How Does An HBO Miniseries Explode?

It *would* be HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl that drags me back to film blogging. I’m struggling to organize my thoughts in the way I used to when writing reviews regularly back in college, so I don’t know that this will be my best work, but perhaps a small host of digital archivists will finally understand my Twitter handle and the “occasional Soviet cinema enthusiast” section of my bio.

But, yes, the conclusion of Chernobyl this past Monday awoke something in me, as it hit squarely at an intersection of cultural craft that I’ve continued mulling over quite a lot the past few years even as I’ve drifted further and further away from traditional “film studies”: the collision of political, media, and social narrative that makes the entire idea of movies “based on a true story” an utter paradox. That it happens to use a story from the history of the Soviet Union, the 20th century’s wildest and arguably furthest-reaching experiment in nation-as-narrative, as the grounds to explore the boundaries of “historical fiction” and “docudrama” – the more the better (for me and my ever-shrinking attention span, at least).

I’ll say right off the bat that one of the things I most admire about Chernobyl is that its creator/writer, Craig Mazin, has been not just upfront but quite adamant that his series is not the truth. For the sake of marketing and media coverage it is understandable that the log line for the miniseries is boiled down to “the story of what happened at Chernobyl”, but in all of the interviews and pieces I’ve seen where Mazin is directly involved, he’s rather insistent that it is just a story, that there are many others (including the extensive materials he used for research), and, most importantly, that it is critical and appropriate to discuss what he changed in the name of artistic license. You can see this in glimpses in the supplemental “Inside the Episode” segments at the end of each episode of Chernobyl (they’re actually informative! come back, Game of Thrones viewers!). There is even the 5-episode companion podcast, featuring Mazin and, of all people, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal, released and well-promoted by HBO, entirely dedicated to Mazin explaining what he manipulated, left out, exaggerated or outright falsified, and why.

(Well, it’s not entirely dedicated to that, because there is also plenty of Sagal genuflecting over how good this-or-that scene is, or recalling unhelpful anecdotes from his own memories of the era, but, the parts where they dig in on some of the thornier questions of remaining “true” versus telling a story are quite compelling)

The point is, I can not recall another recent instance of historical fiction, at least in film or TV, where the “fiction” part was seen as permissible. Think of all the click-bait pieces and headlines you’ve seen in recent years: “10 Things Selma Got Wrong About Lyndon Johnson”; “The Truth About Gwen Verdon and Fosse/Verdon“; “5 Things You Didn’t Know About First Man‘s Janet Shearon”. There is always an implication of betrayal behind these pieces: an unspoken rage that this movie made up or ignored facts in order to manipulate you, as if that wasn’t entirely the point of creative expression. Chernobyl has hardly been immune to this phenomenon: among those that are at least better-written, see this Forbes piece (which starts making a fair critique of the series’ fear-mongering around nuclear power, but then goes so far in the other direction that it makes the argument that thyroid cancer….isn’t that bad?), or the New York Times piece that concludes with the thought of “too bad this wasn’t a documentary!” as if, again, the entire enterprise of historical fiction is illegitimate. (I would dearly love and actually respect it more to see someone stop dancing around it and just write this take explicitly)

The show, I thought, tried to get ahead of all that. Instead of sitting back and letting his docudrama be shred down to bullet points in a “Controversy” section on Wikipedia, Mazin and the production team at HBO, to the best of their ability, invited viewers to make picking apart the story a part of the story. That is, it appears, to be the very point of Chernobyl: if “the cost of lies” is, potentially, impending destruction for the human race (Mazin has also not been shy about Chernobyl‘s obvious parallels to the current global political discourse around climate change), then it’s in everyone’s interest to be able to discern when we’re being sold one.

BUT this is kind of where it all breaks down, and where I really felt compelled to write out some thoughts in the face of what appears to be a truly overwhelming positive response – Chernobyl now has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score and the highest rating for any TV show ever on IMDb (both numbers that of course that don’t *really* mean anything at all, but in my impression do accurately reflect the bland same-ness of the praise around the series) – is the conclusion that because it is extremely well made, well thought out and well-intentioned, Chernobyl ergo is ultimately successful at what it’s trying to do creatively. Unfortunately, it’s not, and it has nothing to do with how factual or not it is.

For its first four episodes, Chernobyl deftly mixes exacting recreations and superb cinematic craft to create an indelible impression of crisis – smacking viewers with the awful results of the explosion at reactor 4, the scrambled, messy, inarticulate response of the Soviet political leadership, and the dire fears of doomsday conjured in the aftermath. This, you can’t help but think, is indeed what it would look and feel like to live through something like this.

I think here of scenes like the hospital workers casually piling the fatally irradiated suits of dying firefighters in a corner of the basement, where they still sit today; or the entirety of the masterful Episode Four, “The Happiness of All Mankind”, with its real-time re-enactment of the “biorobots” (what a staggeringly horrific and truly Soviet word) given 90 second each to clean the plant roof, and the transcendent miniseries-within-the-miniseries of Barry Keoghan and Fares Fares as liquidators sent to clear the Exclusion Zone of all visible animal life.

I cannot emphasize enough that these are some staggering and unforgettable images, and well worth the time of watching Chernobyl no matter what. It is certainly enough to forgive obvious pitfalls like Emily Watson’s “character”, Ulana Khomyuk – a composite standing for, in Mazin’s own words, “dozens” of Soviet scientists, a narrative shortcut SO obvious and outrageous that it breaks the show’s spell pretty much every time she’s on screen.

(At the risk of sounding like the nit-picking pieces I said I was trying to avoid, I just have to mention how *insane* the sequence is where Khomyuk, supposedly a physicist from a completely unrelated plant in Minsk, travels to Chernobyl, directly confronts Legasov and Scherbina, who are currently in charge of putting out a still-burning reactor fire – and they patiently listen to her, have her join(?) the team, and in her next scene is seated at a committee meeting with Gorbachev. It would make more narrative sense to me if Khomyuk was an honest-to-god Jiminy Cricket-esque hallucination of Legasov’s conscience.)

But then comes the grand finale, and it is already a mistake that the show is treating the last episode as such. Nothing about Chernobyl has felt like it was building toward cathartic resolution. Nothing has suggested we needed a redemption arc for Jared Harris’ lead, Valery Legasov – we are already aware of his actual arc towards futility, despair, and ultimately suicide regardless of his testimony at the trial. There *is* a mild “whodunnit” structure that still needs to be resolved (the lingering question, present since the first episode, of “how does an RBMK reactor explode?”), and the flashbacks in “Vichnaya Pamyat” to the moments just before what we’ve already seen of the night of the explosion, are structurally effective and undoubtedly the best moments of the episode, for the same reasons that the premiere was so vivid, but their context is now wrong. Chernobyl pretty much just had to stick its landing by sticking to the same tone and indictment that it seemed to be making all along: states are narratives (lies, even), and they do not give a shit for the individuals contained and affected by them, but individuals are complicit in recounting and enforcing them.

And yet, suddenly here we are, swerving from Come and See to Witness for the Prosecution faster than a first-year film student. I can’t really put it any better than Masha Gessen did in The New Yorker, the one piece I have read that bothers to engage and attribute Chernobyl‘s failure to a problem of inconsistent messaging and power dynamics rather than a fact-check of statistics elided or embellished. Legasov’s last-minute attempt to put the onus for Chernobyl on the Soviet state pales to the extended sequence blasting the personal failing of the engineer Dyatlov, resulting in a severe muddling. It is impossible to watch the flashbacks at the trial and not think, “if only those junior engineers had stood their ground against Dyatlov” – but thinking that is completely at odds with the culpability of the state. Would the reactor at Chernobyl have exploded if Dyatlov wasn’t present? If you are blaming the system, that answer should be ambiguous, but Chernobyl goes out of its way to say “no”.

We even have the evidence here to specifically blame Mazin’s creative and writing decisions in this moment: in the podcast, Mazin relates how at the real trial, Dyatlov forcefully denied the charges that he was to blame for the explosion (as he does in the show), but also completed his statement by saying, “With so many deaths, I can’t say that I’m completely innocent.” This is an exceptional bit of Soviet double-talk, perfectly in keeping with the thematic trajectory of the show towards a broad and banal sense of culpability, and it’s absolutely baffling that Mazin chose specifically not to include it. Instead, we get Dyatlov’s (also real) declaration that he was “in the bathroom” at a critical juncture – a statement the flashbacks present as a total lie, and so where there could and should have been shades of gray there is a bitter, unsympathetic, black-and-white Hollywood villain.

Bryukhanov, Dyatlov, and Fomin at their real-life trial

Legasov’s testimony and his last scene with the hovering KGB official are similarly clunky devices that confuse more than clarify. They’re incredible acting showcases for Harris, to be sure, and probably secured him an Emmy, but it is completely unclear what Legasov the character intends to achieve in these moments.

Tell the world the truth? The moment for that would have been the international panel at Vienna, at which Legasov did in fact, within his bounds, implicate blame for the Soviet state – but in the show this event occurs for some reason off-screen, and it’s implied he completely stuck to his script of blaming operator error.

Spark internal outrage and action within the Soviet Union, with a handful of his fellow scientists present? It is well established at this point that the trial is completely insular and controlled by the Party and the KGB (and all this just within the bounds of the show itself, never mind Gessen’s point that the real Legasov, as a high-up scientific administrator, would never not have known this).

Clear his own conscience in his downward spiral into suicide? This is the closest to a justifiable motivation, but within the show it’s redundant: Legasov’s recorded voice recordings, which we’ve already seen (they open the show and will bookend it), distributed via samizdat (a phenomenon Mazin seems troublingly unaware of in the companion podcast), serve the same purpose, in a far more grounded and realistic gesture.

The explanation is that this utter fantasy of a trial happens because it must happen, according to the conventions of a certain traditional, Robert-McKee-type of storytelling. We must tie a bow on the characters and events we have been shown, get away with a clean ending, even when the story and message presented have been extremely messy. (The interlude in the trial where Legasov tells Scherbina he was “the most important of all” is another baffling example of this choice – there is absolutely no reason for it to exist except to say “goodbye” to the character of Scherbina, even though the entire point of the show up to this point has been to emphasize that there were literally hundreds of thousands of nameless citizens who served critical, incomprehensibly heroic roles in the cleanup effort). The result, where there should actually be a splintering and divide of opinion and interpretation, is a monolith. This series was “great”, because it gave us exactly what we wanted: satisfying lies, lies that “make sense” given our preconceptions rather than challenging them.

It is genuinely disappointing to have to write this focusing so much on the failings of “Vichnaya Pamyat”. If I had been blogging the entire series, there would be far more space to discuss the extraordinary craft on display in the rest of the series, including Mazin’s writing! (The final episode seems to reveal limitations perhaps related to Mazin’s “day job” of scripting comedies like The Hangover sequels, but it’s unfair not to note that the other four episodes suggest heretofore little-known and largely untapped talent). But as with the stumblings of latter-day Game of Thrones (sorry, I know, we don’t need to go over that any more), it feels critical to examine why we are disappointed (or satisfied!) by certain types of filmmaking and storytelling, to question exactly what we are being told and examine the effect it has on us. I think (hope) that the makers of Chernobyl would agree with me on that.

2 thoughts on “How Does An HBO Miniseries Explode?

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