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Recap / Chernobyl S1E5 "Vichnaya Pamyat"

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What is the cost of lies?

The fifth and final episode of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.

Legasov, Shcherbina, and Khomyuk testify at the trial for the Chernobyl managers, where their testimonies are intercut with flashbacks showing the buildup to the explosion.


Preceded by "The Happiness of All Mankind".

Tropes:

  • Accidental Truth: Dyatlov calls Legasov a liar during the trial in a futile attempt to deflect fault from himself. As it turns out, Legasov has lied at Vienna (and for years before Chernobyl) by order of the KGB.
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  • An Aesop: Legasov delivers the show's thesis statement during the trial:
    Legasov: When the truth offends, we lie and lie, until we can no longer remember it is ever there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.
  • All for Nothing: Subverted. Shcherbina, now diagnosed with terminal cancer, muses to Legasov how he has spent his entire life working for the government only to be sent to certain death in the end. He laments that he is an "inconsequential man" whose life was wasted in the pursuit of self-importance. Legasov rebuffs him, pointing out that no one else could have directed the clean up, rallied the troops, or acquired all the resources that made the operation possible as well as Shcherbina. Far from it, Shcherbina's actions ended being just as important, if not more so, than any of the scientists or workers. He really did matter in the end.
    Legasov: There are other scientists like me. Any one of them could have done what I did. But you . . . everything we asked for, everything we needed; men, material, lunar rovers. Who else could have done these things? They heard me, but they listened to you. Of all the ministers and all the deputies. Entire congregation of obedient fools, they mistakenly sent the one good man. For God's sake Boris, you were the one who mattered the most.
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  • Already the Case: After Legasov reveals the reactors' design flaw, the judge presiding over the trial warns him that by accusing the state of such a grave error he is "treading on dangerous" ground. Legasov responds, "I've already trod on dangerous ground. We're on dangerous ground right now!" acknowledging that he knows he has already said too much and reminding the court that the very ground they're on has been lethally contaminated by the consequence of the state's negligence.
  • As You Know:
    • When Legasov is offered a Hero of the Soviet Union award, Charkov feels obligated to say that it's the USSR's highest honor.
    • Later, Charkov mentions how Legasov was a member of the Komsomol, then helpfully tells the audience that the Komsomol is the "Communist Youth".
  • Audience Murmurs: There are several times during the trial when the scientists in attendance are shown reacting to Legasov's testimony. After he reveals that the control rod tips are made of reaction-accelerating graphite, they are shown worriedly murmuring amongst themselves.
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  • Bad Boss: The sheer extent of Dyatlov's downright abuse of his subordinates is revealed in this episode, and their reluctance to work under his supervision suggests it's typical of his behavior. Throughout the preparation for the test he insults and belittles them, begins shouting spontaneously, throws things at them, and threatens to have them blacklisted from work in their fields when they question his orders. It's a wonder the reactor doesn't explode on its own from sheer stress.
  • Bastardly Speech: When bullying his men into carrying out a blatantly unsafe procedure, Dyatlov delivers a little speech about how he has always preached "Safety First".
  • Beyond the Impossible: Perevozchenko sees the 350 kg (771 pound) caps on top of the reactor lid being lifted by sheer steam pressure right before the explosion blasts the 2,000 ton lid 30 meters into the air. Khomyuk refers to this as "see[ing] the impossible."
  • The Big Board: At the trial, Legasov uses blue and red tiles on a shelf to represent the different factors in how a nuclear reaction is controlled.
  • Big Red Button: The AZ-5 button, which was supposed to initiate an emergency shutdown, is depicted as a large red button covered with a safety cover. Due to gross negligence during the safety test procedure and a fatal design flaw in the reactor core rods, instead of shutting the reactor down pressing it causes the core to explode.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The disaster is contained, but at great cost in human life. The surrounding area is an irradiated no-man's land, though life is slowly creeping back into the area. Steps are taken to prevent another such disaster happening again, but Legasov is forced into social isolation for speaking out and commits suicide two years after the disaster, and Shcherbina dies within five years of the disaster, just as predicted. According to the epilogue, The people of Pripyat and the surrounding evacuated areas were able to move on and start new lives, and Lyudmilla even had a son despite being deemed infertile, while Gorbachev believed that the disaster led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Bookends:
    • The series begins and ends with the same line from Legasov's recorded memoirs: "What is the cost of lies?"
    • In the last episode, Legasov finally answers the other Driving Question posed in the first episode: How does an RBMK reactor explode?
  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth: Shcherbina notices a small green caterpillar in the exclusion zone, showing that life has not been completely eradicated, immediately following him talking about his own impending death.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: At the trial, Legasov uses red and blue tiles to illustrate his explanation of how nuclear reactors stay balanced (or, in this case, don't). The red ones represent factors that increase reactivity, while the blue ones are for factors that decrease it. The cards are all labeled, but in Cyrillic like all writing in the show—the creator remarks on the podcast that it doesn't matter because the colors tell the audience all they need to know.
  • Composite Character: The epilogue clarifies that the character Ulana Khomyuk was created to represent the dozens of scientists who assisted Legasov after the disaster.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: We find out at the beginning of the episode that Legasov has explained to the international conference in Vienna how human error contributed to the accident, while concealing the deadly design flaw of the reactors. Just as the Kremlin intended, the conference was satisfied by this confession and praised Legasov as a rare "Soviet scientist who tells the truth".
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Legasov is ultimately willing to say things in court that will endanger his life because he knows he is dying anyway.
  • Courtroom Episode: A large portion of the episode is about the trial.
  • Cutting Corners:
    • As Legasov reveals at the trial, the fatal flaw in RBMK reactors was the result of this.
      Legasov: These [control] rods are made of boron—which reduces reactivity—but not their tips. The tips are made of graphite, which accelerates reactivity.
      Judge: Why?
      Legasov: Why? For the same reason our reactors do not have containment buildings around them, like those in the West. For the same reason we don't use properly enriched fuel in our cores. For the same reason we are the only nation that builds water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient.[beat] It's cheaper.
    • Shcherbina also states that the plant was completed at the end of a fiscal year, so that the manager could get a bonus. Naturally, not all procedures were completed.
  • Derelict Graveyard: As Shcherbina and Legasov are driven to the trial in Chernobyl, they pass by a yard that contains all of the vehicles that were utilized in the cleanup. Cars, trucks, buses, water tankers, APCs, gunships, cargo helicopters, all of them can never be used again because of all the radiation they absorbed.
  • Description Porn: Much of the episode consists of the three protagonists explaining in moment-by-moment detail just how and why the reactor exploded, under the assumption that by now the audience will be sufficiently invested in the mystery to enjoy the description. It's helped along by flashbacks to the events being described.
  • Disaster Dominoes: With their testimonies at the trial, Shcherbina, Khomyuk, and Legasov detail all the factors that went into the accident—human, scientific, and political.
  • Don't Create a Martyr: Legasov isn't killed or punished in a way that would make it obvious he is punished because he has already become famous in the outside world for his testimony in Austria; it would be "embarrassing" and make him a martyr if anything was done to him. Which is exactly what happens after his suicide.
  • Double Meaning: In the flashbacks to the night of the explosion, Dyatlov remarks, "In a few minutes, this will all be over," meaning the test will be finished, but unknowingly foreshadowing the imminent disaster.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Vichnaya Pamyat" (Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal") is an exclamation said at the end of Eastern Orthodox funerals. It stands both for the In Memoriam to the people involved in the disaster at the end of the episode, and for Shcherbina and Legasov's enduring legacy despite the KGB's attempt to unperson them.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The slow-motion shot of the core exploding, tangled mass of graphite rods emerging from the ground, looks like some sort of tentacled monster emerging from the depths.
  • Courtroom Episode: Much of the episode is concerned with the trial of the plant managers.
  • Epic Fail: Naturally, the RBMK reactor safety test on April 26, 1986, counts as one. It was actually the fourth time they'd attempted the test over three years. No one suspected such a simple test could cause such a massive disaster—and it wouldn't have, if everything else hadn't already gone wrong. Shcherbina delivers an epic condemnation of the power plant's management in the trial:
    Shcherbina: The first time they tried it, they failed. The second time they tried it, they failed. The THIRD time they tried it, they failed. The fourth time they tried it . . . was April 26, 1986.
  • Epilogue Letter: The series ends with a passage of Legasov's tape recordings which he left before committing suicide, followed by a Real-Person Epilogue.
  • Ethereal Choir: The music during the Real-Person Epilogue.
  • Failsafe Failure: During the trial, Shcherbina explains that the reactor has three diesel-fuel backup generators to provide power to the pumps in the event that the power to the plant itself is disrupted. However, they take one minute to be brought up to speed, which would have been enough for a nuclear disaster. Such a serious design flaw was what necessitated the safety test in the first place.
  • Flashback: The episode begins with a series of scenes 12 hours before the explosion, showing the plant official scheming about the safety test and Lyudmilla gazing fondly at her husband interacting with their neighbor's baby. During the trial, the witnesses' testimonies are interspersed with further flashback scenes showing the immediate buildup to the disaster.
  • For Want of a Nail: Chernobyl is ready to conduct the safety test during the day shift, whose technicians had been trained to run it. Then a grid controller in Kiev asks them to keep running for an additional ten hours to satisfy evening demand.note  Both Fomin and Dyatlov agree that they can afford a ten hour delay.
  • Foreign Language Title: "Vichnaya Pamyat" is Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal".
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Charkov tells Legasov that his efforts will be hidden from the public and the credit given to other people. While the exact circumstance that leads up to this is fictional, he was indeed largely erased from the story until his death, as a combination of backlash for speaking out against the Soviet government and criticism from other scientists who thought him a Know-Nothing Know-It-All whose decisions like dumping sand and boron on the open reactor just made things worse.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The repeated clanging of the control rod caps which make up the cover of the reactor, as they're forced partially out of their mountings by the rising steam pressure. 350 kg (771 pounds) hunks of metal aren't supposed to just start jumping up and down like that.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: Shcherbina finds a green caterpillar living in Chernobyl one year after the accident, representing the beauty of life and how it will always find a way to survive. Animals in the Exclusion zone aren't too different save for a shorter lifespan.
  • I Lied: At the trial, Legasov is asked why his testimony, which featured Brutal Honesty about the reactor's glaring design flaws, contradicts his testimony at Vienna. He bluntly states that the former testimony was a lie.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: At the trial, Boris Shcherbina excuses himself from the courtroom during a coughing fit. Afterwards, his handkerchief is bloodstained, confirming that he has a terminal illness related to radiation exposure from the exclusion zone. Valery is also shown coughing blood while working on his memoirs.
  • Instant Cooldown: Actually inverted. The counter-intuitive control rod design meant that inserting them would mean an instant heat up, followed by the normal cooldown. Turns out, when a reactor that's already having a runaway reaction is exposed to the graphite tips of the control rods, the short amount of accelerated reaction time is all it takes for the point of no return to happen.
  • Inverse Law of Fertility: In the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, Lyudmilla is told that she will never be able to have a child, but this turns out to be wrong (as is Truth in Television).
  • Irony: As Khomyuk lampshades at the start of her testimony:
    Khomyuk: It begin with, of all things, a safety test.
  • It Will Never Catch On: A positive version at the end of the trial. Charkov vows that the truth of Chernobyl will be covered up and Legasov will die forgotten by history, with all his accomplishments attributed to others instead. Legasov's recorded memoirs and suicide exposed the whole mess to the world, making it impossible for the KGB to continue the facade.
  • It Won't Turn Off: The reactor won't turn off even when the shutdown button is pressed—in fact, the faulty control rod design exacerbates the problem from bad but manageable to a true disaster.
  • Just Before the End: The episode opens with a normal day in Pripyat, just twelve hours before the explosion. We see many of the plant workers with their families. Vasily plays with their neighbor's baby. Lyudmilla smiles, knowing that one day that will be them. The sequence is capped off by Dyatlov just strolling by on his way to work.
  • Just Following Orders: Legasov says at the trial that many people were following orders, himself included, of the Central Committee and the KGB to hide the flaw in the RBMK design.
  • Kangaroo Court: Legasov outright says that Dyatlov, Fomin and Bryukhanov will only get a show trial in a conversation he has with Khomyuk.
  • Lecture as Exposition: At trial of Dyatlov, Legasov's testimony starts with a quick rundown of the elements creating the precarious balance at work in a nuclear power plant... and how these changed at the time of the disaster. He is preceded by Shcherbina and Khomyuk giving other details that led to disaster and why Fomin and Bryukhanov are also accountable, not just Dyatlov.
  • Long Last Look: At the end of the last episode when Legasov is taken away in a car by Charkov, he gets a shot of looking at the courtroom he is leaving and the friends he is being taken away from one last time. Shcherbina and Khomyuk get similar shots of looking after the car he is being driven away in.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Dyatlov has a look of shock when Legasov's testimony confirms that his suspicions were right and there was a fatal flaw in AZ-5.
  • Not So Above It All: Charkov reads Legasov's file and notes that, as Communist Party Secretary at the Kurchatov Institute, he limited the promotion of Jewish scientists in order to curry favor with Kremlin officials, showing that he was just as cutthroat as any other Soviet citizen.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: After praising Legasov for his performance in Vienna, Charkov shows the reward that awaits him if he continues to tout the Party line and keep quiet about the design flaw. He will be recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union and promoted to director of the Kurchatov Institute.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • A series of these moments occurs in the control room leading up to the catastrophe—first when the reactor begins losing power without operator intervention, indicating a stall; then when the power begins unexpectedly rising again; then when pressing the SCRAM button results in explosion.
    • Perevozchenko, seconds before the explosion, when he sees the control rod and fuel channel caps jumping up and down on Reactor #4's steel lid (due to the pressure building up inside thanks to the accelerating reaction).
    • It's a subtle one, but Dyatlov when Legasov reveals the flawed control rod design that ensured the reactor's explosion.
  • Ominous Hair Loss: Experienced by Professor Legasov; by this stage, he already knows that he's been exposed to enough radiation to guarantee cancer within a few years of the disaster, but finding a clump of hair in his hand confirms that he's running out of time.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Slavic rather than Latin. "Vichnaya Pamyat"—Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal", played during "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue of the episode. After all, a funeral rite just fits a postmortem.
  • Pillar of Light: A faint blue sky beam emerges from the nuclear power plant once it explodes. It is ionized air that is the first clear indication that the core is now exposed to the exterior.
  • Poor Communication Kills: As Legasov points out, even someone as pig-headed as Dyatlov probably wouldn't have been so reckless if he'd have been told about the crucial design flaw in the reactor control rods.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The Real-Person Epilogue at the end does a pretty good job of hammering home the devastating consequences of the disaster, and the sacrifices and sufferings of the people involved. However, the epilogue does have a few bright spots that prevent it from becoming a Downer Ending. Firstly Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov to the surprise of most people survived the very dangerous mission to open the gate valves. Secondly, Lyudmilla Ignatenko was able to eventually give birth to a son, confounding medical opinion that the radiation exposure had rendered her unable to have children.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: The conditions in Reactor 4 during the safety test create a feedback loop where more and more power is generated with nothing capable of calming it down. The last recorded power output before the reactor blows up is 33,000 megawatts, when it was designed to operate at 3,200 MW.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The very end has this, showing pictures of the real people and places involved while explaining what happened to them.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Legasov does this to the entire Soviet state during his testimony at Dyatlov's trial, stating that the entire reason the Chernobyl explosion happened in the first place was because the workers were not told that the AZ-5 button, which was supposed to serve as a fail-safe during an emergency situation, could actually trigger a disaster; all sixteen of the other existing RBMK reactors have the same design flaw. The Soviet Union lies constantly whenever they're confronted with an unpleasant truth, such as having to admit that the disaster even happened at all, and the only reason that Legasov didn't tell the truth in Vienna was because he was ordered by the authorities to lie.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: As discussed in the ending text, the three divers were rumored and believed by the west to have died as a result of their actions, but they in fact all survived.
  • Sadistic Choice: The night shift of Reactor 4 can either obey Dyatlov's boneheaded orders to put the reactor into meltdown or get themselves banned from ever working again. They choose the former only because they are unaware of how bad things could get.
  • Shame If Something Happened: Dyatlov tells Akimov and Toptunov that if they don't raise the power back up from 30 immediately (against all safety precautions), he will see to it that they never find work in the nuclear industry again.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: After the explosion, we get this from Dyatlov's perspective while Akimov shouts his name.
  • Smoking Gun: Legasov telling everyone about just how faultily designed the reactor was at the very end of the trial, which reveals things to be more complicated than just the operators' incompetence. Justified because he wasn't supposed to say anything about the subject, and that was the point where he decided he would tell the truth after all, before it was too late.
  • Solemn Ending Theme: The theme that plays during the Real-Person Epilogue, and the credit themes (which often are also scary ending themes.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: The episode has Legasov have to give a detailed explanation as to how the explosion happened and the factors leading up to it. Along with his explanation, we're shown what exactly happened in the control room before the explosion and the immediate aftermath shown in Episode 1.
  • Sudden Principled Stand: Legasov is interrupted by Dyatlov, and the frustrated judge declares court adjourned, with all given facts seeming to indicate that the problem was solely operator error. Legasov suddenly interrupts the judge, saying he hadn't finished and had more testimony to give, but he is overruled until Shcherbina himself stands up and commands, "Let him finish," which shocks the whole court into silence and allowing Legasov to reveal the true cause of the disaster and call for a refit of the remaining dangerous reactors.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: Charkov, as he interrogates Legasov at the end.
    "Scientists... and your idiot obsessions with reasons. When the bullet hits your skull, WHAT WILL IT MATTER WHY?"
  • The Summation: The episode details the precise personal, political and technical circumstances that allowed the disaster to occur, complete with flashbacks.
  • That's an Order!: Dyatlov doesn't actually say it, but his increasingly hostile commands convey this. When he orders Akimov to raise the power, in violation of every safety regulation that they have, Akimov asks him to record his command in the logbook. Dyatlov tosses it away.
  • Throwing Out the Script: Not with a literal script, but Legasov goes Off the Rails with the testimony he was supposed to give at the trial. It's pointed out that he's contradicting what he said in Austria, and Legasov responds that he had lied then.
  • Time Skip: This episode takes place over a year after the explosion.
  • Unperson: Charkov makes it clear to Legasov that the whole world saw him in Vienna, so it would be embarrassing to shoot him and erase all records of his existence. Instead, he will keep his job and title, but have no work, no friends, no authority.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: A grid controller in Kiev asks Chernobyl to delay the test in order to satisfy evening demand. Both Fomin and Dyatlov agree that they can simply wait.
  • Villainous BSoD: At the trial, Legasov reveals that the AZ-5 SCRAM system, which is supposed to shut down a nuclear reactor if something goes wrong, had the opposite effect, and Dyatlov gets one of these. The look on his face, as he realizes that the failsafe never would have worked, shows that he finally grasps what his actions led to.
  • Wham Line: "It's cheaper."
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The series ends with this, along with footage of the real people and events.
    • Legasov's tapes were recovered after his suicide and circulated through the Soviet scientific community. Eventually, the flaw in the RBMK reactors was rectified.
    • Shcherbina died four years and four months after being sent to Chernobyl.
    • After their release from prison, Dyatlov died from radiation-related illness while Fomin was given an administrative job at another nuclear plant.
    • Lyudmilla suffered multiple strokes and was told by doctors that she would never have a child. They were wrong. She eventually gave birth to a son and they live in Kiev.
    • About 100 miners who took part in the digging operation beneath Reactor #4 never lived past age 40.
    • It is believed that of all the people who viewed the fire from the railway bridge in Pripyat, none of them survived.
    • More than 300,000 people were displaced by the disaster. They were told it would be temporary.
    • The total cost in human lives remains unknown. While it is estimated that thousands of people died, the official Soviet figure, which remains unchanged since 1987, is 31.
    • Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the USSR until its dissolution in 1991. He later wrote that "Chernobyl was the main cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union."
    • A new containment structure was completed in 2017, which is expected to last 100 years.
  • While You Were in Diapers: When Toptunov questions him, Dyatlov retorts that he has been working in nuclear power as long as Toptunov has been alive.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Legasov and Shcherbina take a moment during the trial recess to assure each other that they were essential at containing the disaster. Particularly affecting is Legasov's reassurance when Shcherbina, terminally ill, talks about how he didn't matter, how he was sent to Chernobyl in the first place because he was an expendable bureaucrat.
    Legasov: For God's sake, Boris, you were the one who mattered most.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!:
    • Akimov and Toptunov try to review the sequence for the rundown test, but find many of the steps are crossed out. They are then told to follow the crossed out instructions. During the trial, Khomyuk compares this to Yuri Gagarin being told nothing of his mission into space until he's on the launchpad, with nothing more than an instruction manual he's never seen before.
    • Many people in the Court Room reacts like this when Legasov informs that the Chernobyl Power Plant used a more unstable cooling system than western power plants because it was cheaper.
  • Younger Than They Look: The radiation has done a number on Legasov by 1988; he's only fifty-two when he dies, but looks at least a decade older.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Shcherbina tells Legasov that his doctors expect he only has a year to live. He would actually live three more.

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