Episode title: Vichnaya Pamyat
Written by: Craig Mazin
Directed by: Johan Renck
HBO’s Chernobyl closes with the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin. The trial takes viewers on a moment by moment recreation of what happened in the control room leading up to the explosion. In this closing hour, Legasov, Khomyuk and Shcherbina testify about the events of the night of April 26, 1986. The testimony reveals lies and reckless behavior at many levels, from the plant’s chief engineer to the KGB.
At the end of this series, it’s hard to think back on any scene or even frame that I would cut. Every image, every line of dialogue and every action says something powerful about the accident and about the larger themes of corruption, arrogance and pride. “Vichnaya Pamyat” is no exception. I appreciate how Renck and his team stay out of the story’s way. The editing, the cinematography, the sound and the score (in this episode, the lack thereof) create a haunting stillness around everything happening in the plant. The lack of contrapuntal diegetic sound and anxiety inducing music make all the more eerie a series of bad decisions that impacted the lives of millions.
I’ll let you watch for yourself in case you don’t know what happened to Legasov between the trial and when he took his life two years later. My other reviews have been spoiler heavy, at least as much as a historical series can have spoilers, but this seems like an opportunity for reflection. Chernobyl is ultimately important because it offers timeless lessons about the truth. When a government lies to protect itself instead of protecting the people, it is worthless, and dangerous. Chernobyl doesn’t assert that a nuclear meltdown such as this will happen again. The next large-scale tragedy resulting from government corruption will likely be something different. When politicians aren’t checked by other branches of government or the people they supposedly serve, tragedy tends to follow quickly. History lessons such as Chernobyl offer important warnings to those who underestimate the danger posed by leaders who are primarily concerned with saving face.
I’m surprised by the lack, so far at least, of any impact on the 2020 presidential campaign or comments from the Trump administration. Maybe left-leaning candidates running on green energy platforms don’t want to address this series and be seen as stoking fears about nuclear energy. It’s also understandable that an administration that has been chummy with Russia, to put it mildly, would want to ignore this show. I’m not sure how much longer either side will be able to avoid commenting on its lessons or at least acknowledging its existence. Forbes was among several publications this morning to point out that Chernobyl has quickly surged to the top spot in IMDB’s ranking of the highest rated TV shows of all time. To be fair, only around 115,000 viewers have weighed in on it. Shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have well over a million votes each. I imagine though that as the Emmys approach and positive word of mouth continues to spread, the cultural and political impact of Chernobyl will grow steadily.
The show has made life difficult for Vladimir Putin. The Moscow Times reports that the series has become a hit in Russia even though the pro-Kremlin media have been trashing it week after week. The article details some of the laughable efforts made to undermine the series’ credibility. The desperation apparent in these weak attacks unintentionally emphasizes just how accurate Mazin and Renck’s work is. They, and HBO, should be quite proud right now.