Chernobyl season 1, episode 3 recap: Open Wide, O Earth


Episode 3 of HBO’s Chernobyl puts Legasov’s creativity to the test, and has miners sacrifice their lives to prevent total contamination of Pripyat River.

In the last episode of Chernobyl, plant workers Ananenko (Baltasar Breki Samper), Bezpalov (Philip Barantini) and Baranov (Oscar Dyekjær Giese) volunteered to locate and turn the “sluice gate” valve to pump water from some of the nuclear plant’s tanks. Now they are sloshing through darkened waters, dosimeters clicking and using less than trustworthy flashlights. Thankfully they manage to turn the valve, but the crisis is not over.

In fact, part of the problem is whether Russians can adequately address the problem. When Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) shows up to see her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), she gets a pass after bribing the desk person. Then, when she meets him, she does not receive proper protection. Meanwhile, Soviet nuclear strategist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is critical of evacuation procedure. Due to a spike in zirconium-95, meltdown has begun, which means things are getting worse.

May 2, 1986

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Soon, Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) calls Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik). Unfortunately, the news isn’t good. The situation in the core is deteriorating and a full meltdown would ruin the Pripyat River. The solution? They must get all liquid nitrogen in the Soviet Union. Shortly after that, Shcherbina takes a walk with Legasov. At first it seems like an argument will ensue, but Shcherbina shows his human side, asking Legasov what will happen to those exposed to radiation.

Legasov says it tears our cellular structures apart. Even after it seems some may recover, the damage can manifest later. Bone marrow dies, there will be organ and tissue decomposition, and “arteries and veins spill open like sieves.” Indeed, Chernobyl gives a good glimpse into what this looks and feels like, and it isn’t pretty. Two things also become clear: (1) Legasov and Shcherbina may themselves get cancer or other fatal affects; (2) They are being watched by the government.

Inquiry and sacrifice

CHORNOBYL’, UKRAINE – AUGUST 19: A visitor looks at a monument to firefighters who responded to the 1986 reactor explosion not far from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017 in Chornobyl, Ukraine. On April 26, 1986 reactor number four exploded after a safety test went wrong, spreading radiation over thousands of square kilometers in different directions. The nearby town of Pripyat, which had a population of approxiamtely 40,000 and housed the plant workers and their families, was evacuated and has been abandoned ever since. Today tourists often visit the town on specially-organized tours from Kiev. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Legasov meets with Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character played by Emily Watson). Like others, she questions that the core explosion was even possible. In her quest for truth, Khomyuk first meets the hospitalized Chernobyl engineer Anatoly Diatlov (Paul Ritter), who refuses to talk. Meanwhile, Coal Minister Mikhail Shchadov (Michael Colgan) meets with Andrei Glukhov (Alex Ferns), a mining crew chief. At first Glukhov resists his marching orders, saying “We don’t leave unless we know why.” They’re told about their need to prevent disastrous pollution of the Pripyat River.

The miners agree to the mission, but all pat Shchadov’s suit as they walk past, dirtying it with coal.
Their task is to help install a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger underneath a concrete pad. It must be accessible from underground. If that’s not enough, they can’t use heavy machinery and must dig by hand! Given the limited time they have, Glukhov wisely insists they begin immediately. It’s pretty hellish digging in the mines, especially when officials deny Glukhov’s request for fans (as they would re-circulate toxic dust). Eventually, miners work with little to no clothing, just to avoid the heat!

May 6, 1986

Khomyuk next talks to Senior Engineer Toptunov (Robert Emms), whose nose bleeds as he speaks. She asks him why there wasn’t an emergency shutdown immediately after disaster struck. Toptunov insists that they did press the emergency button, as does Supervisor Aleksandr Akimov (Sam Troughton). After done questioning these two, she is arrested after threatening to publicize that Mrs. Ignatenko — who is pregnant — was in the hospital with no protective gear!

Drastic action

In another meeting, Legasov details problems of radioactive debris, and how evacuation needs to occur. Also, because everything will have radionuclides, they will have to kill many animals, raze forests and build a containment structure around the exposed core itself. He emphasizes that thousands will die. Shortly after this, Legasov confronts KGB Chairman Viktor Charkov (Alan Williams) about Khomyuk’s arrest. Charkov agrees to free her, emphasizing the Russian philosophy of “Trust but verify.”

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Khomyuk herself verifies that Toptunov and Akimov did everything right, so the mystery remains;  What caused the Chernobyl core explosion?  Meanwhile, as the miners dig, Mrs. Ignatenko attends her husband’s funeral, where his lead coffin is buried under cement in a mass grave of other first responders.

What are your thoughts on Chernobyl? Let us know in the comments!