“Please Remain Calm” weighs the cost of human life in the wake of an unprecedented disaster to riveting effect.
This Chernobyl Episode 2 recap for the episode titled “Please Remain Calm” contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
At its irradiated core, HBO’s harrowing and exquisitely-crafted miniseries Chernobyl is about the age-old battle between ignorance and intelligence. But the show’s ignorance is compelling; an ugly outgrowth of fractious Cold War politicking, where being a world superpower is about presenting a curated truth to the world, and power is only found in the perception of power from the outside looking in.
Whereas the stellar premiere episode showcased an escalating series of preventable but ultimately accidental errors, “Please Remain Calm” hones in on the tragic mismanagement of the disaster, as severely irradiated victims flood the nearest hospital and a toxic, deadly cloud of poison threats to engulf most of the continent.
It’s a testament to the show’s quality that it can make lectures on nuclear fission and boardroom arguments just as compelling as death and destruction. But it does so by ensuring we understand the potential consequences of downplaying or ignoring the effects of the accident. Valery Legasov puts nuclear physics into layman’s terms for the benefit of Boris Shcherbina by doing the same thing the show does overall: Focusing on the human component. How many people are going to die? How will they die? When?
These questions are deeply compelling, partly because of the show’s strong basis in fact, but also thanks to how oppositional it seems to Party doublespeak and bureaucratic obstruction. Jared Harris is a standout here as he was in the first episode, and Stellan Skarsgård’s gradual understanding of the severity works well, but the surprise highlight of “Please Remain Calm” is Emily Watson’s Ulyana Khomyuk, a scientist from the Belarus Institute of Nuclear Energy, and a refreshingly no-holds-barred truth-teller who helps to get the point across to recalcitrant party officials. Her incredulity and Harris’s are also ours, and help to form the backbone of a show that is rightfully indignant in its approach.
There is lots of dry scientific babble in “Please Remain Calm”, none of which is boring, but it saves its most effective sequence until the very end, when three plant workers, motivated by a nationalistic speech from Shcherbina, volunteer for a suicide mission. It’s a fitting, humanistic note on which to end an episode that relished the delivery of facts and figures, and was emblematic of Chernobyl‘s already stellar achievements in weighing the human cost of the worst nuclear disaster in human history.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.