Commemorations were held in Ukraine on Thursday to mark 32 years since the world’s worst nuclear disaster. A remembrance ceremony was held in capital Kiev, and Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko laid flowers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. (April 26)
Spoiler alert! The following discusses Monday’s fifth and final episode of HBO’s “Chernobyl.”
After four harrowing episodes featuring planet-threatening danger, excruciating deaths and unheralded heroics, HBO’s “Chernobyl” mini-series completed its unforgettable five-episode run Monday with “Vichnaya Pamyat” (translated to “Eternal Memory”).
The immediate devastation from the 1986 nuclear accident has been contained, the radioactive dead buried in concrete-cased lead coffins. But the lethal Soviet political fallout is just beginning, requiring the right villains to blame for one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history.
The show trial digs into the accident’s cause from the cultural center of the still-dangerously radioactive town of Chernobyl.
There was disappointed-viewer outcry following “Game of Thrones” ending last month. But “Chernobyl” is one HBO series which viewers might lament for another reason – just how effectively director Johan Renck and creator/writer Craig Mazin brought the too-shocking-to-be-have-happened depiction to a close.
The horror, the heartbreak and the moments of heroism continued throughout episode 5.
A powerful look at life just before the explosion
Last month’s first “Chernobyl” episode jumped right into the chaos following the reactor explosion and breathlessly followed the specter of the disaster going global – which loomed over every episode.
The flashback-filled final episode allows for the first brief, painfully poignant look at life in the industry Ukrainian town 12 hours before the devastation. Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) smiles watching her husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) hold their neighbor’s baby. Given the devastating path of the participants that has played out onscreen, this look is all the more powerful.
We’d already seen fireman Vasily dying an unspeakably terrible radiation death after battling the reactor fire – radiation that would kill the couple’s unborn daughter, which pregnant Lyudmilla had not told Vasily about on that spring day.
Lyudmilla would go on to write (with author Svetlana Alexievich) the Nobel prize-winning 2015 book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.”
The finale gets to the core of the explosion
Viktor P. Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill), who was plant director; Nikolai M. Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) chief engineer, and Fomin’s deputy, Anatoly S. Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) are put on trial for causing the accident. The episode premise allows testimony from investigating scientist and “Chernobyl” main subject Valery Legasov (Jared Harris).
Flashbacks show Bryukhanov and Fomin insisting on a long-awaited safety test, despite being told to wait 10 hours, increasing the risks. The test’s success promises career advancement for all.
Dyatlov agrees to personally oversee the operation with an untrained overnight crew who are not even aware that they will be told to oversee the test.
Dangerous? Don’t tell the surly Dyatlov as he bullies his control room into action with orders, insults and written instructions that feature key sections crossed out. We get another look of the tragic Akimov (Sam Troughton) and young Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms) before the two would die hideously from radiation exposure.
The pair already have a pallor just putting the nuclear reactor through the reckless tests. When Akimov refuses to continue at one point, Dyatlov threatens him not just with his job, but his working life and his family.
The test continues, going from brow-sweat precarious to off-the-rails as the reactor’s core heats to dangerous levels. But the crew is working with the assumption that they at least have a safety net. There’s the AZ5 button, which immediately shuts the reactor down.
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But when the emergency button is pushed, the safety measure inexplicably causes the disastrous core explosion.
Dyatlov is defiant in the trial, throwing the blame onto the staff he had bullied by claiming they performed the test while he was on “the toilet” (a claim Dyatlov made in real life as well, according to Mazin).
All three men are sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp, the maximum penalty.
An imperfect hero makes a final stand
“Chernobyl” concludes with pragmatic politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) insisting that Legasov be allowed to complete his testimony with a dramatic, burly, “Let him finish.”
Legasov is permitted to continue, warning of Chernobyl’s fatal flaw that impacts the country’s nuclear system. Chernobyl’s boron rods were tipped with graphite which triggered the dangerous reaction that caused the explosion. The graphite tips had been a cost-saving measure.
Legasov testifies knowing he has given his life for the cause of containing the radioactive exposure(his hair has started to fall out). But now the scientist gives up his Soviet reputation with the revelation of systemic, dangerous problems.
KGB Chairman Charkov makes it clear in the interrogation room later that Legasov, the once avid communist, has no more career.
As we know from the first moments of the first episode, Legasov hangs himself exactly two years and one minute after the Chernobyl explosion.
The extended epilogue featuring the true follow-up to the disaster is chilling. The Soviet Union admitted to only 31 Chernobyl deaths. But the accident’s total death toll from cancer is projected to reach 4,000 for people exposed to high doses of radiation, and another 5,000 deaths among those who had less radiation exposure, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
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