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Chernobyl - Miniseries Round Table - Chilling, Heartbreaking, Unforgettable

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Welcome to a special SpoilerTV Round Table, in which we break down HBO's haunting miniseries ChernobylSpoilerTV members featured in this issue are Cecile (CL), Claire Serowinski (CS), and Ellys Cartin (EC). Thank you for reading and please feel free to share your own thoughts about the show in the comments section below.

1. Describe the Chernobyl miniseries in one word.

CL: Chilling

CS: Heartbreaking

EC: Unforgettable

2. What are the most haunting scenes of Chernobyl for you, and what about them makes them stick with you?

CL: In the very beginning, after the explosion, all the civilians unknowingly being exposed to extremely high radiation. This repeats several times during the show (typically when Lyudmilla spends time with her husband, despite the danger) but I can't get over how brutal it was that their lives were destroyed by a silent, invisible, killer, and they had no idea what they were living through at that point. "Bridge of Death" indeed.

CS: Most haunting scene was in episode 1; the railway bridge scene. Soon after the explosion at Chernobyl, a group of men, women and children excitedly rush to the bridge that connects Prypiat to the nuclear power plant. It is a spectacular view of the ensuing fire and they chat and laugh as if it were a party. The children runaround, playing as flakes of radioactive ash floats down on them like snowflakes. They are completely unaware. It is now referred to as the bridge of death. Also loved the comedic defiance displayed by the coal miners when they walked by and patted, with their coal caked hands, the pristine, white-shirted boss sending them off to Chernobyl.
EC: There are scenes of both loud and quiet anguish throughout Chernobyl, and it’s a testament to the show that everything is equally impactful. An early scene not already discussed is when Boris and Valery have first arrived in Pripyat. Their relationship has been antagonistic up to that point, but Boris is following Valery’s recommendations for putting out the reactor fire. He comes to Valery to triumphantly share some little progress that has been made. Valery points out that the people in the city haven’t been evacuated, and Boris doesn’t understand what he’s getting at. That’s when Valery says the two of them will be dead within 5 years because of how close they’ve been to the reactor already. The scene becomes very still, except for the sound of helicopters outside, and for a moment they are both just silent, although Valery takes a single compassionate step towards Boris. There’s such weight to the scene because of Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård’s performances. It’s one of only two times one or both of them speaks out loud the personal price they will both physically pay for what they are doing. Boris joins Valery at the window to watch children playing outside, children they will soon have evacuated. The scene is echoed in the last episode when Valery and Boris sit outside together during the hearing recess, sitting in an empty space where children played. Both men are dying, although one will die before the other, and Boris muses that he wishes he made a difference. Skarsgård’s sorrowful delivery shows us how the incident weighs as heavily on Boris’s shoulders as if he had done nothing to help. And Jared Harris’s companion performance in that scene is magnificent. Valery fervently refutes Boris’s opinion, thanking him for everything that he did to help. Boris once shouted at Valery for addressing him by his first name, so, after watching them battle the unthinkable shoulder to shoulder for the whole series since then, there’s no moment for tragic and cathartic than when Valery says, “For God’s sake, Boris, you were the one who mattered most.”

The miniseries also found a number of ways to insert wry humor into the proceedings, such as the scenes with the miners whose defiant strength couldn't be beat.
3. If you could give an Emmy to one cast member of this miniseries, who would it be and what scene or scenes would inspire your choice?

CL: Jared Harris is an obvious choice, and he would deserve it. But I'm going to say Stellan Skarsgård, for the "I hope that one day I would matter, but I didn't." scene. Despite all the tragedy of what happened, I knew the "story", so I was not expecting this show to bring me to tears. And yet.

CS: And the Emmy goes to...Jared Harris! His performance was flawless. His portrayal of Legasov was haunting and heartbreakingly honest. I especially loved the scenes with Stellan Skarsgard’s Shcherbina, watching their relationship go from strangers suspicious of one another to an indefatigable team and finally to a deep friendship.

EC: There wasn't a single cast member, from leads to guest stars who didn't turn in riveting work for this show, but I would hand the statuette to Jessie Buckley for her performance as Lyudmilla Ignatenko. In episode 3, we see Lyudmilla staying with the love of her life until the moment he's sealed in steel and buried under concrete. She refuses to flinch, to look away, to let anything but joy and hope fill her voice. She isn't blind to the truth, but she persists in caring for him despite it. The show is tactful in its portrayal of the more physical horrors that afflicted those exposed to the worst radiation. With the exception of a few gruesome glimpses, we watch Vasily degenerate by watching Lyudmilla's face as she stays and tries to ease his pain. Buckley's voice is always cheerful, but her eyes are full of carefully restrained torment. She plays Lyudmilla with a conviction that authenticates the character's determination and tremendously difficult courage.
4. Every part of this story was spoiled a long time ago, since it is based on a historical event, but that doesn’t take away any of the intensity of what happens on screen. What lessons in TV craftsmanship can other TV shows learn from Chernobyl?

CL: I think what struck me most here, and is partly why the show is so excellent, is that it doesn't sensationalize what happened (it obviously wouldn't have needed to, but it still happens a lot on other shows / on TV news). American TV unfortunately has a tendency to bash people heads over with disturbing footage, and misery in general, and it's rarely done in a respectful manner. More often than not, it's for the views/clicks. As opposed to that, Chernobyl doesn't back down on how agonizing the situation was, or how it went down, but it doesn't go overboard or lean into shock value instead of substance. They don't show Akimov's wounds, but Khomyuk's reaction to them, for example. It's understated, and it's much more effective this way.

CS: We did know the outcome of Chernobyl beforehand, but writer Craig Mazin took such care and completed so much extensive research that he was able to keep us on the edge of our seats with his flawless storytelling.

EC: What gripped me the most about Chernobyl right away is that it refused to overdramatize the events it was portraying. Often shows and movies tend to rush through catastrophic events, but Chernobyl takes its time to explore what is happening and how people are reacting to it. This doesn't make the series slow though, because the editing and writing so superbly limits the series to scenes that are essential. Each of the first four episodes ends with death: a bird falls to the ground, a flashlight sputters out as dosimeters click rapidly, Lyudmilla stands at her husband's funeral clutching shoes that couldn't be placed on his near-liquefied body, Lyudmilla sits on her hospital bed next to Baby Natasha's empty a way, the fifth episode ends with death too since we know where Valery ultimately ends up after that car ride. And yet the show balances every bit of tragedy with matter-of-fact tributes to the men and women who were the heroes of the event.

The music score is also incredible, bringing a sense of both past tragedy and future apocalypse.
5. Creator and writer Craig Mazin has stressed that his series is not the whole truth. He paired the show with a companion podcast to provide more information and provided a bibliography for viewers who want to learn more. Mazin also created a composite character in Ulana Khomyuk who didn’t exist in the actual events. If a historical event that is important to you were adapted for TV, would you mind facts being shifted to tell a more enthralling story or fit the TV medium better?

CL: Similarly to book to movie/series adaptations, expecting a word for word, 100% identical depiction is never going to work. Interpretations/changes are necessary and don't mean the adaptation won't be qualitative. In this case, I don't think it takes away from the story at all, and I wouldn't say it was to make it more enthralling here. If it's done with taste and respect, I don't think it takes away from the story, but rather helps.

CS: I did not mind the added details because Mr. Mazin seemed to have such a deep respect for this story and all of those involved. His research, respect for the material and the attention to detail made all the difference. Artistic license is to be expected.

EC: It is very much to the credit of Craig Mazin and the team that worked on this show that they have been the first to direct people to resources with more of the factual details. Television is an artistic medium meant to be a composition that portrays a manageable number of ideas, characters, and themes. In the case of Chernobyl, for this miniseries, the goal isn't to be a word-for-word adaptation of what happened. That would, of course, be impossible. What's meaningful is how well it conveys the danger and obstacles and resilience that surrounded this event and its aftermath. In my opinion, it delivers those ideas so very well.
6. If the miniseries had one more episode, is there another part of the story or another perspective you would have liked to spend more time with?

CL: I think the 5-episode format worked well, but if there had been more time, I would've liked to see more of the young doctor who first realized the gravity of the situation in the Pripyat hospital, while working with a much older doctor who had no idea what he was doing. She was the one who urged people to dump the firefighter equipment because it was incredibly dangerous, and asked about iodine tablets. And while all the medical aspects were horrifically graphic, I would've liked to learn more about how radiation burns worked. In the end, we learn 2 of the workers who were sent to shut off the valves survived, when initially their mission seemed like a death sentence, and while thousands of others, seemingly less exposed, still died from radiation.

CS: I would have liked to see more about the personal stories of the citizens of Prypiat; especially their lives before April 26, 1986 and also more about the evacuations. It must have been so devastating to leave your home to never return.

EC: The show spends some time observing how the plant workers and the firefighters died. The visual jolts from seeing how they have dissolved from the inside out are the show's contribution to nightmare fuel. That is nearly all the time the show spends on how people exposed were physically affected. If there had been one more episode, I would have liked to see the series explore what happened to the people who were relocated. They didn't all die or get sick, but many carried fears and stigma for the rest of their lives, as if others didn't want to be reminded of what had happened or what was possible.
7. What historical event would you like to see adapted into a miniseries next? And can you tell us a bit about the event and why it would resonate with people today?

CL: I've always been interested in volcanoes and eruptions, and the Mount St Helens documentary was fascinating, if terrifying. The Great London Smog on the Crown was really well done too, so something (environmental/man made disaster) to that effect, would be interesting to see on a bigger scale with several episodes dedicated to it and its repercussions.

CS: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in NYC. This was such an important turning point in the safety standards in NYC sweatshops and gave major growth to the ILGWU. I’ve only ever seen one short documentary on PBS. The owners had locked many of the escape routes and were never fully held accountable. On March 25, 1911, 146 people perished mostly woman with the youngest being 14. Many jumped to their deaths. It is still so sad that these mainly immigrant people were working 60 + hour weeks for about $12. to try to make a better life for their families.

EC: I would pick the City of Benares. Its sinking early in World War II caused major ripples because of the loss of young lives. The event was also complicated by the dilemma many British parents felt where they chose to stay in Britain but sent their children overseas to safety or tried to. There were also concerns that the government had allowed refugee ships to leave when they knew the ocean was too dangerous at that point with all the Nazi submarines. However, besides the tragedy, there was also a compelling survival story that came out of it when lifeboat got lost at sea. Among its passengers were several children and one woman, and they, along with the others on the lifeboat, endured quite a bit before they were rescued. The event is a devastating look at how children are affected by war and how very strong they can be in the face of tragedy.

What did you think of Chernobyl, and how would you answer these questions?
Let us know in the comments.

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