Title: “The Happiness of All Mankind”
Written by: Craig Mazin
Directed by: Johan Renck
“I have two rules. Don’t point that thing at me…and two, if you hit an animal and it doesn’t die, keep shooting until it does. Don’t let it suffer.” -Fares Fares as Bacho
Episode four of Chernobyl will be difficult for animal lovers. The arc of the episode masterfully draws out parallels between the domestic pets hunted down by soldiers to prevent the spread of radiation and the thousands of soldiers who are forced to clear the roof of the plant after robots prove ineffective. The soldiers and the pets are both sacrificed in the name of the happiness of all mankind.
The episode opens with a soldier telling an elderly villager, who is milking her cow, that it is time to leave. She refuses and continues milking while recounting all the times throughout her life that soldiers appeared and told her to leave. Despite wars, revolutions and the deaths of family members, she has always stayed. The soldier gets impatient, raises his gun and fires. The camera stays on the soldier throughout the shooting, then holds on him for a few moments after. Then we cut to a shot of the dead cow. Renck uses this composition technique several times throughout the episode; focusing on the faces of troops as they commit violent acts (mostly against animals). It shows us just enough of the violence to keep the episode from being unwatchable, but also emphasizes the toll this duty takes on the men pulling the trigger.
The focal point of the episode really is Bacho (Fares Fares) and Pavel (Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk) heading into the evacuation zone to conduct animal control. Bacho is full of raunchy jokes and is in decent spirits before the mission. He assures the younger soldier that it will be an easy assignment. The animals are pets so they’ll walk right up, happy to see people, and they’ll be easy to shoot. Of course, once the men are in the evacuation zone, Bacho’s tone changes. He scolds Pavel after the newbie takes too long to finish off a wounded dog. Pavel eventually resigns himself to the grim task. However, when he enters a house to find a litter of puppies, Bacho appears and tells him to go outside. We follow him to the yard and watch his reaction as he hears the gunshots. Later, dump trucks full of dead animals unload into mass graves.
The parallel story features Legasov and Shcherbina struggling with the question of how to clear off the roof of the plant. This must be done before the plant can be sealed off. The radiation is too high for humans to work in the area. They attempt to use robots, but the radiation in the most dangerous zone destroys them almost immediately. A plan is devised to have thousands of troops clear the roof. Each soldier will be in the most radioactive zones for no more than 90 seconds. They will still be risking their lives, and many will have their life expectancy cut, for the good of the greater population.
Other elements of the episode felt a bit rushed. Lyudmilla goes into labor, and we later learn from a conversation between Legasov and Khomyuk that the infant died shortly after birth, due to radiation poisoning. The last shot of the episode is in the hospital. In a cutless reversal of the composition used during many of the animal deaths, we see the aftermath of the tragedy first. The camera moves in on an empty crib before panning to a shot Lyudmilla grieving quietly in her bed.
There is also set up for next week’s big finale. Khomyuk questions Dyatlov in his hospital room, but he is uncooperative. “There is no truth,” he tells her. “Ask the bosses whatever you like. You get the bullet.” Dyatlov’s is proven right later on when Khomyuk discovers that there was a similar malfunction at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in 1975, but disaster was narrowly averted and the KGB covered it up.
Based on the previews, next week has the potential to be an intense, dialogue heavy closer focusing on Legasov’s IAEA speech and the trials of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin. Given that this is a historical series and the suffering on display in each episode actually happened, it’s not appropriate to say I’ll miss this show when it is over. It is fair to say that I appreciate the quality of the writing, acting and directing on display here. Mazin and Renck have created a masterful, taut and deeply affecting drama. This one is short by HBO standards, but it’s no less sprawling than any of their previous historical pieces.