[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Chernobyl” Episode 3, “Open Wide, O Earth.”]
“Chernobyl” is a show about the unpredictability of nature and the severity of ignoring the raw power of an unseen enemy. But with the overwhelming toll that this historical event takes on those caught in its grasp, the HBO series still finds room for some unexpected, conflicting emotions.
“There’s an absurdity that you have to kind of recognize. And the Soviets were better at it than anybody,” writer and creator Craig Mazin told IndieWire. “At some point, you just have this weird sixth sense as a writer that maybe it’s time for a break, that if I put one more log of sadness on this fire, everyone’s just going to get up and go home.”
“Chernobyl” director Johan Renck said that he bristled at the thought of people laughing at different points of levity in the series, but recognized that given the combination of his and Mazin’s sensibilities, there was still room for competing human emotions to exist in this story.
“I hate comedy. I don’t even like comedy at all. I don’t like fun stuff,” Renck said. “But you can’t have black without white. There is something interesting about the fact that there is sort of a sense of humor and some times.”
It’s a balance of both that Renck, in conversations with one of the surviving Chernobyl liquidators, found was true to the experience of those fighting the aftermath of the explosion.
“They said, ‘The two things I remember is that we laughed a lot and we loved a lot,” Renck said, adding that the same became true for the environment on the set of the series. “We did a lot of crying and a lot of laughing and a lot of everything. Big emotions across the whole spectrum.”
One of the best distillations of those crossing emotions in “Open Wide, O Earth” — the series’ Episode 3 — is a collection of scenes with a group of Soviet miners, brought in to dig a relief tunnel as a means of preventing an even bigger thermonuclear catastrophe. That the miners sequence contains one pointed joke about Soviet machinery is less surprising knowing that Mazin comes from a comedy background. But the challenge for Mazin as a writer became finding a way to break up the overwhelming tension of the series without it feeling like something wedged purely to offer some relief. He identified that the miners’ gregarious nature (exemplified in Alex Ferns’ portrayal of the group’s leader) dovetails with their willingness to embody the sense of sacrifice that ultimately saved a number of lives in the Chernobyl aftermath.
“We were doing our research, we came across this description of coal miners in the Soviet Union as being a particularly irascible, difficult group that operated outside of the normal fear bubble that everybody was in because they knew that they were necessary. In fact, they’d gone on strike a few times and Gorbachev said that he was more scared of the coal miners than anyone else,” Mazin said. “I thought it was fascinating because it was important to show people that not everybody went to Chernobyl because they were at the end of a gun barrel. Yes, a lot of them did. But then there were people that went because they decided they were going to do their jobs, even if it cost them their lives. ‘Because if not us, then who?’ And that’s those guys.”
One other standout sequence in “Open Wide, O Earth” is the culmination of a lurking threat that’s been present ever since the series’ opening scenes. Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) rapidly progresses across a series of symptoms, taking him from a man who can walk and embrace his wife Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley) with a smile on his face to being trapped inside a body rapidly deteriorating. The sequence inside a quarantined hospital area, with Vasily in his final moments, is a marriage of craft and human emotion also anchored by Buckley’s performance. The scene that finds Lyudmilla saying goodbye to her husband was the scene the actress auditioned with. Even in that sterile, pre-production environment, performing the scene by herself, Buckley was still able to locate the power of the scene.
“She made me cry in that terrible room and I just thought, ‘We’re going to be fine.’ There’s something about her that you can’t fake. I think you can get pretty good at portraying empathy without being incredibly empathetic. She just is empathetic. She breaks your heart,” Mazin said. “What I wasn’t prepared for was how, every time I watch that scene, I cry. That’s crazy. I’ve seen it like a hundred times and every time, it just kills me.
Creating the physical manifestation of what Lyudmilla is reacting to was the painstaking result of practical effects. Series make-up and prosthetics designer Daniel Parker’s objective was to stay as true to real-life details as possible, even when finding actual visual evidence of what came after Chernobyl was difficult.
“I did all this research, so I actually based my designs on what I read. But there was one photograph — I think it was of the same character and his father. And it stuck in my mind,” Parker said. “We then shot this and I came out to set. Somebody said to me, ‘You should look at the monitor.’ And the monitor was that photo. Clear, not fuzzy like it was in the original. This shiny Rameses that’s still alive. I was shocked, but also elated.”
Crafting a finished product meant a complex combination of temporary tattoos and various layers of prosthetics meant to mimic the condition of the body as Lyudmilla described in her own firsthand accounts. From a makeup standpoint, achieving that reality meant breaking some traditions of the craft.
“With silicone prosthetics, you should always put a certain amount of pigment in, otherwise it looks waxy. But I wanted the skin to look translucent. Some bits were clear, some bits were opaque. It was very complicated process with many, many tests,” Parker said, adding that the emphasis was on the internal physical effects that were part of that pivotal photo. “I wanted to show what’s happening inside the body, the bruising and melting of the body and the fact that the skin is massive organ of the body is no longer attached. I wanted to get the feel of what I’ve read up to the screen.”
It’s another example of the show being able to demonstrate so much without actual dialogue. Vasily doesn’t speak in his final scene, but in some ways, the fear of this ending is something that was present in the way that Nagaitis plays those first firefighting scenes.
“He maybe has 30 or 40 words, total. But he looms so large, he does so much by saying nothing. He looks down at a piece of graphite and then he looks up and you know that his gears are connecting and he’s making a choice to just keep going,” Mazin said.
The emotional truth of the harrowing hospital scene, the aftereffects of that choice to persist in the face of certain peril, is tied to the same attempt at fidelity to real-life events that also drove part of the miners’ Chernobyl digging sequence as well.
“That hand-painted sign is a perfect replica of the actual hand-painted sign that was there. I mean, perfect. I hope people look this up. It basically says, ‘Comrades, our task is to advance the tunnel by this many meters and we work 24/7 to this goal,'” Mazin said. “We, I think, in the West always kind of giggled at this Soviet, ‘the Workforce for the Motherland’ ideal. They didn’t. It was real to them and they felt it. Even as the Soviet system would repress them, there was also still an actual communal spirit. And you saw that at Chernobyl, I think better than anywhere else.”
“Chernobyl” airs Monday nights at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.