HBO’s “Chernobyl,” now up for 19 Primetime Emmy Awards, has been the runaway hit of this year’s crowded field of prestige miniseries, currently sitting with a 9.5 score on IMDb as the online database’s highest-rated TV series ever. The harrowing chronicle of the 1986 nuclear disaster that forever stained the reputation of the Soviet Union garnered more than 2 million viewers by the time it reached its fifth-episode series finale. “Chernobyl” also sparked a vital conversation about global complicity in the tragedy, and how its effects continue to resonate far beyond the radioactivity still emanating from the Exclusion Zone.
In a new sit-down with Deadline, series creator/writer Craig Mazin, who recently dropped out of the Writers Guild of America’s vice-presidential run, dives deep into the making of the series, and the implications he believes the disaster still has today.
“It was certainly one of my intentions to tell a Soviet story from the point of view of Soviet citizens, which meant being inside of them. Naturally, the second you get inside of them you immediately begin to empathize with them, which is the point,” Mazin said.
The series’ sprawling ensembles runs the gamut from bureaucrats trying to keep a lid on a political powder keg, including Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, the Soviet deputy chairman whose allegiance is tested after a visit to the reactor hands him a death sentence, and Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov, the Kurchatov Institute director tasked with manning the longwinded cleanup efforts. Emily Watson is moving as a Minsk nuclear physicist whose character is meant as a composite of all the scientists who fought to take down the Soviet Union’s wall of silence surrounding the disaster. But Mazin’s series, directed by Johan Renck, also plunges us into the heartbreaking, hopeless stories of the firefighters and their wives, and the Pripyat citizens forced to endanger their lives in the ensuing cleanup.
“The Soviet system didn’t fall out of the sky and land in Russia. It was invented by human beings,” Mazin said in stressing the universality of the miniseries. “The same thing happened in Nazi Germany. It is comforting to imagine there was something in the water in Berlin or something in the air in Moscow. There was not. It’s all us, all of it.”
The series pivots on the various opposing forces who were all complicit in the nuclear breakdown, as well as the communication breakdowns that occurred in response. “I wanted not to suggest that the villain was some kind of Soviet system that could never exist anywhere else, but rather that the villain was a kind of Soviet thinking that absolutely can and absolutely has existed everywhere else,” Mazin said. “What it is, in reality, is a system of human beings controlling each other, demonizing each other and ruining each other, out of a kind of inherent human madness.”
Mazin said that he hopes “Chernobyl” encourages audiences to ask questions about the structures of power that govern our everyday lives, and their mismanaging of human lives in the face of tragedy. “What do we keep finding as we look into these stories? Our friends from Moscow. Now, the communist period ended there; the Soviet era is over. But the methodology of the KGB lives on in a President who was in the KGB. That methodology is very much about messing with your head. And it’s easier than ever before to do that,” he said.
“I’m greatly concerned that we’re all capable of sliding back into that kind of thinking, all of us. We live in a time in which we’re not actively watching tens of millions of people being slaughtered,” he said, referencing genocides both current and past. “This is our history. We do this to each other. If people watch this show and, at the very least, say, ‘I recognize myself or people like me — I recognize them in the face of the actions of my system,’ that’s a good thing. Because it’s not us and them. It’s us. We have an us problem.”
Earlier this summer, the Russian political party issued a statement deeming the series an “ideological tool designed to defame and demonize” the Soviet people. In response, Russia is planning its own retaliatory series, wherein a CIA operative is identified as the actual party responsible for the exploded reactor.
Mazin, however, isn’t surprised or cynical about Russia’s takedown. “I think it’s hard to make television shows, and regardless of what’s going on with politics and Putin and the government, in my heart I will always sympathize with whoever is out there doing the work,” Mazin said in response to the planned series.
“Even if the point of the show is to smear us, or propagandize some false narrative about what happened, mostly I’m watching them get beaten up on YouTube — even Russian commentators are killing them— and I’m like, ‘I know how that feels.’ I kind of want to take those folks out to lunch and go, ‘We’re in the same business, you and I.'”
“Chernobyl” is currently streaming across HBO platforms.