There are a ton of gut-wrenching moments in Chernobyl, the five-part miniseries currently running on Monday nights on HBO and Sky Atlantic. But the one that left me squirming in my seat, barely able to watch, comes at the end of the second episode.
A few days after the April 26, 1986 explosion at the nuclear power plant in then-Soviet Ukraine, three workers volunteer for an insanely dangerous mission to drain water held in tanks beneath the damaged reactor core. The enormous stakes if they fail are made fervently clear: Burning nuclear fuel will melt through the reactor floor, hit the water and produce a radioactive thermal explosion that will kill the population of Kiev and render Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable for a century.
I’m not spoiling anything here because what happened is history. Ukraine is not a radioactive wasteland today so we know the workers succeeded. But how they did it is told in horrifying, utterly compelling detail. (Reportedly, the workers did not die right away, but the real Chernobyl death toll remains a topic of heavy debate).
We watch them enter a pitch black basement, stumbling through knee-deep water so radioactive the clicks on their Geiger counters merge into one continuous buzz. You feel their fear and claustrophobia and hear their labored breaths through their scuba equipment. Their flashlights dim, but they labor on. With millions of lives all over Europe at stake, it’s the only thing they can do.
Almost all of the Chernobyl miniseries is this bleak. But given the subject matter — the worst nuclear disaster in history until 2011’s— the tone is absolutely necessary.
When potential additional catastrophes like the thermal explosion are averted, the show’s characters greet the successes with weary resignation rather than joyous celebration. Because Chernobyl is like a disaster Pez dispenser delivering a continuous stream of terrible news. Even after the tanks are drained, coal miners are drafted to stop the meltdown from contaminating the groundwater and eventually poisoning the Black Sea.
The series is more than enough reason to keep your HBO subscription following the end of record-breaking hit. The drab Soviet interiors reinforce a sense of gloom, and the gripping, accessible script by Craig Mazin doesn’t get bogged down in nuclear jargon. I like that the first episode opens with the explosion itself rather than the events leading up to it. A deeper dive into the cause comes only in the fifth and final episode.
Chernobyl tells the story of an extraordinary event, but the series is also about something ordinary: people doing their jobs. Following the explosion, some do them well, and others do them poorly.
Chernobyl is also grotesque. We see how acute radiation rots the bodies of plant workers and firefighters from the inside, we watch children play near the reactor as it burns and we witness the plant’s arrogant and abusive chief engineer refuse to believe the reactor has exploded at all.
Then there’s a lumbering Soviet bureaucracy struggling to respond. In a scene from the first episode almost as disturbing as the one in the basement, a bumbling group of local Communist Party officials deflect responsibility and debate what to do. Rather than evacuating the area immediately, they decide misinformation will only distract residents from “the fruits of their own labor.” (Despite alarmingly high radiation levels, the now ghost town of Pripyat wasn’t evacuated until the day after the explosion.)
Later in Moscow, as officials in Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s inner circle brief him on the news. They say there’s nothing to worry about as the radiation released amounts to a “chest X-ray.” It takes Valery Legasov, a nuclear expert with the Science Academy of the USSR, to break through the stonewalling and explain to Gorbachev just how dire things are. Onlookers are shocked at Legasov’s gall, but Gorby sends him and Minister of Energy Boris Shcherbina to Chernobyl to evaluate the situation manage the government response.
The two are an odd couple — a party loyalist and a skeptical outsider — but they begin to work together to control the fallout, all the while dodging KGB minders bent on stopping the spread of news that will embarrass the nation. No one says “fake news,” but the debates about what’s true and not, are uncomfortably familiar in 2019.
Legasov and Shcherbina, real people who are now deceased, are brilliantly played by Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, respectively. Harris’ best moments happen when his simmering exasperation suddenly erupts as he contradicts a government or military official with cold, hard facts. He’s there not to downplay things. He’s there to tell like it is.
Meanwhile, as Skarsgård’s confidence in the Communist system slowly erodes, he speaks with a barely decipherable mumble that belies his fatigue (thankfully, all actors speak in English in their natural voices).
But the performance that stole the show was Emily Watson as Ulyana Khomyuk, a Belarusian nuclear physicist who detects the fallout 250 miles away and rushes to Chernobyl to find out what happened. Watson’s character is a composite of several scientists who investigated the disaster, but she comes across as totally convincing. She works tirelessly to contain the damage and find the cause of the explosion, in the process getting arrested by the KGB for talking too much about what happened.
When she’s freed at the end of the third episode, Legasov tells her that despite the stupidity and lies surrounding them, she’ll continue her work. Because like those three workers who drained the tanks, she really has no choice.