Episode Title: “1:23:45”
Directed by Johan Renck
Written by Craig Mazin
“The real danger is if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
-Jared Harris as Valery Legasov
The first hour of Chernobyl is intense, sickening, well-written and entirely relevant to our times. More than thirty years have passed since the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster, but lessons from the tragedy demand to be taught to every subsequent generation. This is as much a story about political corruption, pride and dishonesty as it is about technology gone wrong. It’s hard to watch the series without pondering the behavior of the Trump administration. Like the Soviet leadership depicted here, Trump will tell any lie for the sake of his reputation, his well-being and his pride. Chernobyl reminds us what can happen when such people hold leadership positions.
The first scene takes place two years after the disaster. Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a Soviet nuclear scientist, finishes a series of tape recordings discussing what happened at Chernobyl and who is to blame. We hear the last few sentences of this recording. He wraps up the set of tapes, hides them outside his apartment, and hangs himself. I’m not a big fan of framing devices like these. I guess four episodes from now we’ll find out If this framing was necessary or just the best way Mazin could think of to introduce the audience to a protagonist who is largely absent from the rest of this episode.
Renck then cuts to two years earlier, immediately after a safety test on reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had gone wrong and caused a steam explosion. The accident occurred late at night and the plant was only partially staffed at the time. We see the confusion as workers try to figure out what happened. Their efforts are slowed by Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the plant’s Assistant Chief Engineer, the first ofmany characters we meet who suffer from severe cases of denial.
Renck allows the terror to build as workers within the plant are sent to find out what happened to the core. Outside, firefighters develop radiation burns and begin vomiting shortly after arriving to battle the intense blaze. One devastating scene shows the residents of nearby Pripyat gathering outside their homes to watch the flames. Radioactive ash falls on them and their children, but they are not worried. No one has been told to evacuate. No one has been told to stay inside. At a nearby hospital, a nurse asks a doctor where the Iodine pills are kept. He just shrugs her off: “Why would we have Iodine pills?”
Mazin masterfully reconstructs the confusion. At this stage of the event, the only real panic is inside the plant, and only among those workers unfortunate enough to discover how serious the night’s events are. For many of them, the revelation is fatal.
Elsewhere, in a bunker supposedly designed to withstand the full nuclear firepower of the United States, plant operators and politicians meet to discuss how severe the explosion was and what the response should be. Those voices who dare speak honestly about the disaster are shut down by those concerned with saving face for the Soviet Union. It seems laughable thirty years later that anyone would think it possible to keep a nuclear disaster and the errors that lead up to it under wraps, and then memories of Japan’s response to the Fukishima Daichi plant disaster come rushing back. The suits maintain their denial even after Dyatlov vomits on the table they are seated around.
In covering the early hours of the disaster, the episode lacks any significant presence from several of the bigger names in the cast who will likely be key players in the remaining installments. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Mazin’s script provides us with several characters at all levels of the tragedy to get to know (however briefly) and even become attached to. I was struck after this fast-paced hour by how many intimately horrifying and sad moments stuck with me, and how clearly I remember the facial expressions. HBO is currently attracting all the media and pop culture attention for another little show of theirs, but this hour once again reminds me that the service is most reliably excellent when it comes to its miniseries output.