Right on the heels of Game of Thrones finale, HBO, in collaboration with SKY, came out with a gem of a miniseries - Chernobyl. Within weeks after release, the show shot up to the top of IMDB's best TV shows list beating out the likes of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Band of Brothers. It is hard to think of a show that is as stunning on a technical level and in terms of writing. Its portrayal of radiation as an invisible "monster" that can only be detected with dosimeters easily makes it one of the scariest shows ever to grace TV. It expertly blends horror movie elements without ever falling into the canned tropes of the genre. On the contrary, it is very respectful to the real events of the actual disaster in 1986 and is always mindful of the fact that this is a real place with real people that were, and still are, affected by the tragedy. What immediately stands out to viewers of the series is how real it seems, so much so that it could very well have been a documentary. Despite the heaviness and immense scale of the event, the show does an incredible job of focusing on the personal horrors and agonies faced by people introduced in the show - which makes it immediately more relatable. Even famous individuals, whether they be scientists or politicians, are depicted with all their foibles, concerns and worries in a viscerally real way. Arguably, the biggest success of the show is that it allowed people around the world for the first time to learn about the incredible heroism and sacrifice of the Soviet people in trying to save a continent - facts that were hidden from the public for more than 30 years.
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This episode, perhaps more than any other in the series, depicts vividly the extent of the disaster at Chernobyl. 7 hours after the explosion, spikes in radiation levels are shown to be detected as far away as Minsk where we are introduced to key character Ulana Khomyuk (who represents all the scientists involved in the recovery and clean-up efforts). The stark contrast between the panic felt by scientists and politicians is in full display in the meeting called by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev where Vice Chairman Shcherbina downplays the disaster equating the radiation from it to a Chest X-ray. However the sharp-eyed Professor Legasov raises concerns about the reports which results in Legasov' and Shcherbina's arrival at Chernobyl. Legasov's worst fears about the core being exposed are immediately confirmed by the graphite debris surrounding the site and the eerie blue glow from ionizing radiation. General Pikalov's high-range dosimeter readings that the radiation levels were over 150,000 roentgens removes all doubts about the enormity of the problem. As risky recovery efforts and evacuation of nearby Pripyat begin, Khomyuk warns Legasov and Shcherbina that a destructive steam explosion will occur if the molten core establishes contact with water in the flooded basement. A lethal mission to drain the water is authorized.
1:23:45 AM - One could not choose a more fitting title for the pilot than the time when it all went wrong. The time is important - not only is this when the disaster happened, we learn that it is also the time at which one of the principal heroes of the recovery efforts, Professor Valery Legasov, takes his own life two years later. The creative decision by the showrunners to present the explosion at the very outset is as unusual as it is effective. Instead of waiting until the finale, we get to see the horrors of the fallout upfront in all its haunting detail as plant workers and firefighters risk their lives to control the catastrophic explosion of Reactor 4. We see the ignorance and negligence of safety precautions. We see the politics and the bureaucracy that compounded the problem.
While Episodes 1 and 2 depict the events leading up to and following the explosion as well as the sheer enormity of the disaster, Episode 3 is all about the immediate human cost of Chernobyl. The title of the episode is a reference to the ancient Sanskrit funeral hymn "Open wide, O earth, press not heavily on him, Be easy of approach, hail him with kindly aid; As with a robe a mother hides Her son, so shroud this man, O earth." And as concrete is poured over Lyudmilla's husband, Ignatenko's casket to contain the radiation, it is hard not to see the appropriateness of the hymn. Seamlessly juxtaposed with the singular agony of the deceased firefighter's wife, the episode also shows the wider sacrifice of those taking part in the decontamination efforts led by Legasov and company. The portrayal of the miners drafted in to dig under the nuclear plant to prevent the radioactive Corium lava from burning through and contaminating the groundwater is perhaps the most poignant part of the episode. The real tragedy is the lack of recognition for these nameless heroes who put their lives on the line protecting and serving a society that never found out who they were.
Going in to the 4th episode, we have already become accustomed to the incompetence and mismanagement and bureaucratic inertia in the Soviet response to the disaster. While this episode, does show the government hurdles impeding Ulana Khomyuk's investigation of the explosion, it focuses primarily on the courage, heroism and selflessness of the Soviet people in cleaning up the mess left behind in the wake of Chernobyl. As was probably common during that era, the solution to dealing with a problem of this magnitude was to engage and mobilize a lot of people - in this case 600,000 Liquidators. Many of them were recruited to perform relatively mundane tasks like removing the topsoil or dropping Agent Orange on the trees. Some, however, had to do the gruesome work of killing animals - and we see these events viscerally through the eyes of a young recruit working in a dog extermination squad. But the sacrifices made by these liquidators were not limited to emotional scarring. When Valery Legasov and Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina's were no longer able to use lunar/radio operated rovers to remove all of the radioactive debris on the roof of reactor 4, they turned to biorobots - 3400 Soviet soldiers each of whom had 90 seconds to perform the most harrowing work of their lives on the radioactive roof - a scene so terrifying that it might just be the highlight of the whole series.
Vichnaya Pamyat, which is a reference to the Eastern Orthodox funeral exclamation "Memory Eternal", is the name of final episode of the series. And it is only fitting that here at last we learn the truth about what caused the disaster. In what is likely be an Emmy winning performance by Jared Harris who played Legasov, we are provided with a lucid explaination of how the faulty design of the reactor core coupled with the negligence of safety precautions during a safety test by Anatoly Dyatlov deputy chief-engineer of the Power Plant caused an explosion. Prior to Chernobyl it was thought that an RBMK reactor, the type of reactor used in Chernobyl and many other places, could not explode under any circumstance let alone in the low power setting the test was being conducted at. Exposing this truth however would be costly - Valery, Boris and Ulana end up risking their reputations, careers and even their lives. From the perspective of the Soviet Government apparatus, informing people that the flaw in the core was the result of a cheaper reactor design which the government was aware of and wilfully hid from the public was intolerable. And on top of that, admitting that he too was forced to participate in the lie upon duress sealed Valery's fate. He was too well known to just dispose of unceremoniously - so the government chose to silence him in other ways. In the end, disillusioned with the failure of the authorities to confront the design flaws, he took his own life. This final act was instrumental in motivating the Soviet Nuclear industry to finally address the design flaws of Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors.
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