“What is the cost of lies?”
Despite the 1986 Chernobyl disaster taking place only a mere 33 years ago, the true extent of the horror faced by those involved has been forgotten. Whether due to the USSR’s smokescreen of misinformation or the western media’s sudden disinterest when the disaster no longer posed a direct threat to them; it’s rarely understood quite how momentous a disaster Chernobyl actually was. A new 5 part miniseries from HBO and Sky TV aims to rectify that. Created by Craig Mazin, the first episode of Chernobyl is a harrowing and gut wrenching affair, and not at all what you’d expect from the man who previously was best known for his work on two of the Scary Movie films.
The episode begins in 1988 (history buffs will notice that this is two years after the Chernobyl incident) with Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov narrating. His aged and decrepit appearance and the blood spotted handkerchief he carries are our first small hints of the toll the Chernobyl incident had on people. He finishes up recording his doom leaden tape, hides it from the government officials watching his apartment and then hangs himself (sidenote: is it just me or does Jared Harris seem to die a lot in his TV work? He hung himself in Mad Men too and a similarly cancer-y bloodied tissue scene in The Crown). This sets the sombre tone for the whole show and it never lets up. We cut to 1986 right at the moment the core explodes within the Chernobyl facility. We don’t yet get any gruesome radiation sickness (but boy, is that coming) but the reaction of the plant supervisor when he’s told the core has ‘gone’ is equally disturbing. His soviet era blind faith in the strength of the USSR’s abilities is uncompromising and he flat out denies the possibility that the core could have exploded, a theme that continues with the other soviet officials in the episode. It’s a frustrating watch, for all the right reasons, and an alarming parallel to our own era of political lies and ‘alternative facts’.
Despite the show advertising the casting of big names like Jared Harris, Stellen Skarsgård and Emily Watson, these 3 don’t really feature this episode. Harris shows up in the aforementioned opening and a little bit at the end and we hear the voice of Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and head of the Bureau for Fuel and Energy, but Watson doesn’t appear until next episode. Instead the episode is carried by the other, smaller name actors. They are the ones on the ground when the the core exploded. We watch them dooming themselves as they investigate the meltdown, still under the belief that the incident is far less serious than what has actually happened. Knowing a little about the Chernobyl disaster before watching the show is definitely a different experience to watching it knowing nothing (and most people watching wouldn’t even have been alive when the incident happened, myself included). It becomes like watching a horror movie when you’ve seen too many horror movies. You shout at the screen ‘don’t go in there!’ because you know what awaits them if they do. The more clued up audience members find themselves in a unique position of dread and frustration as they watch the inevitable events unfold.
Even without prior knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster, the show does a good job of emphasising the horror of the situation through the fantastic music and direction. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s stark score throughout is beautiful and pairs well with director Johan Renck’s haunting visuals. The scene where her score plays over the slow motion shots of the Pripyat children playing in the radioactive ash is particularly evocative. Renck and Guðnadóttir provide the direction and score the subsequent episodes also. The script, written by Mazin, is great too; perfectly balancing enough information about the disaster to keep you following but also allowing for a realistic sense of confusion. Mazin’s script makes sure we are aware that the biggest frustrations in the catastrophe come from the failures of the higher ups to acknowledge the truth – leading to many more, unnecessary deaths.
Chernobyl is yet another fantastic and essential miniseries from HBO. From a purely historical standpoint, it’s a story that deserves to be told as the effects of the Soviets misinformation campaign over 30 years ago are still being felt (and similar campaigns are being waged by crooked politicians like Donald Trump today). But from an entertainment standpoint, Chernobyl is a top tier TV drama, encompassing everything great about this era of so-called ‘prestige TV’. It might be not be ‘fun’ but it’s one of the most engrossing starts to a TV show I’ve seen in a long time.