HBO's "Chernobyl" Is A Harrowing, Dreary Experience And One Of The Best Things On TV

If you’ve been reading the Stool for awhile, then you’re familiar with Chernobyl because Smitty has made approximately 6,391 Chernobyl jokes since he started. And because the man-made disaster happened in 1986, Smitty’s jokes were likely the extent of your knowledge regarding Chernobyl.

The “Chernobyl disaster” occurred on April 25th and April 26th in what is present-day Ukraine when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s core exploded and the subsequent, unprecedented fire lasted until May 4th. Radiation quickly killed several plant workers and fire-fighters as officials struggled to figure out how to solve a problem that had never before happened on Earth. Overnight, the U.S.S.R. became solely responsible for contaminating, poisoning, and killing not only many of its own people but also citizens of the surrounding countries that suffered as weather carried the radiation clouds over borders. This was one secret Mother Russia wouldn’t be able to keep from the rest of the world.

Since it occurred 33 years ago, I hadn’t given it much thought other than the random article online or story on the news (or Smitty blog) so I never knew the full extent of the story. Fortunately, HBO’s latest excellent mini-series “Chernobyl” does an incredible job of showing what went down, from just before the explosion to the attempted cover-up (good bid) to all of the political, um, fallout that occurred in the months that followed. There’s much more going on than a nuclear accident here. (And yes, this is an account of something that went down during the height of communism some may dispute this version of events.)

Starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson (there are many others but those three are most familiar to U.S. audiences), “Chernobyl” is about fear and cowardice more than heroism. Under the Soviet system, facts didn’t matter and underlings would report whatever superiors wanted to hear, truth and very real consequences be damned. Had it been handled by the book, there’s no doubt many lives would’ve been saved. But the lies and propaganda wouldn’t allow for it.

Many of the heroes were forced into the role by their government. Like the roughly 3900 freshly-minted soldiers who had to go onto the roof of the most toxic place on the planet to help dispose of the radioactive graphite. For their involuntary heroism, the soldiers were rewarded with 800 rubles and a literal death sentence.

But that wasn’t the case for all of them. Some volunteered, like the divers in an early attempt to fix things. Others sacrificed their careers and/or reputations.

One hero who insisted on helping but was consistently pushed away, ignored, and threatened was Dr. Ulana Khomyuk. Given that this was the 1986 and the U.S.S.R., it should be no surprise that Khomyuk was a woman. Despite having vastly more knowledge of the situation at hand than virtually everyone else, she was still treated like a lowly secretary.

We find out the fate of Harris’s Valery Legasov early on and the son of the legendary Richard Harris is, along with Khomyuk, the conscience of the series. The scenes between him and Skarsgård’s military yes-man-who-eventually-learns-no crackle with intensity and their tête-à-têtes are among the best work they’ve done onscreen.

Each episode has had at least one powerful, lingering shot that hammers home the dread of this very man-made disaster (the first four episodes are available on demand/streaming and the finale airs Monday night). Like the slo-mo shot of a crowd watching a fire burn while unknowingly, simultaneously being sickened by said fire. Seeing caskets of dead first responders/plant workers welded shut before being whisked away for their mass burial that required a goddamn cement truck leaves viewers slack-jawed at the bluntness of what they’re seeing. The look at a mother sitting on a hospital bed, silent and numb with agony from losing her child hours after birth due to radiation will stay with you long after you’ve stopped watching.

On “Chernobyl”, the heroes are few here. This phenomenal, depressing show is about cowardice and not doing the right thing until it’s way too late. Sure, I get that the constant threat of getting two in the hat made people fall in line. But when you’re quite literally talking about saving the planet, way too many people passed the buck or sat on their hands for way too long. People in power fail their citizens in the most epic way and it’s all for essentially PR reasons. Until they hear four words: “The whole world knows.”

Harris, Skarsgård, Watson, and the rest of the heavily English cast turn in incredible work on a dreary, morbid subject. Rather than use bad fake Russian accents or speak worse Russian with subtitles, actors speak in their natural tongue even though they’re playing Rooskies (similar to THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). The creative team did a wonderful job of recreating the drab ’80s Russia that Americans only got glimpses of during the ’70s and ’80s.

This mini-series is scarier than anything Eli Roth can conjure up because it’s more likely to happen. “Chernobyl” feels like horror but it’s so very real.