The five-part HBO series dramatises the story of the 1986 nuclear accident, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and of the brave men and women who made incredible sacrifices to save not just the Soviet Union, but the whole of Europe, from unimaginable disaster.
Directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), Chernobyl stars Emmy nominee Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men) as nuclear physicist Valery Legasov; People’s Choice nominee Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia, Good Will Hunting) as deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina; Oscar nominee Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie, Breaking the Waves) as nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, and 2019 British Actress of the Year Jessie Buckley (Taboo, The Last Post) as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the first firefighters to respond.
Rotten Tomatoes recently hailed Chernobyl as “TV’s most scary offering in years… where history and reality are more terrifying than zombies.”
The Chernobyl explosion was the result of a routine safety test gone wrong, but the series makes it clear the catastrophe was caused less by individual human error and more by the broader culture of fear within the Soviet Union at the time, where a culture of denialism and blame-shifting had become entrenched, and where, as executive producer Jane Featherstone (Broadchurch) puts it, “Everyone was afraid of the system.”
“When you start to look at all the different causes of this accident to happen, it’s an accumulation of that kind of a mentality, which is that it’s more convenient to believe comfortable truths and comfortable facts, than it is to face difficult choices and difficult realities,” says Jared Harris.
Or as his character Valery Legasov says in a key scene, “That is how a RBMK reactor core explodes – lies.”
But while South Africans may find some chilling parallels watching Chernobyl, they’ll also be inspired by the story of its heroic clean-up.
“The Soviets and particularly the people of Ukraine and Russia and Belarus threw themselves at this task in a way that is shocking and beautiful and terrifying and heart-breaking,” says writer and executive producer Craig Mazin, Chernobyl’s writer/executive producer. “We’re talking about 700 000 people sent to clean up this impossibly contaminated area.”
Many of these heroes did not receive a hero’s welcome. “These were scientists trying to solve a mystery within a system that did not want them to solve the mystery,” says Mazin of his lead characters. “They were put on trial. Scientists involved in this were threatened. Their families were threatened. But yet they did it anyway, because they understood as scientists that the truth was something that could no longer be hidden away.”
As he says about some of the other heroes at Chernobyl, “There was no expectation that they would survive. But they did it nonetheless.”
The show is now available to stream on Showmax.