Chernobyl Is Peak Horror
HBO's Chernobyl was, at first, overshadowed by the muddled, underwhelming Goliath that was the final Game of Thrones episode last month. But the show has come into its own with each passing week, gaining more and more viewers and exposing them to the awful realities of the 1986 disaster, making it clear just how much of that story was, quite deliberately, not really told for some time.
Chernobyl Nuclear Plant's name recognition is strong, but watching the days after the tragedy unfold in excruciating detail sheds new light on the sheer terror and scale of the disaster. The first episode is a master class in dramatic irony, sending wave after wave of first responders into the burning plant without so much as safety goggles, their faces blistering red with radiation burns within seconds. It's prestige TV, yes, but this is also a seriously horrifying take on a unique and insidious poison that lingers in the air over the site to this day—and will for centuries to come. In his chilling indictment of the USSR's "what's the big deal" approach in the hours after the explosion, Jared Harris's Valery Legasov chillingly explains that “every atom of uranium is like a bullet, penetrating everything in its path—metal, concrete, flesh." Chernobyl, he says, has more than three trillion bullets in the air. "Some of them will not stop firing for 50,000 years.” If there's anything pleasant about Chernobyl, it's the show's wall-to-wall excellent acting, which not only shines from the likes of Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, but manages to entirely avoid one of the major pitfalls of historical adaptations: fake accents. God bless.
But nuclear fuel isn't the only villain of the piece: The Soviet government's insistence on saving face is desperate, cowardly, and evil. Pripyat, the city that housed Chernobyl's workers and their families, is not evacuated until more than 30 hours after the bullets start raining down for hundreds of miles. Even then, the exclusion zone was only permitted to be 30 km from the blast site, to downplay the size of the disaster (the exclusion zone now currently covers around 2,600 square kilometers). Another baddie Chernobyl points a finger at is the semi-amusingly hapless assistant technician Anatoly Dyatlov, whose laissez-faire approach to a nuclear catastrophe has already launched a thousand memes.
It's not just the body horror that makes Chernobyl hard to watch (though the hospital scenes in which various plant workers and firefighters claw at their burning, red-raw flesh is artfully ghastly). The psychological horror inflicted on countless young men and women is equally painful. In one brilliant, unbroken sequence, we follow one of a team of liquidators tasked with a 90-second mission of removing as much heavily radioactive graphite as possible from the roof of the plant, 90 seconds being the absolute maximum any of them could withstand; even then the mission will, we know as viewers, likely prove fatal to many of them. It's brutal, imagining what's going through this man's mind as he takes on a relatively small task with such great risk, all for the sake of a much larger, more desperate mission. He returns several seconds over the limit, having stumbled, and discovers a tear in his suit. He's toast. Elsewhere, The Killing of a Sacred Deer standout Barry Keoghan is tasked with murdering every pet in Pripyat before they can roam and infect. The dogs die, but the camera is trained on Keoghan's face the entire time, which is somehow worse to watch.
Chernobyl may just be too raw and too harrowing to be considered "essential viewing," but this is a recent and very real disaster that a lot of us only know about in bits and pieces. More urgently, in this age of governmental secrecy, misinformation, and instability, we might need to take a few more notes than we'd like from this gruesome, unthinkable, but all too true horror story.