Chernobyl season 1, episode 2 recap: Please Remain Calm


In Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl, Valery Legasov is tasked with ameliorating the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Does he have what it takes?

In the premiere episode of Chernobyl, we saw the initial disaster and how plant workers and firefighters suffered by the disaster. Some died, and firemen could even taste metal in the air. This was when Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman, called in Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). Being the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, Legasov is knowledgeable. However, it’s quite a task he has on his hands!

7 hours after the explosion

At the Belorussian Institute for Nuclear energy in Minsk, Dmitri (Matthew Needham) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) immediately analyze a sample of a substance in the air. Although Ulana is a composite character, she adequately represents the struggle of Russian nuclear scientists to break through bureaucratic red tape to expose the simple truths of the Chernobyl disaster.

Both Ulana and Legasov ultimately take it upon themselves to prove that Chernobyl’s core actually exploded, whereas the Soviet authorities are officially denying it. However, when no one’s answering the phone at the plant, it almost immediately validates certain concerns about the disaster’s scope.

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Hospitals have already seen the explosion’s effects. Dr. Svetlana Zinchenko (Nadia Clifford) is dealing with a patient’s radiation burns and contaminated clothes. Shockingly, no one on the hospital staff seems to be wearing gloves as they handle nuclear-contaminated clothing!

Because of the panic (and radioactive particles) in the air, Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) easily sneaks into the crowded hospital to find her firefighter husband, Vasily (Adam Nagaitis). She is told that he was transported to Moscow, and to tell them that Major Burov (Peter Guinness) allows her there. However, will that be enough to get her through a blockade?

The first meeting with Gorbachev

Legasov soon meets with officials, including Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), the General Secretary of the CPSU. Shcherbina is largely downplaying the disaster. However, Legasov notes how graphite on the ground means the core exploded, adding that dosimeter readings are inaccurate — they are only low because they’ve maxed out with those particular dosimeters. In other words, the radiation is much higher than a chest x-ray.

When accused of exaggerating, Legaslov says, “It’s not alarmist if it’s a fact.” When asked about the RBMK reactor, he compares every gram of U-235 to bullet. While the bullets may not always kill instantly, they have potentially highly lethal effects.

Gorbachev tasks Shcherbina and Legasov with examining the facility, and they travel by helicopter to the Chernobyl plant. On the way there, Shcherbina threatens Legasov to gain information on the technology, saying, “Tell me how a nuclear reactor works or I’ll have one of these soldiers throw you out of the helicopter.” Legasov explains that it makes electricity with steam, as the steam turns a turbine. The aforementioned graphite surrounds fuel rods to slow down neutron flux.

He also has Shcherbina look out the window to see radiation ionizing the air, to demonstrate firsthand that the core is exposed. Bizarrely, in wanting a closer look, Shcherbina threatens to have the pilot (Laurence Spellman) shot if he doesn’t fly over reactor! Legasov boldly oversteps the threat, telling the pilot: “If you fly directly over that core, I promise you, by tomorrow morning you’ll be begging for that bullet.”

Photo Credit: HBO

Taking action

At the Belorussian Communist Party headquarters, Ulana meets deputy secretary Garanin (Victor McGuire). He initially resists her information, which prompts her to say, “I’m a nuclear physicist. Before you were deputy secretary you worked in a shoe factory.” On her way out, she gives his aid (Alison Pargeter) iodine tablets, advising her to get as far from Minsk as she can. The downplaying continues for Legasov, too.

Chernobyl manager Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) dismisses Legasov as “saying dangerous things,” and discredits him for not explaining how the RBMK core exploded. Bryukhanov even calls it disgraceful.

However, the supposedly disgraced Legasov gets his high range dosimeters.  It’s quickly assessed that, as they put men in vehicles for their plan, some lead shielding may not be enough. General Pikalov says the dosimeter readings are at 15,000 roentgen, which is obviously far higher than 3!

To emphasize what that means, Legasov says the fire’s giving off nearly twice the radiation released by Hiroshima bomb. He adds that it’s not a normal fire. If you try to put it out with water, heat will instantly vaporize it. He emphasizes, “You are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before.”

As a tentative plan, he suggests using 5,000 tons of sand and boron and evacuating the city of Pripyat. Later, at a bar, a local woman (Cait Davis) asks Leghasov if there’s anything to worry about. Legasov lies to her, simply saying “No.” It may be a pivotal moment for the character, but one easily understands why he told her that.

30-36 hours after the explosion

By this point, even Shcherbina seems to see the gravity of the situation. He was seemingly moved by the problems faced by children. So, this time at least, he actually orders helicopters to not fly directly over the core. Still, one gets too close and crashes. As this plan is enacted, Ulana calls Marina (Lucy Russell), and they speak in code to verify the boron drop (presumably to avoid detection by Soviet officials). However, we soon learn government secrecy isn’t working anyway. Germans are already reluctant to let their children play outside!

Ulana soon meets Boris and Legasov by getting arrested and tells them that sand and boron is a mistake. Legasov initially didn’t know that water was gushing into Chernobyl’s structure the whole time. What does that mean? Well, as Legasov explains before Gorbachev and crew: The temperature will rise because of the sand, and the uranium will melt the sand, creating lava. Then, when the lava enters the water tanks, it is certain to cause a thermal explosion, destroying everything within 30 kilometers (approximately 18.64 miles). Oops!

Brave volunteers

In order to avoid mass devastation, cancer, and birth defects, someone must pump water from these tanks. They need three workers to get through to the “sluice gate” valve to pump them out. The major downside to this challenge? The three men will likely die in a week. In an actual inspiring moment from Boris Shcherbina, he explains to a disgruntled plant employee (Joe Tucker) that, “If you don’t do this, millions will die.” While one can understand asking “What’s in it for us?” there really is more at stake here than one person’s benefit.

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At this point, it ceases being an ideological matter, but one of decency and bravery. While not everyone can rise to that challenge, Ananenko (Baltasar Breki Samper), Bezpalov (Philip Barantini) and Baranov (Oscar Dyekjær Giese) volunteer. Little time is wasted in getting them to the plant. As they traverse the waters, their dosimeters going off like crazy. Ominously, their flashlight goes out.

What are your thoughts on this episode, and Chernobyl (the show, and/or the actual disaster)? Let us know in the comments!