“What makes one kind of false representation—language and accent—more acceptable than another, such as race?”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1 (TV miniseries)
Creator: Craig Mazin 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Craig Mazin 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Craig Mazin’s five-part HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, fills viewers with a cold, anxious dread as it pulls them deeper and deeper. Knowing some but not all of what happened at Chernobyl in 1986 makes for a uniquely unnerving experience, as audiences are aware that something terrible will happen but are unsure exactly how it will all play out.
The show comes at a time when criticizing the Russian political hierarchy, much of which is still rooted in Soviet ideology, is particularly en vogue thanks to the spread of disinformation and its renewed and terrifying relevance. Buoyed by similar themes of anxiety, disaster shows like Chernobyl hold a certain psychological appeal, particularly when the real world seems like a hot mess. We, as an audience, have a sort of cultural obsession with catastrophe: We love to watch it, talk about it, speculate about it, and exploit it. Chernobyl plays to that fascination with ease.
In fact, it’s hard to decouple this baseline allure of Chernobyl from its own merits. The show is undoubtedly compelling, well directed, and the music and camerawork add to the bleakness of every moment. Mazin does a spectacular job of recreating the look and feel of Soviet Ukraine, down to the most minute details, and invests substantially in trying to explain the complex subject matter to the audience without dumbing things down. At the same time, he’s clearly not a nuclear scientist, and misses the mark when it comes to how exactly radiation works and how lethal it was to those exposed.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? BARELY (1 episode out of 5)
In The Chernobyl Podcast, a companion to the TV series, Mazin explains to NPR’s Peter Sagal that “the Soviet Union was, in many ways, very regressive in terms of its gender politics. The power structures were almost entirely male, and the show reflects that.” Indeed, the show only features two female characters: Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the wife of a local firefighter, and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear scientist investigating the cause of the disaster.
Khomyuk, as the end credits explain, represents an amalgam of all the scientists who worked at Chernobyl following the disaster, created “to honor their dedication and service to truth and humanity.” Though the accompanying historical photos show that the scientists working alongside the series’s main protagonist, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), were mostly men, Mazin explains that the decision to feature a female scientist was in part symbolic. “One area where [the Soviets] were fairly progressive,” he says, “was in was science and medicine. There were probably a higher proportion of female medical doctors in the Soviet Union in 1986 than there were in the United States, and there were quite a few female academicians who worked in programs like nuclear science programs. So, I thought it was an important thing to show where the Soviets actually were kind of progressive in this regard.”
Nearly every aspect of Lyudmilla’s story, meanwhile, makes her a terribly frustrating character. Upon her arrival in a Moscow hospital to see her husband, Vasily (Adam Ignaitus), a member of the medical staff asks if she is pregnant to which she answers that she is not. She then proceeds to go against harsh warnings from the staff to limit her time visiting Vasily and to avoid touching him—then reveals to her husband, and the audience, that she has lied: She is pregnant, after all.
The setup of these scenes seem to suggest that simply by being near her husband, Lyudmilla is exposing herself, and her unborn child, to dangerous radiation. In reality, Vasily and the other workers would have been stripped of radioactive clothing and washed off: The only radiation risk would be from bodily fluids. Moreover, when Khomyuk later relates the tragic story of how Lyudmilla’s baby died mere hours after birth, she tells Legasov that “[t]he radiation would have killed the mother, but the baby absorbed it instead.” The scientific validity of Khomyuk’s claim is debatable at best, and the picture that emerges is one of a mother whose recklessness and stubbornness costs her child her life. Where the majority of the series focuses on characters desperately trying to prevent the spread of deadly radiation, and limiting exposure, Lyudmilla is cast as a fool, a desperate naif who—though a victim—is in part responsible for her own misfortune.
The denizens of Ukraine, like most of Eastern Europe, are overwhelmingly white. Chernobyl reflects that reality and no people of color appear in the series. At the same time, actress Karla Sweet makes an interesting observation on Twitter: Given that show’s creator chose not to adhere to accuracy with respect to characters’ accents, why not cast people of color in white roles?
News site RT, which is funded by the Russian government and considered by many to be a propaganda outlet keen on spreading disinformation, seemed to delight in mocking the idea. Most of the replies to Sweet’s original tweet were unconstructive (to put it nicely), though a few users seem to see validity in the idea. Above all, it poses the question of how far viewers are willing to go in overlooking inaccuracy. What makes one kind of false representation—language and accent—more acceptable than another, such as race?
Another user on the thread takes a different tack, arguing that even though the Ukrainian population may have been predominantly white, the 600,000 people brought in as “liquidators” to clean up and contain the fallout of the disaster came from all over the Soviet Union. They included Kazakhs and Armenians, among others, who often have darker complexions than ethnically Slavic Ukranians and Russians. Ethnicity was, and continues to be, a divisive issue in the former Soviet Union, alluded to when one of the liquidators refers to his coworker as an “ugly Armenian”. (The actor, Alexej Manvelov, is a Russian Swede). Yet there’s no context to the jibe, nor any indication throughout the series that the Soviet Union looked anything but homogeneously white.
No openly queer or queer-coded characters exist in Chernobyl—though to be fair, very few characters are openly heterosexual, either. Interpersonal and romantic relationships are of minimal focus in the miniseries, and the only overtly romantic relationship takes place between the married couple of Lydumilla and Vasily, the latter a firefighter who dies shortly after he checks in for duty at the Chernobyl plant. Several of the historical figures depicted, including Valery Legasov, were in heterosexual relationships at the time, but those go unmentioned.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.56/5
Mazin seemed to speculate in an interview with the Decider that there could be another season of the show, this time focusing on another major disaster such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan or the Bhopal gas disaster in India. Either option would center non-white characters, and in the case of Bhopal, could serve to bring light to a tragedy that has largely been forgotten. Though Mazin clarified after the interview was released that he has no plans for a second season, the possibility of such a project, helmed by an Indian or Japanese creator, deserves consideration.
Fascinating as Chernobyl is, it largely ignores the impact the disaster had on ordinary people, and the ways in which the central government’s actions were driven as much by self-preservation and party loyalty as a fundamental disregard for the lives of the poor and working class. The constant theme of Chernobyl, voiced by Legasov, is “the cost of lies.” Yet the cost of lives deserves study, and has enormous potential to be just as captivating, given the chance.