It makes perfect sense that “Chernobyl” feels more like a horror movie at times than a traditional drama. Tracing the catastrophe events before, during, and after the nuclear explosion that continues to send radioactive ripples throughout Europe to this day, the HBO’s new limited series is, in fact, recounting one of the modern era’s most devastating, human horrors, and the series doesn’t shy away from showing it as just that. To its credit, this iteration of the story — or more accurately, the many interlocking stories of the meltdown and its aftershocks — leans into the horror of it all rather than blinking away, as so many tried to do when it happened in real life. Rather than bursting into shocking twists, writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck build a steadily creeping unease, allowing the scale of the atrocity to sink in with terrible, fitting gravity.
Mazin undertook an extraordinary task when breaking down the Chernobyl disaster into (somewhat) digestible parts. Each of the series’ five episodes — all of which Mazin wrote — follows a core cast of characters, but crucially, also serve distinctly different purposes. The first two focus on the immediate nightmare of the reactor exploding, the second two on the clean-up efforts and the sacrifices so many made in order to stabilize the region, and the finale on the flimsy trial of three Chernobyl laymen. (HBO has also announced that the series will have an accompanying podcast to dive deeper into the disaster itself, as well as explain the adjustments made when adapting the true story to the screen.)
Guiding our journey through it all are skeptical scientist Valery Legaslov (Jared Harris), Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), and whistleblower nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson). Legaslov and Scherbina really did investigate the disaster closely to how the series depicts it, dying within a few years of setting foot in Chernobyl; Ulana, Mazin acknowledges at the tail end of the series, is a composite of the many scientists who dug into the inconsistencies of the official reports to figure out what, exactly, had happened. Sometimes, their explanatory scenes can get a bit more technical than the show can quite sustain, but for the most part, their collective curiosity and growing astonishment carries them through. Together, the formidable trio of Harris, Skarsgard, and Watson give the series its bleeding heart, untangling their characters’ respective inner conflicts and ultimate determination to tell the truth in the face of extraordinary opposition from their own country with expert ease.
Meanwhile, distraught Chernobyl resident Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) brings in the tragically banal experience of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fielding the wild grief of losing her firefighter husband (Adam Nagatis) to the incomprehensible pain of agony of extreme radiation exposure. Crucially, however, Lyudmilla isn’t the only “ordinary” citizen the series spotlights along the way. We also get time with the coal miners enlisted to clean up the radioactive site, the divers who plunged into the reactor’s depths, the men recruited from far and wide to purge the town of any radioactive life still kicking around. All of them, “Chernobyl” makes plain, were doomed to dramatically shortened lifespans for doing this remarkable service. Some of them knew it; many of them did not; all of them performed their duty regardless.
The stark contrast between this kind of courage versus the cravenness of every stubborn bureaucrat who stood in clarity’s way is what makes “Chernobyl” as chilling as it is essential. The sheer incompetence and hubris that the series reveals as the catastrophe’s ultimate culprits rather than any one particular person are more frustrating than I can possibly describe. (This is, to say the least, not an easy watch; my jaw hurt after every episode from clenching it so hard.) But even if it’s viscerally painful to feel the true depths of just how badly the people in power failed, and how relentlessly they tried to deny it, that surge of furious empathy is also exactly the series’ point.