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Review of HBO’s Hit “Chernobyl”

  • Mason Masters

  • June 29, 2019

‘Surely to root politics out of art is a highly necessary undertaking: for the freedom of art, like that of science, depends entirely upon its objectivity and non-practical, non-partisan passion.’ – Wydnham Lewis

Screenwriters loves reality. The words ‘based on a true story’ are always a hook for the audience, even if the end relation to facts is marginal. A big reason for this obsession is that truth is often stranger than fiction. Writers will stretch the truth to fit their goals and there is nothing wrong with that per se because fiction should never be afraid of exploring realities. The problem is when people get so caught up in a fiction that they start to take it literally. 

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl, based on the infamous nuclear power plant disaster, is one such truth-meets-fiction show. If you look at the top 10 IMDb TV series as of this writing you will see that the HBO miniseries Chernobyl is ranked the best show of all time. Also in the top 10 are four David Attenborough documentaries. Does this tell us that viewers prefer reality over make-believe? Perhaps, or perhaps it is tacit acknowledgement that people love to watch the horrors of nature. 

Where Attenborough casts his camera on the neutral beauty and brutality of nature, the shock of Chernobyl comes from the man-made agony that was wrought. Many people, especially millennials born around the time of the accident, would have no idea about the facts of Chernobyl, their only passing knowledge being the Pripyat level in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. They watched the show in disgust at the incompetence and callousness of the Soviet directors and recoiled at the sight of bodies breaking down as a result of radiation poisoning. This is the most gripping aspect of the show: the revulsion it engenders.

The horror, the horror.

As historical artifact the merits of Chernobyl can be debated. But as eldritch horror it shines. The first three episodes of the miniseries drip with terror and malice, but it falls away in the last episode as the monster is revealed to be a cliche: us. What could have been a horror classic allows reality to get in the way of the good bits.

Despite the disappointing conclusion the tropes and trappings of the horror genre are in abundance. In particular there is a gothic undertone permeating the whole show. Dark forests are killed by the radiation and abandoned of life; there is a fantastic shot of a dying deer which forces the idea of rot on the viewer; the power plant itself is the stand-in for the haunted, brooding house where the very walls are poisonous. The themes of the gothic are also evident in the darkness of many of the shots, the character confusion over the truth of the matter and the folkloric response of the Russian people. The subplot of Oksana (played by Laura Elphinstone), widowed by the explosion and whose baby is killed by radiation, carries hints of the ‘dying woman’ motif.  Of course, the fact that it all happens in the atheist state of the Soviet Union adds a level of irony given that the Gothic often deals with religion and faith. If this weren’t scary enough the writer and director decided to up the ante with visions of the Outside.

There is something immensely Lovecraftian about the exercise. For example, the series begins at the end with Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) talking into tape recorders, admitting to his role in the debacle, before hanging himself in his sparse Soviet apartment. This is a narrative conceit often used in horror, especially Poe and Lovecraft, where events are told after the fact to the reader by a troubled protagonist. We then immediately jump to the moment after the explosion that occurred in reactor number four at Chernobyl. What follows is heart-pounding as men start to die in strange ways, decaying in front of their friends in some cases, and no one knows why. True horror is something beyond our comprehension, and certainly none of the scientists at the power plant were aware of the extent of what they had unleashed. Lovecraft says in his book Supernatural Horror in Literature:

“The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part.”

What happened at Chernobyl was that the scientists on duty had, through an intricate dance of specific actions, summoned forth the demon of nuclear energy. To them something beyond their sphere of experience had taken place. They were to have no part in their own fates. What is so fascinating about this is that where horror previously resided between the unknowable gap of heaven and hell, in Chernobyl it is purely materialist. The horror is between what science is able to tell us and what dangers are hidden behind gibbering equations and theories. The socialist utopia is brought low by untamed physics. To demonstrate this there are two wonderful sequences where scientists are made to literally stare into the abyss (the exposed core). Later, Valery warns helicopter pilots dumping sand into the core to put it out to not fly directly over it lest they are killed by its energy. In the first half of the series neither the viewer nor it seems the characters can understand what horrors await them. 

But is it really horror? Where is the monster?  As Lovecraft says:

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder; bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of out, unknown forces must be present, and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daimons of unplumbed space.” 

So Chernobyl is a truly weird tale because the enemy is nuclear energy, something beyond our ken. Sure, plenty of people will laugh that they now know how an RBMK nuclear reactor works, but the inner workings of the atom are known only to savants. And the show is more Lovecraftian than that. At the end of episode two the most harrowing sequence in the whole show takes place as three volunteers step into the bowels of the plant in order to release water pressure. Their dosimeters start spiking out of control, the noise sending the viewer insane, and their flashlights fail one by one. As they walk through the flooded corridors there are pipes everywhere which are reminiscent of the tentacles so adored by Lovecraft’s fans. (There are other tentacular shots throughout and the cinematography is not to be faulted.) Later, the scene where other volunteers are tasked with removing the graphite debris from the roof of the plant reminds one of the Cthulhu cultists as these men are dressed in odd protective clothing. They look like freaks sacrificing to a great God, afraid to even look at it directly in case they die on the spot. This sense of weirdness permeates the majority of the show, but that key of unknowing soon dissipates. 

Here’s Johnny!

The final episode of Chernobyl is nothing more than a courtroom drama as the scapegoats are lined up and lambasted. The intrusion is jarring. Valery also manages to point the finger at the Soviet command structure, meant to be a valiant display of speaking truth to power. Everything that had been previously set up is undercut. By making the error a human one the terror becomes manageable, even impotent. In his book Danse Macabre Stephen King, another master of horror, says: 

“All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will – a conscious decision to do evil – and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

The creators of Chernobyl started with the outside but then chose to shift the source of the malice to human will. That is the decision by the Soviet Union to cover-up the faults of the RBMK reactor, and the incompetence of Anatoly Dyatlov (played by Paul Ritter) during the disaster. Despite the constant symbol of the invisible evil that is radiation, like an episode of Scooby Doo the mask is pulled off to show nothing more than human stupidity. In episode four one old woman refers to the outside force, saying: “Then the Great War. German boys. Russian boys. More soldiers. More famine. More bodies. My brothers never came home. But I stayed. And I am still here. After all that I’ve seen. So I should leave now – because of something I cannot see at all?” She is forced from her house not by the malignant, cancer-causing radiation but by the end of a gun. Like her, the viewers are forced to take a viewpoint and leave the shiver-inducing fear behind.

Why this change of tact is hard to understand at first. But there are comparisons to draw between the level of production and this ideological push. The series is steeped in reality. One man raised in the Soviet Union was in awe at the accuracy of the Russian life depicted. The creator has published the full scripts and his bibliography of research in an effort of transparency. Yet these are all hand-waving gestures as the magician performs his magic. There are many fictionalized events that are glossed over in order to make good TV. The female scientist is an amalgamation of many people and never existed. The helicopter crash at the start didn’t happen until October of that year, not immediately after the explosion. Little things like this show that this is still a fiction, a tale, a story and like most modern stories it has an agenda. 

Again in Danse Macabre King says that “…the tale of horror, no matter how primitive, is allegorical by its very nature.” Horror has always been used for metaphor and allegory, from Alien to It Follows. So it is not so strange that Mr. King said the following about Chernobyl:

Even in Danse Macabre King can’t hide his political leanings, so it is no wonder the Trump administration has affected him too. Ignore the stretch of the imagination required to compare the show to Trump’s presidency: focus on the fact that the show creator agrees. Whatever happened to the death of the author? Apparently it’s not open to interpretation. There is no message about human hubris, whether in the cover-up or in playing with nuclear energy in the first place, despite the strength of the atmosphere in the first half of the series. Instead the show ends on the line ‘What is the cost of lies?’ The lies of the Soviet Union compared to lying about an inauguration crowd size is like comparing apples to watermelons. The urgency of making everything relate to the political atmosphere of the present hurts the legacy of the show.

There was so much here to work with, and just before this last line Valery hints at it when he says on tape, “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.” This is the deeper metaphor at work here. We were so eager to unlock the truth of atomic energy that we ignored the consequences and forgot that truth will out. Do we think the Western democracies are so clean? Think of all the covert CIA and FBI operations, DDT, the harms of smoking, fat versus sugar debate, the potential harm of 5G, climate change and countless other muddied waters. What else is Chernobyl a metaphor for? Perhaps the trans movement where a hidden cost we have unleashed in the name of freedom will return to haunt society in the future. (A character even says, “No, you should wait until the radiation gives you a cunt.”) By inserting the politics of today Chernobyl lowered its cultural half-life.

Be afraid, be very afraid. 

The problem at the heart of Chernobyl is that it tries too hard to explain it all. It relies on the detail of its mise en scene, the acting is very convincing and it leaves nothing to the imagination. The first episode is a masterful display of how to begin a story – when the conflict starts. Something has happened but we don’t know what. This lends an urgency to the fear. The show then explains in excruciating detail how it happened in the last episode, and unfortunately also gives us the ‘action’ of the accident, flipping between the courtroom and the control room. What could have been a truly terrifying series is sapped of its potential.

Compare this to another series of similar run length, Black Summer, a zombie apocalypse story. Zombies have always been used as an allegory, but where Black Summer could have gone all in on the immigration metaphor or diverse cast, it instead relies on its aesthetics. Chernobyl tells us ‘humans are conniving and duplicitous’ but Black Summer shows us. Chernobyl attempts to transcend the television medium with grandiosity, but Black Summer achieves this by making the camera a character. Chernobyl collapses with its writing and reliance on explanation, and Black Summer is one of the tightest plotted shows ever made. Guess which one is scarier.

Chernobyl tries to apply thought, facts and logic to an otherworldly accident, but pushing away the unknown only heightens the disparity. In letter twenty-five of his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Freidrich Schiller is describing the combination of sensuousness and thought in relation to art. To him it is not one of the other. His worry is that our dominance over nature spoils art, that we seek boundaries like with science. To quote:

“Fear only has a place where ponderous and shapeless mass rules, its indistinct outlines shifting between insecure boundaries; man has the advantage over any terror in nature once he knows how to lend it form and transform it into his object.”

The metaphor at the heart of Chernobyl is that where we try to dominate nature through science, nature will find a way to return. Where we try to dominate art through logic and facts, art will find a way back to beauty and sensuousness. Both beauty and thought can be held in the mind at the same time, but we are ill-advised to let the logical side of our mind get in the way of beauty. Sometimes what is horrific is beautiful. 

Ultimately in our current moment the top IMDB rating for Chernobyl is not surprising, nor is its insistence on being relevant to modern politics. We no longer crave the mythological or romantic or anything fictional. We think we can handle the truth, but really we’re just desperate for something real in our lives. In a way Chernobyl is like David Attenborough’s recent documentary, Our Planet. It is highly contrived with meticulous attention to detail. It provides a not-so-subtle message of doom if we are not careful. And the narrator’s voice-over allows only one way of thinking about the subject. The only scary thing is the inability to imagine. 

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  • zakovyrya

    Disappointed you didn’t mention merits of Chernobyl’s sequel Stalker by Tarkovsky. I heard it’s pretty good

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