Sky and HBO’s Chernobyl is, quite simply, a masterclass in storytelling. Terrifying, devastating, suspenseful and beautiful, the five-part hour-long created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck begins with a sombre bookend 24 months after the fateful explosion.
We open in Moscow as former Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Valery Legasov (The Terror’s Jared Harris) and his cat sit in their dingy high-rise apartment recording chilling confessions onto old-fashioned audio cassette. And BOOM – there it is! No, not the nuclear explosion but the episode’s very first words, Legasov’s question “What is the cost of lies?” That BOOM is the show setting up the series’ thematic question with explosive efficiency. One minute in, and it’s clear HBO’s Chernobyl is an investigation into Truth.
The Soviet system acts as super-ego to Legasov’s id and the nuclear accident is merely the inciting incident for everything that follows. Why does this story need to be told now? Well, this zeitgeist story couldn’t have come at a more relevant crossroads because western politics has descended into Soviet-style lies, disinformation, gaslighting, and madness. Now, more than ever, we need to investigate Truth.
The bookend opening fades to the title card and is replaced by one reading “Two years and one minute earlier” transporting us 600 kilometres to the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukraine/Belarus border on 26 April 1986. One of the sleepy, night-gowned 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat is almost knocked off her feet by a shockwave as a tiny glowing speck lights up the horizon.
Vodka-swilling crowds gather outside to watch the Ghostbusters light show spilling out of the breached fourth reactor. And then it hits you: “What the fuck are you people doing?” you plead to your television. “Run!” or “Get out! Drive your rusty Ladas as far away as you can!”
But they can’t hear you above the Siberian wind rolling in from the northeast, the whir of fire truck sirens, the industrial hum, deafening alarms, Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score and the Lesser Spotted Eastern European (Gregorius Samsarus) cockroach-like sounds from off-the-chart Geiger counters.
As writer Craig Mazin’s expertly-executed world-building expands, fire-fighters (in particular, fellow The Terror alum Adam Nagaitis) are deployed to fight the power plant fire, and these brave local souls begin to unknowingly battle the show’s monster; radioactivity.
One reason Jaws and Alien are so goddamned effective is because we rarely see the monster.
Here, the monster will always remain unseen because radioactivity is as invisible as it is deadly.
Scientists argue over the seriousness of the accident. Control room subordinates panic. Soviet-era safety equipment malfunctions, disillusioned pencil-pushers try to save face and proud propagandist politicians lie and delude themselves… all without the slightest whiff of hazmat suits or iodine pills. Not one of them has an inkling of what’s coming. But we do, and that’s what creates suspense so palpable you feel sick with radiation poisoning just watching events unfurl. It’s… The Knowing.
By the end of the first episode, I wished I could binge-watch HBO’s Chernobyl in one sitting.
By the end of the second, I was physically panting. This show really is that emotionally exhausting.
Chernobyl really does rock you to the core. Somehow, the writer of the Scary Movie and The Hangover franchise has shaped historical source material into a terrifically authentic, riveting emotional rollercoaster and the best TV show of the year.
Yet radioactivity isn’t the only monster at play here. The second monster is Communism or perhaps, pride. The denial, delusion and cover-up to keep the accident from the poor Soviet people and the rest of the world; the heroes versus the contemptuous character-barriers Mazin has created or composited are the perfect backdrop for all the conflict and tension that every TV drama requires. In one brilliantly telling scene, Legasov is given a choice when a random woman in a hotel lobby asks:
“Should we be worried?”
“No.” he replies.
With one word, our protagonist has not only refused the call to his Hero’s Journey but he’s also made himself complicit, for “the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or are you are gonna be the solution.”
WHAT MAKES HBO’S CHERNOBYL THE SHOW OF THE YEAR?
Jared Harris plays Legasov to perfection; his dogged determination somehow always tempered, resigned to the fact he knows his efforts will be in vain. Add the always superb Stellan Skarsgård into the radioactive blender as a cynical Moscow bureaucrat, Emily Watson as a whistleblowing nuclear physicist and complete the ensemble of POV storytellers with Jessie Buckley as the wife of one of the irradiated firemen and… light the blue touch-paper, and retreat to a safe distance because Chernobyl is some of the most visceral and powerful television you’ll see. Ever.
In focusing on this misplaced pride in Communism and characters who either tow or decry the official line, Craig Mazin has created an ‘mazin’, near-perfect television hotbed; for this is how TV differs from cinema; instead of one protagonist trying to achieve a goal and one antagonist trying to stop him, to make great television, there must conflict at every turn. HBO’s Chernobyl is a pressure cooker waiting to go off, where every line, every action and every visual conveys the desperation, chaos, and incompetence which made the disaster so much more severe.
Hindsight is 20/20 and Mazin’s script and Renck’s understated direction both understand and exploit this. The childlike naivety of every single character, including war generals, nurses, fire-fighters and nuclear physicists makes you scream “Don’t get any closer to that reactor, you fools!” as their skin melts off their faces. We, the audience, know the effects of radiation because of this very disaster, but these innocent workers and townsfolk do not because, in the words of Valery Legasov:
“You are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before.”
Featuring those so-ugly-they’re-beautiful brutalist high-rise blocks that remind me of Thunderbirds or architects’ miniature models of soon-to-be-constructed, 1960s Las Vegas hotels, the Lithuanian location is as perfect as the gloomy interiors and impeccable costume design.
In addition to creating a wonderfully bleak, grim colour palette (which I’m gonna call Glasnost Grey). Renck’s action scenes knock you off your feet and haul you right into the belly of the Beluga whale so expertly that you feel your own skin is going to melt off your face any minute.
The fact that we viewers know the Chernobyl disaster killed an estimated 90,000 people (that’s thirty 9/11’s or sixty Titanics) makes the eeriness even harder to bear. When we see townsfolk watching the shaft of light that is the core’s reactor leaking radioactive particles like The Avengers’ Battle of New York, or children playing in the falling radioactive “snow”, these visuals fill you with utter dread… for these were real children.
The Knowing I mentioned earlier becomes The Dread as you know it’s gonna get worse and worse because you realize someone, at some point, is gonna have to go in there before millions more die horribly. Twenty-five million Russians died protecting their Родина (motherland) in the Second World War, and they were going to have to sacrifice tens of thousands more to save their future.
Part eerie horror movie, part 70’s disaster flick and part realsatire, Mazin’s ultra-efficient script, Guðnadóttir’s melody-free, eldritch score, the incredibly immersive sound design, the perfect pace of each reveal, and Renck’s gorgeous brand of visual storytelling are so masterful that each element sucks you in and spits you out.
But what makes HBO’s Chernobyl so utterly immersive and catapults it from great to unparalleled television, is Mazin’s choice of perspective. Whether we’re experiencing the point of view of the firefighters, the plant workers, the wives, the nurses or the crowds; each and every time (and without fail) Mazin’s script focuses on the exact right character or group of characters to squeeze out every available drop of tension. Your lesson here is to always ask yourself “Who does this scene/action/decision/event affect the most?” then simply tell those scenes from their POV.
While HBO’s Chernobyl is one of those rare shows that makes me mouth “THIS is what fucking television making is about” I’m actually glad I can’t binge-watch all five hours, as it will take my nerves to critical mass and cause a complete emotional meltdown.
HBO’s Chernobyl continues on Sunday 19th May if you’re in The States and a day later on Sky Atlantic.