Like just about everyone under the sun, I watched HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl” with grim fascination, hooked on writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck’s presentation of how and why the 1986 nuclear disaster occurred in Soviet Ukraine. Now that awards season is upon us – voting has begun for the 2019 Emmy Awards, the nominations for which will be announced on July 16 – the discussion of predictions for the various “Limited Series” categories has opened up. Now that the acclaimed show is over, there is agreement on Jared Harris’s strong chances for Best Actor, as well as good odds of recognition for Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson in their supporting roles, but this widespread appreciation wasn’t assumed before the show aired. Looking back at member forums on Gold Derby, I’ve noticed that prior to “Chernobyl’s” debut on May 6, a number of people expected it to succeed primarily on technical merits.
Metacritic scores and review aggregation are all well and good if a viewer’s preferred method for determining the value of art is rooted in statistical percentages, but there is no substitute for the experience of watching a show and judging it for yourself. And what does it mean for a show to be “plot-heavy” but devoid of significant acting? In this case, it seems like some prospective viewers expected “Chernobyl” to focus its energy entirely on the nuclear accident – even though that obviously wouldn’t be the main event of every episode, unless the series were a Soviet Groundhog Day – yet somehow avoid showing the effects that the catastrophe had on the residents of the town of Pripyat, as well as on the scientists and government officials who were brought in to assess the disaster.
It would be easy to write a thinkpiece praising “Chernobyl”; many others have done so. Instead, I would like to shine a spotlight on the one acting performance more than any other that drew me into the show, the confirmation that I cared about the characters in the aftermath of the tragedy. Of the many firefighters who lived in and around Pripyat and were sent to the Chernobyl power plant to douse the blaze – not realizing that the incident was more than a “roof fire” and that the site was overflowing with deadly radiation – the show concentrates on one man in particular, Vasily Ignatenko. Like his comrades, Ignatenko was awakened by the nuclear explosion that occurred at 1:23 AM, and was sent to help put out the fire without any understanding of the danger involved. The character is portrayed by Adam Nagaitis, an English actor probably best known to Americans for playing Cornelius Hickey in season one of AMC’s 2018 drama “The Terror,” and it is Nagaitis’ subtle handling of Vasily in the first episode that made me realize I was fully invested in “Chernobyl.”
Vasily’s arc from happy-go-lucky citizen to doomed hero is depicted in only a few scenes and without much dialogue over the course of the episode, which is titled “1:23:45” in reference to the moment when Chernobyl’s reactor #4 exploded. Vasily is matter-of-fact about his being called to the scene with his fellow firefighters, even though he does not typically work on the late night shift. He does his best to comfort his wife, Lyudmila (Jessie Buckley), who is concerned by the eerie glow from the reactor that is visible in the distance, perhaps a mile or two away from their apartment window. Vasily assures Lyudmila that the situation is not serious and that he will return in the morning, telling her not to worry and to go back to sleep. Nagaitis’ smiling confidence sets us up for the peril that Vasily will soon come face-to-face with at the plant.
Upon reaching the power plant, Vasily witnesses one of his firefighter friends, Misha (Sam Strike), pick up a chunk of graphite from the ground at the base of the reactor. Although the men do not know it, the presence of graphite can only mean one thing: that the reactor’s core has exploded and its chemicals are spewing forth in the giant, billowing columns of smoke. Poison is being spread all over the town of Pripyat, nowhere more strongly than at the accident site. The firefighters are unaware of this, though; Vasily is perplexed (and maybe a bit amused) but not scared when he asks “do you taste metal?” of his colleagues. That development was yet another sign of the radiation pulsing through the air, but still Vasily looks up at the raging fire with curiosity, a slight smile upturned on his mouth.
After some time has passed, we see the repercussions of Misha having touched the graphite rock. We hear the man’s screams before we see him, but with a chilling certainty we already know what is happening and to whom. Vasily turns to catch sight of Misha, whose hand is now horribly burned and bloody. Suddenly, this fire is no longer the manageable task that Vasily thought it was, and when he looks back at the inferno and at the graphite strewn over the ground, his eyes display a fear that was not there before. His mouth quivers a little, as though he wants to say something but cannot find the words. Those brief seconds of fright were like a knife to the gut, and it was at that moment that I knew I cared deeply about how the characters of “Chernobyl” – and by extension, the real people – would be affected by the events of April 26, 1986.
Finally, there is the scene when Vasily is ordered by his superior to begin the climb up to the roof in hopes of successfully extinguishing the flames. As Vasily moves nearer to the nuclear reactor’s core, there is a close-up of his reddened face intercut with a shot of Lyudmila sitting in the apartment, awaiting her husband’s safe return. In that instant, with the gravity of the situation weighing upon Vasily, it appears that the vision of Lyudmila must be flashing before his eyes as he makes the decision to ascend further up into the hellscape. As Adam Nagaitis stares into the camera, Vasily stares into the face of his own impending death.
Watching all the firefighting scenes in the montage above, you can feel even more intensely the collective impact of those heartrending moments. We revisit Vasily later on in “1:23:45,” when he collapses on a street and is loaded into an ambulance destined for a Moscow hospital, and we follow his and Lyudmila’s story until its inevitable ending later in the miniseries, but Adam Nagaitis’s work in his first few scenes of this episode was the incentive I needed to follow this miniseries to its conclusion. He may not be remembered come Emmy time, but it is a performance that will stay etched in my memory.