“1:23:45” gets HBO’s new miniseries off to a harrowing start, as the denial and diversions begin to have enduring consequences.
This Chernobyl Episode 1 recap for the episode titled “1:23:45” contains spoilers.
In the decades since it occurred, the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has been blamed by the West on the Soviet Union, by Russia on human error, and by certain well-meaning anti-nuclear organizations on the perils of nuclear power in general, all of which are defensible positions. But HBO’s new five-part miniseries concerns itself primarily with Soviet denialism, and the wide-ranging political cover-up which led to a disaster of such unprecedented scale in the first place and continues to deny its legacy even today.
The series, at least based on its premiere episode “1:23:45”, is more of an autopsy than a work of narrative; a dour trudge through the irradiated wreckage of a human-scale accident that metastasized, cancer-like, into an almost continental calamity. It is deeply unpleasant, sapped of color and humor and even in many instances personality, and not the kind of television that is enjoyed in the traditional sense of the term. But it’s the kind of television that unpacks the complex and sobering circumstances which can lead to such a colossal meltdown, putting people, fatally poisoned by radiation, in a slowly-unfolding apocalypse of their own making.
And it is, of course, of our own making, which is what’s terrifying about nuclear power as a kind of nebulous contemporary bogeyman, not entirely dissimilar from something like Skynet; born of our own hubris and ambition, with the potential to save or destroy us on a whim. What separates a nuclear disaster from a natural one is that it can’t be blamed on the machinations of a judgemental deity or the capriciousness of Mother Nature; it’s a man-made, Godless thing, nobody’s responsibility but ours. That miserable undercurrent of culpability is what immediately defines Chernobyl in “1:23:45”.
A generally accepted theory holds that any sufficiently complex system — say, a nuclear power plant — will create such a random combination of circumstances that eventually an unanticipated failure of some kind must occur. But that inevitability overlooks the human perspective that Chernobyl is clearly interested in exploring, and is anyway besides the point of how a culture with a vested interest in a system working can contribute to the cause and cost of that same system breaking down.
Thus, Chernobyl concerns Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a scientist, and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), a party official, conducting an investigation at the behest of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), all trying to convince themselves, each other and the world of who’s to blame. “1:23:45” introduces each component gradually, like an early scene’s depiction of the disaster, which begins with a pinprick of light on the horizon that gradually expands to building-shaking proportions. The perspective is clear; we see human error through a human eye, but its ramifications ripple through the earth itself.