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‘Chernobyl’: Ending at the Beginning Helped Give the Show a Powerful Farewell Message

The HBO series' finale doesn't just show an explosion or a trial. It brings those pieces together to show the physical and psychological weight in its wake.

Chernobyl Episode 5 Control Room


Liam Daniel/HBO

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Chernobyl” Episode 5, “Vichnaya Pamyat.”]

Even though it’s a documented event in world history, there’s still something shocking, arriving at the end of “Chernobyl,” to see the fateful power plant explosion that set in motion the events of the series.

It’s particularly even more jarring when the series finale, “Vichnaya Pamyat” opens with a calm, serene look at life in Pripyat before the biological tumult arrived. It’s both a reminder of what was lost and an effective beginning of the end. Series creator and writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck wondered whether it was necessary to see the Chernobyl explosion in any other context than in the premiere, when it’s seen filtered through a living room window miles away.

“I remember Johan and I are having a discussion like ‘Should we even show this explosion in a big way at the end at all?'” Mazin told IndieWire. “And in the end I think I just thought, ‘You can’t not see the release of this terrible thing up close.’ You need to feel it, to know this is what they’ve done. I like the way we do it initially, but I think we owe it to people.”

Even with this carefully placed moment of power, Renck didn’t want to be distracted by spectacle. As with the overall visual effects push of “Chernobyl,” the emphasis was constantly on helping to preserve a sense of time.

“For me that was a very difficult aspect. Being propelled back in time in every aspect, you always wanted to feel the authenticity. You never ever wanted it to feel any sort of grandeur. There was some big, splashy shots in there. But again, we’re putting stuff on display, but you feel it rather than just see it,” Renck said.

Chernobyl Episode 5 Trial Dyatlov


Liam Daniel/HBO

In some ways, seeing the meticulous crawl of events toward that explosion is what helps turn the finale’s Soviet show trial into a harrowing reflection of scientific malpractice. The trial unites the show’s central trio — Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) — and also foregrounds Chernobyl deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter).

Mazin said that Dyatlov was one of the hardest roles to cast, and that the on-screen reveal of the decision to run the fateful reactor test was a chance to see why Ritter became a crucial part of the show’s creative success.

“[Dyatlov] is a guy who you have to hate, but also then somehow find a thread in there where you go, ‘OK, you are not a good guy. But you’re not a monster.’ You need to find someone who can play denial, which is almost impossible to show. And then in comes Paul Ritter, who’s just spectacular. All the guys in the control room, I thought, were amazing. That crew of boys did such a lovely job,” Mazin said.

Even though there’s a distinct difference in Dyatlov’s appearance, “Chernobyl” make-up and prosthetics designer Daniel Parker wanted to make sure that the whole courtroom sequence didn’t feel disconnected from the events from the previous four episodes. Using the same incremental approach that he used to convey the gradual deterioration of individuals who’d been more directly exposed to radiation, he was able to help track both the physical and psychological toll shouldered by all the central players in this historical chapter.

“The makeup had to tell its own story. It had to tell its own timeline,” Parker said. “By this time [Legasov] has premature old aging. It’s very subtle and it should actually not look like an old person, like bad old-age makeup. There are very, very fine lines. If you’ve crossed the line, you’ve basically screwed it up.”

Chernobyl Episode 5 Legasov


Liam Daniel/HBO

The extended focus on outlining the events that led to the explosion, complete with explanation placards in untranslated Russian, give some of the final pieces of the “Chernobyl” puzzle. Legasov delivers those details in a speech that eschews the usual rousing, swelling courtroom monologue for something that has a distinct feeling of sacrifice. Legasov’s testimony is not an act of pride, but of relinquishing the hope of living out his terminal diagnosis in favor of giving a more accurate view of the nature of the country’s RBMK reactors.

“I remember talking with Craig about the idea that, whether you’ve got two years left to live or 20 years left to live, it’s still eternity. You don’t want to give it up,” Harris said. “He was sacrificing something, even if all he had left was two or three years left before the cancer got to him. But those two or three years were even more precious than talking to someone who’s got 30 years.”

“Vichnaya Pamyat” ends with an epilogue, backed by a performance of the hymn that gives the episode its title. More than just a summary of what transpired for each of these individuals after the events of “Chernobyl,” the four-minute coda also encapsulates the care and attention that makes the preceding five episodes feel less like a history book brought to life and more of a passionate tribute to those who worked to save lives in the aftermath of something nearly unfathomable.

“‘Vichnaya Pamyat’ stands for ‘Memory Eternal.’ It is the Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian liturgical chant for the dead. It is a memorial. There was really no other way to end it,” Mazin said. “I know we’re making this series for Americans, for British people, for everybody to watch. But the people that I care about the most are the people in Ukraine and Belarus who are watching this. I’m not a religious man, but I have enough respect for humans who have lost people that they love to speak to them in a language that I think they will appreciate the most. I want them to know that we cared enough and that’s what we feel in our hearts for those people. Because we do. They deserve it.”

“Chernobyl” is now available to watch in its entirety on HBOGO. 

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