The Cost of Lies
It’s been two days HBO’s latest miniseries "Chernobyl” concluded, and I’m still reeling from it. I am not at all being hyperbolic when I say that “Chernobyl” may very well be the best miniseries I have ever seen, and if it’s not the best, it’s certainly belongs in the top three.
Chernobyl tells the story of the disaster that occurred at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant (more commonly known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant) April 26th of 1986. It shows us the events that transpired afterwards; all of the work that it took to clean up; all of the lives that were put at risk. The series continuously begs the questions: how and why did this happen?
This series is bookended by voiceovers from Jared Harris. The first line of this series is: “What is the cost of lies?” and the final line is the same. The theme the writers of this show are trying to get across should be obvious: lies inherently cause problems, particularly when those lies come from those in charge. When the world is flooded with things like ‘alternative facts’, the truth becomes harder to find. Truth is a firm foundation, while a foundation of lies is a foundation filled with holes. A government built on a foundation of lies is inevitably bound to collapse.
While the themes the writers of the show are trying to convey are incredibly relevant in today’s world, it’s the execution of this miniseries that makes it truly amazing and unforgettable. This show breathes authenticity in terms of laying out the timeline of events, depicting Pripyat as realistically as possible, detailing the gravity of the situation at hand, and even explaining to the viewer in an understandable way the basic physics behind a nuclear reactor, and the catastrophe that could’ve happened had Chernobyl not been handled as it was.
This show does not sugarcoat the tragedy of this incident. While the official Russian death toll at Chernobyl has remained at 31, the fallout in radiation and the effects on the surrounding area have been immeasurable; we will never know for sure how much damage this disaster caused.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty, eh?
In the following article I’ll be going through the five episodes in detail and giving my thoughts on segments of each episode. If you’ve already seen the show, read at your leisure, but if you haven’t seen the show, read with caution for there are spoilers for every episode below.
Episode One: “1:23:45”
Our story begins with Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, “Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows”) speaking into a tape recorder, detailing what happened at Chernobyl and essentially blaming Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter, “Quantum of Solace”), the engineer in charge of the reactor at the time it exploded, for the events that transpired. The viewer should make note of Legasov’s hairline and the wrinkles on his face- these features show radiation wearing on him. Soon after, Legasov hangs himself, and we’re told that he did so exactly two years after the reactor exploded.
We flashback two years, to a minute before the reactor explodes. We see the explosion from a great distance, from the perspective of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley, “Beast (2017)”). Lyudmilla is married to Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, “The Commuter”), a firefighter that works in Pripyat. As soon as the reactor explodes, Vasily is called to set out the fire at the power plant.
Most of this first episode revolves around the events immediately after the explosion. We watch as firefighters struggle to put out the blaze, mostly from the perspective of Vasily; we get glimpses of the engineers inside the control room like Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) and Akimov (Sam Troughton ,“Peterloo”) as they struggle to come to terms with what happened and decide what to do next; and then we also get glimpses of those in charge like Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) and how he assembles a committee to deal with the situation in terms of relating the news to the public.
Perhaps the best part about this opening episode is the way that it ramps up the gravity of the situation. When we first see the explosion, we’re from a great distance, and it honestly doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal. Even the firefighters responding to the incident seem to think that nothing is amiss when they are first called to the site; they think what they’re handling is nothing more than a fire on the roof of the building.
When those firefighters arrive at the scene however, we immediately get a sense that this is worse than they’d imagined. “Do you taste metal?” Vasily asks one of his fellow firefighters when they first arrive. As they clamber over debris to get closer to the blaze, one of the firefighters picks up what appears to be a chunk of smooth rock; graphite, from the reactor’s core. Minutes later, the firefighter is on the ground wailing, his hand is blistered and bloody, already burned by radiation.
There are other moments that bring immense gravity to the situation as well. Some of the engineers are required to travel to areas near the exploded core, and after they force open a metal door the parts of them that came in contact with the metal begin to bleed freely. Speckled throughout this incident, we get glimpses back to Lyudmilla as she wanders around Pripyat waiting for her husband to return. We watch from her perspective as men, woman, and children flock from the safety of their buildings to gather closer to the burning reactor to get a better view, unwittingly putting themselves at great risk.
Touching on those themes revolving around truth and lies, we see the higher-ups in the Soviets work to cover up the situation instead of fix it. Even as Bryukhanov calls a meeting, he and Dyatlov willingly spread misinformation by denying that the reactor has exploded. Their reasoning: “RBMK reactors don’t explode.” That logic might seem unsound to you, and indeed it is; their logic is built on lies. And, as we’ve already established, a foundation of lies is a foundation filled with holes; their lies are doomed to collapse, and this is only the beginning.
Towards the end of the episode we’re reintroduced to Legasov. At this time, his head his almost full of hair and his face is not nearly as wrinkled as it was in the first scene. Legasov receives a phone call from Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”), whom tells him that he has been appointed to a committee to clean up this mess.
The whole first episode plays with the viewers’ prior knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster. If you’ve any knowledge of the Chernobyl incident at all, you’re probably aware that Pripyat and the surrounding area is still closed off to the public due to the high radioactive presence. None of the people in this situation seem to be aware of how dangerous it really is (not yet anyways), but as a viewer, we know that all of the people that are at this building will probably be dead within a matter of years. It adds to the intensity of the situation, but also the emotionality of it as well.
It’s impossible to watch this show without thinking of the thousands who were affected by this tragedy, and who are still being affected by it.
Episode Two: “Please Remain Calm”
The first episode detailed the explosion and the immediate fallout of that explosion, concluding with Legasov receiving a call from Shcherbina and being appointed to a committee. That first episode also established an underlying current of dread that is incredibly prevalent in this episode as well.
This episode moves on from the explosion into the morning after the events. As Legasov and Shcherbina take a helicopter to Chernobyl, Legasov explains how an RBMK Reactor works and what the dangers of it are. Legasov also explains why the graphite (the object picked up by the firefighter in episode one) is incredibly radioactive, and why, if it is left out in the open, it could precipitate many more deaths. There’s a wonderfully telling moment after Legasov concludes his explanation, when Shcherbina states: “Good, now I know how an RBMK reactor works. Now I don’t need you.” This is telling for a couple of reasons: 1) it shows that the soviet higher-ups believed that after a three minute lecture, they could totally comprehend the workings of a nuclear reactor, and 2) it establishes the relationship between Legasov and Shcherbina in a way that bodes not only of how the two people will work together, but also of how Scientists and the Soviets might have dealt with each other. As long as there was a basic understanding, they figured everything was fine, and nothing could possibly go wrong. (Again, what is the cost of lies?)
As they arrive at Chernobyl, Legasov confirms that there is graphite on the roof, confirming his worst suspicions that the roof isn’t just on fire, as those in charge were quick to suggest, but indeed the reactor core has exploded.
From here we move into a board meeting, where those in charge seem content to continue trying to cover up the situation while patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But before the meeting concludes, Legasov pipes up, telling them that the situation is not at all under control, that the situation will only get worse if they don’t take action now. Legasov uses an analogy comparing the radioactive atoms that are spilling out of the burning reactor to bullets. In using this analogy, he’s able to put things in layman’s terms; he details how devastating the events following this disaster could be, not just to this region but also the damage could spread across Europe. There’s a moment after the meeting where Shcherbina confronts Legasov and asks why he thinks the town of Pripyat needs to be evacuated when they are standing near the reactor, and they’re fine. Legasov responds that they are not fine; they will be dead within five years. That information hits Shcherbina hard, but in knowing there is nothing else to be done, they continue in their work. The bulk of this episode is dedicated to more of the immediate fallout and setting out the fire on the roof with sand dropped from helicopters, and there are a few scenes where we see Lyudmilla trying to find out what happened to her husband.
We are introduced to a new character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson, “Breaking the Waves”). She is also a nuclear engineer, and she works at a facility nearby. When she starts receiving readings on a Geiger counter, she starts calling around, trying to find out what happened. I do have to make note that Ulana Khomyuk is a fictional character, created by the writers to represent the search for truth after the disaster. She soon contacts Legasov, and lets him know about a threat that they hadn’t yet anticipated: the radioactive spillage from the reactor was eating away at the concrete below, and if that spillage came into contact with the water underneath, it could cause a steam explosion, which would in turn spread radiation further across the globe. Legasov asks permission to send three men into the Power Plant to go below the reactor so that they might drain the tanks of water, thus preventing the steam explosion. In the process, Legasov admits, the men will be exposed to deadly amounts of radiation.
In my opinion, the best part of this episode is how Legasov details what could happen if the reactor is not taken care of. I got chills as he spoke about how the radioactive atoms in the air could hold their poisonous particles for up to fifty thousand years. The idea that they “are dealing with something that has never before occurred on this planet” is absolutely terrifying. Again, that tension and dread is incredibly pervasive in this episode, and we get a real sense of what the human cost of this disaster will be. However, it’s in episode three when we really start to see the radiation exact its toll on the humans there.
Episode Three: “Open Wide, O Earth”
The second episode ends with the three ‘volunteers’ who were tasked to drain the tanks of water trapped lost inside the power plant, but as this episode begins we learn that they were successful in their task. By now, the fire has been put out, but that doesn’t mean the end of the Soviet’s problems; there are plenty of other issues arise even though the fire is out.
There’s a moment that I wanted to touch on briefly- it’s only very brief anyways- but it show’s the writers ability to slowly and subtlety develop characters in a way that feels real and meaningful. Before Legasov and Shcherbina enter a boardroom to present more facts to the Soviet board together, Shcherbina tells Legasov to fix his tie. Now, to the average viewer, that little interaction might not seem like that big of a deal, but what that does is shows growth between our characters. It shows that the two respect each other more now, that the situation at hand has brought them together. It also shows that Shcherbina has started to step back from his position of thinking he knows what’s best in every instance. Again, it’s incredibly subtle but it works really well.
Once we get into the meeting, one of the issues that Legasov quickly addresses is the fact that if the foundation of the building is not reinforced, the radioactive spillage from the reactor, which was eating away at the concrete, will still eat through the concrete eventually, and even though there aren’t full tanks of water in the basement of the facility any more thanks to the volunteers, that radioactive spillage could still find its way through the concrete and into the water basin below. If this were to happen, Legasov explains, it could poison all the water in that area for thousands of years, making it impossible for any life to dwell there. In order to combat this new problem, Legasov insists that they hire coal miners to dig underneath the plant to reinforce it, and this results in one of the best character introductions I’ve seen in a long time.
The foreman Glukhov (Alex Ferns, “Joyeux Noel”) is introduced as a hardnosed, no nonsense man who doesn’t take bullsh*t. The first time we meet him Shadov Mikhail, the Minister of Coal (Michael Colgan, “Good Vibrations”) tells Glukhov that they need to come with him. Glukhov asks why. Mikhail says that he doesn’t get to ask why. Glukhov says he’s not sending his men anywhere without knowing what they’re mining and why. Again, Mikhail says that he can’t tell him, and Glukhov responds by saying that they wont go wherever it is they’re meant to go. Mikhail says that if he doesn’t, he’ll have him shot. Glukhov doesn’t even flinch; he tells Mikhail to open fire, that he can’t kill them all, and that once they run out of bullets, the survivors will beat the others to death. Mikhail relents, and finally says that they have to go to Chernobyl to dig beneath the reactor; after understanding the gravity of the situation, Glukhov tells his men to get ready to move. There’s a few other great scenes with Glukhov, but my favorite is when he meets Legasov and Shcherbina. Essentially, Legasov tells Glukhov that the miners should all wear gas masks during their mining. “Do they work?” Glukhov asks. Legasov admits that they work, but only slightly. Glukhov walks out of the room, saying, “If they worked you’d be wearing them.” Glukhov’s characterization is amazing. We know who he is within the first two minutes of meeting him, and his personality remains constantly abrasive throughout the time we see him; it’s great!
I mentioned in the breakdown of Episode Two that it was Episode Three where we really start to see the effects of the radiation on people, that part of the story is addressed by segments focusing on Ulana Khomyuk as she goes to the hospitals surrounding Pripyat to interview the survivors, as well as Lyudmilla’s story as she tries to locate and stay by her husband’s side. In my opinion, this is the most graphic episode of the series; we see the effects of radiation after only a few days time. Many of those who were close to the actual blaze, like Lyudmilla’s husband Vasily, are completely covered in burns and almost unrecognizable. What’s worse, Ulana Khomyuk explains that morphine and other opiates have no affect on radiation burns: those who are burned are bound to suffer. The makeup in some of this episode is heartbreaking and disturbing, especially since most of our POV is from Lyudmilla’s perspective as she essentially waits for her husband to die. It is also confirmed that Lyudmilla was pregnant at the time of the explosion, and her unborn child was exposed to unknown amounts of radiation.
Another interesting moment in this episode is when Ulana is suddenly arrested by the KGB for doing her job- trying to find out what happened to the reactor. Legasov complains to a higher official and she is released. Even though Ulana is a fictional character, this arrest is meant to make us wonder: Why is the Soviet government trying prevent the uncovering of information that might lead them to stopping further disasters?
This episode ends with Lyudmilla’s husband and others on the fire department being entombed in a cement mass grave, in hopes that the cement will contain the radiation seeping from the bodies.
Episode Four:“The Happiness of All Mankind”
By now, evacuations of Pripyat and the surrounding area have all but concluded, and Legasov has detailed how they must take action to de-radiate the radiated area. One thing they must do is kill all of the animals that are still inside the infected areas, including all of the pets which were left behind, so that the infected animals don’t wander to the surrounding areas. This part of the story is told from the perspective of Pavel (Barry Keoghan, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”).
Another issue that must be addressed is the remaining graphite on the roof. At first, the Soviets attempt to use a robot that could move all of the graphite from the roof down into the actual factory (where it would eventually be sealed to prevent contamination), but the robot fails due to radiation. Legasov suggests using people to move the graphite from the roof, allowing only ninety seconds work per person in order to cut back on deadly radiation.
Meanwhile, were also given a glimpse back at Dyatlov (the engineer in charge when the reactor exploded) as Ulana Khomyuk confronts him. The two converse about how the reactor itself is faulty, but they also know that the government isn’t interested in the faults of the reactor; it’s interested in finding someone to blame for the event. Uncovering a flaw in the RBMK reactor would, more than anything, be an embarrassment for the Soviet Union. Why admit fault when they could cover it up with more lies and blame someone for the whole disaster?
Lyudmilla gives birth but her baby soon dies due to radiation poisoning.
If I’m being honest, I think this is the weakest episode of the series, but it’s still a very solid episode. At this point, most of the majorly life-threatening events have already happened, and our characters are working more to contain the area than to stop a fire or search for answers.
Episode Five:“Vichnaya Pamyat”
At last we come to the end of the series, and it’s here that everything really comes together. This episode takes place in two timelines, one of which is in a courtroom as Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and another officer named Fomin (Adrian Rawlins, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) are put on trial for their negligence. At the same time, we are shown events in Pripyat and at the Nuclear Power Plant itself in the hours leading up to the actual explosion. As the court case ramps up, Shcherbina, Legasov and Ulana are all called on to testify about what has happened, but it’s Legasov’s testimony that’s given the most weight. Legasov is given the opportunity to address the people to tell them about the flaws in the RBKM reactor, which may prevent further reactor explosions. However, it is made obvious that the government doesn’t care about the truth; it cares more about pinning the malfunction on Dyatlov and those in charge.
This is the best episode in the series for a couple reasons. For one thing, this episode works as a closing paragraph on a thesis paper: it wraps everything up incredibly nicely in a straight timeline in a way that is easily understandable. Throughout the series we’ve been given bits of information that pertain to this final argument- we’ve been shown what radiation can do to a person, how it affects the surrounding landscape, and what it could do to the land for thousands of years- and now that we come to this final episode, we’re able to watch as Legasov explains everything once more to the judges. As he explains things, we walk through the process by showing the events from the perspective of Dyatlov and some of the others in the control room like Toptunov and Akimov, until we eventually build to the explosion.
It’s here that Legasov is interrupted, and he is almost told that his testimony is no longer needed. Shcherbina stands and tells the judges to let him finish, and Legasov is allowed to detail why the RBKM reactor malfunctioned, which is essentially due to cost-cutting measures the government took. He explains that unless something changes, it’s very likely this could happen again.
“We're on dangerous ground right now, because of our secrets and our lies. They are practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor code explodes. Lies.”
Here is where I draw heavy parallels from Donald Trump and his constant barrage of lies to the Soviet Government. The lies are practically what define Trump at this point, but he just keeps lying to cover up more lies. Eventually, the debt that those lies have incurred will have to be paid, Mr. Trump, and I don’t want to be by your side when the hammer falls.
Soon after the testimony, Legasov is taken into custody, but shortly after he’s released. The government can’t kill him because so many people have seen him at Chernobyl, but they can make it so he doesn’t work in a powerful position ever again.
Near the end of this series, there is a beautiful moment between Legasov and Shcherbina that nearly brought me to tears. Shcherbina has already started to show signs that the radiation has sickened him; he knows he doesn’t have long to live. A caterpillar crawls across his hand, and for a moment the two pause to reflect on the fragile beauty of life.
As the series concludes we are given details as to how many of the men, women, and children of the surrounding area died, and how the Russian government hasn’t kept any records of these premature deaths, so really, we will never know the cost of those lies…
I’ve stated it once but I’ll state it again: this might be the best miniseries I’ve ever seen. If it holds that title for a while, only time will tell, but regardless, this is a miniseries that deserves to be seen.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the final moments of this series that I think perfectly defines this series as a whole:
“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for the truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants; it doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this at last is the truth about Chernobyl. Where I once only cared about the cost of truth, I now only ask what is the cost of lies.”
Chernobyl: The Cost of Lies written by: