Emmy Impact Series: ‘Chernobyl’

This is the second essay in my 2019 Emmy Impact Series. For previous essays in this series, click here.

Chernobyl (HBO)

Selected Nominations: Outstanding Limited Series; Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special; Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special

Social Issue Addressed: Consequences of political hubris and lies

‘Chernobyl’ wastes no time in providing its central question.

An aged and weary Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) makes the last of a series of tape recordings recalling the actions in the aftermath of the Chernobyl power plant explosion two years prior. He begins:

"What is the cost of lies? 

It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. 

The real danger is if we hear enough lies, 
we no longer recognize the truth at all."

It’s fitting that the series begins with hindsight. It’s with a retrospective point of view that we can fully realize the gravity of our actions and the web of their consequences. Yes, ‘Chernobyl’ deals with the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion incident, but it is more concerned with how we respond to the truth — even when that truth is hard to hear.

The social impact of ‘Chernobyl’ is not a direct call to action, per se, but rather a call to consciousness. Although the series covers an event thirty years removed from now and an ocean away from the United States, the sociopolitical atmosphere in the show is analogous to the one the U.S. faces in the present day. In what some circles have dubbed a “post-truth” society, America is grappling with its own internal crises and a political system that is FAR more concerned with positive optics and contrived narratives than with the reality of the world and the people impacted by action — or inaction, in some cases. So the question we face today is, how can we learn from this?

In ‘Chernobyl,’ lies and denial loom over every frame of the series, but they are perhaps most pervasive in the series’ first episode in the immediate aftermath of the reactor explosion.

Post blast, station manager Anatoly Dyatlov is already yelling at his subordinates. Despite repeated accounts that the reactor core has exploded, he dismisses each reporting worker as “in shock,” “delusional,” or “confused.” When Dyatlov himself decides to take a look out of the reactor building, he sees graphite strewn about the ground and proceeds to insist that the core is intact. When more and more workers turn up bloodied and ill, Dyatlov downplays their ailments. And when the dosimeter readings tell him that, he insists that there is no major issue. All signs point to a problem, but it is not a problem he is willing to face. Dyatlov carries this denial to the emergency briefing, and the lies reinforce themselves and grow amongst powerful men who would rather coddle the hubris of the State than protect the well-being of their fellow countrymen. These men encourage an attitude that asks citizens to close their eyes and keep their heads down in favor of a pre-arranged narrative:

"Seal off the city. 
Cut the phone lines. 
Prevent the spread of misinformation."

Rather, these officials seek to prevent the spread of information — targeting the truth — which is misaligned with the reputation they seek to uphold, both among their citizens and on the world stage.

It’s immediate who suffers the most. First, the unsuspecting plant workers who frantically try to remedy the situation; the firefighters who respond not knowing what they are exposing themselves to; the nurses and doctors who attend to the ill. And of course, the citizens in the perimeter areas of the initial radiation area, including the neighboring town of Pripyat, who were not even given a chance to save themselves from exposure. This does not even touch the countless number of people who responded to the disaster during the clean-up and containment process or the citizens who were forced to evacuate their homes and towns. So many lives lost under the weight of hubris-driven lies.

For the remainder of the series, we follow three main characters in their pursuit of the truth: chemist Valery Legasov, government official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and Belarusian nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson). These are our truth-seekers. And through them, we see how difficult it was to shine a light on the truth.

Legasov, who is directly appointed to head the task committee, and is the first to refute the report of the explosion incident being minor. He cannot, in good conscience, allow the current narrative to continue at the risk of endangering not only the Soviet Union, but the continent at large. He’s teamed up with Shcherbina, who, initially, is preoccupied with the reputation concerns of the country rather than the realities of the situation — but he learns, over time, to change his point of view. Finally, there is Ulana Khomyuk (a character created specifically for the series), who makes it her mission to investigate why and how the accident happened and compel her colleague Legasov to speak out — even if that incurs a personal risk.

Khomyuk’s journey to uncover the truth is not easy. She visits the control room operators in a Moscow hospital, most of them teetering on the edge of death. Some of the plant workers stonewall her efforts — Dyatlov in particular. When she asks him about a key piece of evidence — a decade-old scientific paper found in the state archives that reveals that the government deliberately redacted information pertaining to reactor safety — she is met with less than apathy:

"There is no truth. 

Ask the bosses whatever you want 
and you'll get the lie."

Dyatlov is a coward, yes. He’s also so resigned to the commitment to falsehood that he cannot be bothered to change his ways.

Meanwhile, Legasov and Shcherbina struggle during their containment efforts. In attempting to confer with other countries for equipment to clear debris from the roof of the reactor, they are met with obstacle after obstacle because of the Soviet state’s refusal to communicate the true severity of their situation. Legasov later falls in line by testifying in alignment with the state-approved narrative at an international conference on the incident.

All of this culminates in a meeting between Khomyuk, Legasov, Shcherbina. In the lead up to the Soviet criminal trial — at which Dyatlov is one of three main conspirators to be held accountable for the accident — Legasov is once again faced with the opportunity to tell the truth to impact change during his testimony. Khomyuk implores him to tell the truth and bring about real change, to rise above the layers and layers of incompetence and willful ignorance. It’s a chance to prevent a tragedy like this happening again.

In the end, Legasov finds his courage and tells the truth:

"When the truth offends, we lie and lie 
until we can no longer remember it is even there. 

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. 
Sooner or later, that debt is paid."

He breaks the cycle — and is punished for it — leading to his suicide two years later, in 1988.

In real life, Legasov’s sacrifice did, in fact, bring about changes in the safety of nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union. But the cost was immense.

So, again, revisiting Legasov’s original question at the beginning of the series we must now ask ourselves: What is the cost of lies?

In the United States today, there are attempts to rose-wash the ugliest parts of our society — racism, sexism, mass violence, ignorance to climate change, systematic inequality, among other issues — because it is easier to swallow. It is more comfortable to treat incidences as isolated and aberrant. In response to some of these issues, people might say “that’s not the America I know,” or claim that these events are unrepresentative of the true spirit of the nation, when, in fact, they cannot be divorced from it. This is fueled by a mix of ignorance (sometimes deliberate), anti-intellectualism, and a lack of empathy. The result is an unbroken wheel of strife — strife that we could address only if society at large and the authorities in power are willing to do the hard work to acknowledge the problems and accept accountability in order to affect change. It serves society none to lie to itself about neither its history nor its present troubles.

There is responsibility with authority, a responsibility that requires those in power to eschew pride and ignorance for the sake of the greater good. When denial and lies come from our highest levels of institutional power that is very dangerous. ‘Chernobyl’ reminds us that the silencing of truth comes with consequences, and that the remedy to that is the truth. There are truth-tellers out there — let them be heard.

Chernobyl is available to watch now on HBO.