Remembering the 36th anniversary of the disaster that changed the world with the amazing miniseries by Craig Mazin
“Chernobyl (Miniseries) (2019)” — via HBO
By Jacobo Rodriguez Solana
May. 5, 2021
“I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful.” This is an excerpt from the first page of Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl” from 1997. The book dives into the psychological and personal tragedies of what happened at Chernobyl, and explores the experiences of how it impacted the lives of those affected.
Across a ten-year span, Svetlana has interviewed over 500 eyewitnesses of the horrific Chernobyl accident. This incredibly important book brings light into an event that was actively suppressed; instead of this, the place became synonymous with abandoned buildings and empty playgrounds, on a perpetual greyscale color pallet. The stories that Svetlana worked to uncover for a decade, the harrowing truth she learned from the survivors, subverted all expectations, and shed a light on the horrors of this event.
“Svetlana Alexievich receives the Nobel Prize of Literature” — via Nobelprize.org
That is a big part in the two reasons why Craig Mazin was so successful in his writing of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, aside from great performances by the talented actors and the fantastic setpieces of soundtrack, Craig Mazin engaged us, viewers, because of how he interacted with the knowledge that the audience had and did not have, he understood perfectly just when, our knowledge of Chernobyl ended and our ignorance on the matter began.
On the first episode, there is a palpable dread over every action and event; the people we are watching believe they are fine, only concerned over what they think is a far off fire, even the government officials, that know at least more than the average civilian, don’t know the full truth about this event, but, of course, we as the audience know better, even with our general passing knowledge, we know that Chernobyl was a horrific tragedy that depopulated an entire region, yet we have to watch these people believe that they are ok.
The invisible touch
The flaming reactor is like a monster, humming, ever present in the distance, killing people without them even knowing, the show purposefully lets us stew in the misfortune of these individuals to deliver a sense of anguish and horror. This is where Craig knows our knowledge ends on the matter, changing the focus of the story, every episode punching us in the gut, educating us in facts so biblical in scale that it makes us feel that we should have known them by now.
In episode two, we now know that it isn’t just Chernobyl and the surrounding area that are affected, but all of the land that comprises modern day Ukraine. Subsequently, we learn that the entirety of Russia is in jeopardy as well, in normal storytelling, conflict escalation like this would be brushed off as an excuse to artificially raise tension, here, rather it feels like fiction, but still blows us away with the historic reality of the situation. The show plays with our ignorance in the matter to keep us captivated with a story that we shouldn’t believe, but have to, we are stuck in our couches thinking about how the world almost ended.
In a topic so complex as this, they made sure to impart the proper knowledge to the audience in such a clever way that we didn’t even know it was an exposition, we learned of decimeter readings, megawatt outputs, and control rod compositions, all in order to feel the weight of how dire the situation was.
In fact, the final trial scene was, in the words of Craig Mazin, “The most difficult episode I wrote” It is an entire episode talking about intricate nuclear science, Chernobyl spent 4 episodes leading to why this reactor exploded. This created a hunger in the audience to know the truth, no matter how boring or scientific this could be. This is the first factor why this show succeeded; the second factor is the experiences of the people.
“Víchnaya Pámyat” — via HBO
The real focus
Chernobyl as a show isn’t about the explosion on the RBMK reactor, or the nuclear consequences that the world might have faced. Chernobyl, as a narrative, is about people; at the end of the day, it is the individuals and their experiences within the story that kept us engaged; Craig Mazin said it himself “It’s not about the explosion, I wanna show you what it is really about, and I wanna show the story through the lens of a few people… What I want them to take away more than everything is that, if you lie, if you are part of a system of lies, by your government, by your churches, by your friends, there is a cost attached to it”
Not all people can relate to radiation burns, but all can relate to being lied to, to being hurt by those lies, that is why Chernobyl was so captivating.
“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we can see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait, for all time.
“And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: “What is the cost of lies? (Chernobyl 2019)
“The happiness of all Mankind” — via HBO
Alexievich, S., & Gessen, K. (2019). Voices from Chernobyl (Belarussian Literature): The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Dalkey Archive Press.
P. (2019, 4 junio). What is the cost of lies. Psychoticful. https://psychoticful.tumblr.com/post/185360964517
Utichi, J. (2019, 18 junio). ‘Chernobyl’ Star Jared Harris On Hitting The Zeitgeist With HBO Miniseries & His Onscreen “Bromance” With Stellan Skarsgård. Deadline. https://deadline.com/2019/06/chernobyl-jared-harris-craig-mazin-hbo-emmys-interview-1202629374/
Dibdin, E. (2019, 5 junio). ‘Chernobyl’ Creator Breaks Down the HBO Drama’s Haunting Finale and Cautionary Message. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/chernobyl-finale-explained-creator-craig-mazin-interview-1215670/
BAFTA Guru. (2019, 3 junio). Craig Mazin on Writing Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky Atlantic Miniseries | On Writing [Vídeo]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY0r1Ln6tkM&t=0s