“Chernobyl” Episode 2 Review by Nathan Blake

Title: “Please Remain Calm”

Written by: Craig Mazin

Directed by: Johan Renck

“We’re asking for your permission to kill three men.”

-Valery Legasov

After the chaos in last week’s premiere, “Chernobyl” begins to look at the larger picture outside the nuclear plant as civilians are evacuated from Pripyat, scientists and political leaders come to terms with the severity of the disaster and the rest of the world finds out.

We are introduced to Ulyana Khomyuk, a composite character and a scientist from the Belarus Institute of Nuclear Energy. She begins piecing together that an accident has occurred after a radiation alarm sounds in her office.  Meanwhile, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced to Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. He has been chosen by the Kremlin to lead the investigation into the accident, but knows absolutely nothing about nuclear energy. It’s frustrating and infuriating to watch Legasov have to teach Scherbina and the entire Council of Ministers how nuclear reactors work, when every second more radiation pours out of the blown reactor. Eventually, though, Scherbina begins listening to Legasov and helping him negotiate Soviet politics.

Chernobyl-Episode-2-HBO
Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) struggles to be heard over the political considerations of the situation.

Renck and Mazin keep the tension running high, but none of the suspenseful sequences seem present only for cheap suspense. Each one effectively drives home how ill-prepared the Soviet government was to handle this type of event. The episode does, however, feel like it dropped some storylines. Though it is very much about the aftermath of the catastrophic event from the first episode, the shift in focus from plant workers and first responders is jarring. We only spent a couple minutes with Legasov in the premiere, and several other real characters I grew interested in and attached to last week are ignored completely. I assume they’ll reappear next week, and this is only a minor structural complaint.

I neglected to discuss in last week’s review the fact that most of the actors are British and do not try to take on accents that might add a more realistic tone to the series. I’ll go on the record as saying this choice doesn’t bother me. Since they are speaking English anyway, which already is unrealistic in most scenes, it seems kind of pointless to add accents. It’s honestly a refreshing choice, as oftentimes accents used by actors end up being distracting or even laughable. This story is too important to risk such distractions.

Renck and Mazin do a fine job in “Please Remain Calm” of focusing on the politics of the situation, mostly in damming ways, without losing sight of both the present and potential human toll. A sense of dread envelops every scene. We’ve witnessed characters with severe burns and those vomiting profusely. With his second installment, Mazin begins transitioning his focus to the not fully comprehensible dangers of the future. How many people will die? How many will get cancer? How far will the radiation spread? When will the fire burn out? Just when the characters think they have some answers, unpleasant as they are, Khomyuk shows up with a revelation that ramps of the urgency even more. A second, far more catastrophic event at the plant may be as little as 48 hours away, and this one will have dire consequences for more than 60 million people.

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Emily Watson as Ulyana Khomyuk

Much of the series so far has focused on corruption and ignorance, but we are also provided with heroes, not only in the presence of Legasov and Khomyuk, but plant workers who brave certain death to try and prevent a second explosion. Legasov also has to suppress in many instances his inclination towards helping people. As he comes to terms with the sacrifices that will be needed to help prevent deaths on a larger scale, we begin to understand each of his actions and statements in the opening five minutes of the series.

Harris, Watson and Skarsgard are all Emmy worthy, and at this point i feel comfortable endorsing the writing and directing too. The entire cast and crew seem to get this disaster. I expect the developments to come in the following three episodes will provide more examples of courage and heroism, but also a lot more timely rage about the clash between political optics and the truth.

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