‘He’s not a man anymore, but a reactor’ Meduza reviews episode three of HBO’s miniseries ‘Chernobyl’
On May 21, the American premium cable network HBO aired the third episode of “Chernobyl,” a new miniseries about the catastrophic nuclear accident in April 1986 that rocked the Soviet Union. After two episodes, with the initial fire extinguished and early panic beginning to subside, the focus shifts to questions about why the reactor exploded and who was responsible for the disaster. Meduza shares its thoughts about the show’s latest installment, “Open Wide, O Earth,” and looks at some of the showrunners’ editing decisions. Warning: spoilers ahead.
The third episode of “Chernobyl” is a conversation about causes and consequences. The miniseries has shed the suspense of its first two installments, when the story unfolded like a disaster movie, and it now wants to know the reason for this tragedy. While viewers may have difficulty grasping the scale of the “war” being waged inside the Exclusion Zone, it’s impossible to miss the human sacrifices it required. Despite the change in tone, “Chernobyl” still knows how to terrify its audience, and Emily Watson’s performance as Ulana Khomyuk, the nuclear scientist who visits men dying of radiation poisoning, gets under your skin even more than scenes of engineer Leonid Toptunov’s bloody hospital bed sheets. Viewers don’t need to see what remains of shift supervisor Alexander Akimov’s face — watching the reaction in Dr. Khomyuk’s eyes is more than enough.
The show’s creators haven’t managed to keep track of all the little things (even though their attention to detail is why many people fell in love with the miniseries in the first place): Valery Legasov, the character played by Jared Harris, drinks his vodka from a large glass in small sips, as if it were whiskey, and everyone in the cast keeps addressing each other as “comrade” in complete seriousness. But “Chernobyl” continues to hit its mark, from a bonafide miners’ joke (“What’s as big as a house, burns 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shit-load of smoke and noise, and cuts an apple into three pieces? A Soviet machine made to cut apples into four pieces!”) to hospital beds and zinc-lined coffins. It’s as if the showrunners saw it all happen with their own eyes.
Of course, you can criticize the episode for excessive melodrama: Legasov is suddenly partial to Khomyuk, and the miners who stand up to a coal minister recruiting them for the Chernobyl liquidation effort are too theatrical. Some of the stories, however, only seem like they were cooked up in a Hollywood screenwriters’ room. In fact, they’re completely true. For example, everything the show depicts about Lyudmilla and Vasily Ignatenko — the bribes, the questions about children, the game of cards, the ban on touching — all really happened. Lyudmilla’s story appears in Svetlana Alexievich’s book, “Voices From Chernobyl,” where she says, “None of the doctors knew I was staying the night with him in the compression chamber. They didn’t have a clue. The nurses let me in. At first, they also tried to reason with me, saying, ‘You’re young. What are you thinking? He’s not a man anymore, but a reactor. You’ll burn together.’ I followed them around them like a dog… I stood by the door for hours, asking and begging. And finally they said, ‘The hell with it! There’s something wrong with you.’”
Filming “Open Wide, O Earth”
In the show’s podcast, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin shared some details about filming the third episode of “Chernobyl,” revealing that two scenes were cut from the start that would have introduced supervisor Anatoly Dyatlov’s son, who died of leukemia at the age of 10, years before the Chernobyl disaster. April 1986, it turns out, wasn’t Dyatlov’s first nuclear accident. Before coming to Soviet Ukraine, he installed reactors into submarines at a shipbuilding plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he was once exposed to a nearly fatal dose of radiation. It’s unknown if this incident caused his son’s illness, but screenwriters considered using memories of this personal tragedy as a way to explain Dyatlov’s questionable decisions during the Chernobyl disaster. In the end, however, the showrunners abandoned the idea of a flashback, to avoid disrupting the story’s rhythm and to steer clear of “armchair psychology.” The episode also cut a scene showing May Day parades that went ahead in cities across Ukraine, despite Chernobyl’s spreading radiation.
To capture the gruesome deaths that befell plant engineers and first responders, makeup and prosthetics designer Daniel Parker studied the stages of radiation sickness, identifying seven kinds of wounds that depend on a victim’s proximity to the radiation source.
“It was important to me that people understood what was happening to these men, because they suffered in terrible ways,” Mazin told The Chernobyl Podcast. “These were not random people suffering — these were heroes. They were saving lives, and in doing so they put themselves in the line of fire, and this is a fire that doesn’t kill you quickly. It kills you slowly, and it kills you in an excruciating manner. [...] And the last thing that I want this show to do is to scare people about nuclear power. This is not a polemic about nuclear power. However, it is about respecting it for what it can do. Because what it can do is savage.” Nevertheless, Mazin says the creators wanted to avoid “abusive” filmmaking and decided not to show the absolute extremes of radiation sickness. The actor playing Alexander Akimov, for instance, was never even put in makeup to depict the loss of his face.
The scene where Dr. Khomyuk is jailed by the KGB was filmed in Vilnius at a real former KGB prison. It's now a museum. “As we moved through it, we were aware that there were the ghosts of history around us,” Mazin said. “They showed us these rooms [...], the doors were quite heavy, they were padded on the inside, in case you, I dunno, attempted to smash your head against it. There were little slots for food and such, but then there were some grimmer rooms. There was one in particular where the floor sloped down, so it was lower than the entrance to the door, and the idea was that you’d go into that room, and they would fill it with water, up to your knees or so, so you couldn’t sleep. [...] It was a kind of torture I would have never even contemplated. It was just awful, and right in the middle of a city.”
“Open Wide, O Earth” is remarkable for many other details it captures about Soviet life, as well. For example, Mazin says the showrunners deliberately outfitted the divers at the beginning of the episode with authentic Dynamo wind-up flashlights, using the “wonderful noise” they emit to create the scene’s atmosphere.
Mazin also says he visited Chernobyl as a tourist, to prepare for the miniseries. “I’m not a religious man, but I suppose that’s as religious as I’ll ever feel. Because I’d spent so much time living in that space, in multiple areas of those spaces for so long, and with the people in my mind for so long… to walk where they walked felt so strange. And also being under that same piece of sky, you start to feel a little closer, in a sense, to who they were. I felt it probably the most when we were in the city of Chernobyl [...] there’s a small building that’s basically the cultural center, where they put on shows and songs about the Soviet Union and Lenin, and that is the room where they eventually held a trial that we will talk about in episode five. In that moment, standing where Dyatlov, and [Nikolai] Fomin, and [Viktor] Bryukhanov stood — it was very chilling. In a weird way, it was more moving to me than moving through the actual power plant itself. The one thing, though, that I did feel, walking through the power plant was a little bit of a better sense of how easy it would be to deny. Because it’s so big! It’s a little like if you were in a skyscraper, and you said to yourself, ‘This is solid!’ [...] You just feel safe within it. [...] And you can start to feel how people would say, ‘Okay, for sure, it’s not like the reactor blew up. This is some other smaller problem.’”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock