You could feel the rumble in the parade of ads that bookended each of the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” this spring: HBO didn’t have another must-see show in the wings, and before we canceled our subscriptions en masse, it had to hook us with something new. The simple (dare I say stark) title “Chernobyl” popped out of the lineup then, and during its five-episode run, it surpassed the dragon soap opera, even, for sheer awe and fear. It’s a historical political drama-as-horror film, a dark tour of Soviet life and government in the minutes and months after the nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, blew a reactor in April of 1986. As a feat of TV, it’s extraordinary. As of this writing, it’s IMDB.com’s top-rated television show, ever.
The show begins with a real event, and a real scientist named Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) dictating his evaluation of the Chernobyl response into a cassette recorder, stashing a stack of tapes, and hanging himself, two years to the day after the explosion. Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) was the apparatchik assigned, to his dismay, to investigate and contain the crisis. Emily Watson also stars, as a fictional composite of the nuclear scientists who pursued the underlying causes of the disaster; and Jessie Buckley haunts the film as the pregnant wife of a firefighter who, as a first responder to the blaze, was bombarded with Hiroshima-like radiation. That wife, a person named Lyudmilla Ignatenko, was real, as were the millions of people in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and eastern Europe who were directly affected by the radiation.
The costumes, sets, technology and color scheme all scream 1980s Eastern Bloc, though who knows, in a society that was keener on standardization than it was on changing fashions, whether you’re looking at 1950 or 1990. The overall feel of “Chernobyl” is of a Spielbergian post-WWII drama, not least because the scale of the event almost reached world-war proportions. Had the Soviets not figured out how to contain the core, as Legasov has to explain to Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik), the sand used to initially quell the blaze could have melted down as a radioactive lava until it hit and superheated an underground reservoir. The explosion would have rained isotopes across Europe, poisoning tens of millions and rendering the surrounding areas uninhabitable for a century.
A certain stoicism pervades an atheistic country with a very active secret police in such times, and seeing this catastrophe unfold from behind the Iron Curtain, where tight control of information is paramount, lends a true-life dystopian feel to the rescue drama. The most personal villain here, played with imperious gusto by Paul Ritter, is certainly Anatoly Dyatlov, the plant supervisor giving orders on the night a routine safety check cascaded into a nuclear event. His top-down style mirrors that of two other plant officials who were sentenced afterward, whose response in the early moments was to pair the least damning piece of evidence with the rosiest possible version of events and offer that to the party bosses as reality. As the career party man, Shcherbina keeps his true opinions mostly close to the vest. The exception comes when a West German police robot sent to help clean up chunks of intensely radioactive graphite conks out seconds into the operation. He raves: It was never going to work. The Soviets, downplaying the crisis even as poison filled the air, told the Germans the radiation was a fraction of its true figure. Live by the propaganda; die by it as well.
People still live in Ukraine today; you already know the worst-case scenarios didn’t come to pass. But the close calls still resonate as some of the scariest counterfactuals you’ve ever seen play out in a drama. And in laying the disaster at the feet, primarily, of liars and tinpot dictators, “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin here has spun a deft political drama for an era where the phrase “Russian election interference” has rocked Europe and the United States. The show asks — though Legasov and other scientists who raced to contain the literal fallout — what is the price of a lie? Read that question in any number of ways, in any number of catastrophes since, and it applies: disasters, even American disasters, begin and worsen as we delude one another. Every lie, Legasov says, incurs a debt to the truth. “Chernobyl” reminds us that the payment can come due at any time, and in the most terrifying fashion imaginable.