“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
In the style of prestige miniseries like HBO’s own TRUE DETECTIVE, CHERNOBYL was entirely written by the one man, and entirely directed by the one – a separate, but still singular – man. The writer was known for trashy comedies, the director for excellent music videos, and the obvious comparisons to TRUE DETECTIVE become more plain there. But the strength of the premise of the series is strong enough that the writing often seems deceptively strong, helped by certain gold lines, usually revolving around the nature of truth. “If we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.”
As showrunner Craig Mazin has made abundantly clear in the press and his own social media, the show is very pointedly applicable to any situation where reality, where science was denied, and catastrophic delusion wilfully entered into instead, by those with the power to actually address the issue at hand. In 2019, the show is clearly about the malignant lunacy with which governments of the world have ignored and/or denied climate change, out of multitudes of condemnable reasons. For all that specificity in the press, the show actually completely avoids any hokey allegory; while it’s clearly applicable to such situations it steadfastly goes more for immersion than directness. The series opens on “what is the cost of lies?”, demonstrates that, and leaves the parallels for the viewer to make.
In the first episode of the miniseries, the lies seem born of ego, incompetence, gaslighting, delusion, fear, ideology, ducking of responsibility. The next three episodes evolve out of that tact. What the first episode especially does so well is treat the disaster, specifically radiation, as a kind of Lovecraftian horror, some invisible curse that permeates and poisons all those around, an unknowable evil condemning a land and its people, seeping into everything. The show works best when it forgoes dialogue and lets director Johan Renck (as well as the show’s fantastically skilled team behind its sound design and music) emphasise these horrors. The cosmic horror angle works fantastically well.
Starting the show on the suicide of the main character gives a dramatic irony that reduces tension based around the specific characters and puts more focus onto that aura of despair and horror around the disaster, the grim inevitability surrounding it. The finale of the series finally clears the air, by wrapping back around to the events of the first episode and acting as a prequel to them, contextualising everything by showing the full reasons behind the disaster. The disaster, and the denial surrounding it, are then framed less born out of delusion and fear then, and instead out of consistent wilful greed and deception, emphasising the degree to which the “passing of the buck” of responsibility was unfathomably despicable, and how unsustainable it was. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
The series falters in its middle stretch of episodes where the cosmic horror of the premiere is lessened off, and before the grand recontextualisation of the finale takes place. Much of the dialogue is awkwardly direct, and many of the more episodic scenarios are trope-laden in a way that fits oddly with the tone of the series. The strong cast and excellent aesthetics of the show do much to offset this, but occasionally some lines are so awkward that it jars. Characters are always banging desks and the like to show their anger. Some striking visuals are born of the more procedural events (naked miners), some poignant points are made (young liquidators), and there are some interesting true-to-life facts made apparent (robotics), but a lot of that middle stretch feels airless. Perhaps the first and last episode, and some bits of the others, could have been folded together into a more cohesive and holistic film?
The efforts of those the series depicts did much to contain the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, but in reality the situation surrounding the show’s most focused allegory are in many ways irreparably past that, and so in the hands of a planet of corporations and governments that will not exercise such efforts, such sacrifice or forward-thinking, to mollify oncoming disasters. CHERNOBYL sometimes faltered in its folksy and trope-laden depiction of those working to offset that debt, but it did excellent work demonstrating the sheer scale of cosmic horror such debts wreak when left unchecked. Three and a half roentgen, and a caterpillar.