Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead.
There’s a question on everyone’s mind as award’s season grows closer: Who will be this year’s Emmy Award winners? We won’t know until September 22nd, but the nominations are set to be announced Tuesday. I think it’s safe to say that HBO is going to dominate. Why? I have one word for you: Chernobyl. (Sorry, Game of Thrones.)
As fellow 4YE writer Verena Cote mentioned earlier this summer, Chernobyl is not an easy to show to watch. In fact, it is one of the most brutally unsettling shows I’ve ever seen. Chernobyl tells the true story of what happened at the Chernobyl power plant on April 26, 1986, and the Soviet cover-up that threatened thousands of lives. It tells Valery Legasov’s (Jared Harris) story and how he, Soviet party member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) tried to tell the truth after the fact and the dangers they faced in telling the truth. While Khomyuk is not a real person, her character represents the hundreds of scientists, many of them female, who helped Legasov contain the disaster and expose the truths that couldn’t stay hidden.
Chernobyl, to put it lightly, is a docudrama. Created, written, and executive produced by Craig Mazin, it does take liberties (apparently so many the Russians are creating their own drama and banning his in the country. We all know how that one will end up). At the core, this is an ensemble drama that shows just how horrible the Chernobyl power plant disaster was and how brave hundreds of thousands of people were in the face of the atom and its destructive radiation and capabilities.
It took Mazin four years to write the scripts and to get the show to our screens and Mazin’s passion and knowledge for this project are obvious in The Chernobyl Podcast which aired simultaneously with the show. (I highly recommend the podcast and you can find it on Spotify, HBO Go, or wherever you like to get your podcasts.) So, basically, if Mazin doesn’t receive a nomination for Outstanding Writer in a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special, there will be no justice in the world.
The entirety of Chernobyl is written with such intensity and truth. Sometimes, for me, as a viewer, the show was hard to watch. There is an extended sequence in episode four, “The Happiness of All Mankind,” which showcases the horror a young liquidator, named Pavel, faces when tasked with the destruction of the many irradiated pets which were left behind when Pripyat was evacuated. It is a good thirty minutes or so of abject intensity. So much so, it took me many days to get through that episode and listening to the podcast was a punch in the gut. Mazin crafted the episode so perfectly that it felt like I was there and experiencing everything Pavel was experiencing.
The true set piece of Chernobyl is the stunningly riveting fifth and final episode “Vichnaya Pamyat.” This is where the show culminates. This is where the lies and the cover-ups end. This is where the cast and Mazin excel. I haven’t seen a more beautiful, frustrating, and amazing episode of television ever before. Mazin brought all the storytelling threads together in such a wonderful way. It isn’t flashy or over the top. It’s simple storytelling that brings the audience back to the beginning then expounds on what we’ve learned and reveals everything in a way that makes it impossible to ignore.
The real star of this series, and especially this episode, is Harris. Harris has spent years making a niche for himself as a character actor, someone who disappears into the character he is portraying. His portrayal of Legasov is… I have so many words I’m not sure I can say all of them properly, but I am going to try.
Legasov had a daunting job to do. To contain the spread of dangerous radiation, he ordered thousands of people to their death. It isn’t something the show dwells on. But, Harris brings Legasov’s uncertainty and emotional turmoil to the forefront of his performance.
In every frame of every scene, Harris positively nails all the things one could imagine that is going through Legasov’s mind. In the final episode, he runs the gamut from fear to silent and stunning defiance. He excels at nuance and every single piece of his body, every movement he makes, every expression, is quiet, thoughtful and perfect for this show. Anything else would’ve been overdramatic, but Harris accomplishes something I haven’t seen in a long time: understatement and attention to detail. In his own words, Harris, “this was one of the first times I’ve done research on something and realized a lot of it wasn’t useful. So, I stopped and concentrated on the script.” The concentration paid off.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Harris’ brilliant co-stars Skarsgard and Watson. Harris and Skarsgard have wonderful and natural chemistry that carries over to the characters of Shcherbina and Legasov. It’s fascinating to watch their progression as friends and to watch Shcherbina’s character development. Like Harris, Skarsgard is fantastic at nuance, but his nuance is less than Harris’. Shcherbina is a much more bombastic character. He is a career party man in the Soviet Union and because of that, Skarsgard is a bit more over the top but he does it in a way that never feels excessive.
Watson is an underdog in Chernobyl. She is the voice of reason as Khomyuk, but because she’s a woman, she’s often shafted. As a result, Watson is fierce. She holds no punches in her portrayal as Khomyuk. She easily stands toe-to-toe with Harris and Skarsgard and while they are part of the emotion of Chernobyl, she is the logic and she does it with dogged determination. She is relentless and a good opposite to Harris and Skarsgard.
Basically, just throw all the Emmy awards at this show, but especially Harris, Skarsgard, and Watson for their performances and Mazin for bringing the story to life. I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again, “Vichnaya Pamyat” is how a series finale/season finale should be written. The entire show is a tour de force in every aspect. The writing is sharp. The acting is nuanced, understated, and brilliant. The cinematography, done by Jakob Ihre, is phenomenal and director Johan Renck brought the story to life vividly.
Chernobyl‘s visceral exploration of information and misuse of that information is something no one should miss or skip out on. It deserves to be seen and it deserves the Emmy nominations it better have coming to it.