There’s a moment in episode 2 of Chernobyl, “Please Remain Calm,” where Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) pleads with a Soviet official to listen to her. The fallout from Chernobyl is dangerous and it’s spreading, she says. People need to be evacuated.
“I prefer my opinion to yours,” is his response.
“I’m a nuclear physicist,” she rebuts. “Before you were deputy secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.”
Moments like these are what makes Chernobyl the scariest thing audiences have seen on television this year. It’s not the visceral aftereffects of the disaster, though those aspects of the incident — for instance, the suffering of the victims of Acute Radiation Syndrome — are chronicled in gruesome, visual detail. It’s the consistent and insistent failure of government officials to prioritize actual truth over state-sanctioned truth. It’s the system’s willingness to let people die rather than suffer national humiliation.
Chernobyl (created, written, and executive produced by Craig Mazin) follows the April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the USSR. The series focuses mainly on the Soviet government’s frequent inability to properly handle the aftermath of the explosion, and the subsequent human cost of that incompetence.
Writer and creator Craig Mazin skillfully threads this pattern of bureaucratic incompetence throughout each episode. From the moment the explosion occurs, viewers watch the Soviet bureaucracy hide information about Chernobyl from the Russian people. Even as the power plant is crumbling around him, assistant chief engineer Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) insists to his terrified men, “you didn’t see graphite on the ground because it’s not there!”
Chernobyl is littered with scenes like these, expertly crafted and specifically designed to engender dread in its audience. Director Johan Renck and cinematographer Jakob Ihre work together to create grim images that will linger with audiences for years to come: a naive, pregnant wife allowing her ARS-stricken husband to tenderly touch her stomach; a group of civilians watching the fire at the power plant from a distance, not knowing that the ashes falling around them are deadly; a young liquidator staring dejectedly at a group of newly-born puppies, knowing he’ll have to shoot them because they’ve been contaminated by the radiation.
Accompanying the series’ striking visuals is Mazin’s dialogue, sharply written and thought-provoking. Mazin has a talent for condensing broad thematic resonances and crushing anxieties into single lines, such as when Khomyuk interrogates Dyatlov about what went wrong at Chernobyl and he tells her that she’ll never find out the truth that she so desperately seeks. “You will get the lie,” he calmly informs her, “and I will get the bullet.”
Chernobyl’s cast is uniformly outstanding. Jared Harris’s tormented scientist Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgard’s reluctantly loyal USSR official Boris Scherbina make for a dynamic pair of unlikely allies, and Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk is a principled, stoic force to be reckoned with. Though this trio makes up what could be considered the show’s main characters, Mazin introduces new players within each episode, showcasing the disparate facets of the tragedy’s devastating human cost. Each member of the expansive ensemble rises to this occasion, their performances contributing to the show’s oppressive, unrelenting aura of anxiety.
Mazin said that he wanted to make Chernobyl to address today’s “global war on truth” — something every viewer should keep in mind while watching. It’s easy to be horrified at the USSR’s prioritization of propaganda over scientific fact, to maintain the perspective of a privileged outsider looking in on an ignorant past. It’s perhaps harder to confront that governments today have failed to learn from this past, as the American GOP continually overlooks the scientific certainty of climate change and its similarly devastating human costs.
The stellar craft on display in every frame of Chernobyl is all in the service of this central message: the importance of truth over government agenda. And though the show is a historical drama, this is a theme that is undeniably contemporary. Viewers will be terrified watching Chernobyl, but not because the tragedy and its aftermath are too gruesome, or violent, or bleak. They’ll be terrified because it’s all too familiar.
Chernobyl is available to stream on HBO NOW.