Chernobyl Is a Harrowing and Worthy Look at One of the World's Worst Man-Made Disasters

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After you're over whatever surprises Game of Thrones offers you on Sunday and you've caught up on Veep and Barry, return to HBO for something a little more unpleasant.

A miniseries about the worst nuclear disaster in human history isn't something you watch for enjoyment, even if you're keen on that kind of horror.

No, Chernobyl is something you watch because everybody needs to know what happens when mistakes are made for selfish reasons, and lies are maintained to save face.

A Brave and Frightened Chernobyl Firefighter

Everybody should know about Chernobyl.

But with 30 years of life moving on after the tragedy, the world's attention turned elsewhere. Unless you're a fan of shows like Mysteries of the Abandoned, you might not know anything about the catastrophe of Chernobyl.

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But in a world where people still make decision driven by opportunity and where others would rather cover the truth than admit in any wrongdoing, Chernobyl is the ultimate cautionary tale.

And no, that caution isn't warning against nuclear energy. It's warning against humanity's gravest errors.

The Big Chernobyl Explosion

In 1986, the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant aka Chernobyl was failing some essential tests when they were run. 

Staff at the plant saw their futures riding on the success of testing core Reactor No. 4, so despite warning signs, they pushed through an ill-advised and unapproved test with the hope of success that would lead to promotions all around.

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Even though Three Mile Island suffered a misfire in Harrisburg, PA in 1979, the staff at Chernobyl believed so deeply in the safety of their plant that it never occurred to them anything of magnitude could unfold.

So when a test is run, the impossible happens, and the core of nuclear reactor gets blown to smithereens releasing graphite and nuclear ash into the atmosphere.

The Man in Charge of Chernobyl Operations

What follows in the immediate aftermath of the disaster is more human fodder that cost lives and put thousands of people at risk.

But those who made those mistakes were the few. Others rose to an occasion that was simply unprecedented by risking their lives at the request of the Soviet Government in exchange for a mere pittance (400-800 rubles or 100-200 dollars) to which they agreed because they were not fully aware of the consequences. 

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Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, a prominent Soviet inorganic chemist and a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR who ultimately leads the investigation into the Chernobyl disaster.

Legasov learns of the meltdown hours after it happens when those who were in the plant and those fighting the flames outside begin falling ill. By the time he's involved, it's already late in the process, but it will only grow longer in the tooth as officials argue over the possibilities of the fire.

Working for the Benefit of All Chernobyl

It's not an easy show to watch by any stretch. The benefit of hindsight is that we know what happens next and the horrors those closest to the explosion will face.

So for every person in charge in any capacity who refutes the word of others who assure them the core is gone, for example, and that going anywhere near it should be a death sentence, a creeping sense of dread grows.

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It's alarming watching nearby townsfolk amble closer to the plant to get a better look at the fire. With them are their children of all ages standing in what we know is nuclear waste.

The longer those in the know hold out on the truth as they suspect or know it to be, the worse things get for the town of Pripyat and neighboring Belarus. 

Surveying the Chernobyl Damage

But the number of people willing to risk their lives to contain the damage from spreading further shows the spirit of the Soviet people in ways that we never understood at that time.

Once the world's favorite villain, Chernobyl offers the exploration of everyone who went out of their way to make a difference, no matter how small.

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Once the plant crew and local firefighters were no longer of use, miners were called in to deal with what remained of the reactor's core. 

Women at hospitals dealt with more trauma than they knew how to manage while warding off family members and practicing their craft behind plastic curtains to mitigate cross-contamination.

Military Presence at Chernobyl

The human element of Chernobyl whether of those making the wrong decisions or the heroes who sacrificed their health and futures for that of their family and their nation is devastating to watch.

It's the unknown actors who breathe life into the horror as it unfolds because we are unfamiliar with them and they can better portray the "everyman" of the time.

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They're also the cast most likely to deal with the more difficult parts of the production as they got infected by radiation and their bodies melted from the inside out or they were tasked with caring for and loving those that did.

With faces we don't recognize, we can easily imagine those like them who sacrificed a lot as they battled the elements and their government to keep their disaster from getting worse.

Understanding Chernobyl

Emily Watson is excellent as a scientist named Ulana Khomyuk who travels from Belarus to assist with the proceedings, but her character is a composite representing all of the men and women who aided with the efforts.

Stellan Skarsgard is Boris Shcherbina, the highest level government official who is on site for a great deal of time. He's an actual person and one was interested in covering up the truth.

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Harris' Legasov was determined to expose the truth, and as a result of his suicide in 1988, it was easier to swallow some the more difficult reprehensible things that occurred during that time.

The series appears to be true to the historical element including the number of deaths directly relating to the incident and the fact that any verified count of lives impacted by Chernobyl is impossible.

A Concerned Chernobyl Wife

As mentioned, it's not an easy series to watch. In fact, during one particularly distressing episode, I found myself with my ears plugged and my eyes closed while I hummed loudly to drown out the sound.

I may have even cried. OK. I cried. But that wouldn't stop me from watching it all again because it is a story that needs to be told in the very dramatic fashion that five hours of Chernobyl allows.

Further following the stories of those affected and how they suffered as a result of losing everything due to evacuation and permanent relocation wouldn't be off the table for me.

Understanding history is one of the most important things we can do to get it better (if not right) the next time something like Chernobyl (or any historical event) occurs.

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Because even though nuclear facilities are now very safe, that doesn't mean another disaster with equal or more veracity isn't on the horizon. Humans experiment with science all the time, and if it was a nuclear reactor for Chernobyl, it could be something else entirely for another town.

Mondays are the worst day of the week. It's a perfect night to share with one of the uglier historical events in recent history as even though Pripyat will remain uninhabitable for years to come, the human spirit wasn't killed that day, and the Soviet Union ultimately toppled.

Truth reined, as it always will. It just takes a little time. 

Chernobyl will air Mondays at 9:00 for the next five weeks only on HBO.


Editor Rating: 4.5 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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