“Chernobyl”: Going Nuclear

“What is the cost of lies?” —Jared Harris as Valery Legasov

“Nobody speak, nobody get choked.” —DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels

I’m writing this around 12:30 at night. It’s late, but not ridiculously late. Still an hour before the time of night when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, the startlingly simplistic 1:23:45, as if President Skroob from Spaceballs had been the man insisting on running the test.

Still, though, it’s late. Not as late as 1:23:45, though, which is when most of us are starting to be comfortably asleep. If something wakes us at that hour, we’ll still be able to go back to bed and get in a few hours before the alarm goes off. And it’s earlier than 2, which is when the Austin bars let out, releasing hoards of drunk people yelling for no reason. Earlier than 3, an hour none of us should be up for unless we’re working an overnight shift and already up. And earlier than 4, which is just WAY too late and yet still too early to, say, catch a flight. 4 a.m. is the sad old alcoholic of late night hours.

In this house, 1:23:45 is when one can expect to encounter the night shift of critters. I’ve seen sizable spiders in the bathroom at that hour, hunched in the corners where dark teal baseboards and dark teal floor tiles meet, as alarmed to see me as I am to see them. Just now, about an hour before that shift reports for duty, I killed a medium-sized roach that tried to hide under my computer cable. The spiders are generally tolerated; the roaches are not.

I say that to say this: It’s really, really easy to take your safety for granted. As much as roaches and spiders freak me out, I’m (reasonably) prepared to go to the bathroom at 2 a.m. because I know something’s probably in there, but it’s unlikely to attack me or poison our mutual space.

I was eight years old when Chernobyl happened. Third grade was nearly over. My mother was getting divorced for the second time. At eight years old, I was terrified about our impending single-parent-family-hood, of being the oldest of three kids in a single-parent family led by someone on a public school teacher’s salary. Hearing that nuclear apocalypse was happening on the other side of the world did not help. At least it was far away, unlike the more pressing concerns in my eight-year-old life. I remember thinking the name Chernobyl was pretty, and how odd that something so pretty could be so poisonous. Without smart phones and 24/7 news channels, it was easy to believe bad things couldn’t really be that bad (though one could argue that smart phones, the internet, etc. make it just as easy to believe that).

But in a blog post about the HBO show “Chernobyl,” I haven’t written much about the TV show yet. So here’s an official commercial for it (which is terrifying and doesn’t accurately capture the show’s overall tone of quiet horror and desperation), followed by my thoughts. And I have a LOT of thoughts about it.

The HBO show “Chernobyl” (warning: SPOILERS AHEAD for a TV show that’s been out for over a month…and also a historical event that happened 33 years ago) is about the titular Soviet nuclear power plant that became the site of the first and worst nuclear disaster in human history, thanks to (on a macro level) a dangerously secretive, paranoid, and oppressive political regime and (on a micro level) a “safety test” that ended up disabling all safety protocols of Reactor No. 4, pushing it into a state of chaos before hitting the now-famous AZ-5 button that was supposed to disable it and instead made everything much worse.

If you haven’t seen “Chernobyl,” a good question to ask might be, “Why should I watch it? It looks depressing. And gross.” Which are reasonable things to consider. It is kind of gross, but no more than the average zombie movie, and maybe not quite as violent as the average war movie. If you’re at all squeamish, there are a few scenes you’ll need to skip, but not many.

I’m super squeamish, but the second I learned about this show (i.e. when I saw the image on the household HBO Now account), my first thought was, “WHAT. It’s like they made this just for me!” (More on that in a moment.) My second thought was, “But who else is going to watch it? After all, we all know how it ended.” But I also had the same question about the movie Titanic, thinking, “Who’s going to care? We all know the boat sinks in the end.” Then many many maaany people watched, proving that 1) I greatly underestimate what other people want to watch and 2) people really love a good disaster show. I was delighted to learn how many of my friends and family have seen “Chernobyl” when I thought they wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot lead pipe.

But unlike most people, I can’t watch “Law and Order,” “NCIS,” etc. I get too upset over crime, violence, and unresolved plotlines on TV. But (within reason) I’m all about a good real-life disaster show. I was obsessed with disasters, natural and man-made, for years. I worked in emergency management and social services during and after Hurricane Rita, leading to a lot of good stories as well as some devastating ones. I’ve read Isaac’s Storm (highly recommended if you like historical fiction). I’ve read Visit Sunny Chernobyl (not recommended; while it’s got interesting info on Canada’s toxic mining pits, Port Arthur’s pollution, and the Great Garbage Spire, the author refers to India as “exotic,” which is a huge red flag for me; plus, the Chernobyl section is light on facts and heavy on vague speculation about how the disaster probably wasn’t that bad because plants now grow in the contaminated area). I’ve watched countless episodes of the History Channel’s “Seconds From Disaster,” which is how I learned about the second Texas City disaster (yes, there’s a first). I was obsessed with the Manhattan Project, reading American Prometheus (also highly recommended) and Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman (and I hope they release a new edition with complimentary bongos). I developed a serious crush on physicist Richard Feynman (I mean, look at his Los Alamos badge! Swoon). Even now, I occasionally stop conversations to tell people how Feynman figured out what destroyed the Challenger and the super bad-ass way he dropped that truth bomb on the investigation panel.

As for why I love disasters, why I have a picture book of nuclear bomb shelters, why I feel comforted by the asylum green in the “Chernobyl” set walls…I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome, feeling this weird and sad connection with people who went through hell only to be told their pain wasn’t real or didn’t happen. Of violent secrets hidden in my childhood medical records, of being told things didn’t happen when I remembered everything. Of the multitude of chest x-rays I endured as a toddler after testing positive for TB; I survived a near-fatal reaction to the test, but only x-rays could confirm the disease’s dormancy. Of taking bitter medication that made me manic, every day for a year, when I was two and three years old. Of how “The Incredible Hulk” scared me because of my fear of being strapped down on machines with the radiation symbol. Of the benign lump found on my thyroid five years ago, growing during my divorce from someone who’d been ceaselessly lying to me for more than seven years.

What is the cost of lies?

It’s never just our physical safety, is it?

“I spit on the people who did this, and I curse the price I have to pay. But Iā€™m making my peace with it. Now you make yours.” –Stellan Skarsgard as Boris Scherbina

You should watch “Chernobyl” if you haven’t already. Yes, the show takes some creative liberties, but I get it — the creators are telling a story with hundreds of supporting characters, and they had to condense that into five hours of historical fiction that people would keep watching. (This science guy agrees.) Plus, main creator Craig Mazin is really open about it, dissecting his decisions in a fantastic podcast.

When people ask me in person if they should watch “Chernobyl,” I usually trip over my own words because I’m so passionate about this brilliant albeit depressing show, even though — as someone who recently had to put her beloved dog to sleep — Episode 4 is really, really hard to watch. But here are my main arguments for hanging in there and seeing it through to its end:

–You gotta know your history, especially when it impacts your future. Reactor 4 and its toxic remnants are out there, and it’s crucial to remember that we (maybe not directly, but as part of the global community) have to manage them. Plus, now we finally know who/what laid the groundwork for this catastrophe. For so long, we had no idea. The truth is a commodity we take for granted far too often, like water. Its absence poisons us.

–It’s a total “Emmys For Everyone” show. Seriously. I’m struggling to think of another show or even film I’ve seen recently that had this many stellar performances. Take the scene when Legasov tells Scherbina they’re going to be dead in five years, and you watch Stellan Skarsgard’s face as he processes this information…it’s subtle and quiet and absolutely devastating. UGH. So good. Give everyone involved in this show an Emmy. Even the caterpillar.

–Are you female, or do you identify as female? Oh girl, buckle up, because watching how quickly the dissenters get shut down by their political higher-ups is going to feel very, very familiar to you.

–The attention to detail! HOLY CRAP. It’s staggering. There are a kazillion thinkpieces about this out there, but my favorite commentary is in this Twitter thread by a man who lived in the Soviet Union when Chernobyl happened. (You can also jump to his reviews of Episodes 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

–This show overflows with thoughtful metaphors. Glasses. Water drops. Cement. Soviet cigarettes. God almighty, so many cigarettes. Ashes, smoke, yes yes I get it and now I want a cigarette and I don’t even smoke. Hell, just looking at the glasses on my own (presumably) radiation-free coffee table is kind of freaking me out right now.

–Again, the show takes a lot of creative liberties, but it also features a ton of real-life heroes who paid horrible prices for other people’s corrosive arrogance. The firefighters, the miners, the basement drainers, the liquidators, Lyudmilla — all of them are/were very real. I don’t know if Stellan Skarsgard as Career Party Man (TM) Boris Scherbina really turned into a phone-smashing Hulk powered by radiation and regret, but I bet he came close enough. And Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov in a performance so brilliant and subdued and perfect that your heart breaks ten more times for his real-life suffering and end.

Oh, and you watch “Chernobyl” so you can understand the f*cking memes, too.

*

*

[Source for all the above memes]

[Above image credit: Know Your Meme]

I felt weird when Raf told me that “Chernobyl” memes were now a thing. The disaster doesn’t seem far away enough for us to mock it, considering how many thousands or even millions of people suffered and died as a result. When I pointed this out, Raf argued that memes might help people process something that feels too enormous to process. Back in the Harvard Marching Band*, I first heard the phrase “Time plus tragedy equals comedy.” Today, I think it’s “Time plus tragedy equals memes.” I’m still not sure it’s healthy. But I laughed at them, so that’s where I am with life.

Then, a few days ago, Raf and I talked about how we wish Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard could continue their characters in a buddy-cop show where they have to solve mysteries together. It’s a ridiculous concept, if not an outright offensive one; but their chemistry is so real and charming, and the show is so heavy, and the idea of them going off on wacky adventures together felt deliciously appealing.

And that’s when I suggested to Raf that someone should make a comedy sketch about how, after the trial, they both realized they were going to get punished by the KGB and die of cancer in a few years anyway, so they decided to go wild a la BookSmart, leading to a montage of Harris and Skarsgard doing donuts in slow motion in an old Soviet-made vehicle as “Nobody Speak” plays, with Skarsgard going from a Career Party Man to a partying man while Harris leans out of the car’s front window, his radiation protection cap blowing in the wind like Gigi’s hair. I would LOVE to see that.

It’s 1:18 a.m. now.

There’s a lot more I want to say about “Chernobyl,” like how the entire catastrophe itself could be seen as a metaphor for one of the biggest flaws of our economy: Cheapness rules everything, and cheapness can kill everything. In theory, nuclear power is the safest and cleanest power there is. But that theory doesn’t take into account cheapness and human error. That theory counts on building power plants and infrastructure to the highest standards, with regular upkeep and updates. When people mess up, whether deliberately or accidentally, and when structures and products are built cheaply, with graphite control rod tips and AZ-5 buttons that turn into accidental accelerators, we ruin a system that’s perfect on paper. We’re the fatal flaw.

But, as the firefighters and miners and liquidators and everyone else who gave their lives to contain this nightmare demonstrated, we’re also the answer. And at 1:22 a.m., that’s a comforting thought.

* = At least I got this far in the first blog post before dropping the fact that I went to Harvard. Sigh. Illegitimum non carborundum, mofos.

Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.