Pavel’s Perspective in the Captivating Chernobyl Miniseries

Just recently, the venerable George R.R. Martin remarked that “I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan” when explaining why the ending he intends to write will differ from the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now none of us are holding our breath waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin’s statement begs an interesting question: are authors better off not imagining their works as a televised program? The question may seem trivial but considering how often authors are exhorted to make mental movies of their work, I think it is worth pondering. Personally, I am inclined to say that it’s probably a good mental exercise for authors but it’s very important to remember that what works in television does not always work in literature and vice versa. For proof of this, we need only consider the miniseries Chernobyl.

In literature, recurring characters usually need to have some sort of backstory to hold the reader’s interest. Of course, there are exceptions but if we are going to spend time in a person’s head, we usually like to know what makes that person tick. When it comes to television, we don’t need to know nearly as much about a character because we can see how they feel and that provides an understanding of its own. Pavel, a young man conscripted into containment efforts in Chernobyl, is a great example of this.

Pavel being confronted by a superior for being negligent in his duties

His name is used sparingly in the show and even though he appears in multiple scenes, I could not remember his name without looking it up online. That did nothing, however, to prevent me from enjoying his storyline. Despite knowing little about the character in terms of his backstory or his interest, I still felt as if I understood a great deal about his character. After all, I could see how he felt when he was offered a drink by his new bunkmates, when he is informed that he has been ordered to shoot the dogs exposed to radiation, when he has to decide if he has the fortitude to kill a litter of puppies, and that helps a great deal with knowing how he feels.

According to the show runners, key information about Pavel was deliberately withheld from the audience so that he could serve as a symbol of the many individuals conscripted into containment efforts. Such sparse character development can work in television but is much harder to pull off in literature. There are practical reasons related to dialogue attribution and POV jumping but one reason stands out above all the rest: television requires less engagement from consumers. This is not to suggest less creativity or effort goes into the making of television—one need only consult the credits list for a movie to know just how much talent goes into the production of a televised event. But so long as Stranger Things is easy to binge and finishing Moby Dick is hard, I think characters like Pavel will work well on the screen but not so well on the page.

Perhaps I am wrong though. My TBR list grows longer by the day and I might revise my opinion on the matter once I make more progress on that front. For now, I am inclined to agree with George R.R. Martin that television is a very different medium and I would encourage everyone interested in good television to watch the miniseries Chernobyl. If the explosion in visits to the Exclusion Zone and the show’s stellar ratings are any indication, there’s a very good chance the show will be remembered as the best drama of 2018.  

Tom Cleary’s Clearly Great Character Arc in The Knick

The Knick is one of my favorite shows for a variety of reasons. I love the acting, the writing, but I love the directing most of all. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the Knick was once described by a critic as “the best show you are not watching.” For this week’s essay, I will focus on Tom Cleary’s character arc in the first two seasons of the Knick and how it functions on a narrative level.

When we are first introduced to Tom Cleary, he is waiting in the ambulance bay with his co-worker, cracking dark jokes about the untimely death of the chief surgeon. He works as a paramedic, in practice this often means he is just transporting fresh corpses to the hospital for grisly medical experiments, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in his work. Nonetheless, Chris Sullivan—the same actor who played Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Benny Hammond in Stranger Things—portrays the character with impressive nuance and I imagine most audiences will understand well how Tom Cleary fits into the cultural milieu of New York at the turn of the 20th century. So inured is he towards violence that he sees nothing wrong asking Sister Harriet, in the almost immediate aftermath of a terrible accident, if nuns often break their vows on account of sexual curiosity. Much to his surprise, she responds by letting him know that “we get curious but then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we all run right back into the arms of God.” Perhaps to add insult to injury, she also notes that “your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”

Cleary takes it all in stride and continues to trade barbs with Sister Harriet during their semi-regular interactions at the Knick hospital. By complete accident, he discovers that Sister Harriet secretly provides abortions to women of all walks of life and derisively refers to her as baby-killer from then on. However, after seeing a woman bleed out after a botched abortion, he changes tack and agrees to help her.

This decision engenders a great deal of risk since abortion is still illegal at this time but Cleary manages to evade the law. Sister Harriet, however, is not so lucky and season 2 begins with her awaiting trial. Cleary fears for her well being and dedicates himself to her legal defense with almost singular obsession. So desperate is Cleary to help her that he even pilfers medical supplies from the hospital in order to help pay for her bail as well as her defense lawyer. He succeeds in getting her the necessary money, though not without some terrible collateral damage, but life outside of prison isn’t much better for Sister Harriet as she ends up in the “care” of some truly awful people. Despite having little in the way of savings, Cleary sends money every week to Sister Harriet, only to discover that the money he has been sending has been getting filched. When it becomes clear that Sister Harriet will suffer terribly if the case proceeds to trial, Cleary even resorts to extortion to ensure that the well-off women who benefitted from Sister Harriet’s medical assistance will come to her aid. His unflagging support proves crucial as Sister Harriet is excommunicated from the church once others discovers that she has helped terminate numerous pregnancies.

Cleary’s actions are often brutish, a prime example being when he knocks a gun-wielding assailant unconscious, but they are understandable also. By the end of season 2, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in all the show and I think a great many audience members feel bad for him when Sister Harriet rejects his proposal. Cleary is nothing if not persistent though and when he visits confessional in his penultimate scene, he confesses to the priest that he intends to marry a woman essentially disowned by the church. Had Cleary’s character arc followed the expected path, this scene could have helped build up more good will for the character. Instead, Soderberg yanks the narrative rug out from underneath the audience and reveals that we never should have rooted for Cleary in the first place.

For most of season 2, the audience is led to believe Sister Harriet was caught simply because her luck ran out. As it turns out, she wasn’t caught so much as she was betrayed. The cops didn’t just discover that she was carrying out illegal abortions—they were informed by Cleary. Moreover, he informs them for the worst possible reason: he wants her willingness to provide abortions to become common knowledge. He knows that a sister would never be allowed to marry but he also knows that Harriet’s fellow sisters equate abortion with murder. Just as he expected, she is unceremoniously expelled from the church after being arrested, even Sister Harriet’s surrogate mother disowns her, and she never discovers his duplicity. As a result, the scene in which she agrees to marry him, the final scene for Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary, is all the more haunting.

Some might find this character arc frustrating—viewers who believed Cleary was a good person or viewers who wanted him to face some kind of reckoning—but I think that’s exactly what makes it work so well on a narrative level. Besides being a great example of the Kuleshov effect, Cleary’s character arc gives viewers some profound questions to ponder. Does the priest who took Cleary’s confession have a moral obligation to share the truth with Sister Harriet, even though it would violate his vows? What if Cleary is never seized by guilt and keeps his duplicity secret from Sister Harriet for decades? What if Sister Harriet never discovers his duplicity at all? They are tough questions to answer and I think Knick fans will ponder them whenever they reflect on the character of Tom Cleary.

Thee first and second season of this show are available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of Gunpowder miniseries: lots of flash, not much bang

The 2017 miniseries Gunpowder was headlined by Kit Harrington (better known to most audiences as Jon Snow) and backed by HBO but it hardly seems to have left an impression with most TV viewers. Viewership numbers are not disclosed on TV by the numbers but judging by the figures posted on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, critics were not very impressed with Gunpowder. Having finished the series not too long ago, I can understand the lukewarm reception it received.

Just to be clear, Gunpowder was not a bad show. The pilot is quite entertaining and so is the follow up episode. If the final episode had been stronger, Gunpowder would probably be remembered as a pretty good show. Sadly, the finale failed to live up to the preceding episodes and, considering there were only three episodes in the entire miniseries, this drop in quality had outsize consequences.

The strongest character in the show was Guy Fawkes, both in a literal sense and a figurative sense. He endures brutal, ceaseless torture at the hands of his captors but refuses to divulge the names of his fellow conspirators, even when it is abundantly clear that plot to bring about a “restoration of true religion” has failed miserably. Eventually, his captors tire of torturing him and haul him before a cheering crowd for an execution ceremony that could rival a flowery death in its gore.

Were he a weaker man, Fawkes might have had to endure the unceremonious death that many of his Catholic brethren suffer, but he summons the last of his strength to issue a feral roar and leaps off his hanging post to spare himself a painful ordeal. In life, as well as captivity, his impressive strength is plain to see and he easily bests his fencing opponents in a gripping fight that serves as a highlight of the second episode in the miniseries. From a character standpoint, Guy Fawkes is also one of the strongest in the ensemble and it’s a shame actor Tom Cullen did not get more screen time. That may have meant cutting back on the scenes involving Catesby’s young son, but that probably would have been for the best anyway.

Perhaps the biggest error the show makes is that it passes up the chance to say something important. Religious terrorism is an incredibly important topic when it comes to modern life and almost every major world region is affected by it in some way, shape, or form. Guy Fawkes may not be the Western world’s first religious terrorist but he is certainly an early and interesting example. The pilot does a great job of making it clear to viewers that Catholics suffer brutal persecution in post-Elizabethan England and the motivations of the Gunpowder conspirators are pretty understandable considering the fate of Catholics discovered by law enforcement.

To be fair, there are moments where the show explores the way hardliner policies can contribute to extremism, the conversation between Father Garnet and Sir Wade is a great example of this, but they are few and far between. Instead, a great many scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Catesby and his son, a dynamic that has some importance for the plot but is not interesting enough to merit so much screen time. The show creators, however, seem to disagree and the final scene of the show deals not with the Gunpowder conspirators, or their would-be victims, but Catesby’s son. Had the show just focused more on the major characters and taken more time to explore the interesting questions raised by the Gunpowder plot, the miniseries would have been much stronger.