltdown from setting off a thermonuclear explosion, then they’ve got to keep it from reaching the groundwater that millions of Ukrainians drink from—there’s always another crisis around the corner, each problem causes its own problems, and so does each solution. An unending parade of “no, and” and “yes, but.”
And every actor turns in a stellar performance. There’s a weird interplay between a kind of starchy, bureaucratic register that everyone has to produce because this is how things get done in the Soviet Union, and the apocalyptic no-amount-of-terror-is-inappropriate panic that something like Chernobyl engenders, an interplay which 1. I love because it just rings so true and it’s so eerily entrancing to watch people pronounce doom in the same way they might ask to be CCed on a memo, and 2. all the actors nail.
A pretty obvious theme of the show is that of truth and lies, the denial and suppression of truth, the denial and suppression of science. It’s something Jared Harris, as Valery Legasov, a nuclear physicist and head of a commission to investigate the disaster, talks about in each of the five episodes. Scenes of authority figures flatly telling people that they didn’t see what they saw are chilling, and should resonate with a lot of viewers.
What really got me was the less explicit, though ever-present, theme of long-term consequences. As I said earlier, each problem causes its own problems, and even when everything is as fixed as its gonna be, the area around Chernobyl is still uninhabitable. Which, I mean, of course it is—it’s a nuclear power plant, processing radioactive material, some of which has a half-life of tens of thousands of years. It is the ultimate image of unfathomable long-term consequences, of the fallout that never ends.
At the end of the show, before the final credits, there’s a where-are-they-now/what-actually-happened sequence, with subtitles and real historical footage explaining the events of the Chernobyl disaster not covered by the show. And rather than being a perfunctory little add-on, as these types of sequences normally are in documentaries and historical films, this series of videos and subtitles actually drives home this theme of the disaster’s ever-expanding and never-ending scope. The sequence lasts 5 minutes and 55 seconds, and it had me in tears. It starts with just the main characters, when they died, their legacies, who they really were, but then it keeps going, and then it keeps going, and then it keeps going, it touches on all the people tried for misconduct, the miners that prevented a thermonuclear explosion, the people who removed graphite from the roof, even the people who stood on a bridge near Chernobyl and watched the fire burning; those who somehow survived and those who, sooner or later, were killed by cancer or radiation poisoning.
I don’t want to reduce this show to allegory, because it resonates with a lot of different situations in a lot of different countries. All I can say is, as someone who thinks a great deal about climate change, the lives it has already claimed, and the many more lives it will claim with each passing day—as someone who thinks about that, this show about lies, denial, and the favoring of short-term gain over long-term consequences, this show about a manmade catastrophe that was the end of the world for thousands of Ukrainians, this show about a crisis that killed and poisoned its victims years or decades after it started, this show hit home for me. Among people who talk about such things, the massive mobilization of the US during World War II is frequently mentioned as a model for the urgency with which we must respond to climate change. Overlooked in this model is the fact that we did not stop World War II. 11 million people were exterminated by Germany, and tens of millions more were killed before the war was over. We did not prevent WWII, but we stopped it from getting worse, and it seems quite likely that this will be the same with climate change. So it is both heartbreaking and somewhat inspiring to watch a show about a group of people, a whole state, that has perilously wounded itself from willful ignorance in the pursuit of short-term gain, and that yet manages to give everything it has to pull itself back from cataclysm.
Connect it to what you will. It’s a powerful narrative, executed beautifully by the writers, actors, and cinematographers. Just 5 hours long, it is well worth your time if you have HBO, and worth a trial subscription if you don’t.