HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’: Review

Still from HBO & Sky's Chernobyl

It’s unsurprising that the suicide which kicks off the first episode is the cleanest and most sanitised part of the whole affair. We are immediately plunged into a situation wherein we know, almost immediately, that just about everyone we’ll meet in the next hour will die — usually horrifically.

That first episode is really compelling, mostly because it’s the one with the most moving parts, and because at that point — amidst the fire and fury — we don’t yet see the profound lack of interest that this series has in its characters.

Most of the major players of that first episode are swiftly dispatched halfway through the second, those introduced there fall aside as quickly. Even the places where folks seem to linger, a young couple played by Jesse Buckley and Adam Nagaitis, the script finds very little in them other than their plight.

Director Johan Renck is very good at establishing mood. The most evocative moments stand out on their own, reliant entirely on movement and noise. The descent of divers into the flooded water tanks, the mad ninety-second rush of the bio-robots onto the irradiated rooftops, the extended dog killing segments.

There’s only a single dialogue scene that I remember with such detail: and it’s because in all the almost six hours, there’s only one character decision that surprised me.

As it goes on it kinda revels in its own grossness — even the decision to not show the most severely irradiated of the dying men is in its own way an exploitative move from a drama that is otherwise constructed with extreme sterility. There’s a line where someone describes cleaning a man’s decaying flesh when he shits himself in the night and that’s like gross, but an act that speaks of human compassion in a series that doesn’t really express too much.

Instead, we get more and more aerial shots of the ruined plant, of the evacuated town of Pripyat, of work being carried out, all process painstakingly detailed. Yet the folks in episode one we see watching from the ‘Bridge of Death’ only ever return in a title card at the end of episode five announcing their untimely demise.

Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov at one point snaps that being there, carrying out their work, gives them maybe five years to live. The greater tragedy that the show seems unable to grapple with is how this is so true for the thousands of people all across the area, the children who would go on the be born compromised by something so distant.

By the end it’s transmuted from horror to heroism. Harris, Skarsgård and Watson acquit themselves well, but their characters may as well be ciphers, for the amount of range that we’re allowed to see them express.

I keep coming back to the fact that they decided to start the piece with the suicide, and end it by eliding the final year of the man’s life. The writer said that he didn’t want to surprise the audience with it in the final moments, but death was always going to be the end of this story. Feels more like they didn’t want to have a downer ending, but the happy one they painted onto this tragedy rings hollow.

I knew some stuff about Chernobyl beforehand, but for some reason my mind didn’t see it happening in 1986. Another of the great sequences is the evacuation of Pripyat, and its immediacy is frightening.

I find myself more affected by the stories which we weren’t told.

Chernobyl is available via HBO in the USA and Sky Atlantic in the UK.


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