“If you fly directly over that core, I promise you, by tomorrow morning, you’ll be begging for that bullet.”
Episode 2 of the HBO/Sky mini-series Chernobyl is just as horrifying as the opening episode last week. But while that was all fire and panic, this week’s horror was a slower burn. The episode still featured the same frustrating denial by the politicians at the top (Con O’Neill as Bryukhanov, the Director of the Chernobyl Plant annoys me to no end) but it was refreshing to see President Gorbachev of all people to be the one to finally listen to Legasov (obviously his portrayal is more influenced by his positive western persona rather than the negative way he is viewed in the former USSR). But after the politicians have accepted the reality of the situation, a new horror sets in.
So, not only is the core explosion meaning that everyone in the vicinity is become quickly irradiated (a particularly harrowing scene sees Legasov tell Shcherbina they’ll both be dead in 5 years) but now there is the chance of a 3-5 megaton explosion going off in the burning core – which would cause the deaths of millions across the globe. The answer to this particular extinction event is clear; a group of people will have to go back into the plant and flick the switch to release the water which in turn will prevent an explosion. Three plant workers volunteer, knowing full well they risk certain death. It’s a horrific scenario, captured superbly by director Johan Renck. The scene of them crawling around flooded tunnels, as there the radiation burns out their flashlights and their geiger counters emit an ear-piercing crackling, is pure nightmare fuel. It’s a popular theory that the three men died in a matter of days after leaving the tunnels and their corpses were so irradiated they had to be buried in lead coffins. Recent (Ukrainian) news actually reveals that two of these three men are alive and well (with the third having died due to a heart attack in 2005). It will be interesting to see how the show handles this next week, whether they go with the truth or the much more exciting (and widely believed) version of events.
Jared Harris as frustrated scientist Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgård as headstrong politician Boris Shcherbina take the lead this week, which also sees the introduction of Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, Unlike the characters played by Harris and Skarsgård, Watson’s character isn’t actually based upon a real-life person. I’m sure some people will be upset at the inclusion of fictional aspects in a story which already has the makings of a disaster movie without having to add elements on top. But the show’s creator Craig Mazin said her inclusion is to reflect the real-life women who were prominent in medical and science fields in the Soviet Union and I think that’s something definitely worth celebrating. Besides, without this fictional element, we’d be robbed of Watson’s wonderful performance. It’s her who realises the danger of Legasov’s plan, the plan which while initially successful will soon cause 3-5 megaton explosion. Of the many fantastic scenes in this episode, a standout saw what happened when Legasov’s plan was put into action. A squadron of army helicopters are instructed to dump a mixture of sand and boron onto the reactor but without getting too close to the column of smoke emitting out of the core. Of course, one helicopter does and in a hauntingly realistic shot, it clips a crane and simply drops out of the sky. We don’t even see it crash on the ground; we instead just see Harris’ face. No words are spoken but the meaning is all there. Harris’ Valery Legasov had ordered that pilot to his death. It’s a wonderful scene and really hammers home how brutal the disaster was.
Next week sees the divers return so it’ll be interesting to see how the show handles that particular aspect. In the timeline of the Chernobyl disaster (we’re almost 2 days after the explosion now) the most gruesome effects of radiation sickness will begin to be felt. If you know anything about this then you probably realise that next week isn’t exactly going to be cheerful…
Reviewed by Tom