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All the Rage

HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Reminds Us We’re Living in the “Not Normal”

This five-hour historical drama is not a discussion of whether Soviet Communism failed. It’s a mirror of our present moment and the danger of denial.

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The worst danger in the world is invisible until it kills you. This one basic truth generates infinite dread in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, a historical-drama-series-slash-five-hour-horror-movie centering on the nuclear core explosion at a Soviet power plant of the same name. The series, predictably, has generated intense and often silly political debate. But what Chernobyl means is less important than how it affects us. Few pieces of entertainment have managed to so successfully evoke the dread of our current American moment. Though the events of Chernobyl took place in 1986, the series feels like living in 2019.

Radiation poisoning, as we’re shown in graphic detail, is the worst imaginable way to die. Your skin peels off. Your organs liquify. Your flesh falls away from your bones. You will spend your remaining days (in the best-case scenario, less than a week; a quick death is preferable to a slow one) both shitting and puking out your own innards. This will hurt, very much, and painkillers will not work, because doctors will be unable to inject them into your disintegrating veins. Radiation is invisible, and undetectable by the human senses, except for the taste of metal in your mouth. You will only know you’re dying once the process has already begun.

The core explosion in Chernobyl, we’re told, “gives off nearly twice the radiation of the bomb in Hiroshima, and that’s every single hour.” And, for five-plus hours of television, we get to watch characters we like walk straight into it, because no one has told them how dangerous it is. The horror of the accident is not just the explosion itself, but in the fact that none of the authorities at the time was willing to admit the extent of the catastrophe. From the power plant operator who stubbornly refuses to admit his reactor core has exploded, right on up to the Soviet government which knowingly failed to inform the operators of certain cost-cutting measures that made their reactors liable to blow up, everyone was too committed to the pretense of success to admit they were dealing with an event that could plausibly wipe out all life on the continent.

Political #takes have proliferated ever since the show’s debut, and most of them, it will not surprise you to learn, are stupid. The catastrophe occurred in the declining, Cold War–era USSR of the late 1980s; this, along with the show’s ominous depiction of government doublespeak and propaganda-spewing stooges, has invited quite a lot of conservative thinkpiecery about the Dangers of Communism. On the American left, meanwhile, socialism is finally shedding its stigma; certain viewers are none too pleased to see a communist government depicted as a failure, even if, historically, this one was. It’s “fucking anti-Communist propaganda” and “old-fashioned Cold War Red Scare propaganda about the soulless Slav,” according to the noble Men of Online, who seem not to have absorbed the show’s less-than-subtle lessons about the dangers of sticking to your preferred version of the truth despite the evidence.

The causes of the Chernobyl disaster, as screenwriter Craig Mazin has publicly pointed out, transcend country or ideology. The explosion occurred because someone wanted to save money: The control rods had cheap graphite tips, instead of a safer but more expensive material, which meant that under certain circumstances, pressing the emergency shutdown button would cause the reactor to explode instead of cooling down. (Yes: The plant workers caused a nuclear disaster by trying to prevent a nuclear disaster. It’s not a great show to watch if you have an anxiety disorder, is what I’m saying.) But, where the USSR skimped on environmental safety because it lacked funding, in the U.S., corporations skimp on environmental safety because capitalism demands high profit margins. The economic system is less relevant than the underlying callousness and ignorance. The lead-tainted water that poisoned Flint, Michigan, was a cost-cutting measure, too.

The series is not about communism, or nuclear power, but about the cost of denial. In the absence of real information about the Chernobyl crisis, people were left with no other option but to continue living normally. The cold, gut-churning dread of Chernobyl arises from watching all the many ways “normal” behavior can kill you in the wrong context. We see a woman kiss her husband, unaware that his body carries the force of a small nuclear reactor. We see people walk their babies through radioactive ash that falls like snow. At one point, a man idly picks up a chunk of irradiated graphite from the core. It looks like any other rock. A few seconds later, his hand melts.

This is historically accurate. In fact, the show skips some of the more bizarre outcomes: One woman recalls growing up 200 miles away from the blast, in an area her family had been assured was safe, where she nevertheless saw apples the size of watermelons. But that dread—the sense of being surrounded by invisible but pervasive violence, of walking right into your death without seeing anything unusual—is integral to life in present-day America. (In fact, other artists have tapped this vein before: Soviet nationalism aside, Chernobyl bears a weird resemblance to the 2018 video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” in which Donald Glover stages a kids’ dance party against a background of steadily unfurling chaos.) It can feel as if survival relies on not letting yourself know how bad things have gotten, finding some way to keep moving while the world spirals into madness. But that very obliviousness often spells our doom.

The parallels to climate change are present, and they are unsubtle. (The actors throw around dialogue like “it’s not alarmist if it’s a fact” at least once an episode, in case you don’t get it.) Chernobyl does manage to capture the eerie, end-times feeling of eating breakfast while reading a headline that says human civilization will end in 2050. But our impossible violence is more multifarious and pervasive than that. Chernobyl is also about packing up one’s toddler for preschool while knowing that children her age are being stolen from their parents at the border and sometimes killed in detention. It’s about having sex, as a cis woman of childbearing age, while knowing that a UN human rights commissioner has recently deemed your country’s abortion laws “torture” and “gender-based violence against women, no question.” It’s about booking a trip to the same Virginia town your family has vacationed in for three generations, while knowing that it’s also the site of America’s most recent mass shooting; it’s knowing that, at the rate these things occur, another massacre will have happened in another town by the time you arrive.

“This is not normal” was a common post-Trump rallying cry, quickly adopted and just as quickly lampooned by the internet. (What kind of out-of-touch, bougie liberal thinks “normal” was so great, anyhow? Etc.) Chernobyl, at its best, brings the viewer back to the emotional core of that statement; the cry to stay in touch with reality in the face of instinctive and widespread denial. The people in Chernobyl die because they’ve been lied to. By refusing to admit the magnitude of the crisis, the authorities leave the people with no way to protect themselves. But the most tragic characters also lie to themselves. One man is told, shortly after arriving at the reactor site, that merely being present means he has less than five years to live. Four years later, when he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness, he admits he didn’t see it coming.

RBMK reactor cores don’t explode, the people of Chernobyl keep telling each other, despite the fact that they’re looking right at an RBMK reactor core, and it has clearly just blown up. The American version of that sentiment could be the Republicans will never really overturn Roe v. Wade, or guns don’t kill people, people kill people, or if global warming is such a problem, why is it snowing? Throughout 2016, it was Donald Trump will never be elected president; until a few weeks ago, it was we’re going to impeach Donald Trump; in 2020, it may be Donald Trump can’t possibly win re-election. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you see the unholy column of flame and the people puking their organs out. You just keep insisting that the explosion never occurred, because the denial is the only thing keeping your terror at bay.

What Chernobyl insists—and what makes it such a perfect horror story for our moment—is that it is better to be afraid than ignorant. If the end of the world comes knocking at your door, the natural human impulse is to refuse it; to say that the world can’t end, not today, not while you have breakfast to make and a toddler to dress for school and a vacation you’ve been planning. But the failure to acknowledge reality will not change reality. Preschools are already running active shooter drills and the permafrost is melting; every time you say good-bye to your child could be the last time, and there is a strong chance she will not see her 40th birthday no matter what you do, and refusing to see that will not make her any safer. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid,” warns nuclear scientist Valery Legasov, at the series’ climax. This includes, crucially, the lies we tell ourselves. It is only by facing and naming our monsters that we can fight them. If we refuse, they will devour us all, and we won’t know we’re dying until it’s done.

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