Along with millions of other fanatics of this decade’s most fantastical show, I felt at the conclusion of Game of Thrones that my HBO subscription had grown, how shall say, superfluous. Indeed, if I’m to be blunt, I’ll be forced to admit that my subscription had outlived its purpose of making accessible to me five rather forgettable episodes of that epochal show.
Yet HBO, doubtless in anticipation of the mass exodus of a group of now devoted, now frustrated Thrones patrons from its network, ensures that each viewer retains his subscription for at least one month more. I think of it as the “cool-down” lap after the conclusion of a race. In actuality, it’s a clever little business model with which I profess to have no qualm; I understand and even momentarily appreciate its purpose—until, of course, I consider the impending double-digit digitized bill. The idea is not only to squeeze from you one final payment, but to attempt to capture your attention with another of its shows.
This is no enviable task. So swollen is the internet with options catered to the diversion of your attention that the simple consumer is besieged by entertainment (offered, in many instances, at cheaper rates) on all sides. He’s in the midst of a torrent of entertainment and he enjoys, or he drowns, in a televisual, internet-driven embarrass de richesses.
And while this embarrassment is not a modern ailment to which I’m personally immune, I feel as though I’m perfectly capable of “cutting the cord”, if you will, as it pertains to my prior attachment to HBO. That said, during the interim between my decision to do just that and the imminent day upon whose arrival my HBO access will have formally expired, I decided to watch the miniseries, Chernobyl.
It was, not only to my surprise but to my great delight, the perfect “chaser” of a series—one intended to be swallowed only after having consumed to the dregs Game of Thrones. Chernobyl was a much-needed gulp of sobriety, flavored by the stresses of history, in opposition to the imaginative intoxicant that was Game of Thrones. But sobriety, above all, is absolutely necessary when one ventures to wean himself off of an eight-season high of dragons, elixirs, white-walkers, and such incredible beasts and plots as these. Chernobyl was precisely the sobering pill for which both mind and body yearned, displaying before us beasts who were far more recognizable to human eyes and plots to political too believe.
The show was not only accurate, but evocative and for those who endured it, painfully memorable. From its opening sequence until its very last, it achieved in that regard. Indeed, upon watching it and, with it, contemporaneous footage from that time, it was the show’s verisimilitude that struck me most. The setting was less replica than full facsimile of a Soviet Union on the brink of dissolution. The producers, actors, and the set and costume designers took every pain, however excruciatingly minute, to make the situation on the screen as real as it was nearly three decades ago. The nuclear power plant at which the historic explosion occurred, the manner of dress by which the actors were adorned, the weight of the Communistic regime under which the people were so evidently oppressed—all these visual, and if not visual, palpable factors made the viewer feel as if it were all real.
And real it was. The show’s creators were nothing if not scrupulous in their pursuit of the highest levels of accuracy in the telling of this national tale. In discussing the series, they’ve claimed frankly that historicity, perhaps more so than theatricality, was the greatest end for which they strove. Yet the historical and the histrionic combine as if in a natural alliance with no amount of drama left out. The writers and producers wanted its events captured precisely as they happened in that harrowing year of 1986. In the pursuit of that goal, every available archive was searched, every survivor inspected, and every contemporaneous piece of evidence checked twice. The resulting story was more laden with drama than even the subtlest and most imaginative of Hollywood writers could conceive. Drama, in the case of Chernobyl, was truer than fiction ever could be.
The meticulous nature by which the Chernobyl writers conducted their project leads to the portrayal of something very near the real thing. The historical accuracy of the show, not to mention the erudition of its performance, must be considered beyond dispute. Yet it leaves a rather ugly mark on the face of the Russian government—no easy task when you’re dealing with a countenance already so shamelessly bruised. Finding time between its meddling in foreign elections and annexing neighboring states, the Russian government decided to raise a bunch of predictable protestations in regard to the show. Ever the inventive regime (and never slow to hurl invective our way), the Russians have responded to the show’s success by claiming—contrary to all reason—that the Chernobyl meltdown was in fact an American job. If the propagandists of the Kremlin are to be believed (as decreasingly, one hopes, they are) it was our furtive penetration into the Soviet state, rather than its stark incompetence that led to the disaster we see likened on screen.
As if the Cold War had never fully thawed, top representatives of the Russian government are suggesting that it was the C.I.A’s responsibility for inciting the meltdown in that quaint, inhospitable Ukrainian town. Interloper America, rather than solicitous Mother Russia, is the country to which we ought to turn our attention if we wish to unveil the actual truth.
Fortunately, the historical literacy of the world is on the rise and everyone is justifiably suspicious of the Russian state. This is what happens when perfidy becomes so pervasive that a government can’t be believed. Ultimately, in the re-telling of the story of Chernobyl, the Russian government wants not facts, but counterfactuals to prevail.
We smile upon their fantasy. Let them live and think as they may. The Russians can enamor themselves of their lies; we concern ourselves with such distortions of history not. Nevertheless, it is interesting—perhaps even compulsory—to view this merciful mini-series (five succinct episodes of Chernobyl contrast well with eight ponderous seasons of Game of Thrones, the latter of which at times strained the span of the patient viewer’s attention) in the light of our modern political environment.
I admit, the use of that last phrase is gratingly trite, but the second of its two words is deliberate. It’s the environment—presently so tenuous and contentious a thing—upon which our focus now shifts.
Chernobyl, aside from being captivating from a dramatic point of view, is compelling from an environmental one as well. Nuclear energy, by far the most propitious and powerful of the types of energy available today, has seen scant application over the course of the past forty years. This is a source of bewilderment to me, a problem around which I’ve never been able to wrap my head in our ever-so environmentally-conscious age. In a comparison with all the other feasible types of energy (be they solar, wind-produced, hydroelectric, or, god forbid, coal-fired) nuclear energy is by far the strongest. Its impact on the atmosphere (so long as its contents and emissions are safely contained) is exiguous. It’s nearly the most salutary approach to energy production graspable by the modern mind. Add to that its renewability, and there’s even more to recommend it. Uranium and Plutonium—the materials by which reactors are made fissile and functional—can always be procured, be it by synthesis or some other brilliant means extraction. Potency and sustainability, therefore, aren’t the questions with which nuclear energy is beleaguered. Those of safety and stability, however, are.
It’s on this point that Chernobyl, after having scintillated us on screen with an amazing sequence of events, scares us with what might come to be. It reveals to us our fears of radiation and of an unnatural death.
The dramatis personae become precautionary tales. Chernobyl, the real place and the tragedy of which it’s representative, sits atop those other stories of precaution, of which we number but three: Chernobyl, of course, comes first to mind, but alongside it we count the partial meltdown of the Three-Mile Island plant in the state of Pennsylvania and that earthquake-induced disaster at Fukushima in Japan. Those with a disinclination toward nuclear power, after having watched Chernobyl and considered the fallout of the other two, are sure to feel vindicated of their belief that nuclear energy is simply no good. It would be difficult to be persuaded otherwise. Of course, this is in the absence of a consideration of just how rarely problems with nuclear energy occur; compare these three incidents, each more unfortunate than the last, with the multitudinous oil spills and vaporous pollutions that happen, in the case of the former, every year and in that of the latter every second of every day. By doing so, one’s thinking is bound to change.
However misbegotten the conviction of nuclear energy’s inherent badness may be, it persists as one of which we as a society haven’t yet been disabused. We still shutter at the thought of a power grid driven by nuclear means and this fear has an impact on our politics.
Within the contents of the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal, there’s no mention, much less an express affinity, for the idea that coal might be supplanted by nuclear power. Ostensibly, the authors of this verdant proposition (which was, somewhat anticlimactically, unanimously vetoed upon its arrival in the Senate) want to achieve net-carbon emissions equivalent to zero. Lofty an aspiration though this may be, and sympathetic to its ambition though I may be, to do so would be completely unthinkable without the help of nuclear power. And it seems not to have been an accidental act of omission on the authors’ part; in subsequent statements, they’ve voiced their open distaste for what’s admittedly the riskiest, but also the cleanest and most puissant of all sources of energy known to man.
Theatrical, political, historical—the mini-series Chernobyl was all of these things. It aroused a latent but excitable animosity between the Russia and the West. Admittedly, very little is required for the provocation of so inveterate a response. It captured, if only for a month, the attention of people fleeing HBO en masse. It was the necessary chaser subsequent Game of Thrones. It detained our attention if only for a fleeting moment in time. Finally, it provided a reflection on the current politics of climate change, as well as the climactic effects of political change.