It’s been over a year since the premiere of HBO’s Chernobyl, and in that time, I haven’t been able to shake this show. I’ve watched it three times now — beginning to end. It has haunted my memory and made me think more than any other story has in recent years.
Nobody was expecting this mini-series to become, alongside Game of Thrones, the most talked-about show of 2019. Actually, it’s possible that the underwhelming end to Thrones paved the way for Chernobyl to become the year’s most memorable series. Here’s why I found it so special.
Chernobyl’s drama is both real and fictionalized.
Whenever a massively significant world event is forced to fit into the confines of a dramatic format, some measure of fictionalization just comes as part of the deal. The thing about the Chernobyl disaster is that the real-life story is so harrowing and painful that any narrative license taken by the writers doesn’t come across as dramatizing a less exciting reality — rather, the script’s fictional elements exactly mirror the actual event’s inherent drama. In other words, the story is so naturally horrifying that it almost doesn’t need to be dramatized to be dramatic.
Chernobyl forces you to stare right into the heart of a melting nuclear reactor through the eyes of men who will soon be killed by it through radiation poisoning. As challenging as that is, the show somehow manages to counterbalance that by impressing upon you how much worse it could have been. It is terrifying to imagine the possibility that a second meltdown could have destroyed half of Eastern Europe in the largest explosion in history had three men not put their lives on the line to go into the reactor basement and stop it.
There is an acute sense of the tragic that permeates the show: we are forced to grapple with the historical reality that almost everyone we see in the series will die within a few years due to their initial proximity to the site or their involvement in stemming the event’s impact.
It helps to go in knowing about Chernobyl but not knowing the ins and outs of every single way in which the event unfolded. The scientists had to work out the logistics of sealing a radiation leak large enough to marginally affect most of Europe. How did they do this? It helps not to know at the outset all the things they tried and what it was that ultimately helped them stop its spread. There’s a whodunit element — or, more technically, a whatdoneit — as well: a nuclear reactor isn’t supposed to explode in the way Chernobyl Reactor #4 did, which means that part of the drama involves the viewer trying to figure out, in real-time alongside the characters themselves, just what caused this to happen.
The emergency button should have stopped the steam buildup before anything bad happened. Instead, it intensified the power and destroyed the reactor. The scientists initially can’t figure out why and investigations are hindered by the fact that government documents related to the designs of the reactors are restricted — even from the very nuclear scientists who need the information in order to fix things.
There’s a reason for that — and any American child of the Cold War era will intuitively know what it is. The technical reason is that the safety control rods in the reactor were tipped with a material that exacerbated the reaction within the reactor when the rods themselves should have calmed it instead. What’s the political reason behind the technical one? It was cheaper to design the reactors this way. The Soviet Union, at this point in its struggle with America, was in economic turmoil, and they spared safety redundancies within their designs to save money. All it took was one careless nuclear technician to push the reactor to its limit in a poorly managed stress test to cause the explosion.
Making matters worse, the Soviet Union did everything it could to obscure the magnitude of the event. The viability of its global project relied on denial and obfuscation, and that’s what the Soviet government provided. Some of that continues to this day, as the Soviet death count (31) doesn’t take into account the number of people who succumbed to radiation poisoning over a longer period of time and through less direct exposure.
But Chernobyl’s world impact is far greater than even its true death toll. It catalyzed and accelerated the downfall of an empire. Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader at the time of the explosion, wrote the following in 2006:
The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.
Chernobyl is a story about the multifaceted causes and impacts of a world-historical moment and at the same time it’s a story about the lives and decisions of those on the ground. It has this grand sweep in play, but it humanizes it all by not abandoning the individuals who were most directly involved.
Chernobyl’s brilliance is its ability to convey a concept that completely envelops all of modern politics and debate: the lies we tell to protect the things we believe in will come back to haunt us in the end.
As we watch our modern political situation disintegrate beneath the weight of scandal, political violence, and ever-intensifying polarization, the show uses a historical episode to subtly hold up a mirror to our own situation today. The message is not of some one-off tragedy, safe to gawk at from historical distance and a sense that we’ve overcome such problems of crisis mismanagement; on the contrary, the show leaves you with the sense that the same factors that led to Chernobyl are still extant, always threatening. The institutional failures, the economic tradeoffs, the political corruption, the [fill in the blank] — we’re always a few random confluences of unlucky accidents away from a new Chernobyl style breakdown.
That’s what’s refreshing about Chernobyl. Ours is an age of unrelenting politicization. But this show isn’t parochial; it’s not merely about political degradation. It’s a show about the manifold ways in which society can get things so very wrong. Lies aren’t a political problem so much as they are a human problem. The truth can be expensive, and those who are in positions of choosing between telling the truth or obscuring it will often choose wrongly. Compounding the problem is that it’s usually the weakest and poorest among us who suffer the brunt of the fallout.
An unfortunate irony of the series is that the person most involved in shaping it appeared to miss its point. In doing so, he revealed how elusive this point can be. After Rush Limbaugh and Dan Bongino, two right-wing personalities, praised the show for its negative depiction of the Soviet Union, the showrunner Craig Mazin said the following in a tweet of his own:
Soviet behavior didn’t arrive in Moscow via meteor. It was human behavior. The potential is within us all. Today, I wonder … who ignores scientists? Who wraps themselves in red? Who celebrates liars? Who indulges in mindless propaganda? Who shouts “enemy of the people!”?
The first part of the tweet absolutely nails it. The problem is, the second part contradicts its core insight.
If Limbaugh and Bongino were wrong to see Chernobyl-like tragedies as the exclusive province of Soviet mismanagement, because Chernobyl’s failures were due to something extra-political and in our very natures, then certainly the right response to Limbaugh’s and Bongino’s assessment is not to do the very same thing they’re doing, just in reverse. If it’s “human behavior” as opposed to “Soviet behavior,” then it’s “human behavior” rather than “MAGA behavior.”
Chernobyl is ultimately a tragedy, as we already knew from our history books before we watched a single second of the show. But another part of the human story is also our capacity for good, our rising to meet moments of great difficulty and hardship. Chernobyl showed us this, too. I will not forget this series. Here’s to those in national leadership never forgetting it, either.