Fact vs Fiction : HBO's 'Chernobyl' Episode 4
Episode 4 begins with the sounds of liquid hitting metal, and opens on an old woman milking a cow and refusing to leave when told of the dangers of encroaching radioactivity. Many villagers resident in the area around what became known as the ‘Red Forest’ did refuse to leave as they did not believe in the danger of invisible radiation, and many of those that refused to leave were later found dead.
Description cards in this episode shift to describing the area surrounding the reactor and Pripyat as the ‘Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’, and the ground radiation surveys seen are being carried out to map out the zone, to determine safe boundaries. At this point in the episode, several parallel plot threads commence.
Environmental reclamation efforts are shown in the rural area around the plant : topsoil is dug up by bulldozers and buried, chemical solutions designed to trap radioactive particles on the ground are deployed from helicopters, and similar chemical agents are also deployed from the ground. All of these measures were actually employed to reduce radioactivity in the area as much as possible.
A heavily dramatized part of the episode involves young men being drafted to kill contaminated wildlife, which also actually happened. The amount of time in episode 4 spent here tilts the scale heavily into the drama portion of ‘docudrama’. As a dramatic device however this part of the episode seems to have served its purpose, as Twitter was rife with visceral reactions. In reality, contaminated wildlife were killed and buried along with the contaminated biological matter in the exclusion zone.
Ulana is shown attempting to get more information on the design flaws in the reactor and encountering the ever-present repressive soviet state in doing so. This is done to set her conflict up later in the episode with Legasov, and to show that soviet authorities were aware of design flaws for some time and to perform some exposition on the earlier near-accident at Ignalina. In actuality, Legasov was aware of these faults, and the reactor designer and soviet nuclear regulators were the ones reluctant to make changes.
A large part of the episode focuses on the efforts to remove radioactive debris from the roof of reactor 4 so that further cleanup efforts can be carried out. The names given to the different parts of the roof with different radiation levels are true to life, actually named after Boris Shcherbina’s daughters. Robots were used to clean up some of the debris, and one of them was actually named ‘Joker’. They could not, however, function in some of the high-radiation areas, despite the soviets reaching out for foreign equipment. Legasov mentions a word closely linked with Chernobyl, bio-robots.
At Chernobyl, men clad in lead and other protective gear were dubbed bio-robots and were responsible for removing highly radioactive graphite from the roof and dumping it into the gaping chasm of reactor 4 below. Each man was only able to work for a few minutes on the roof due to the intense radiation levels. Despite some dramatization around the man stumbling and getting stuck under a mound of graphite, this scene is largely accurate to how the liquidation effort was carried out. In particular, General Tarakanov’s speech is almost identical to the one he actually gave, which can be seen in the documentary The Battle Of Chernobyl.
Throughout the episode we see interludes with Lyudmilla which are tragically accurate. In reality, she did go into labour while visiting her husband’s grave, and her child lived for only a short time due to cirrhosis of the liver and a heart defect, caused by the radiation exposure while still in the womb.
At the end of the episode, the efforts to sanitize the roof of reactor 4 succeed, in actuality the liquidators did plant the flag of the Soviet Union on the top of reactor 4 as a symbol of their ‘victory’. We are also set up for a likely plot point in the finale, Legasov will travel to Vienna, home to the International Atomic Energy Agency to delivery a report on the accident to the world. One element seemingly left out of the series is that Hans Blix himself actually visited Chernobyl during the disaster. Discussions are had as to what Legasov will say in his report, in reality what was presented was a sanitized version that focused blame on the operators and deflected it away from both the Soviet nuclear regulators and designers of the reactor.
Also mentioned is one of the last great show trials of the USSR, the trial of Dyatlov, Fomin, and Bryukhanov. As Had Toptunov and Akimov survived they would likely also have been included in this group. The finale may or may not feature this trial, but as above the verdict had already been determined, and its purpose was nothing more than a bit of theatre to reassure the Soviet people that the Communist party had conducted a thorough investigation and those responsible were identified and punished.
Fact or Fiction?
Episode 4 is the most dramatized of the series to date, and viewers looking to learn more about the history of the disaster may be disappointed by some elements of the episode, in particular how much time is spent on the subplot involving finding and killing contaminated animals. It is not so much a fabrication however as it is a bit of filler, which doesn’t impact the overall accuracy of the story told as much as makes the episode feel a bit longer than it should.
The rest of the episode repeats the pattern of Chernobyl in being largely accurate, but leaving out some details, and manufacturing some tension and conflict through the character of Ulana. In many ways Ulana is the audience’s character, asking the same questions someone wanting learn about the disaster might and expressing umbrage of the repressive nature of many elements of life in the Soviet Union. As such her character is within the confines of what would be considered reasonable in a docudrama, and we can again pass a verdict of ‘mostly fact’ on this episode.