Maybe this is a good time for a drama about Chernobyl. I mean, as it becomes increasingly tempting to give in to apocalyptic ideation, I guess it’s useful to remember that the apocalypse already happened, and not even that long ago (I was a teenager and remember it vividly), and we apparently survived it.
In April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in present-day Ukraine, exploded, leaving a large number of first-responder widows and a legacy of environmental annihilation. The incident and its aftermath are the subject of a new, five-part drama on HBO. Let me start by saying people with mood disorders should weigh the pros and cons carefully before tuning in: It’s possibly the worst thing I have ever seen on TV. And I don’t mean poorly done. (It’s unfortunately brilliant). I mean Chernobyl is devastatingly realistic and really, really devastating, so be prepared for graphic depictions of what it’s like to die of radiation poisoning. Or what it’s like to be recruited to the task force that has to destroy radioactive housecats, milk cows and puppies. I literally couldn’t sit through the first episode. I had to watch it ten minutes at a time.
The outstanding cast is led by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, a Kremlin apparatchik, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist who makes the government understand they cannot lie and obfuscate their way out of a nuclear disaster. Emily Watson rounds it out as Ulana Komyuk, a Byelorussian scientist determined to find out what really happened in order to keep it from ever happening again. The production is HBO-grade excellent. The soundtrack is a testament to the terrifying sound of a chattering Geiger counter. Writer and producer Craig Mazin is relentless in his depiction of human corruption and environmental breakdown, and director Johan Renck gives Lars von Trier a run for his melancholic money. It is an anatomy of fear and incompetence and hopelessness and baseness and self-destructiveness. It is desolate and desperate and excruciating and horrible. Horrible. Horrible.
And it should be. While taking self-care breaks from the first episode, I thought a lot about the way this incident, recent enough for me to remember in full color and even after Fukushima the worst nuclear accident in history, has faded from the collective consciousness. I don’t think American children even learn about it in school. And it’s important. Not just at the physics-meets-environmental-science level, but also politically, psychologically—the way the Soviet Union attempted to handle it is mind-blowing, as is the coverup-of-coverup-of-coverup situation that led to it in the first place. Watch the innumerable shots of radiation burn victims lighting cigarettes if you want a neat little stanza of visual poetry: Chernobyl is not about a reactor core melting down as much as it is about people adamantly opposed to looking reality in the face, or acting in their own short-term interests while actively detonating their long-term ones.
Everything about the series is brilliantly tragic and horrid, narratively and artistically. But the vein of absolute horror that runs through it is the knowledge that this really happened. A nuclear reactor exploded, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation and requiring mass evacuation and the destruction of countless animals and acres of forest and farmland. Hundreds were sickened and 30 people died; miraculously, the instantaneous death toll was a double-digit number, though it’s probably impossible to pinpoint how many people definitely died of cancer who wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise. Mitigation efforts, 33 years later, still account for something like 7% of the Ukraine’s annual government spending.
But as significant as any of that is the fact that the denial and corruption and wanton refusal to deal with reality also happened. Chernobyl is, as much as anything, a comment on the power of government to impede positive solutions to scary problems. At this point in our history, it’s worth remembering all of these things. There are disasters and mass-casualty events that no one could realistically prevent. Chernobyl was not one of them. It wasn’t the first human-caused mass catastrophe and it wasn’t the last, and we need to be sure we don’t forget that. And that we do everything in our power to keep it from happening again, even if that means not deciding in favor of your own personal short-term advantage. So I am glad we have this show to help us remain clear on what happens if we lose sight of all that. But honestly—and this is a testament to how well-done it is—I don’t ever want to see it again.
Chernobyl premieres Monday, May 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.