Chernobyl season 1 finale recap: Vichnaya Pamya


The finale episode of HBO’s Chernobyl looks at the trial of 3 men, and whether they were guilty of nuclear disaster. It seems at least one man was at fault.

Running a nuclear power plant seems complex. However, Chernobyl makes it look more straightforward than one would think. However, human error and accidents easily place populations in harm’s way. Flashing back to April 24th, 1986, the series has more tranquil scenes and brighter colors than typically shown. However, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), a chief engineer at Chernobyl, doesn’t look very cheerful. Bitter and jaded, he meets with plant manager Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) to discuss some fateful tests.

Moscow, March 1987

Speaking with KGB depity chairman Charkov (Alan Williams), nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) receives praise. Charkov suggests that Legasov’s good at statecraft, even calling him a hero of the Soviet Union. However, Legasov is disatressed that Charkov isn’t taking reforms of RBMK reactors more seriously. However, Charkov insists that the trial is more important. Soon we see Legasov is losing hair, and not likely due to old age. As feared, his exposure to Chernobyl’s radiation may be having ill effects.

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Later he speaks to Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who urges Valery to speak the truth about the disaster, as he’ll be before a jury of their scientific peers. She also suggests that it’s the brave thing to do, and compares it to the firefighters who valiantly went into the Chernobyl site.

City of Chernobul, July 1987

The big trial is underway, with Judge Milan Kadnikov (Hilton McRae) presiding. Bryukhanov, Dyatlov and Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) are accused of causing nuclear catastrophe. Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman, tells the court how a nuclear power plant works, and Ulana and Legasov elaborate on the failings of the three men — with particular emphasis on Dyatlov. The tests were supposed to address the delays in their system during a power outage. Specifically, could the plant’s turbines keep pumps working until the backup generators kicked in?

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On the night in question, the tests were delayed. According to Khomyuk, the test should have been cancelled right then and there, due to a shift change at midnight. It turns out that, among the late shift workers, Toptunov (Robert Emms) and Akimov (Sam Troughton) were unfamiliar with procedure (for example, Toptunov is said to have only worked there for 4 months). Ironically, though, they weren’t the main cause of the problem. All they had to do was follow Dyatlov’s guidance, but his impatience and unclear understanding of procedure led to disaster. As Khomyuk and Legasov explain in court, after shutdown, the engineers should have raised the power again very slowly over a 24-hour period, as opposed to doing so rapidly. To cover his tracks, Dyatlov claims he wasn’t in the room when they raised the power!

A profound recess

While the court’s on recess, there’s a poignant scene outside between Scherbina and Legasov. Scherbina suggests his own life’s been meaningless, and (in so many words) he was merely an expendable asset for his government. However, Legasov suggests he was as competent as possible, even calling him the one good man they could have sent! In other words, Chernobyl presents Scherbina as a human being rather than some Cold War-era caricature. Sure, in the second episode he’s presented as a bitter, old pill. However, the disaster has caused him to question his life, and to reassess what’s important in this world.

The disaster narrative unfolds

Back in court, it’s explained that, for whatever reason, no one near the reactor itself was even informed about the test! Also, Toptunov got a printout from the system’s computer itself, recommending the reactor be shut down, as opposed to messing with its levels. Dyatlov apparently dismissed the printout. Plus, a design flaw (graphite tips) in the control rods served to accelerate reaction, ultimately leading to the explosion. For the layman, Chernobyl tries to show parts of the process, such as control rods and fuel channel caps comically  jumping up and down. However, the ins and outs of the process still aren’t 100% demonstrated.

In any case, Chernobyl provides some fascinating insight into how the disaster occurred. For example, Reactor 4 was designed to operate at 3,200 megawatts, but went above 33,000 on that fateful day! Also, the explosion itself resulted when oxygen combined with hydrogen and super-heated graphite. One may not completely grasp what happened, but Chernobyl at least encourages people to examine these issues more, which makes it not only a compelling drama but an educational one.


Chernobyl suggests that his testimony got him in trouble for suggesting the Soviet Union lied. In fact, in one scene Charkov bars Legasov from even discussing Chernobyl again, adding he will never be able to work under any official capacity in society again. Legasov killed himself in 1988, two years to the day of the disaster. His his tapes were circulated by scientists, and they revealed pressures by Soviet officials to keep nuclear problems secret. In other words, it’s certainly possible that Legasov (and other scientists) faced some threats.

Toward the end credits, Chernobyl also informs viewers that Ulana is actually a composite character, intended to embody the courageous scientists who grappled with Soviet secrecy. It’s not clear how much pressure other scientists were put under, however, as much focus is on her and Legasov. We do learn that Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin were sentences, and that Dyatlov died of radiation poisoning before his term was up. It’s also revealed that 100 of 400 Chernobyl miners had died, after working around the clock for one month in shifts to help install an underground heat exchanger beneath the plant site.

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Near the end credits, we’re told that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev believed Chernobyl symbolized the end of the Soviet Union. In many ways, he may have been right. In fact, almost laughably, it’s shown that the official Soviet Chernobyl death toll since 1987 is listed at 31 — that’s right, 31. You needn’t be paranoid about nuclear power to assume the actual toll is higher than that! Whatever the actual toll, Chernobyl reminds us that disasters do happen, and that, in the march forward to progress, people occasionally step on a landmine.

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