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Performers of The Month - Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of June - Jared Harris

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The article was written by Ellys Cartin, Claire Serowinski, and Sandi. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

The gripping HBO series - Chernobyl - concludes with the episode Vichnaya Pamyat. The title is a reference to a chant that is said at the end of a last requiem, a funeral or memorial service. It is fitting after all the somber horrors that the series portrayed so respectfully. Those horrors wouldn’t so effectively create their tragic grandeur if they weren’t viewed through the eyes of people directly confronting them. For the audience to feel the impact of events unfolding on screen, they needed someone to represent the human reaction within the story. Throughout the series, Jared Harris’s portrayal of Valery Legasov has been that anchor, but his performance in this episode is his most eloquent and unforgettable. Harris plays a man struggling with a moral dilemma that is nearly unfathomable. His compelling performance not only frames this dilemma so that anyone can relate to Legasov’s burden, but it also does so without diminishing any of that burden’s weight. The gravity and eloquence he brings to this powerful requiem transform every scene from excellent to unsurpassable. His stunning work in this episode has rightly earned him the honor of being chosen as the SpoilerTV Staff Choice Performer of the Month for June

In his first scene, Legasov is finally back home, away from the Chernobyl cleanup, his work done by almost all accounts. Harris’s performance here is permeated with the sense of freedom that his character feels, shown in his relaxed stride as Legasov goes through the motions of normal life. Annoyance lightly tints Legasov’s nervous shift when a KGB agent escorts him to the vehicle to meet with Chairman Charkov (Alan Williams). He doesn’t answer the questions about his health, matter-of-factly replying that Charkov already knows anyway. When Charkov congratulates him on impressing the world at the international conference where he presented a revised version of the tragedy’s facts, he guiltily turns away. Harris stiffens a little here, reinforcing Legasov’s discomfort at being praised for lying. He visibly lightens, however, when Charkov hands Legasov his upcoming rewards. There is reverence and longing in his tone when he ponders being honored. Harris allows this moment to be deeper than just whether or not Legasov will accept a bribe, these are honors that have been justly earned that should have no strings attached but he is accepting of the strings. There is bitterness in his response, though, when his loyalty is again questioned. This new proof of his importance also emboldens him somewhat, and he reminds Charkov of the other reactors the government has promised to fix. His concerns are brushed off. He nearly protests but exits the car quietly. Harris opens the car door with a forceful pull of the handle, but he closes it softly. This version of Legasov is committed to playing his part, a decision that is next shown to be equal parts resignation and self-preservation.

Before Khomyuk (Emily Watson) shows up at Legasov’s door, he is sitting at the table pondering hairs that have fallen from his head. They represent his mortality, his shortened lifespan, his already impending death from the radiation. Harris holds the small bundle of hairs as it has a far greater weight. This is something Legasov brings up to Khomyuk as a reason why he shouldn’t tell the jury of their peers the truth. It is one of the few times in the series that Harris delivers his lines with an undercurrent of anger. When he asks if he’s already given enough, the question isn’t for Khomyuk to answer as much as it is a rhetorical inquiry, he’s making of himself. During the exchange, as Khomyuk makes her case for why he has to use the show trial for the truth, Harris plays the scene as if Legasov is drawing strength from his friend to support a difficult decision already made. He leans back in his chair when objecting, but when she overrules him, he leans back towards her. He wants her resolve to transfer to him. The scene carries a searing intensity in how Watson and Harris never break eye contact. When they are not speaking, their eyes are full of empathy for each other, which creates another layer of dialogue. Her words should dim his spirits, but her eyes are full of compassion for his fate and burden. In turn, Harris responds not by having Legasov withdraw but by communicating gratitude and even forgiveness with his own gaze. By the end of their conversation, Harris is no longer crumpled reluctantly against the back of his chair. His last look is thoughtful and alert.

Time and time again, the series lingers on Harris’s reactions to a setting before sharing what he sees with the audience. He is responsible for establishing the entire tone of what follows. This happens for the second-to-last time as Legasov and Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) arrive at Chernobyl for the trial. They are riding in silence but Legasov’s eyes are drawn to what is outside the window. His eyes transition from stillness to solemn reflection as they drive an endless field of abandoned vehicles. Through the first of the trial, Harris lets Legasov sit in detached mental solitude, disinterested in the proceedings and recountings of details he is familiar with. He sometimes absently brushes his fingers together, but he looks only into the distance offscreen. Legasov only comes out of this brooding reverie when Shcherbina is forced to pause his testimony because of his cough. He quickly glances at the judges to see if they too can see his friend’s condition, but they just tell Shcherbina to continue. With this motion, Harris interrupts the progress of Legasov detaching emotionally from the ongoing events. He shows that Legasov’s concern for his friend breaks through everything else, an important establishing beat for the episode’s emotional climax a couple scenes later. Legasov is all loose nerves that he’s trying to bundle as he walks up to the podium to give his own testimony. Harris sorts the tiles and straightens them into a neat stack. He adjusts his tie. He straightens his suit, and he looks up at the judges through his glasses as if they are very far away and very tall. The tension of this first half of his testimony is paramount. Harris highlights that by maximizing the vocal and physical manifestations of Legasov’s nerves. He pauses seconds too long after each sentence as if each sentence is being judged. He holds his tie flat as if everything about his appearance must be as correct as possible. There are two painful moments when he halfway tries to get a chuckle from somewhere. His rising panic results in knocking one tile to the floor. During this ordeal, Legasov does find a moment of peace. He is explaining how the reactor works, and he pauses to reflect on the science behind it. Harris makes this moment bittersweet as he mingles that wonder with regret as Legasov considers how something so incredible was also so horrible. Legasov continues his testimony, but there’s a noticeable change in his delivery as if he’s gone from protecting himself to defending the nuclear forces that were weaponized by human error and arrogance. He sets aside the defect that also played a part and focuses aggressively on that carelessness. The court recesses shortly thereafter, but Harris’s performance creates room for doubt and the possibility that Legasov might be reconsidering telling the whole truth, when there are so many other equally guilty parties to blame.

In a quiet yet pivotal scene that only lasts for four minutes, Harris speaks just sixty-eight words with Skarsgård managing the bulk of the dialogue. But it encapsulates Chernobyl and the themes it touches upon: regret, longing, sacrifice, love, friendship and death. It was one of the few scenes in the series where the bleakness is lifted in favor of a background of puffy clouds and a bright, blue sky. Even with all the death and destruction and the bloody history of the town of Chernobyl, there is hope. We’ve seen the evolution of these two characters from distrustful, deeply skeptical men into allies and friends. Except for one pat on the back, there is no touchy, feely-type moment or embrace. But you feel, afterwards, as if there had been. Harris’s eyes, facial expressions, gestures and body language reveal the admiration and friendship between these two. These two convey more with one look than pages of dialogue could.

Harris works diligently here to prop up his friend and make him realize that he mattered that the Kremlin “sent the one good man.” He is trying to pull his comrade out of the depths of despair at his impending death and that is no easy task, but he accomplishes it, beautifully. The scene ends with an inchworm crawling on Skarsgård and both looking at it, longingly, and seeing the beauty despite all the ugliness. And Harris triumphs in lifting his friend up; just as the gray, cold, dreary weather has also lifted in this scene. Though Skarsgård has the burden of most of the dialogue, it was the way that Harris supported him in this scene (as the character and as an actor) that manifests the deep respect and admiration between the two characters. It is amazing at all that these actors accomplished in only five episodes. The relationship between Legasov and Shcherbina has come a long way from one character threatening to throw the other out of an airborne helicopter. Their level of chemistry suggests a bond built through tribulations, and it makes a superb series even better.

Harris carries the power and emotion of that earlier scene with Shcherbina right into the second half of Legasov’s testimony. This time he does not walk quietly to the podium. He does not peer up at the judges for permission to begin, nor does he shrink away from the microphone as he did before. Harris speaks loudly and confidently, removing the painful punctuating pauses and instead pausing for dramatic effect. He gives a spellbinding account of the forces that built up to the catastrophe. He is solving the mystery, pulling the masks off the villains. Everyone, including the audience, is carried away by his narrative, so it’s almost disregarded when he takes off his glasses and cleans them. It’s just a gesture of habit, except in this case it is not. It is a moment of respite, and Harris shows us that Legasov is slowing himself down, in a last bout of doubt or a last breath of freedom or perhaps both. The court prepares to adjourn, even though Legasov protests that he has more information to give. Shcheribina intervenes to make sure he is allowed to speak. In this second, Harris looks over at his costar with such grief and resolve that, even though Legasov is out of focus in the shot, it is devastating. He goes on to deliver a powerful monologue exposing the last secrets of the tragedy and condemning the system that both enabled and concealed. At the conclusion, he turns away from the judges and faces the room of scientists and officials. Harris grants Legasov courage, adrenaline, and eloquence, and the result is electric. The conclusion too is beautifully theatrical as he calmly summarizes his own explosive speech and revelations by saying that is how a RBMK reactor explodes. Harris’s work here makes this moment, despite its fallout, both triumphant and satisfying simply by magnifying the truth with the passion in his performance.

His subtle changes in demeanor once he gets to the explanation of the SCRAM button give away a man who is on the cusp of a momentous decision, and for a long second we are not sure which way he will go. When goaded by Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), Harris uses this break in the narrative to glance at his friend, Shcherbina, for support and his friend emboldens him by insisting that Legasov continue despite the judge’s call for an adjournment. In what has already been a long and complex monologue, Harris now has to shift gears somewhat and it’s not difficult to see where he is pulling the emotions from for this part of the trial. He is continuing to explain the intricate process by which the explosion happened, but where there was patient explanation there is now a slow and embittered aspect to his voice and mannerisms. Harris uses tight facial expressions here to enhance what we already know the characters being fearful of arrest, or worse, from speaking out of turn.

It is only once he has finished telling the court precisely how the explosion happened that fateful morning that we see Legasov as, perhaps, the hero he is supposed to be. He is angry at the lies the State keep telling, that hide all the problems, that cover up any inconvenient truths. He’s no longer scared to be shot for speaking out, and Harris makes this apparent with a nonchalant shrug and a pointed finger at the judge through his last lines in the court. It is the look he gives his fellow scientists in the court during this speech that stands out the most, however, the weight of the lies he has told himself clearly etched on his face is remarkably chilling. Charkov told Legasov the trial would give the country its villains, its heroes, and its truth. Harris embodies each of those things in his performance in the final moments of the trial, as Legasov faces the silent courtroom. He looks from face to face as eyes avert from the truth that will collect more and more lives, and the disappointed heartbreak in his face ranks with the most haunting moments of the series.

In the penultimate scene of Chernobyl, Legasov faces Charkov again to learn his punishment for speaking the truth. Charkov diminishes what Legasov did, calling it a dying man’s mistake. Harris carries himself in the first part of the scene with quiet irritation that he is being chastised for the truth. However, when Legasov is told that his life will be permitted to go on in useless isolation, waves of emotion cross his face. Regret, loss, fury, and resignation all take their course. In one poignant motion, Harris looks directly into the camera, his face scrunched in what could be rage or pain were it not too brief to register. Legasov is allowed one small victory though. He stares up into Charkov’s face, unblinking, and lies that Khomyuk and Shcherbina had no idea what he was going to do. Harris puts the softest note of pride into Legasov’s voice in this act of defiance. His face doesn’t smile, but there’s a smile in his voice. In the last scene, he walks quietly to the KGB car outside, pausing for one last glance at Shcherbina and Khomyuk. As the car pulls away, he bows his head. Chernobyl has been acclaimed for not overdramatizing its depiction of events, and this characteristic is manifested through Harris’s performances. His portrayal is so subtle, so unsettling, that it feels real. It as if we are watching a ghost, an actual spectator of these tragedies and betrayals. Harris never lifts the burden from this character’s shoulders, never lets the overwhelming realities stop gnawing at his character from the inside out. For this performance that is as impossible to disbelieve as it is to forget, Jared Harris has been chosen as SpoilerTV’s Staff Pick for Outstanding Performer of the Month.

Not every single moment of the episode could be covered in this single article. Please feel free to use the comments to discuss Jared Harris’ performance in this gripping episode of Chernobyl.

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