When reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in April 1986 outside of Pripyat, Ukraine, the whole world watched in horror as tidbits of information leaked out of the tightly controlled Soviet Union. But conflicting official and scientific reports made it difficult to know the extent of the disaster.
The piecemeal accounts of how Chernobyl unfolded have made the disaster ripe for over-dramatization and under-dramatization, depending on the storyteller’s politics and attitudes toward nuclear energy. But HBO’s new five-part mini-series stands out: it has the benefit of an extremely well-researched script that isn’t afraid to make tasteful modifications to the story to keep the viewer from getting bored and drowning in names.
In short, Chernobyl, which debuts on HBO tonight at 9pm ET, is worth the watch.
Disaster of human proportions
The series primarily follows Soviet Nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård), and another Soviet nuclear physicist named Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) as they investigate why reactor four exploded and decide how to respond to it.
Legasov and Shcherbina are historical figures; Khomyuk is a fictional character made to represent the dozens of scientists who helped investigate the crisis as it unfolded. This change is a welcome one, because five hour-long episodes are not enough to learn a -sized cast of characters.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that the drama will be personal and political, rather than finger-wagging at, say, the hubris of man for trying to contain the power of the atom. Instead of vilifying nuclear power, ‘s real villain is the decades of fear and scrounging ambition that warped the minds of people with the slightest shot at power under the Soviet regime.
The secrecy maintained by Soviet officials, and the reluctance of lower-rung people to tell their superiors that something terribly, terribly wrong had occurred, sent two dozen firefighters to early graves. doesn’t shrink from showing the audience how agonizing those deaths were.
The Soviet patchwork of misinformation and over-compensation to the disaster left partners, hospital workers, and children exposed to radiation poisoning, and it sent hundreds of thousands into a forced diaspora whose necessity is still being debated today. (And honestly, if you’re feeling at all weepy or sad, save the fourth episode for another day.)
That said, the series doesn’t lean on over-fictionalization to goose the drama. Those familiar with how the Chernobyl disaster played out know that three Chernobyl employees were sent under the reactor in the days after the explosion. The divers made their way through extremely radioactive and flooded passageways in order to manually open a sluice that would drain away the water, lest the exposed reactor fuel melt through the floor above and create a second and more massive steam explosion.
Early tellings of this story often have the divers dying the same kind of gruesome death that the first-responding firefighters died, but more recent accounts suggest that they didn’t follow such a predictable path. Instead, they survived for years after the event but fell into obscurity. depicts the divers’ moment in tense detail, but the series holds back from killing those characters off for cheap melodrama.
For all its worth as a political drama, the series also doesn’t skimp on explaining—in broad but not simplistic terms—the physical causes behind the reactor explosion. The final episode is the most technical and also the most dramatic as Legasov must choose between offering the official version of the events that led to the explosion or the correct version of those events to a national and international audience. Viewers come away understanding the fatal flaw in Chernobyl’s RBMK reactor, but they also leave with a complicated feeling of both empathy and revulsion for Legasov that didn’t exist before the episode started.
Navigating conflicting accounts
After viewing the series, Ars hopped on the phone with the show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin, who spent years researching the disaster. Mazin’s thoughtful answers confirmed that was made with truth as an intention: the writer said he used every bit of information that was available to him to source his work, “from books that were written by Soviet scientists that were involved, to nuclear agency reports, audio tapes, photos.” Mazin also utilizes the book , which collected first-person accounts of the disaster.
In his research, Mazin found that “there are some facts that aren’t consistent with each other.” In those cases, “I defer to the less dramatic version of things,” the writer said.
“There are things that happened there that are so shocking and horrifying that you want to be unblinking… but you don’t want to cross a line into the sensational,” he added. So in order to be accountable when dramatizing such a contentious topic, Mazin and HBO have also released a companion podcast, where Mazin catalogues the changes that he made to adapt the story for TV on an episode-by-episode basis.
Like all worthwhile historical drama, contains a tinge of today’s politics. Ars asked Mazin how he viewed modern nuclear power in the context of researching the 1986 disaster. His response? “I’m pro nuclear power, I think that nuclear power is essential to combat climate change, and I want people to understand just why [the Chernobyl disaster] happened.
“The Soviets… made a flawed reactor more dangerous, and even just the incident itself: they were running a safety test that shouldn’t have been run,” the writer added. “Because I think nuclear power is so essential to our future, I think it’s really important that we treat it with as much care and respect as we can, because it can be devastating.”
Ultimately, Mazin hoped to show that the Chernobyl disaster happened because of lots of small decisions, especially those decisions to hide or downplay truth in the hopes of pleasing superiors. This is even reflected in the “hero” character of Legasov, who has a healthy fear of how devastating the crisis before his eyes is becoming, but who worked in lockstep with the people who created the conditions that led to the disaster.
“[Legasov] wasn’t a bad guy,” Mazin said. “What he was was like all of us, I think, going along to get along. When we’re not in crisis…we go along, and we continue to do so until a crisis dislodges us from our daily lives… then one day a nuclear power plant explodes and you can’t going through your day pretending that these little decisions don’t amount to big problems.”