It is no exaggeration to state that HBO-Sky Atlantic’s new miniseries “Chernobyl” is perhaps one of the scariest things on television right now. More than a disaster story, it’s a full on true life horror.
“1:23:45” – Episode One
“Do you taste metal?”
The creation of Craig Mazin (writer of The Hangover Parts II & III and The Huntsman: Winter’s War) Chernobyl drops us right into the core of the disaster that unfolded at reactor No.4 in April of 1986. We all know from the outset the incident that is about to unfold so there’s no lengthy set up or character introductions. Top billing Jared Harris provides the only bit of scene setting preamble to Ep. One, recounting his memories of the incident to a tape recorder, before we flashback to two years and one minute earlier – 1.23am, just in time to witness the distant flash of the explosion from a bedroom window.
From then on Chernobyl ably switches between protagonists on the ground. The power plant workers still inside the facility are reeling and we’re witness to the harrowing scenes of them struggling to come to terms with what’s happened. Paul Ritter’s Dyatlov, one of the plant managers, refuses to believe his lying eyes even as his colleagues stagger in burned and bloody. We begin to get a sense of the political and radiological fallout as the local communist party bosses join the plant directors in a bunker, deciding ultimately to keep a lid on the danger to the populace (The Soviet Union as an institutionally truth free zone seems a parallel with our own current post-truth politics). Meanwhile the brave Soviet fire brigade battles the flames amongst the smouldering rubble. This is juxtaposed with the almost serene voyeurism of the residents of Pripyat watching the distant fire as their children dance in the falling radioactive ash.
The series is lent weight from an array of talented British & international TV & film actors who, mercifully, have been spared having to adopt any Russian accents. Stellan Skarsgard arrives in episode two along with Emily Watson, although we hear him briefly on the phone in the closing minutes of episode one.
A chilling soundtrack by Hildur Gudnadottir (Joker, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) will have your arms and neck prickling with goose pimples whenever it oozes out of speakers. The creeping, throbbing bass personifies the invisible tendrils of radiation infecting the world. Director Johan Renck delivers similar gut punches, rendering everything in various sickly hues and framing impending doom and dread so excellently.
“Please Remain Calm” – Episode Two
“Three hundred million, billion, trillion bullets”
Here we’re introduced to two characters that will play big parts in the rest of the series, Stellan Skarsgard as Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina and Emily Watson as nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character of several real scientists).
Jared Harris gives a brilliant performance as Valery Legasov, the chief scientist attached to the Chernobyl Commission. In the opening few minutes he’s given a briefing report to read before being dumped into a meeting with Soviet bigwigs, including Premier Gorbachev. Watching his face as he puts the pieces together and realises the implications is a silent rollercoaster and it’s not long before he’s banged a frustrated fist on the table.
He’s quickly ordered to Chernobyl to investigate things on the ground, alongside the Deputy Chairman Shcherbina. It’s a part that’s brilliantly written for Skarsgard. Shcherbina is a gruff Soviet strongman of the old school, a no nonsense troubleshooter unafraid of threatening to throw Legasov out of his helicopter. Luckily Legasov is able to convince the pilot to disobey Shcherbina’s orders for a closer look at the reactor, some clever foreshadowing of what’s to come later with a different helicopter. He’s also without the nuclear expertise that means Legasov is able to deliver some exposition that is illuminating enough to understand what’s at stake without being overly complicated. The emphasis remains solidly on the different peoples stories and how they’re affected.
Meanwhile, more than 200km away in Minsk, Ulana Khomyuk (Watson) opens a window and alarm bells start ringing. By a process of elimination she’s also quickly on the case of containing an even bigger disaster that could be looming. It is at this point, remembering this is all based on real events is a sobering revelation.
It’s also worth commending the impeccable production design of Luke Hall in this series. The framing of brutalist concrete architecture, the spartan lighting and drab polyester suits & ties brilliantly capture the era. Any text or signs within the frame are always in the original cyrillic lettering and it helps to establish it’s sense of place, even though the characters speak in English.
The close of the episode is perhaps one of the most fascinatingly grim set pieces on television. It’s established that three men must enter the still smouldering facility on what is nothing short of a suicide mission. The technicians don as much protective clothing as they can and head into the flooded interior, their geiger counters slowly raising to a shrill scream.
“Open Wide, O Earth” – Episode Three
“Now you look like the minister for coal”
Two hours + in and Chernobyl continues to prove itself an utterly compelling watch. Viewers beware however, moving on to containment and clean up does not mean they will be spared fresh horrors.
This episode picks up where we left off – deep in the flooded bowels of the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Against all the odds the three engineers find their way to their objective, the sluice gates to release the water, and return to their comrades. Jarred Harris’s Legasov remains glum though, knowing there will be further sacrifices ahead. A bond has formed between he and Shcherbina, both of whom are growing frustrated with the blockages of Soviet bureaucracy.
Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is determined to investigate the whys of the disaster and heads to Moscow Hospital No.6 (a very communist designation) in an effort to interview the plant workers who were on shift at the time of the disaster. Some of them are in a horrible state, acute radiation poisoning leaving them badly disfigured.
At the same hospital Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckey) is frantically searching for her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis). He and his colleagues seem to be in good shape. However, during a walk away from their KGB minders we learn from Lagasov’s explanation to Shcherbina that there is a latency in the worst effects of the radiation poisoning.
Buckey delivers a heartbreaking performance of such deep love and devotion, stepping past the plastic screens and staying long after she has been told she should leave. Staying with her stricken husband and soothing him in his final moments, despite his own radioactivity, is one of the most moving scenes you’ll see in this series. It is a real testament to Jessie Buckey’s skill as an actor.
Extensive research had been conducted by Daniel Parker, series make-up and prosthetics head, into just how the acute radiation poisoning manifested itself. He and his team have done such a true to life representation that it is without a doubt difficult to look at. Series creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck felt that if they were going to stick to the real as much as possible then it was important to be real about the affects. It is shocking but the camera doesn’t linger too long, and efforts were made not to cross the line into gratuitous and disrespectful.
This episode also manages a tonal gear change, allowing some dark levity amongst all the gloom. With the core now melting down and at threat of poisoning the water table a solution is thought up that requires a tunnel to be dug. Step forward Glukhov (an irascible Alex Ferns) and the miners of the Soviet Union! Glukhov and his men care not for authority and think nothing of pinching your cigarettes and patting their grubby paws on your suit. This is another moment where the series might have strayed into sniggering at the collectivisation of communism but it instead demonstrates that, despite the bureaucracy, the feeling of community was deeply felt.