Watching people come to terms with the five episodes of Chernobyl has been a drama all its own. Each week on social media, you can watch viewers struggle between being engrossed by its story and repulsed by its vivid depiction of the horrors of radiation sickness, with the former gradually winning out over the latter. A scrupulously detailed re-creation of life in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, the miniseries, which stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Jessie Buckley, spirals outward from the disaster of April 26, 1986, taking in the investigation into what happened, the massive effort to contain and clean up the damage (including the horrifying use of “biorobots,” human beings who cleaned off the reactor’s roof in 90-second shifts as a hedge against fatal radiation poisoning), and the attempts by the Soviet government to cover it up, even at the expense of hampering the containment and endangering more lives.
Although he’s mostly known as a writer of Hollywood comedies (and as a co-host of the podcast Scriptnotes), Chernobyl finds showrunner Craig Mazin making a smooth transition to both drama and television. The man who had a hand in penning two Scary Movie and The Hangover sequels has built Chernobyl into a slowly unfolding and cumulatively devastating account of how widespread corruption and systematic attacks on the truth can leave a nation vulnerable to calamity—one whose parallels to the United States’ current situation were not apparent when he started writing but that he now embraces.
Slate: It’s been over 20 years since your first screenplay credit, but this is the first time you’ve written a TV series. Among other things, that means you’ve got a week between every episode to absorb how people are reacting to it, while knowing there’s nothing you can to do change what’s coming next. How has that experience been for you?
Craig Mazin: It’s terrifying. It’s more terrifying than it’s ever been before, because you can see it all kind of cascading in real time. I’m not sure I’m going to do it again the same way I did it with this one. I think probably it’s better to not watch it happen. On one hand, I’ve been so gratified and overwhelmed and moved by so many of the responses that I’ve seen. But it’s a lot to process, you know. My brain isn’t really designed to absorb positivity, so it’s been kind of emotionally overwhelming. I’m afraid it’s gonna spoil me, honestly. So I think after the show airs, I’m probably going to take a long, long, long, possibly permanent vacation from social media.
There’s always the “very drunk and very far the from the internet” approach adopted by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
I was actually texting with those guys when they were out there in their hideaway. They watched Episode 3 [of Chernobyl] while they were drunk and hiding away. I love those guys and I think they do have the right idea.
There is a danger: You can get quickly addicted to all this stuff, especially when people are saying lovely things about you. I’m not sure it’s always such a good thing. The parts that have been most heart-filling for me have been the comments from former Soviet citizens. We really tried so hard to show respect to the people that lived through this and the people who suffered from it by getting the details of their lives right. For that I’m really glad, because, you know, if you’re doing this 15 years ago, I guess somebody writes a letter?
You started writing Chernobyl years ago, so you couldn’t have predicted it would come out at a time when Russia would be back in our national conversation in a major way.
Yeah. And a former KGB agent running it. … It’s all very strange to me. The dichotomy is that the Soviet system was terrible, and criminal, and murderous, and oppressive. And the Soviet people were remarkable. What they endured is just astonishing. We’re talking about a nation that lost not more than we did in World War II, but vastly more. Tens of millions of people. Tens of millions.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, teachers just skipped over the USSR’s part in World War II.
We skipped right over it. That’s right. We skipped right over how many people were hurt by the [Russian] Revolution. We skip over the impact of World War I. We skip over World War II. We skip over the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine. But they endure all of it. They endure all of it, only to get Chernobyl. And they still endure. That, I think, is just remarkable. They’re an amazing people. Terrible government. The USSR was a terrible government. But the people were, and still I believe are, wonderful. The question is, can we somehow manage to survive these leaders so that we can be friends?
The last words spoken in Chernobyl are “the cost of lies,” which is also the key phrase in the series’ first scene. What was so important about that idea for you?
Well, we are experiencing something now that I used to think was mostly just a phenomenon in a place like the Soviet Union, which is a disconnection from truth. And the emergence of a cult of personality. And a distrust and debasement of experts who don’t go along with whatever the official narrative is. It’s so upsetting, and we don’t know quite how to handle it. What I want people to consider is that no matter what it is we want to believe, and no matter what story it is we want to jam the world into, the truth is the truth. If you organize your life around some political party’s list of things you should believe, or an individual that you think is going to come and save you, you are disconnecting yourself from truth. And there is a price to pay.
We live on a planet that is under threat, and scientists are warning us, just as they did in the ’70s regarding RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union. Governments are choosing to listen or not listen, and people are choosing to listen or not listen. But the truth, the globe, the thermometer, doesn’t care. And the RBMK didn’t care either. It didn’t matter what they wanted to do that night. It didn’t matter that the fatal flaw of the RBMK reactor was a state secret. The reactor didn’t care. And that’s the problem we struggle with. We are attempting to make ourselves superior to fact, and we are not.
You structure the series so it effectively begins with the accident, and you withhold the details of what led up to it until the fifth episode, which plays out almost like a courtroom drama with flashbacks to that night. What dictated that choice for you?
Well, I think that you can make any point you want to make. But if it is not within the context of human experience, and in this case human suffering, the point will be an intellectual one. The last thing I wanted to do was just make homework. I think if you see how people suffer, then and only then can you hear why. You will be far more interested to know, because you understand that there was a terrible cost. You’ve witnessed it. You’ve experienced it, and you’ve felt it. There’s an amazing movie, I think the best war movie ever made, it’s called Come and See. Soviet film. Made in the Soviet Union. It was about Belarusian and Ukrainian partisans in World War II. The Nazis have invaded and are visiting horrors upon the population, and you experience those things in the most visceral and remarkable way. Only at the very end do you see this portrait of Hitler. It’s the last bit of this incredible movie, this poor, traumatized young man just shooting his gun at a portrait of Hitler, and the portrait is going back in time to younger and younger and younger until it’s just a baby. Baby Hitler. As if to say, only after you see the suffering can you understand or deserve to consider how you got here. I think that’s pretty profound.
Saving the science of why Chernobyl happened for later also deemphasizes the role of nuclear power itself. By then we’ve seen four episodes of Soviet bureaucracy in action, failing to reckon with the crisis and covering up its severity. The reactor’s design was severely flawed, but you don’t convey the sense that nuclear power is in and of itself unsafe.
There was a lot of chatter in the months and weeks leading up to the airing of Chernobyl, a lot of what I consider reactionary garbage from people who are, like me, pro-nuclear, but zealously so, and any time you enter into zealotry, you lose me. There were some really dumb articles written up. You know, It’s obvious this show is gonna show three-headed babies, and spread lies, and tell people that nuclear power is horrendous, and no, it’s not. That reactor was built nowhere else in the world except the Soviet Union. Nobody else would dare build that reactor. It was a horrendous design. It had no containment building. And people were not properly trained. And there wasn’t a safety culture. For a million reasons, this was not an anti-nuclear polemic. It’s anti–Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro–human being. But anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, is just, they’ve just missed it.
Similarly, anybody who thinks the point of this is that whatever the kind of right-wing counterbalance to communism is, this is proof that everyone should be on the far right … no, you’ve totally missed it. And there’s been a bit of that. I’m just like, “Oh no, no, I don’t like you, and I don’t like what you’re saying about my show, even though you’re praising it.” It’s not about left or right. It’s about humans, and the mistakes that humans make. We are, all of us, subject to that, because we are, all of us, human, and imperfect.
In the opening scene, which is set two years after Chernobyl, Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov warns us that Anatoly Dyatlov, who was the plant’s chief engineer, will be made a scapegoat. The fifth episode shows us he was, in fact, substantially to blame. But we know by then there were flaws in the reactor he wasn’t told about, and other points of failure all along the chain of command. It wasn’t just one person.
There is this temptation to try and get a quick, simple, clear answer to why this thing happened, and people love a villain. They want to say, “You know what happened here? That guy did this thing,” and “How dare he,” and “Nobody be like that guy.” It’s a lot more difficult to approach it from the standpoint of how these things actually happen, which is a collection of people and a collection of institutions over a long amount of time working in concert in an inefficient or inaccurate or cowardly way. And the result, one day, is an explosion. Chernobyl happened in April of 1986. A few months earlier, in January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded. It did not have the impact on the environment and the amount of lives that Chernobyl did, but it was the result of the same exact problem: a failure of a lot of people and institutions over a long period of time. That is something that we have to wrap our minds around. When these things happen, we cannot immediately ask this simple question, “Well, who is to blame?” We should presume that there’s a lot to blame, and the real question is “What do we do so this doesn’t happen again?” That’s the question worth asking.
Legasov says the “cost of lies” isn’t just that we don’t know the truth, but we lose the ability to determine what truth is—and in the absence of truth, “what we content ourselves with is stories.” You’re a screenwriter. You tell stories. And one of the reasons those simplistic explanations take hold is because they’re conventionally dramatic and easy to grab onto. How do you not fall into the same trap yourself?
This was on my mind from the start. As far as I was concerned, since you are compressing two years of history into five hours, you know you’re going to have to tell a story. So we had some things that we knew from the start. One, that we were only going to change things if it was necessary to actually convey the story. I can’t have a fifth episode where characters we’ve never met and don’t care about are delivering a description of what happened in the reactor that night. I need my characters to do it because that’s whom people were following and so that’s a concession I have to make, just to practicality. But never make a change in order to make something more dramatic, more dangerous, more sensational, more shocking.
And lastly, and most importantly, I said to HBO and Sky well before we started shooting that I wanted to do a podcast that would go along with the show in which I would hold myself accountable for the things we change. You can’t present everything perfectly through narrative, but you can acknowledge it, and talk about it. I don’t think it undermines the narrative at all. I think a lot of people think it might. but to me it doesn’t. It makes it more interesting. It holds me accountable to the very same notion I’m putting forward, which is: Story is cool, but it’s not the full picture.
I don’t mean to say that narrative is toxin. I think that narrative has become weaponized. Narrative is a beautiful thing. It’s how you understand the world, it’s how we relate to each other, and it’s how we organize our own memories. It’s how we organize our understanding of the past of our species …
The problem is when we weaponize it. I see it in politics now: Nobody can run for president without having a story. The Soviets were masters of weaponized narration. And interestingly, they appear to have continued that tradition. The KGB is gone, but the FSB is here.
It wasn’t the first time narrative was used in American politics, but it felt like a turning point when they used the 1992 convention to brand Bill Clinton as “the Man From Hope,” using a film created by veterans of network TV.
And that’s where I just went, “Uh-oh.” Because that’s not correct. We’re now selling a story. I’m a politically moderate guy. I’ve voted for Republicans, I’ve voted for Democrats, and, lately, I’m struggling, because of the amount of narrative that’s poured on things. One of the reasons I think Hillary Clinton struggled—and I supported Hillary Clinton—was that she didn’t have this narrative that apparently everybody needs. She was just smart and wanted to do things. This is what I worry about, this need for narrative uber alles.
Even in terms of conventional forms—movies, TV, etc.—there’s more now than any person can process. It feels like our reptile brains just aren’t equipped to process this many stories at once.
That’s right. So we don’t. We just get the highlights. And sooner or later what we consider to be the highlights will be called “too long, didn’t read” by other people, and they’ll get highlights of highlights. Even these terrible things that happen, it seems like a week later it’s just forgotten. It’s not that it’s not important. It’s terribly important. Our minds simply cannot hold it all, and so people who make money off of narratives are just compressing it down and down and down into tinier and tinier pellets. Maybe that’s why people are enjoying something like this experience, because we took the time it needed.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.