Chernobyl season 1, episode 4 recap: The Happiness of All Mankind


Episode 4 of HBO’s Chernobyl delves into the bleakest details of a nuclear disaster that challenged humanity, secrecy and international relations.

Chernobyl has been a harrowing show so far, but episode 4 looks at some of the bleakest aspects of life after the disaster. It becomes with an elderly woman (June Watson) milking a cow on her farm. When a soldier (Josef Altin) shows up ordering her to evacuate, she insists she won’t leave. She goes over the history of her being told to leave her humble home, and trash talks Soviet policies in the process. Running out of patience, the soldier spills her milk bucket. When she proceeds to re-milk the cow, the soldier shoots it. It leads to a basic and challenging question: When an evacuation order comes, what if people disobey?

August 1986, 4 months after explosion

Pripyat is technically at the center of the disaster, but Chernobyl opened an international can of worms. When a crisis like this occurs, it is never completely localized. Now they seek moon rovers for the unique task of clearing debris so they can construct a structure to contain the nuclear reactor. At first, General Tarakanov (Ralph Ineson) doesn’t know what to do, despite Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) wanting his expertise. Ultimately, the settle on the idea of using a West German police robot. While these are all grave technical questions, at one point Legsaov smiles, which Shcherbina is not used to seeing.

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Speaking of technical matters, we see chief engineer Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) discuss “void coefficients” and how they having nothing to do with “az-5.” While this may go over many people’s heads, it is reasonably well explained further down the line.

A-hunting they will go

Meanwhile, Chernobyl offers up a bleak task faced by the government: Animal liquidation. A young, newly recruited soldier, Pavel (Barry Keoghan), is trained by Bacho (Fares Fares) in the ways of killing Pripyat’s pets. Along with Garo (Alex Manvelov), they must meet this grim task as professionally as possible. However, Bacho threatens to kill Pavel if he lets animals suffer. However, Pavel falters as a door-to-door animal liquidator, being too scared to finish off a dog he wounded. Rather than actually kill Pavel, Bacho cuts him slack, relating that no one has an easy first day. Bacho then tells a war story, suggesting it’s not as glorious as propagandists make it sound. If you shoot someone in the stomach, that’s all it necessarily is. Garo remarks on a banner which, in Russian, discusses “the happiness of all mankind.”

Nature itself is no less cruel, were the pets left to their own devices. Bacho says that, when the dogs run out of chickens, they will inevitably resort to eating each other. At the end of the sequence, the animals are buried in a mass grave and sealed under concrete. Some people understandaby find the scenes upsetting — especially when the deaths stem from human error and judgment — but they emphasize that a disaster’s not for the faint of heart. One way or another, a disaster will involve some bleak moments. Chernobyl does not shy away from this reality.

September-October of 1986

“Joker,” the West German police robot, arrives to clear debris from Chernobyl’s roofs. Unfortunately, though, the vehicle dies very quickly, making their efforts look like a joke. Scherbina is definitely not happy about this! If they can’t use a robot, how will they clear the debris? Alternatives are proposed, such as pouring lead over the exposed nuclear reactor. Legasov comes to the unsatisfying conclusion: They will need to use “bio-robots,” or men. This is also a harrowing scene, as various workers remove rocks from the roof in 90 second shifts, hoping they don’t get exposed to radiation! Much like the miners of the previous episode, these people would be undeniably brave and self-sacrificing. )

Pripyat, December of 1986

It’s revealed that Chernobyl plant leaders, Dyatlov, Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) are to face trial. Are they guilty? Ulana suggests “They’re guilty of incompetence and recklessness, but not necessarily the explosion.” Earlier, Ulana sought an article from a library, only to find 2 pages removed (containing classified information). Fortunately, Legasov has a good idea of what information they contained. He says that, in 1975 in Leningrad, a fuel channel ruptured, and that it was investigated.

It was learned that an RBMK reactor at low power is unstable. If boron control rods are completely withdrawn from a reactor and put back in, some graphite enters the core. Specifically, the control rods have graphite tips which increase reactivity. He says the flaw will not lead to an explosion unless the reactor’s at the edge of disaster. Apparently that was the case with Chernobyl. Interestingly, though, this (apparently) clashes with the series’ previous rhetoric of such an explosion being “impossible.” In fact, a layman wonders why such a word would be bandied about so freely. If nothing else, couldn’t such a disaster result from a terrorist attack, or some such thing? Based on that possibility alone, a core explosion hardly seems impossible (even if highly improbable).

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In any case, Ulana says they need to fix other reactors and proposes publicly revealing as many details as possible.  Shcherbina doesn’t like the idea, suggesting it would “humiliate a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated.” Aside from being one of Chernobyl‘s best, most hard-hitting lines about the ultra-sensitive nature of ultra-nationalism, it is also a serious tactical consideration. Although Ulana is a fictional, composite character, such debates no doubt were had internally about how much inside information should be kept inside, and how much would leave the Soviet Union vulnerable to its perceived enemies. Finally, we see that the population is most vulnerable, as Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) has lost her baby due to radiation poisoning. It, too is a sad moment, and a sad end to a powerful episode.

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