Director: Johan Renck
Cast: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley, Barry Keoghan, Paul Ritter
Episode Count: 5
Two things are immediately surprising about Chernobyl. The first: in a series depicting the 1986 disaster, there’s a distinct lack of even a whiff of Russian anywhere. The cast — an extensive ensemble made up of largely British and Irish actors —ditch any attempt at an accent throughout its 5-epsiode run. It’s a decision that, while initially contentious, very quickly feels like a wise one — no wobbly diction to distract here— as writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck begin the descent into this bleak, engrossing nightmare. The second: despite not a single episode currently sitting below a 9.6 IMDb score, it’s hardly a series you would call bingeworthy.
This is, rather, patient and dense television of the highest order that captivates with haunting, striking lure. Given an event of such scale and magnitude, the temptation for many a filmmaker might be to launch headlong into a terrifyingly visceral account of decay, destruction and death. Chernobyl begins with a cat.
Its owner is Valery Legasov (Jared Harris): a physicist from the Kurchatov Institute, who, sat at his kitchen table exactly two years (to the minute) since the catastrophe, records the last of his testimonies about the failings at the titular nuclear plant. He ventures out into the night, glances at a car parked ominously across the street, deposits the cassettes in an alleyway vent, returns home and hangs himself.
Jumping back to the early hours of the 26th April 1986, a Pripyat firefighter Visaly Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife Lyudmilla (the ever-impressive Buckley) witness a glow on the horizon before their home abruptly shakes from a distant explosion. Visaly is called in as a first responder to the burning Chernobyl site while the townsfolk — men, women and children — gather on a bridge to watch the event, tragically unaware that with each passing second, the air they breathe is becoming increasingly toxic.
Their blissful ignorance makes for an excruciating, horrifying watch — a feeling that lingers throughout the show’s entirety — but it’s here that the series sets its important precedent: this is as much a human narrative exploring the complexities of morality and truth as it is about a nuclear meltdown in a small town in Soviet Ukraine.
Politics plays its part — namely, the strictly upheld Socialist regime dictating the orders handed down by the hierarchy in the aftermath — but Chernobyl is much more a damning assessment of the failings of humans in positions of power: the silent, smoking beast along the bleak skyline might be the more obvious monster, but the true terror has a far more familiar face. Even Legasov — the closest the series has to a protagonist — must wade through morality’s murky waters when he’s drafted in to lead a clean-up operation alongside Stellan Skarsgård’s stoic government representative Boris Shcherbina: the pair ultimately conceding to the tragic implications of such a hefty undertaking.
Just as the deadly levels of radiation spilling from the plant’s exposed core pervade forest, street and home, there’s a growing, brooding sense of injustice that carries through Chernobyl. Mazin’s narrative lens focuses and retracts between those in the know — Legasov and Ulana Khomyuk (Watson), a fellow nuclear physicist from Minsk (a fictional character, but an amalgamation of the real men and women who assisted Legasov) — those painfully unaware — the hapless firefighters; the local community; the industry workers; the soldiers brought in to help with the evacuation — and the natural world. But never does it offer any such neatly packaged distinction. Each of them, either by choice, chance or command, is tarnished by the same sharp brush, where death, lies, guilt and grief hang heavy in the polluted air. The consequences of every action are described in horrifying detail: a powerful case of telling not showing that is affecting even at the point of character interaction serving only to help explain the plot. The visual atrocity is not completely absent, however; but much of the horror is left to potently stew away in the imagination.
But chaos and melancholy aren’t merely feelings left for the mind to ponder. A sense of such immense devastation ripples through every aspect of the production here: from the tragic character arcs, to the bleak, lingering cinematography of Jakob Ihre, to the dreary colour pallet, to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s chilling score. And yet, just as a moment in the final episode which sees Shcherbina pause to observe a tiny green caterpillar move along his hand, the series is also quietly hopeful. A final postscript states that close to 600,000 people, most of whom remain unnamed, are credited as giving their lives in order to save those of millions. Amidst the devastation, Chernobyl seems to retain the belief that nature always finds a way back — that even in a darkness almost unimaginable, the light of life can, and will, prevail.
Astounding, harrowing and pertinent: Chernobyl is not merely a history lesson. It is a warning.