Very mild spoilers. All images courtesy of HBO.
For those of you who loved Game Of Thrones, I just want to say—I feel your pain. I loved Game Of Thrones too, and nothing compares to the heartbreak of seeing your favourite characters getting butchered one by one. It hurts to see Tyrion turn stupid for no reason. It hurts to watch Jaime un-redeem himself. It hurts every time Euron appears. Full stop.
As for fans of Daenerys, no words can console you for how carelessly the show mistreated your queen. It’s almost as if they just shrugged and said ‘bitches be crazy’, before pushing her out the metaphorical window.
Yeah, it sucks. I know. Right now, you probably want to delete your HBO’s number from your phone and block him on Instagram. To those of you thus tempted, I say: “Stop! Have Mercy! Don’t delete your HBO subscription just yet!”
At least not until you’ve watched Chernobyl—the best show on television right now.
3.6 Roentgens. Not Great. Not Terrible.
In 1986, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blows up. At 1:23:40 AM, its No.4 nuclear reactor splits open like an overripe melon and sends tons of radioactive material into the sky. More than 4000 people—a conservative estimate—die as a result of this accident.
Some of them—the firefighters—die within weeks from horrifying radiation burns. Others wait years until cancer claims them.
However, on the night itself, nobody realises that the worst nuclear disaster in history has just occurred. In fact, everyone in charge seems determined to believe otherwise, despite the evidence in front of their eyes.
Deputy Chief-Nuclear Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, angrily dismisses reports that his reactor is a smoking hole in the ground. Even when his subordinates projectile-vomit blood on his face, he continues to insist that it was just a boiler gone kaput.
“Not great, not terrible”, he concludes, displaying a Monthy-Pythonesque level of denial.
The fire brigade gets called and they rush in without even a face mask for protection, believing it was just a normal ‘roof fire’. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Pripyat, local authorities decide not to evacuate because it would ‘cause a panic’. Outside, children play in the radioactive dust as if it were snow.
The Fake News travels further and further up the chain-of-command until it reaches Secretary Gorbachev in Moscow, who convenes a committee in the Kremlin. Everyone continues to believe all is well until they’re finally disabused of the notion by our hero—Comrade-Nuclear Physicist Valery Legasov. He is summoned to be the committee’s token expert but quickly realises that everything is the opposite of okay.
Millions will die in the most gruesome way imaginable if he doesn’t the debunk the Fake News of ‘Not Great, Not Terrible’—and so, debunk it fast he must.
This is the story that creator Craig Mazin wants to tell and, oh bòzhe mòi, is it told brilliantly. The show is so gripping and harrowing that it makes Game Of Thrones look like an episode of Teletubbies. At certain points, I had to pause and go for a smoke because it was just too overwhelming. The immersion is total. You really feel like you’re in the disaster zone beside Comrade Legasov, in the last days of a crumbling Soviet Union.
The show has no real villain. Much of the horror and tension comes from the invisible threat of Radiation, which looms over the land like Death itself. It is hard to watch the firefighters, soldiers, and bureaucrats go about their business, knowing that many of them will soon be dead.
For the lucky, they will vomit and recover. For the unfortunate, they will soon be weeping pus, blood and diarrhoea onto hospital bedsheets as their bodies literally decompose. It’s like watching a massive game of Russian roulette with thousands of players and trillions of invisible bullets.
This horror is unconventional but visceral. You can stab a zombie in the face, and run away from Godzilla. But how do you stop radiation? It is in the air you breathe and the water you drink. By the time you notice its there, it’s already inside you, shredding your DNA like paper. After a while, the crackle of a dosimeter will haunt your dreams like those silly White Walkers never could.
And yet, the characters continue to do their duty with stubborn heroism. The Soviet Union calls and the people answer. Chernobyl Firefighter Vasily Ignatenko climbs a pile of irradiated rubble to douse the flames despite knowing deep inside that something was terribly terribly wrong. Unnamed soldiers ascend a rooftop to clear rubble in 90-second shifts, knowing full well that it’s the most toxic place on earth. They go forth with shovels, knowing that one stumble will shorten their lifespan by 20 years.
Below the power plant, three divers (Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov) wade their way through heavily irradiated waters to open a valve. The radiation deep-fries their flashlights, but they forge on into the darkness, navigating by touch alone through the bowels of hell itself.
The mini-series does a wonderful job of showing their heroism in ordinary, understated terms. There’s no melodrama or Hollywood heroics here. When the three divers volunteer for what is clearly a suicide mission, they simply stand up, say their names, and proceed to the briefing. There is no stirring orchestra or standing ovations, but you need to be a heartless bastard to not salute their incredible bravery.
As for the people sending everyone to their deaths, the situation is more complicated. The show is led by the odd trio of Nuclear Physicist Valery Legasov, Communist Party Bigshot Boris Shcherbina and Belarussian Nuclear Physicist Ulana Khomyuk. All three are played to jaded, chain-smoking perfection. They must fix this nuclear shitshow, but they’re not allowed to tell the truth.
Even as they are sending people to their death, they are stalked by KGB agents ready to arrest them should they step out of line. By the end of the disaster, they are tired, disillusioned and angry. Angry at a system that values prestige over human lives. Angry at the lies they must tell and suffer, in a mad world that makes zero sense at all.
“What is the cost of lies,” Valery Legasov asks himself. The answer is, of course, everything. For the men, women and unborn children caught up in this disaster, there is no counting the cost.
Naturally, there are lessons to be learned from Chernobyl. Some see the show as a morality fable about the danger of fake news. Others interpret it as an indictment against socialism. As always, we see what we wish to see, and there is no escaping the prison of our prejudices. I leave you to draw whatever conclusions you want.
What cannot be denied, however, is that Chernobyl is one truly brilliant piece of storytelling. If you can find a better show this year, I will give myself a curry-sauce enema and upload it for your viewing pleasure.
The show is riveting. It is heart-wrenching, tragic and haunting. It is as close to television perfection as one can get. If you’re not moved to pity and sorrow by the end, you must needs possess a heart of depleted uranium.
The final episode of Chernobyl premieres tonight. You can watch it online at HBO for $14.99. Rob a bank. Sell your kidney. Ask LHL to return your CPF. Whatever you do, just go watch it. For everything else: email@example.com