Title: “Open Wide, O Earth”
Written by Craig Mazin
Directed by Johan Renck
The third episode of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl takes on a slower, less suspenseful pace. It opens with a continuation of last week’s cliffhanger, where three plant workers complete a suicide mission that will prevent a far more severe second explosion. But tests also reveal that a meltdown is starting, and a new mission begins to prevent the contamination of the water supply for millions of people.
The situation is dire, yet for the first time in this series we are provided with multiple instances of humor via a group of miners tasked with digging a massive trench under the compromised reactor. When the miners are informed of their assignment, they step forward willingly, but wipe their hands on the suit of a young official as they walk by him. One miner quips “Now you look like someone who works with coal.”
Later on, the miners’ crew chief Glukhov (Alex Ferns) requests that fans be placed in the trench. His request is denied for safety reasons, so a few scenes later he and hundreds of his men are seen working fully naked to stay cool. Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and Legasov (Jared Harris) are shocked by this and urge the men to put their protective clothing back on. Glukhov asks if it will make a difference, and also seeks assurance that his men will be taken care of once their assignment is complete. The levity vanishes instantly. The silence from Legasov and Shcherbina is telling.
Elsewhere, Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is struggling to get enough details to find out what caused the explosion. She has gone over scenario after scenario, and the conclusion each time is that an explosion couldn’t happen. The cause needs to be discovered, however, or whatever happened will happen again. She decides she needs to talk to hospitalized plant workers and firefighters about the incident.
The hospital scenes are unflinchingly gruesome. I remember watching 24 and seeing how that series dealt with radiation exposure and poisoning. Of course little about 24 was realistic, and there are levels of human suffering that cannot be depicted on network television, but the difference is stark. In the fictionalized world of 24, the head of the Counter Terrorism Unit during season two is exposed to radiation. From the moment he is exposed, his symptoms worsen, but are mild compared to what we see here. Perhaps one of the cruelest effects of this type of poisoning is how the body rallies for a time after exposure, allowing the patient to feel as if they are recovering. There was no such false-hope provided to the head of CTU. But the series also killed him off another way before the worst effects of the radiation kicked in.
Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) finds her husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) in a hospital room with several other firefighters. They are playing cards and laughing. Against the orders of hospital staff, she hugs him and the camera closes in on her face to show she is still worried.
Hours later, her fears are confirmed. She awakens from a nap in the hallway to the sound of her husband screaming. Before being forced out of his room, she sees the dark red and black skin that is so swollen and puffy it barely looks connected to his body. Lyudmilla and Vasily’s tragic reunion bookends a scene where Legasov tells Shcherbina what will happen to the victims who were closest to the reactor shortly after the explosion. The painful death will take anywhere from days to weeks, and the effects of the radiation will make it impossible to administer morphine and dull the considerable pain.
The episode ends with a mass funeral for the dead firefighters. Lyudmilla watches as her husband, in a zinc coffin, is placed in a shallow ditch. The ditch is filled with concrete until the coffins are covered.
It must be noted that Lyudmilla and Vasily were real people. These are not fictional characters created by writers to make history more emotional, as if events like the Chernobyl disaster or the sinking of the Titanic weren’t tragic enough. Lyudmilla provided her account of the accident and its aftermath in Svetlana Alexievic’s book Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear disaster. It’s too soon to tell how much impact this series will have on future historical films and TV shows, but anyone thinking about writing or directing a historical piece going forward should follow Renck and Mazin’s lead. Tell the stories of real people from the events whenever possible. Composite characters may occasionally be necessary, but don’t fabricate some cheesy love story involving fictional characters at the expense of the survivors who have far more compelling stories to tell.