HBO’s 2019 drama mini-series is one of the best historical drama mini-series ever made. Period. Now that we have gotten that statement out of the way, let’s discuss what makes Chernobyl such an amazing TV show. Chernobyl was produced by HBO (USA) & Sky (UK) and it covers the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the cleanup efforts that followed. Chernobyl’s villains are not monsters, aliens, terrorists or even mother nature – it’s villains are the worst of the worst – incompetency and arrogance in human beings. These traits lead to one of the worst disasters in human history and failing to recognize this allows it to become a horrifying and tragic tale which has human consequences even to this day.
Chernobyl features an ensemble cast led by Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina, Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk (not a real historical character but rather a composite mix of different scientists who contributed to the cleanup efforts molded into one character and female to bring some politically correct diversity to the cast to reflect our modern times) and Paul Ritter as Anatoly Dyatlov, the key architect of the disaster that was Chernobyl. A critically acclaimed show, Chernobyl received nineteen Emmy nominations and won for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing, while Harris, Skarsgård, and Watson received acting nominations. At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, the series won for Best Miniseries or Television Film and Skarsgård won for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film.
The series begins with Valery Legasov (played by a masterful Jared Harris), chief of the commission investigating it, records tapes blaming engineer Anatoly Dyatlov and other superiors for the incident, before hiding the tapes and hanging himself in his Moscow apartment, on the second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster (in real life he died the day after the second anniversary). We are taken back to two years before to Pripyat, where a firefighter Vasily Ignatenko’s pregnant wife Lyudmilla witnesses Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploding (at 01:23:45 a.m.).
Meanwhile in Reactor 4’s control room, Dyatlov dismisses evidence that their reactor core has exploded. He calls in firefighters and workers, and orders subordinates to manually lower control rods and restore cooling before leaving his post. Multiple plant workers and firefighters, including Vasily, subsequently suffer from acute radiation syndrome (ARS). Plant Director Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Fomin and Dyatlov conclude that a hydrogen explosion caused leakage of contaminated vessel water, and the Pripyat Executive Committee elects to downplay the incident and blocks evacuation. Dyatlov orders Akimov and Toptunov to manually open the water valves in addition to feed the reactor with water, exposing them to the lethal doses of radiation. Deputy chief operational engineer Sitnikov reports seeing nuclear graphite on the ground and the others reject this. As Dyatlov succumbs to ARS, they force Sitnikov to the roof to make a visual inspection, where he receives a lethal dose of radiation. Legasov is informed of an under control accident at Chernobyl and ordered to provide technical advice to the committee managing the response.
Seven hours after the explosion, we find Ulana Khomyuk (played brilliantly by Emily Watson despite not being a real character) detects a spike in radiation levels in Minsk. When her concerns are dismissed by local authorities, she sets out for Chernobyl, the likely source. At Pripyat’s overloaded hospital, Lyudmilla finds that Vasily and the other ARS patients have been evacuated to Moscow. In Moscow, Legasov explains to Mikhail Gorbachev that the situation is more serious than reported and is sent to Chernobyl with a skeptical Boris Shcherbina. From a helicopter, Legasov points out graphite debris and a blue glow from ionizing radiation, indicating the core is exposed. Shcherbina confronts Bryukhanov and Fomin, who accuse Legasov of misinformation and maintain that the radiation levels are not that high and only 3 Roentgen, but General Pikalov has high-range dosimeter readings that prove Legasov is correct and the actual radiation is around 15,000 Roentgen or the equivalent of twice the radiation of Hiroshima every hour.
Legasov instructs the military to suppress the fire with sand and boron as an initial step but with risks of its own. As news of the incident spreads, Pripyat is finally evacuated. Upon arrival, Khomyuk warns Legasov and Shcherbina that a destructive steam explosion will occur if the molten core establishes contact with water in the flooded basement. A lethal mission to drain the water is authorized and plant workers Ananenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov volunteer to be part of this suicide squad.
The basement is successfully drained, but a nuclear meltdown has begun, threatening to contaminate the groundwater. Shcherbina and Legasov report to Mikhail Gorbachev, the premier of the Soviet Union that a heat exchanger is needed under the plant, for which Mikhail Shchadov recruits coal miners from Tula, led by Glukhov, to excavate a tunnel in extremely adverse conditions. Shcherbina warns Legasov that they are under KGB surveillance. Legasov sends Khomyuk to a Moscow hospital, where she finds Dyatlov uncooperative but learns from dying Toptunov and Akimov that the reactor exploded after Akimov initiated an emergency shutdown, a scenario thought impossible.
Bribing her way into the hospital and lying about her pregnancy, Lyudmilla is allowed to visit Vasily, witnessing the harrowing deterioration of his health and disobeying orders by staying with her husband longer than instructed. During Khomyuk’s visit to the hospital, she witnesses Vasily touching Lyudmilla. Realizing that Lyudmilla is pregnant, Khomyuk threatens to report everything to the committee and is arrested by KGB agents. She is imprisoned, but Legasov arranges her release. As Shcherbina and Legasov report to the Central Executive Committee their decontamination plans requiring the mass mobilization of liquidators, Lyudmilla stands among relatives of other deceased ARS victims as Vasily’s body, sealed in a zinc casket, is buried in concrete at a mass grave.
The next episode shows residents being evacuated from the wider Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and decontamination operations underway. Civilian draftee Pavel is paired with Soviet–Afghan War veteran Bacho to patrol the Zone to shoot and dispose of abandoned animals due to radioactive contamination. Chernobyl liquidator commander General Nikolai Tarakanov deploys Lunokhod programme rovers to clear the plant’s roof for a shelter.
After a West German police robot almost instantly fails on the most irradiated level, Tarakanov is forced to cycle 3,828 liquidators to clear it by hand, allowed only 90 seconds each, once culminating in one of the most intense and dread-inducing scenes in television history.
Meanwhile Khomyuk investigates the Moscow archives and confronts a recovering Dyatlov, who knows the government is not interested in the truth. Meeting away from KGB bugs, Shcherbina and Legasov inform Khomyuk they must testify as experts in the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, and Legasov will address the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Khomyuk reveals an article about an identical incident at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in 1975, suppressed by the KGB, and tells them Lyudmilla gave birth to a girl who soon died from radiation poisoning. Khomyuk urges Legasov to tell the IAEA the complete truth, while Shcherbina urges caution to avoid government retaliation.
Following Legasov’s testimony to the IAEA in Vienna, in which he lies, Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin are put on trial in the abandoned city of Chernobyl. Shcherbina is called first to give testimony, explaining the general workings of a nuclear power plant. Khomyuk and Legasov testify on the events leading up to the accident, based on interviews with people in the control room.
Flashbacks show that due to a ten-hour delay in a safety test and Dyatlov’s impatience to carry it out, the reactor stalled, then experienced a power spike. Akimov activated the emergency shutdown, but a design flaw in the control rods spiked the power to at least ten times the reactor’s limit before it exploded. Legasov reveals the suppressed information about the Leningrad plant, admitting he lied in his previous testimony in Vienna. He is detained by the KGB and informed that his testimony will be suppressed in the state media; furthermore, he is forbidden to speak to anyone about Chernobyl, he will receive no credit for his role in containing the disaster, and he will never work again. The ending shows pictures and video of the real-life Legasov and other major figures, revealing their fates, as well as the ongoing aftermath of the accident. It ends with a statement that the show was dedicated to those who “suffered and sacrificed.”
Chernobyl is a show which when described in words sounds like a dull, bureaucratic machination show. It is one which is best only described visually – I would characterize Chernobyl as a horror show. It beats many horror TV shows in the amount of dread it induces – the rooftop scene alone has you feeling that you are on the roof and even a second longer on the roof would result in your death. The acting, whether the depiction of the acts of courage by the ordinary Soviet citizens, the firefighters, the coal miners or the military or the depiction of the gross incompetence of the senior Communist party officials whose desire to cover up mistakes and the advice of scientists causes the tragedy to expand greatly.
Chernobyl is mostly about needless suffering – a tragedy that could have been prevented, an incident that could have been avoided but it also shows the ability of humans to endure and to rise to the occasion when called for. The true heroes of Chernobyl are the common people and the true villains are those who called themselves leaders but are anything but that. Do yourself a favor and watch Chernobyl, currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Watch Chernobyl NOW!! If you have, watch it again. It is that good. Easily the best show of 2019 and possibly one of the best of all time.