In the immediate post-Game of Thrones world, while we all sat around wondering what had just happened, one of the big questions on everyone’s mind was: “How will HBO fill the void left by this massive global phenomenon?” Of course, the wonks over at HBO were ready with an answer: “We will air a 5-episode series that chronicles, in painstakingly accurate historical detail, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.” While on its face this may have seemed like lunacy, we should by now know better than to doubt the wisdom of The Box.
The show opens on a dilapidated, run-down Soviet era apartment filled with the detritus of a human life in decline, and the leathery narration of Jared Harris reflecting on the meaning of truth. Because this is a character played by Jared Harris, we can rest assured that he will almost certainly die, which he immediately does, by hanging himself. The show then takes us back 2 years and 1 minute, to the start of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and we are off to the races.
The approach that Craig Mazin takes in approaching this story is methodical, precise and maybe a bit plodding. It frames the events from the perspective of high-level officials, mid-level bureaucrats and very low-level working class types who just happened to get caught up in the maelstrom. This even-handed, very balanced approach helps the viewer to understand each step that led to the disaster, the scientific and political context in which it occurred as well as how it impacted regular people in their everyday lives. As a piece dramatized history, it functions both as an effective drama and as a very informative almost-documentary. Jared Harris’ speech in the final episode is a tremendously clear and concise explanation of how nuclear fission works - and how human error, design flaws and bad luck conspired to cause the disaster at Chernobyl.
My favorite part of this show, however, was the production design. It is impeccable. I never went to the Soviet Union during the 1980s, but from what I have read online people who did say the show has created a very realistic facsimile of what it was like. This is more difficult than you might think because by and large Soviet era design is drab and workman-like. Creating a textured reality that accurately recreates that boring uniformity while also being engaging and realistic enough to pull the viewer into the world is no easy task, but something Chernobyl excels at.
If there are any quibbles I have with the show they are minor. For one, the grandstanding speech at the end where Jared Harris speaks truth to power and makes a dramatic show of Doing the Right Thing seemed a tad too much Hollywood for me. Like, if you were paying attention for the 4 1/2 hours prior to that scene then you already got it - Chernobyl was caused not by any one thing or person but by an insular system that rewarded party loyalty above all else, incentivizing people to cut corners and cover up mistakes, as well as creating a ripe environment for unqualified people to make critical errors, and that a lot of this was papered over thanks to geopolitical imperatives underpinning the Soviet Union right before its decline. It wasn’t really necessary to give Legasov this grand heroic turn, in my opinion. Felt a bit manufactured and contrived, when the show had already very carefully laid out what was going on if you were paying attention.
Also, just a quick note on the pacing. The pacing is very slow. Methodical. One might even say ponderous, or plodding. This is obviously done for a reason. It’s because the true villain in this show, the real menace, is radiation. You cannot see it. It’s not even clear how many people actually died as a result of radiation exposure and you never know how much you are getting. If your antagonist is an invisible menace how do you show that visually? By filling every image with a sense of pervasive and inescapable dread. The show chose to do that with quiet, plodding pacing and an ominous soundtrack that is pregnant with a sense of dread. It works, for the most part. But there were a few scenes where the camera would linger for, like, a really long time on a caterpillar or something perhaps a bit longer than was necessary to convey that feeling it was going for.
But really, I’m splitting hairs here. The series is great as drama. It’s great as history. And it was great as the perfect after dinner digestive following the orgy of noise and chaos and dashed hopes and dreams that was Game of Thrones.