The Horror of Knowing: Catastrophe and Meaning in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’

Louis Bayman / July 30, 2019

The five-part miniseries Chernobyl has become the popular television phenomenon of the year, and one of the most critically successful ever. Over thirty years since the explosion at the core of a nuclear reactor in 1986, the production has been praised for its fidelity both to the events around the disaster and to the look and feel of the Soviet 1980s. This has in turn prompted a backlash, from critics admiring the strength of its drama but questioning its faithfulness to historical fact. Meanwhile, Russia has announced plans for its own patriotic version of events. This debate, however, gets us no further in understanding the unique power of the series, which indeed lies in its vision of how reality is made up of hidden physical and political forces. It also offers an example of why historical drama should not be judged by the criterion of historical accuracy alone. What one can learn from War and Peace about 19th century Europe, for example, doesn’t depend on whether its protagonists’ conversations actually took place—and if facts are sacred, then so too is art. Chernobyl’s large themes—of knowledge, authority, human happiness and its relationship to nature—can only be understood if we appreciate the series as a creative evocation of a special kind of horror.

It is worth starting then by saying that, artistically, Chernobyl is deliberately, ostentatiously dull. The dark browns and greys of the décor and costumes are already behind the times for the setting. The principal characters are present not because of their personalities but for their professional and institutional roles, and the drama is mostly made up of nuclear scientists explaining policy changes to bureaucrats. The dramatic tension relies on problem solving and the unfolding of procedure, without any melodramatic rescue attempts and few pyrotechnics of collapse and mayhem. We only see the main explosion from afar, or in partial glimpses. The series begins instead two years later, with the suicide of a middle-aged man in a darkened flat. During the course of the drama we learn nothing of his family life, his hopes or his past, but for a few indirect comments in the final scene implicating him in crimes that deny him easy status as a good guy.

As mainstream television, Chernobyl is daring drama, opting to be more of a visual damp squib than a fireworks display. It focuses less on the clamor of mayhem than the quietly enveloping deadliness in its wake. Its approach resembles what the Russian dramatist Chekhov called “undramatic drama,” where the real tragedies of life lie otherwise unrecognized beneath banal appearances. This attitude grants Chernobyl a tremendous sense of realism, of appearing simply to be “what really happened.” Yet even the banal appearances are artistically meaningful. The setting is portrayed as separate from nature. The fading pattern wallpaper and mass-produced ‘80s gear on which the camera lingers show the very fabric of life to be synthetic, inorganic, artificial. The lighting scheme of sickly yellows and greens lacks vitality, and the environment progressively becomes an industrial wasteland. The scrupulous retro evocation indicates the death of a certain post-war vision of mass society, a death rendered uncannily attractive, its visual appeal not unlike the terrible beauty of the burning reactor that people fatally flock to see on the night of the explosion.

Thus, in the guise of costume drama, Chernobyl resurrects a premise common to sci-fi: the inability of society to deal with its own technological advancement. This premise is realized with a tact all the more effective for its understatement. The sun rises at the end of the first episode on a pleasant late spring day in Pripyat, the densely-populated town near the reactor, the morning after the accident. A group of anonymous schoolchildren skip past towards school, but the camera remains still. Behind them, a bird drops unnoticed from the sky, disheveled, bloodshot, its talons clutching at the air as it gasps its final breath, the first victim of a pervasive contamination.

The series’ employment of understatement is not intended to reduce the horrific nature of the accident, but to heighten its impact, communicating the artistic point that beneath banal appearances, normality has turned into a toxic graveyard. The exposure of the reactor core, whose glowing stream of light shoots directly to the heavens, achieves what Mark Fisher defined as the “weird” in fantasy literature—that is, the opening of a gateway from normality into a different dimension. This dimension is evoked in Chernobyl not by spectacular effects but suggestion, because the drama’s full force exists beyond the capacities of direct representation. Professor Legasov (Jared Harris), the scientist who ends up heading the disaster operation, alerts the first meeting of the Central Committee of the USSR to the kinds of magnitude involved by explaining that:

… Every atom of U235 is like a speeding bullet, traveling at nearly the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path… every gram of U235 holds over a billion, trillion of these bullets – that’s in one gram. Now Chernobyl holds over three million grams, and right now it’s on fire… That’s 3 million, billion, trillion bullets, in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Most of these bullets will not stop firing for 100 years. Some of them not for 50,000 years.

These are precise numbers, but their continual multiplication into ever greater units of measurement has the effect of evoking the infinite. The series manages to imagine the scale of a catastrophe the likes of which “has never occurred on this planet before.” Byelorussian physicist Khomyuk (a fictional character, played by Emily Watson, devised as a tribute to the many scientists who helped investigate the accident) explains to a reconvened Central Committee that the rescue operation risks causing meltdown within two days—a meltdown that “will instantly superheat and vaporize approximately 7,000 cubic meters of water, causing a significant thermal explosion… [of] between 2 and 4 megatons,” dispersing all the radioactive material by a massive shockwave that will render Eastern Europe “completely uninhabitable for nearly 100 years.” This horror touches the sublime—it allows us to imagine the unimaginable, a destructive power beyond the comprehension of those who created it.

The fourth episode begins with a soldier undertaking the belated evacuation operation. He instructs a woman milking a cow to leave her farm. She tells him she is 82, and he is not the first boy with a gun to tell her to leave: she was there after the Revolution in 1917 when the Bolsheviks told her to leave, there during Stalin and the famine, and there in the Great War when the Nazis came. Her life is that of the Eastern European 20th century, and she refuses to leave now “because of something I cannot see at all.” The soldier shoots her cow and orders her into the departing trucks. The same episode ends with a woman in a maternity ward. Her husband, a firefighter, was among the first to tend to the flames at the reactor and has died a slow death from radiation poisoning. Her child lives for only four hours, a victim of radiation passed on while she tended to her husband’s agonies. The catastrophe has breached the familiar order of time, uprooting history and contaminating the future.

As the clean-up operation gets underway, Legasov remarks that “the atom is a humbling thing.” A military commander next to him responds: “It’s not humbling, it’s humiliating.” Their choice of remarks indicates two different concerns. To be humbled is to recognize humanity’s insignificance in confrontation with the elemental forces of the universe, but humiliation refers to the impotence of a political structure built on claims of civilizational supremacy. The malfunctioning of the reactor not only opens a gateway into the sublime, but also exposes a malfunction in the Soviet state itself, or rather a flaw inherent in the initial design: the disaster was caused by cost cutting, arbitrary production quotas, the priority of management authority over expert opinion, and the political inconvenience of truth. It is misplaced faith in this system—the reactor and Soviet authority cannot be wrong—that leads the people into catastrophe.

Horror often works by tapping into the irrational sides of our nature: fear of the unknown, paranoia, superstition. Chernobyl is instead what we might call a rational horror, emerging from the dawning awareness of an awful reality shorn of the comforting illusions that usually sustain us. The nuclear engineers took what they thought they knew for granted—that safety systems were in place to prevent an RBMK reactor from exploding—and suppressed the evidence of their own eyes, even after the explosion occurred. The five hours of the series provide this slow process of gathering realization. Unexplained chunks of technical detail take up large parts of dialogue, whose meaning only becomes clear maybe 20 or 30 minutes of screen time later, or even several episodes later. The predominant mood is one of dread, the soundtrack by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir made up of the low, scraping drones of an actual nuclear power plant mixed in with a string section, the whole sounding like an extended groan emanating from an inhuman depth.

Only in the last episode do we get to the beginning, the cause of the explosion. The climax is reconstructed out of chronological order and executed with meticulous precision, providing retrospective awareness of a calamitous catalog of error. It is the culmination of a highly sophisticated story structure, intercut between the fateful events of the day of the accident and Legasov’s expert (and markedly low-fi) courtroom testimony a year later. This virtuoso resolution is astonishing drama, and an example of what it praises—the ability of the human intellect to connect disparate elements into a complex mechanism, in the case of both storytelling and nuclear science. It is a testament to reason against the hostile power of perverted political authority and the sublime force of nuclear energy. When Khomyuk is placed in jail for taking her investigation too far, Legasov describes her mission to find the truth an irresistible urge to “problem solving.” This humanist commitment to reason ennobles the viewer, for problem solving is exactly what we experience in watching it, linking us in however small a way to the sacrifices of those who succeeded in averting meltdown.

The end credits play over the sound of quasi-sacred choral strains: it is telling that the consequences of the most sophisticated science on the planet, nuclear physics, can find appropriate description only in the ancient Biblical imagery of Armageddon. Despite its faith in reason, the show retains its wonder at what Legasov calls the beauty of “the invisible dance that powers entire cities without smoke or flame.” As for the more earthbound concerns, there is no real closure, just abandonment: of the nuclear plant, of Soviet socialism, of the millions of people whose lives were changed. The reactor is buried alive, interred within a thick blanket of concrete in a tomb that is monument to its everlasting toxic energy.

For the characters of Chernobyl, the terrors of Stalinism were still in living memory, the accident closer historically to the launch of Sputnik 1 than to today. They remind us that Soviet society was once powered by not only totalitarian suppression of the truth, but also a commitment to continual human advancement. The series provides a warning against collectively willed delusions, and the self-assurance that is all too common to justifications of political authority. The truth requires breaking with deference to accepted belief, to seek a new way of thinking. As Karl Marx himself pointed out, if there were no difference between essence and appearance, there would be no need for science. Certain horrors may be hidden within everyday reality; in the impenetrable core of a reactor, a fury may reside; and within the body politic a fatal illness may already have taken hold. Despite their appearance of health, our protagonists will be dead within five years, the same time, unbeknownst to any of them, that will lapse before the apparently invincible USSR expires.

The debate around Chernobyl brings to mind the truth that in both science and art, we can only make sense of reality if we interpret it creatively. Legasov’s final recorded testimony states his faith in the greatest power humans can access, the ability to search for truth, which, however hidden it may be, “doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies or our religions.” Some may find this hypocritical, given the series’ own employment of artistry. The grand humanistic themes of power, knowledge, and beauty play out through its incorporation of disaster movie tropes, sci-fi, spy thriller, body horror, period piece, and courtroom and procedural drama. As a whole, the compelling narrative exposes the possibility that the appearances we take for granted may be little more than complacent lies.

Many other tales of nuclear disaster work by imagining the dystopia that beckons after nuclear winter. The Japanese responded to the atom bomb by inventing Godzilla, a monstrous being summoned from deep within the prehistoric past. But Chernobyl demands that we look to the everyday of our present reality for the sources of the horror. Some critics claim that the series trumpets Cold War triumphalism, that the moral of the story is the West’s simple victory over Communism. But this ignores the drama’s relevance to a deeply troubling reality of our own. While it is hard to remember the faith in state socialism that allowed the bureaucratic mismanagement behind the catastrophe, it is also hard to imagine that we could now rectify an error of a similar scale. However reluctantly and belatedly, the series shows how a meltdown was averted by the eventual mobilization of the full machinery of the state, and the selfless devotion of so many anonymous martyrs to put it right. If the climate crisis offers a clue to the contemporary response to emergency, our species seems prepared to pass up its final opportunity to save itself from extinction. Multimillion dollar industries are devoted to denying the science and lobbying for cosmetic fixes whose purpose is to ignore the necessity of vital change, and the state has retreated from its responsibility of welfare for all. Modern democracies can produce far more consummate ways of suppressing inconvenient truths than the blunt methods of authoritarian repression. The horror thus remains, ever in the midst of our normality.

Louis Bayman is a writer and researcher in film and popular culture. He lectures in Film Studies at the University of Southampton, and has published various books, articles, and chapters on topics including Italian cinema, retro and nostalgia, melodrama, horror, and serial killer cinema. He is also the Culture Editor (Film) for The Platform.

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5 thoughts on “The Horror of Knowing: Catastrophe and Meaning in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’

  1. The best essay I’ve read so far on ‘Chernobyl’. You’ve nailed the underlying themes of the show and the significance for us today. Outstanding. Thank you!

  2. Brilliant; Having lived, from the North of England, through the unfolding of events after the explosion, I still had no idea of the connection between the handling of the disaster – and its root causes – to the collapse of the USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc. Thanks v much for this.

  3. Pingback: Catastrophe and meaning in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ – Enjeux énergies et environnement

  4. Pingback: Catastrophe and meaning in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ | Eco Bio III Millennio

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