I have been watching HBO’s Chernobyl and have been quietly horrified by the show. Throughout the first three episodes there have been these unsettling scenes showing countless unnamed people who are affected by the disaster. Most of the time they are totally oblivious to what is going on. There’s a haunting slow motion scene of children dancing and spinning and running around as radioactive ash falls like snow all around them.
The viewer wants to yell, “No! Don’t do that! It’s radioactive!”
The show tugs on your humanity. It yanks on it, actually.
All these kids. What will happen to them?
There is a scene in the third episode with dozens of dazed people lining up in an old gymnasium, having their papers checked so they can be evacuated from their town. All these nameless people with names. All of them just going about their lives in small towns in Russia, totally upended by the disaster.
All these people. What will happen to them?
I think this show is powerful for me because it causes me to ask so many questions.
About good and evil.
About the value of a human life.
About truth and lies.
About science and advancement.
About innocence and guilt.
It’s powerful because we are drawn into specific individual lives within this story, while constantly being reminded of the sheer number of human beings that exist. The show lets us sit with the uncomfortable reality that there are a few individuals with incredible amounts of power that determine the fate of millions of people, potentially all of humanity’s existence. We are always one disaster away from living in a total wasteland of a planet.
This show is both humanizing and dehumanizing.
We are constantly being shown examples of individuals making the hard decisions, even at the cost of their own lives. We root for these people and the courage they embody in the face of a nuclear hell.
We want to believe that people are this good. But once again as I watch I think to myself:
Are people this good?
Did this really happen?
Am I that good?
I’ve always thought that the best told stories have people to root for, and often people to root against. And boy, does this show have that. There’s the constant use of the literary device of dramatic irony that this show masterfully uses; we generally know what is going on in the show because this is an actual historical event. I’m guessing most of the viewers know the basic details of what happened, but not much else.
One of the characters in the show is pregnant. My mom was pregnant with me during this disaster, granted over 5000 miles away. I was born in August of that year, so as I see pregnant women or small babies in this show it causes me to identify with them in a unique way.
There’s so much more I could still say that is on my mind about this show. I probably could write a whole post about how I think this show gives us all the elements of storytelling we were hoping for in the last season of Game of Thrones but didn’t get. Maybe the strength of this show is a bit inflated because of how much of a letdown the last couple episodes of Game of Thrones were. Game of Thrones ended this past Sunday.
And as the last few episodes of this show air, maybe I’ll write again about it with some thoughts. Or maybe some conclusions I’ve drawn from all the questions the show causes me to ask.