Chernobyl – the HBO masterwork in human misery that took our tellies by nuclear storm earlier in the year – this week received a whopping four Golden Globe nominations. It’s a roster that ties the Craig Mazin-created and Johan Renck-directed miniseries with Netflix’s syrupy royal romp The Crown and the same platform’s crime drama Unbelievable as the top nominees in the “Limited Series Or TV Film” section of the awards.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Chernobyl, after all, is the best piece of small-screen drama ever made. Not only is the show painstakingly historically accurate, it’s also wildly entertaining, desperately sad, totally terrifying, expertly crafted, with sublimely cinematograph, and the acting is blisteringly good.
Moreover, the show’s exploration of what happens when the unstoppable force of human endeavour meets the immovable object of certain scientific chaos makes it not only a pertinent piece of television in this, the age of imminent climatic catastrophe, but totally entertaining and seductive with it too.
You’ll almost certainly have watched the series, so no need for a long-winded explanation of the ins and outs, but I will admit I’ve watched the entire thing six times. Six. It’s a point that means that I’ve given some 33 hours of my life to Chernobyl (not to mention the endless, internalised hours dedicated to post-show analysis: “So I got to thinking, what would radiation look like if you could see it?”), which was released only seven short months ago.
I’ve thought long and hard about why I’ve become so utterly obsessed with the series and, in turn, the disaster itself, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simply because every time I watch the former I feel like I’m learning something new about the latter. Which, most importantly, means I have facts such as: “Caesium-137 and strontium-9 have half lives of 30 and 28 years respectively, actually,” and “Estimates for the number of direct and indirect deaths range between 4,000 and 400,000!” to throw around at dinner parties.
And though each episode has its own merits, the one I find myself returning to time and again is episode three, "Open Wide O Earth" (I’ve watched it eight times in total). I think the reason I’m so particularly (peculiarly, perhaps) fascinated by it is because it’s the one that contains some of the most harrowingly human moments in the entire series. Much of the action in the episode takes place in Moscow Hospital, where expectant mother Lyudmilla Ignatenko (a real-life figure, played by Jessie Buckley) visits her radiation-riddled firefighter husband, Vasilly (Adam Nagaitis). It is also here that nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) interviews the team that oversaw the control panel of reactor four on the night of the disaster.
To cut a long story short, it’s easily the most gruesome episode of the five. In the opening scenes we are shown – at close quarters – the reality of what being exposed to such high levels of radiation (5,000 times the recommended annual dose in the case of some firefighters) does to the body. Skin falls off, faces disintegrate and living cadavers decompose before our very eyes – the radiation particles move like “bullets”, in the words of Jared Harris’ character, Valery Legasov, through the bodies of the afflicted, tearing their flesh to mouldering shreds.
Call me morbid, call me ghoulish, but I’m a sucker for horror films and this specific episode of Chernobyl surpasses any and all of the terrors in The Exorcist, The Shining and The Human Centipede put together. What’s more, it’s real. This actually happened. And given that there are way more active nuclear power plants (around 450) today than there were in 1987 when the accident actually happened (253) and that the most recent comparable disaster occurred just eight years ago, at the Fukashima plant in Japan, Chernobyl may just be the scariest piece of film ever made. And for that reason, I’m my opinion, it should clean up at the awards next January.
Oh, and before I scuttle off to my makeshift nuclear bunker to watch the show a seventh time (just writing this has got me itching for a fix), I would encourage you to give the series soundtrack, by Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir, a listen. I’ve had it on repeat the entire time I’ve been writing this and confirm it’s as haunting as it is evocative. Nothing like the dissonant strains of contorting metal and simulated radiation to get the creative juices flowing now, is there?