“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” warns Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) in Sky and HBO’s hit miniseries Chernobyl. “Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
That statement seems extraordinary prescient as people and governments across the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. But, says Chernobyl screenwriter Craig Mazin, wouldn’t it be better “not to be the people in the middle of it who are pretending it didn’t happen”?
The five-part drama first aired more than a year ago, in May 2019. You can catch up now if you sign up to NOW TV with a seven day free trial. It tells the story of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its aftermath; and as well as characters like Legasov and Emily Watson’s nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, we also meet engineers and politicians who simply can’t face the truth.
The reactor has not exploded, they insist; that isn’t radioactive graphite on the roof.
“We see just how repetitive history is,” said Craig Mazin on a panel discussion ahead of this year’s BAFTA Awards (for which Chernobyl has an impressive 14 nominations). “We, our show tried to be as true as possible to [show] the best of humanity, but also the worst.
“And the human instinct to cover up, to lie, to deny, and particularly to not be able – to avoid confronting things that they can’t see. Which is really where we struggle. And here in the United States – and it’s not exclusively the United States – we’re attempting to come to terms with racial injustice in our country, which is something a lot of white people just simply didn’t see.
“We don’t see it, it’s hard to imagine it’s there. You don’t see climate change, it’s hard to imagine it’s there. You don’t see COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine it’s there. And when you don’t see radiation, it’s hard to imagine it’s there.”
Chernobyl’s message about cover-ups versus truth-telling has struck a chord with many, especially in 2020.
“The extensibility of the Chernobyl metaphor is, maybe the thing I’m most proud of,” Mazin said. “This thing that we all did together – the purpose was to say: look, you know this happened, we all know how it ended, in fact that’s why we show it from the start. Boom.
“So, wouldn’t it be better to not be the people in the middle of it who are pretending it didn’t happen? Or hoping it didn’t happen, refusing to believe? Wouldn’t it be better to be the people that did know it happened, and did caution, and this way we can avoid tragedy?”
Speaking on 14th July, he said: “Some nations seem to understand that; New Zealand today announced that they are COVID-free. And here in the United States, I believe yesterday Florida posted more infections than South Korea has reported for the entire run of its experience of the pandemic… we’ve got some issues, and either we are going to continue to come to grips with it, or we are going to pay the price.
“And that is essentially what Chernobyl – that is the point to which Chernobyl comes. Sooner or later the truth gets you, every lie we tells incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, as Jared Harris says, the debt is paid.”
But, as Harris himself pointed out, “Unfortunately, the longer that that reckoning happens, the more people die. Sooner is better than later.”
Reflecting on Chernobyl’s relevance to today’s crisis, he added: “The other thing that was instructive is how it doesn’t matter what system of government you are under, whether it’s totalitarian or democratic, the instinct of people in power – their first instinct – is to protect themselves first. And then once they feel that they’re safe, then deal with the problem.
“And of course when something like this has happened, which is so catastrophic, it’s almost impossible for them to feel that they can protect themselves, so they’re constantly scrambling after that mirage first before they feel they can turn and deal with the issue. So it just keeps getting worse and worse while they’re not turning and facing it.”