"The Truth Isn't A Game:" Chernobyl Creator Craig Mazin On What The Year's Most Powerful Show Can Teach Us
Turns out the HBO epic show featuring a powerful parable about climate change was never Game of Thrones and its threat of White Walkers.
It was actually Chernobyl, a five-episode mini-series about the 1986 disaster about the meltdown at the nuclear reactor in Soviet Ukraine. Chernobyl is a feat of monumental storytelling. The show has been praised by residents of the former USSR for its granular attention to detail, and for contextualising the disaster and its aftermath within the Soviet mentality.
From this highly specific lens comes universal takeaways, applicable to people living under any regime — including the US in the year 2019. As scientist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) reveals during his trial testimony in the finale, the disaster unfolded because of a fundamental design flaw. Chernobyl wasn't simply the result of human error, as Soviet officials had claimed. When placed against the charred skin of radiation victims, of the widespread cases of cancer, and thousands of lives uprooted — essentially, the truth of the incident — the official narrative crumbles. Essentially, the truth doesn't care about the lie you've made to contain it. The truth is the truth.
Back in April, we spoke to creator Craig Mazin about what Chernobyl can teach us today. Here's what he had to say.
Refinery29: This is a show about government, about people in power. About the truth. What do you hope that audiences take away from Chernobyl?
Craig Mazin: “The big lesson of Chernobyl is that you can tell yourself any story that you want. You can pretend that that truth is malleable. You can use it as a toy. But the truth doesn’t care. The truth will do what it does. What I want people to think about after seeing Chernobyl is what the cost is of going along with stories. With the stories that we’re told on either side of the ideological line. There is a cost. And what if someone says something that doesn’t fit your story? Do you change it to fit your story, or do change your story to include it?
“We can tell ourselves stories about how climate change isn’t real. The climate doesn’t care. The floods don’t care. The winds don’t care. The ocean doesn’t care. The winds don’t care. It’ll keep doing what it does. The nuclear reactor in Chernobyl didn’t care that the Soviets insisted it was flawless. It just did what it does. I want people to start to come to grips with that. The truth isn’t a game. We don’t have control over it. We have to learn how to think critically and allow ourselves to change our minds to incorporate the truth.”
"He’s not capable of learning any lessons, unfortunately."
What interested you in the story of Chernobyl?
“I don’t know. It’s one of those things. You read a story and feel connected to it in a way you can’t quite explain. It may be because I am a scientist at heart — I was pre-med at college. There’s something about the science of Chernobyl that is remarkable to me. It may because my own family line traces back to Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. This was the sky that was my over my great-great-grandparents’ heads. But I think maybe it’s because it’s a story of a kind of heroism that you sometimes wonder — is it real? Does it even exist? The answer is yep, it does. Example after example.”
Right, Avengers: Endgame has one kind of superhero. Chernobyl has naked miners!
“They’re hero heroes. Take way everything. You have no superpower. You have no special talent. You’re a miner. You don’t even have your clothes because it’s too hot. That is heroism. The heroism of knowing that you’re putting your life in danger, and it has to be done because you are honour-bound to your fellow man and woman. It’s beautiful and true and I wanted people to know it.
The actual events of Chernobyl were shrouded in so much state secrecy. Why did you want to take it upon yourself to tell the real story of what happened?
“When I started reading about Chernobyl, I just saw all of these human beings who were in it because they had to be there because they were sent there, because they were married to people who were there, because their children were there. People had experiences that I found shocking and remarkable, but their stories hadn’t been told on screen.
"I wanted people to know their names. And if they didn’t have names because their names weren’t part of the record, I wanted people to see it and witness it. I wanted people to know, especially in the West, where I think we have tendency to view the citizens of the Soviet Union as a grey mass of shuffling prisoners that in fact these were people who were so much more like us than we ever knew. Going through this remarkable tragedy to save the people they loved and the land the love but to also save the rest of Europe. To save a lot of people on the other side of this so-called Iron Curtain. Because radiation doesn’t care what your borders are. It doesn’t care about your stupid wall.”
The whole idea of national borders is eradicated once radiation comes into the picture.
“Yes, there’s a plume of smoke that billows out from an open nuclear reactor. That smoke goes where it wants to go. It does not have a passport. It travels from Ukraine, to Belarus, to Lithuania, to Sweden. It travels to Germany, to the United Kingdom to Ireland, the rest of Scandinavia. It does what it wants to do. Everybody under that cloud has the same human stuff that this radiation can affect. It seems to me that sometimes only these tragedies remind us of what we share, which is this humanity.”
As you said, this is a different depiction of the USSR than we’ve gotten before. How did you create the context that is so essential to how the Chernobyl disaster unfolded?
"Getting the details right and not falling prey to caricature was one of the ways we showed respect to the people who lived through it. Little things are important things. Here’s an example. There’s a shot where one of our characters, Dyatlov, is walking in the morning to work. He’s bringing his lunch. I wrote that he had a little paper bag for his lunch. Someone comes up to me and says, ‘We actually didn’t do that for lunch. We’d put our lunch in a briefcase.’ I was like well, okay – but that’s a little strange for an American audience, because that’s more what a lawyer or businessman would use, and Dyatlov is more blue collar. I didn't want to be confuse them. Later on, someone came up to me and said, ‘By the way, I don’t know if someone mentioned it to you but we never used a paper bag, we used a briefcase.’ A third person said, ‘So and so wanted you to know that his father used to walk to work with a briefcase.’ And I was like, OK — I get it, it’s a briefcase."
“We also wanted to show how real their lives were. Pripyat, the city next to Chernobyl, was considered a Shangri-La of sorts. It was a privileged place to live. They called them atom towns, cities that grew up to service and support a plant. If you were lucky enough to live in an atomgrad, your stores were full. you had things like swimming pools and basketball courts. There were roses everywhere. It was beautiful. People were happy. But we make you wait until the final episode see that. We want you to know what happens to these people before we show you how happy they were.”