Chernobyl, Episode 2: It’s not three Roentgen

Picking up where we left off with last week’s post, we’re continuing a storyteller’s exploration of the modern disaster epic Chernobyl. Which is an absolutely outstanding example of the form. So much so it’s easy to forget that this is a dramatic retelling of events, versus a real-time camera-lens view of the catastrophe as it actually unfolded in 1986.

Like last time, I will attempt to avoid a blow-by-blow, while still detailing what I believe are the episode’s key storytelling elements.

The top-most being: gradual revelation of the scope of the horror in the lives of the main characters.

As Episode 2 begins, the authorities are still in denial about what’s gone down. Scurrying to protect themselves from repercussions, the Party men on the ground at the power plant have deliberately concealed the truth from their Party betters in Moscow. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Which is why Professor Legasov cannot keep quiet during the briefing with Gorbachev. Thus forcing a reluctant Boris Shcherbina to investigate for himself, with Legasov in tow, while the unmitigated reactor fire spews untold amounts of radioactive contaminants into the atmosphere.

The horror is two-fold, because as stated in the prior post, every person in this story is embedded in a specific kind of society with a specific kind of paranoia. The State and the Party are bigger than any one man. Each and every conversation is a calculated action on the part of its participants, all of them gauging how Party superiors will react. Legasov himself is a fish out of water, being both an academic and the only man we believe has a correct estimation of the reactor problem. He has to keep risking himself against the irritation and anger of party officials while trying to make them understand what’s happened, and what’s at stake.

The Party, of course, is invested in not understanding. At every level. The Party will only be dragged — grudgingly, and with an unhappy face — to the truth.

For your stories — your world — you’ve got to consider the people in power. Who they are. What they want. And more specifically, what they don’t want. With emphasis on how far those people will go to ensure that bad news doesn’t reach the ears of both the commoners, and the elite. History is replete with examples of very powerful, very highly-placed individuals who’ve either turned a directly blind eye to uncomfortable or alarming facts, or were snowed from below by individuals who didn’t want the truth getting up to a high level. (cough, have you seen what’s transpired in Afghanistan these past ten days?)

But like with all good disaster epics, the facts of Chernobyl cut through the obfuscations and deliberate obtuseness of the Party men. Punctuated by one particularly riveting scene when a simple test is performed by the Colonel-General charged with NBC containment at the site, revealing the perfidy of the Party lowers who’ve been trying to deflect responsibility from themselves, and confirming that Legasov — while still a fish out of water — might be the only man worth listening to.

After that, it comes down to how these people can combat something which has never in history had to be combatted. Which is the second great element of this particular disaster epic: the sexiness (in a morbid way) of the thing which should not be.

The destroyed reactor core is essentially a monster. Seen only for a tiny few thrilling seconds in the first episode, the core is like a dragon which slays any who draw near enough to it. Both the warry and unwarry alike. This dragon is not supposed to exist. Engineers and Party men alike have been insisting throughout the night and the next day that it cannot exist. To admit the dragon exists is impossible. Because how do you fight it? Nobody knows. Nobody’s ever had to fight it, much less beat it. It cannot be dealt with through any conventional means. And it will potentially kill millions if Legasov, Shcherbina, and the Colonel-General cannot quickly devise a plan.

Plus, the dragon’s existence is a an international political debacle for the Party men at the top. Its revelation to the world puts them in a terrible position of having to at once admit failure, while convincing the globe the situation is well under control — which we the viewers know that it isn’t.

Meanwhile, the walking wounded from the first episode are helplessly afflicted by a thing which they do not understand, and which the local hospital is too overwhelmed to properly cope with. Ignorance blends with fear to create a wretched claustrophobia which is palpable in the actions of the afflicted, and their medical caretakers. Like those directly working on the power plant itself, the hospital staff are having to come up with solutions on the fly, all the while exposing themselves to the dragon’s breath which is already killing the patients in their care.

So, there’s the fear and drama of the paranoid State-driven society — which does not want to believe in the dragon and will go out of its way to insist the dragon cannot be — all the while human beings are suffering terribly because of the dragon and its wrath, breeding desperation in the lives of honest, common folk who’ve been plunged into the peril without their knowledge and against their will. Be they firefighters, families, helicopter pilots, you name it. The battle with the dragon is sucking them all in, and they are all paying a price.

As I mentioned last time, good disaster epics tickle that part of our subconscious which spectates car crashes on the sides of motorways. We know the sensible thing to do is to avert our eyes and keep going. But as traffic slows to a crawl and we see the lights of the fire trucks and police cars, most of us can’t help sneaking at least a glimpse. How badly are the cars twisted and smashed? Is there a fire? People on stretchers? It’s uncouth to wonder. But we watch and wonder anyway. Because this is part of human nature, when not checked by better instincts.

So, the disaster epic — done well — pulls the reader/viewer along via this invisible, instinctive desire to see what should not be seen.

Also, the disaster epic presents us with classic conflict. Man versus man. Man versus nature. Man versus himself.

Can you take your readers into the heart of these conflicts? Make them wonder what it would be like to get plucked from their ordinary reality and thrown into a surreal crisis for which no person could hope to prepare, and from which there may be no escape? What happens to the human mind, the human heart, and the human soul when faced with the kinds of choices the people in Chernobyl are faced with? We saw some of that recently as desperate men and women clung to the undercarriage of military cargo planes trying to take off in Kabul. How can your characters hope to reason when all around them are driven to panic? Sometimes it’s the man or woman who refuses the panic, and acts independently, who can make a difference. Or, even well-meaning people can be swept away by rapidly-developing events against which no lone human being can hope to survive. You — and your individual instincts for the kind of story you want to tell — must decide.

And in the end, there may be no clean solutions. A good disaster epic will tend to emphasize the dire costs of any supposed solution. Good people are going to suffer. Maybe die. And the problem — whatever you create — might not be easily solved, if it can be solved at all. Who among your cast of individuals will have the mettle to endure, and who will crumble under the stress, the fear, and the pressure? And what choices, made early, might develop into poor choices as time goes on? Something which seems like a great idea in the heat of the moment, can turn out to be a terrible idea as hours or days unfold. And this too will be something your characters have to deal with.

Chernobyl’s acting continues to be top-notch. I said it before: I suspect they all knew they were making a series which would have impact and import above and beyond other films and series they’d previously worked on. Everyone delivers an excellent performance, and there is no part so small that it’s not given terrific treatment by the man or the woman inhabiting the role.

9 comments

  1. I haven’t watched this show because it would probably depress me. I lived through the debacle as the news was being reported in Britain and the failure of the Soviets was another nail in the coffin for the future of atomic power.

    However, your reviews have made me reconsider my position. Your description of the episode is compelling reading. Thank you.

        1. Gorbachev himself has insisted on more than one occasion that Chernobyl was the key event in the demise of the USSR. It was an outrageously costly accident which sapped them politically and economically in ways none of them — prior to the accident — could have anticipated.

          In other words, the Workers Paradise was done in (if you ask Gorby) by a self-inflicted wound.

    1. It’s definitely not an uplifting story. Watching Chernobyl is a bit like watching Schindler’s List. You know you’re seeing history retold in a gripping way, but it’s tough going. Because the world of the Soviets, like the world of Nazi Germany, is a bleak world. Where individual human dignity and freedom are disregarded, and human lives are cheap, and expendable. Ultimately, no good deed goes unpunished. And the only solace we have is that the reactor disaster has been (over time) contained, and the USSR is no more.

      Though, Putin has tried to bring certain elements of the USSR back.

      1. This is a show you watch early in the morning. So you can get out as soon as possible to get as much time doing things that are not bleak and depressing so you can counter-balance the disaster.

  2. On the downside, I have run across people who think that it could have destroyed all of Europe and therefore nuclear is TOO DANGEROUS TO USE instead of literally the safest power source known to man.

  3. What I found most fascinating by the story was the comparison between Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

    Three Mile Island-Everybody involved in the accident probably did everything that could have been done wrong. But, because everybody before and after the accident did everything right, there were no casualties. No fatalities. The most exposure anybody got was equal to two chest X-rays. Or an international flight from JFK to Heathrow. The government remained mostly unchanged, and mostly was concerned about whatever happened in the next news cycle.

    Chernobyl-Nobody could do anything right because the Party wanted things the way the Party wanted it. Nobody in charge either had the knowledge to make good decisions or the ability to make decisions in the same place in the same person. Or couldn’t be overridden by someone that had to make sure the Party was happy. Exposure killed thousands immediately, hundreds of thousands soon after. Wealth was spent like a miser, a Zone of Alienation was created and sealed off from the world, and the reputation of the Soviet Union-from every single lie it told to itself and others-was destroyed utterly. As much as Afghanistan, Chernobyl destroyed the Soviet Union.

    And people still buy into the illusion of fascist efficiency…

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