Trigger Warning for some gnarly body horror and depictions of animals being killed (it’s not overly graphic or gratuitous, but sometimes the suggestion can be just as bad as seeing it).
In April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world’s worst man-made catastrophes.
The tragedy of Chernobyl doesn’t begin with an explosion. It starts with a million and one little decisions that lead to one of the worst man-man disasters in modern history. The series is a fascinating look inside a government rotting from the inside out from fear, cronyism, and bloated egos, and how that all trickles down to destroy the lives of normal citizens. It’s a true horror movie in the sense that (almost) everything you see actually happened.
Jared Harris as Valery Legasov
Jared has one of those faces that is just so interesting to look at. He’s so, so great in this role. Legasov is a tragic figure and our voice of expertise throughout the series. Can you even imagine having that much pressure placed on your shoulders, to be THE key scientific brain in charge of averting such large-scale disaster? (In real life there was a team of scientists consulting on the meltdown, but even STILL—I would not want to be one of those people.)
Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina
Fun fact: I did not realize this was Stellan until like the fourth episode. I don’t know why. By the end he clearly looked like himself, but those first few episodes I was so puzzled why he sounded familiar but didn’t look like anyone I knew. He kills it as Gorbachev’s vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, starting off as your typical pompous government bureaucrat and slowly morphing into a decent sort of fellow who’s facing his own mortality. I feel like there’s someone out there who will have made at least one buddy fanfic about Shcherbina and Lugasov.
Ulana is the only completely fabricated main character of the series. She represents all the other scientists that worked with Legasov, and while I would normally side-eye that kind of move, it works really well in this case. It’s much more impactful to go along with one woman’s journey as she deals with Soviet librarians (very scary folks) and getting the stories from the power plant workers who caused the explosion. Emily is a well-known British face and she plays her role so well.
Jessie Buckley as Lyudmilla Ignatenko
Jessie has a few unknown-to-me credits to her name (with quite a few post-Chernobyl credits coming out), but I feel she deserves to be highlighted for portraying such a tragic storyline. Lyudmilla is the pregnant wife of one of the first responder firefighters who show up to put out the fire in the reactor, and even if you don’t know your history you can still probably guess how poorly this storyline is going to go. (If you want to cry, go look up her segment in Voices of Chernobyl). I also really applaud her ’80s permed hair. I’m pretty sure my mom’s hair looked exactly like that in some photos.
Couch-Sharing Capability: High
You absolutely need to watch this with someone else. You will be creeped out and need someone to snuggle. You will be SO ANGRY AND STABBY at certain characters and need someone to share in your rage. You will also be super sad about episode four and need someone there to pass you a tissue or five. Find the Shcherbina to your Legasov and force them to watch with you; don’t worry, they’ll thank you by the end.
Recommended Level of Inebriation: Stone Cold Sober
I really want to tell you to grab some vodka and start chugging, because you will need it. But on the other hand, there is so much information being thrown at you that—unless you’re a nuclear physicist—you’ll need to be completely sober to make sure you’re taking it all in. Pro-tip: leave the subtitles on the entire time. It will up your comprehension by at least 25%. That’s a completely scientific fact I just made up.
Use of Your Streaming Subscription: відмінно (Excellent)
I know not everyone has HBO (or cancelled it in frustration after Game of Thrones ended) but even subscribing for one month would be MORE than worth the price to devour this five-episode mini-series. It’s haunting, beautifully shot, faithfully recreated, and still feels extremely relevant (that speech about the importance of truth that Legasov gives at the trial should be blasted on all TV stations and Twitter feeds daily). While many of us have heard of the Chernobyl disaster, I know I personally never learned all the nitty gritty details of how it all went down. Even those who were alive and cognizant enough to understand what happened would’ve heard a lot of misinformation coming out of the USSR. This feels like a documentary and mega summer blockbuster rolled into one, and is not to be missed.