HBO’s Chernobyl was never going to be light, breezy TV show, but there’s no way to prepare for what it does to you.
The five-part miniseries is an unmissable television event, but it is one that will harrow you, a horror story in the guise of a historical docudrama. Each second is riddled with nauseous anxiety. Knowing how this story ends does not in any way lessen the terror of watching it unfold in real time.
On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant outside of Pripyat in what was then the Soviet Union. The resultant fire in the reactor’s graphite moderator led to massive amounts of radiation carrying across the local radius through smoke. The incident is regarded by many as the most catastrophic nuclear accident in history.
So why does Chernobyl chill to the bone? There are several contributing factors – recency, realism, hindsight, hubris. The men in power deal in denial and deception; their worst fear is not widespread and gruesome death, but humiliation for them and their nation. Paul Ritter plays deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov with an unwavering commitment to acknowledging anything but the truth. Dyatlov actively gaslights his employees to their faces, telling them what they did or didn’t see, what is and isn’t happening, without so much as a blink of self-doubt.
If nothing else, you go into Chernobyl knowing the answer to its central thematic question: “What is the cost of lies?” In this case, it is the steepest cost of human life. The person asking is chemist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), who led the Chernobyl investigation and died by suicide exactly two years later.
On the Chernobyl podcast, creator Craig Mazin compares his series to a horror movie in that an unseen monster is haunting and killing these characters and they can do nothing to stop it. That is the true terror of Chernobyl: This monster has no visible face or form as it stalks its victims. You know there are no ghosts or creatures lurking in your home at night, but you never know, with absolute certainty, what dangers lurk in the very air around us.
The series is as unsettling in its breaths as in its action. At the power plant, workers panic and run to prevent a disaster already in motion – but out in Pripyat, citizens continue quiet lives, watching what they believe from afar to be a fire. One of the episode’s most chilling moments is a wordless scene of children dancing and playing in snowy ash raining down from the expanding cloud above their home. Some of the most outlandish and ironic moments are drawn from actual fact, such as firemen dousing the flame in water and one of them touching a piece of exposed graphite with his bare hands.
A silent killer, radiation poisoning announces its presence in graphic, visceral display. Production designer Luke Hull described the show as his most disturbing research to date. Bodies exposed to radioactive material melt inside and out; men vomit spontaneously; and more than once, a character says they taste metal and leaves us suspended on this ominous note. A shrewd nurse asks if the hospital has iodine tablets, looking ahead to their potential use to protect the thyroid gland from radiation poisoning (the Chernobyl explosion led to over a dozen deaths from childhood thyroid cancer).
Hull’s production drops you right into the Chernobyl and its surroundings, a dire contrast of Mad Men-esque quaintness and calamity. It’s not accidental that scenes from inside the power plant echo Titanic or a treacherous scene from a movie set in space (on the podcast, Mazin and host Peter Sagal briefly discuss the Challenger explosion that occurred mere months before Chernobyl).
Mazin began work on the series as early as 2015, when lies were not ubiquitous in American news, when power and pride’s mounting death toll wasn’t daily mass shootings and a regime seemingly free of consequence. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch Chernobyl‘s tragedy unfurl. As Mazin himself says: “You can contain information. You can’t contain nuclear isotopes.”
Chernobyl airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.