'Chernobyl' episode 2 review: 'Please Remain Calm' lays bare the devastating human cost of the nuclear disaster
The second episode of HBO's expertly-constructed miniseries shines a sharp focus on the very real human impact of the disaster
As far as series openers go, Craig Mazin's and Johan Renck's 'Chernobyl,' "the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history," is nothing short of a masterpiece. The duo managed to successfully bottle and capture all the pain, shock, bravery, and hope that marked a disaster whose after-effects and impact are still felt today.
Even more impressive is how the show makers maintained suspense in narrating an event which has been extensively covered and studied over the last three decades. You know you're about to witness a car crash that will effectively doom thousands of people, and you can't help but watch in horror. It was an appeal to a side of us we like to lock away and pretend doesn't exist, and boy, did it work.
While episode 1 covered, in part, the preventable errors that saw reactor number four plunge unthinkable amounts of radioactive smoke and dust into the atmosphere, episode 2, 'Please Remain Calm,' sees the HBO miniseries delve into the casualties and the criminal mismanagement that practically doomed several to their death.
It's undoubtedly difficult to depict the heartbreaking scope of a disaster that affected so many, but the second episode does an excellent job via the chaos and panic ensuing in the lone hospital that has to bear the brunt of the flood of patients being wheeled in every other second.
It's through the hundreds of glazed eyes that it becomes apparent the fire at the plant is not your run-of-the-mill one. And as the camera pans through the packed halls crowded with the unsuspecting victims of what will soon be classified as the worst nuclear disaster in human history, that sense of existential dread creeping up on you is undeniable.
In the pandemonium, it's Jessie Buckey's Lyudmilla Ignatenko who best sums up the human cost of what seemed like such an inconspicuous accident. As she desperately makes her way through the corridors in search of her fireman husband (Adam Nagaitis' Vasily Ignatenko), she has little choice but to ignore the wailing cries of help from a neighbor who begs for her to take his infant daughter and protect her. It's heartbreaking, and though you understand why, it does little to make you feel better.
Mazin and Renck seem to have mastered the art of delivering those gut-wrenching punches when you least expect them, sprinkling in one moment of pure emotional turmoil on top of the other and crafting this grotesque psychological arrow that just pierces through.
Episode 2 also sees the introduction of Emily Watson's Ulyana Khomyuk, the fictionalized composite character who plays a scientist from the Belarus Institute of Nuclear Energy and becomes the member of the team investigating the disaster, and a continued back-and-forth between Jared Harris' Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgård's Boris Shcherbina.
The trio forms the primary vessel through which Mazin and Renck begin putting into perspective the extent of the disaster, with their interactions with one another, and with the scientists in charge of reactor no. 4 drilling home the fact that it wasn't just Ukraine, but the entirety of Europe at risk.
These also bring to the fore a part of the ordeal that just isn't discussed enough: the malicious incompetence by those in charge. It's humanity's worst on display, and the palpable disgust you feel as protective measures are delayed because they keep running into political and bureaucratic obstruction is something that is certainly going to be a common theme as we get into the last three episodes.
The air of incredulity and indignance emanating from Harris at the authority figures who refused to accept the seriousness of what was at stake because their proverbial head was on the line was something to behold as well. His gravitas and narration hold 'Chernobyl' together, and because he went criminally underappreciated in AMC's 'The Terror,' it would be an injustice to not give him the credit he deserves this time around as well.
The end of 'Please Remain Calm' is in stark contrast to the rest of the episode, highlighting the epitome of human sacrifice and unselfishness in the form of three power plant workers who volunteer for what is essentially a suicide mission. Coming at a time when you think you're about to drown in the despair, melancholy, and arching overtones of doom, the moment encapsulates a personal favorite saying: "The darkest hour is just before the dawn."