“A just world is a sane world, and there was nothing sane about Chernobyl,” Valery Legasov tells us in the opening moments of HBO and Sky’s haunting miniseries Chernobyl.
And indeed, this is shown over and over again over the course of the show’s five episodes, as the fallout from the infamous 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the town of Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine plays out in excruciating detail, as seen through the eyes of the real-life figures called in to respond to the catastrophe.
From Legasov (Jared Harris), a Soviet nuclear physicist, and Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), to Emily Watson’s fictional scientist Ulana Khomyuk — and the countless firefighters, military personnel, nurses, doctors, and civilians whose lives were forever changed — Chernobyl depicts the rarely sane ways in which the Soviet Union handled the disaster, and it poses a still-urgent question: What are the costs of lies?
In the finale, which aired Sunday night, we finally return to April 26, 1986, the fateful night of the disaster. This time, however, armed with Legasov’s testimony at the trial of those deemed responsible for the accident, we see a minute-by-minute account of the moments and doomed decisions leading up to the explosion. A devastating epilogue tells us more about the lasting effects of Chernobyl, and the ultimate fates of our characters.
Chernobyl creator, executive producer, and writer Craig Mazin spoke with EW about the contemporary relevance of a decades-old disaster, the plot point that was the most heartbreaking to craft, and a surprising unscripted moment in the finale (hint: it involves a caterpillar).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With a project like Chernobyl, how do you make an event that happened decades ago seem so relevant now?
CRAIG MAZIN: Well, you can’t always. I mean, in some sense I think some things that happened a long time ago aren’t particularly relevant for now, but this one I think couldn’t be more so. It’s about the cost of lies. It’s about what happens when a culture and a government and a people begin to lose touch with the importance of the truth, and when that happens, there are costs. You may be able to get away with it for a while, but sooner or later it’s going to get you, and we are all of us right now living through a time when the truth is being manipulated and distorted and almost made fun of. The idea of truth is being laughed at. And that’s what Chernobyl is about, it’s about the cost of that, because it’s real.
The show tackles so many different, truly heartbreaking stories, but was there one in particular that you found more difficult to conceive?
The hardest one to write, the one that hurt me the most, was that of Lyudmilla Ignatenko and her husband, Vasily Ignatenko [who was one of the first firefighters on the scene the night of the disaster], because it’s just so endlessly heartbreaking. The character of Lyudmilla that’s portrayed by Jessie Buckley — this is a beautiful person. This is a person that’s overwhelmed by love, and because she’s overwhelmed by love and because she could not imagine not standing by this person that she had kind of thrown her whole life into, she did things that were not smart and were dangerous and came at their own cost, and yet they were understandable. She wasn’t stupid, she was just overwhelmed, and I just thought that was the most human thing possible. And my job was to portray that in a way that didn’t feel like I was nudging it too far one way or the other, but just letting people see it for what it was and hoping that they get it. I had the advantage of the most incredible performance from Jessie Buckley, but also from Adam Nagaitis, who portrayed her husband so beautifully.
Was there anything you wanted to tackle but didn’t? Anything that was too bleak?
Episode 4 is a tough one. The scenes with the liquidators and the dogs was really hard for a lot of people to watch, and that story actually got worse [in real life]. And it was a first-person story, I was not making it up. This is an account that somebody told in Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl. We shot it, but it was just too much. It felt abusive, and there’s a really weird line between “No, you need to look at this and see this and know that it happened” and [taking it too far] — and the line is different for different people. I’m just grateful that it seemed like after episode 4 aired, for most people, we got it right. For a few people we did not. If we had done this other thing, I think a lot of people would have just been like, “You know what, no, now you’re just being mean.”
Most of the characters on this show were real people, but notably Emily Watson’s character was not. Was it more difficult to write for her character or the ones based on real people?
I actually think it was more liberating to not be accountable to a real human being. With [Legasov] and with [Shcherbina], I obviously had to dramatize these people and put them in places that occasionally they weren’t, or say things that nobody would know if they said or not, but I felt accountable to my understanding of who they were, and what they were going through, and what happened to them. So there were guidelines there that I did not want to violate. With Emily’s character, I was able to create somebody that served many purposes and was therefore accountable to a lot of different truths and facts, and that was helpful. Also, whether people know it or not, she is doing a little bit of what they’re doing at home watching, which is saying, “Are you serious? What are you doing? Stop doing that, do this.” There’s a certain indomitable morality to her, and it’s a hard character for someone to play unless you’re Emily Watson, and then it’s not hard because you’re amazing.
The three leads noticeably do not speak with any sort of Russian accent. Were there any discussions about that?
This was obviously a big discussion: What do we do about these accents? Because the scope of the show is rather large, we ended up with about 100 different speaking roles, which is a lot for a show. And, look, I speak English, our director [Johan Renck] speaks Swedish and English, we had people from all over Europe. One option was, let’s just shoot with a cast made of Russians and Ukrainians, but the problem is there’s a huge language barrier. And honestly, I’m not sure HBO and Sky would have given us the budget — there are just some practicalities [involved]. So then the question is, if you have people who are European, should they speak in a Russian accent? What we found really quickly was that all I’m now seeing is people putting on accents, they’re faking stuff. And the acting starts going all into the accent, and I’m losing those moments that feel legitimately real. There’s an ease and simplicity to it that’s not there anymore, it’s stilted.
And then just logically speaking, Soviet citizens didn’t speak English with Russian accents. They spoke Russian, so what are we even doing? It doesn’t make it more accurate to have them speak it with a Russian accent. Someone asked this at the TCAs and I gave this same very long answer, and when I was done Stellan just looked up and said, “Hamlet wasn’t in Danish.” [Laughs]
Much like the first episode, a good chunk of the finale takes place back in the control room the night of the disaster. Did you know when you started the series that you’d end up back there?
My hope and my intention was that people would experience the tragedy of what Chernobyl was in every regard: a scientific tragedy, a political tragedy, an emotional and personal tragedy, all of that. Just really feel what it did to an entire country and people, and then say, “Okay, now that you know all of that, let’s see how it actually happened, because this is how we learn to keep it from happening again.” And when I say “it,” I don’t mean a nuclear reactor exploding, I mean a tragedy caused by lies and neglect. And there’s an additional factor that I wanted to introduce which was, for most of those men in that control room, they were innocent, and I think it’s important for people to know that. They just didn’t know. Even the villain in the room to some extent was kind of innocent, and that’s kind of a shocking thing. And so it’s all about kind of driving home for the people watching that this is, we are all of us, every day of our lives, in a control room facing choices, and we’re being asked to consider, well, if something bad happens, in this case one theory is why worry about something that isn’t going to happen? And another theory is, how about we do worry about it because it might happen? And that’s prudent, and we should do that.
The final scene between Legasov and Shcherbina was surprisingly tender. Why was it important to give them that moment?
So, Stellan’s character, I put quite a bit on there. I can’t necessarily say that the real Boris Shcherbina had a kind of slow-motion conversion, but it seemed to me that this was a period in time in the Soviet Union where the people who were very close to power must have felt in their bones that it was all falling apart. Because for instance, in that scene, it was 1987 and in four years the Soviet Union wouldn’t exist. And for someone like Shcherbina who had gone through Chernobyl, I think he must have realized that “My religion is not correct, and what I’ve done was not correct,” and there has to be an enormous regret to that. And what I wanted, in a very human way, was for Legasov to say that’s not how this works. How this works is, we do what we can to survive, but then there are moments where we have choices to make, and those are the moments that define us. And the moment, as far as I’m concerned, that defined Boris Shcherbina were the good decisions he made in the aftermath of the bad decisions that he made. And I think that’s beautiful and really important to see in these stories, that there is opportunity for redemption and growth and hope.
In that same scene, there is also a caterpillar…
The caterpillar was a cameo. Johan was shooting the scene and the caterpillar just happened to be there. There was no CGI there, there was no stunt caterpillar. Stellan just started to play around with the idea that, you know what, after all this sh— that we’ve done, after all the ruin we’ve visited upon this planet, there’s still hope — there’s a little caterpillar, life will continue, and let’s try not to do this again.
Do you think we’ve learned from Chernobyl?
I think what we’re struggling with now is something worse. The planet is heating, the climate is changing. We know this. We have not just one scientist or two, but thousands screaming this at us at the top of their lungs. And we have a government full of disinterested, stubborn people who are going to cling to their denial and their nonsense. And that’s where we are. Like I said, we are in the control room right now, and there is time, but it’s running out. If there’s something that people take away from this, I hope it’s not “blah, communism is bad.” Yes, communism is bad, correct. The Soviet system is terrible, correct. That ended in 1991, here is what is going on right now in our country and every country. This is what we should be demanding of our politicians: a willingness to just deal with the truth and let their narratives go. Easier said than done, it would seem. So I’m forever hopeful, I can’t stop being hopeful — but I am forever concerned.
This interview has been edited and condensed.