“Please Remain Calm”: Chernobyl, Episode 2

The first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl was focused on foreshadowing. With the second episode, the scope of the disaster is beginning to become clear.

The single clearest departure from real history is the insertion of a fictional character, Dr. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who appears at an opportune moment to warn everyone about the fact that melting nuclear fuel plus water equals thermal explosion and unimaginable destruction -- on top of the unimaginable destruction that’s already happened. I get why they decided to inject a female character with expertise and agency into the narrative -- otherwise it’s a colossal nuclear sausage-fest, apart from grieving will-be widows and the occasional doctor -- but I have trouble believing that Valery Legasov would have made such an enormous and elementary error as to assume that all the water the firemen have been throwing at the reactor and all the remaining water from the plant’s broken pipework would not have collected in the bubbler pools underneath the core. Adding Khomyuk as the voice of reason undercuts Legasov’s authority in a way which, to me, doesn’t do the story any favors.

But really this episode is about Boris Shcherbina, Gorbachev’s Minister of Energy (Stellan Skarsgard), and the arc he undergoes from lol-no-everything’s-totally-fine to oh-shit-no-it’s-not to one thousand percent determined to do whatever is necessary to deal with an unprecedented and unspeakable situation. Shcherbina and Legasov are a deliberately odd couple, and the way Chernobyl shifts the initiative and authority from Legasov as the technical expert and Shcherbina as the obtuse politician ordering people to die because he does not understand the situation to the place where they end up at the close of the episode is beautifully done.

As in the first episode, the cinematography is deliberate and deft. Throughout, muted and dark colors give a sense of not only ago, of the past as another country, but of the bleak and awful danger of the entire situation. The costumes and hair design are bang-on accurate. There’s a scene in which hospital staff realize that the clothes patients are wearing are hideously contaminated and have to be disposed of immediately -- heaps and heaps of clothing hastily discarded in the hospital basement -- which is indistinguishable from photographs of those same heaps in the real Pripyat hospital taken decades later. The caravan of buses heading toward the town to evacuate the entire population is splendidly sinister, as is the choice to avoid translating or subtitling the orders to evacuate read over a loudspeaker. Where Chernobyl goes foreign, it goes effectively foreign, which renders the accessibility of the rest of it even more approachable.

Information is also deftly controlled. Early on there’s a scene in which Shcherbina, sent with Legasov to go and deal with the situation, orders him to explain how a nuclear reactor works. Because Legasov has to describe it in a way which makes sense quickly and easily to someone with no scientific background, he is also explaining it to the audience without overtly infodumping. This is tricky to manage, and the show does it very well, covering the crucial concept of moderation that underlies why this particular type of reactor is such a bloody awful idea. By contrast, the condensed BBC version of the Chernobyl story from 2006 never goes into much detail about how the thing works. The pacing here is cleverly managed, keeping a level of suspense maintained throughout; some events are telescoped into one another, such as the crash of a helicopter during an observation flight. In reality, the crash happened during the mission to drop sand and boron over the burning reactor, and it happened not because the pilot flew through the lethal smoke and lost control of his aircraft; the rotor simply hit a construction crane’s cable and disintegrated, but the show’s version is better TV.

Other than the introduction of Khomyuk -- who works out what must have gone wrong and where based on the isotopes contaminating the air, and proceeds to go and get herself involved because she can’t get anyone local to take her seriously -- the other profound difference between the BBC version and HBO’s Chernobyl lies in the scene where Legasov asks for volunteers to open the valves under the reactor and drain the water from the bubbler pools. This is one of the most moving scenes in the entire story, and the BBC uses it as a key emotional moment for Legasov. Adrian Edmondson nails it hard: in one of the interview segments, tears in his eyes, he talks straight to the viewer: we’d seen so many walking dead, and sent so many to their deaths, but never with such certainty...I don’t believe there’s even a handful of nations in this world that could still produce such unquestioned sacrifice. We see him looking through the window of an armored personnel carrier, witnessing a group of soldiers all stepping forward at once to volunteer, knowing what it means, and over it all is Kharitonov and the Red Army Choir singing The Cliff. Contrast that with the HBO version, in which Legasov tries and fails to convince a group of plant workers that 400 rubles is a sufficient bonus to be worth this particular peril. It is entirely believable that none of them want to be voluntold to go and die; it is also entirely believable that Legasov has no way of persuading them, and it is enormously satisfying when Boris Shcherbina is the one to tell them why they should do it: because it must be done. Skarsgard is brilliant here. In the course of the episode he has gone from obstructionist to leader, and the speech he gives has some of the same valence as Legasov’s in the earlier BBC version. (Amusingly, we then have practically the same exact shot of Legasov looking out the window of the vehicle looking at the volunteers being prepared.)

Here, the scene in which they enter the flooded corridors of Unit 4 is extended, and it is very probably one of the nastiest and most effective bits of horror I’ve seen on film in a long time. We can’t hear them clearly through the dive masks and hoods; their words are blurred, dim, vague. The only other sound, over the splashing as they wade into the unspeakably contaminated water, is the Geiger counter’s rising tone, the clicks at first distinguishable and then blurring together into a higher and higher buzzing that becomes a scream -- and then, one by one, their flashlights fail.

I have seen a video from inside an industrial irradiator. As the camera approaches the accelerator’s scan horn, the faint glow of ionized air is visible; specks of interference, static-snow, begin to appear on the screen, rapidly intensifying. The crash and hiss of static grows until we pass directly underneath the beam, when everything blanks out in a terrible violet-white light accompanied by a hum which I have not heard anywhere else until this scene in Chernobyl: the sound of the counter screaming in the dark.