Chernobyl: The HBO Miniseries that Became a Phenomenon
Let’s look back at the best show that HBO has aired this year; Chernobyl — a show that quickly became a legend.
by Orr Ben Asuli
[This article was written on September 2019]
On July 26, 2017, Deadline reported that Kari Antholis, who’s president of Miniseries at HBO, announced that a 5-part miniseries about the events of the man-made catastrophe that happened in Chernobyl in 1986, a story that hadn’t really been told in Hollywood until then, was set to be made, with Jared Harris in the lead role, Craig Mazin writing and Johan Renck directing.
I think I remember seeing the news, I don’t remember if it was then or later down the road, when other news was posted on the project, and then it all went quiet about it for a long while. I don’t remember it was ever treated as a huge deal, neither by HBO nor anybody in the media prior to the release including us at HBOWatch. Thing is, in my opinion — HBO had no idea what they had in their hands back then. Nobody did. I remember, from my experience at least, that it was a miniseries that was put on a slow burner marketing-wise — no official Facebook/Twitter/Instagram page, only a trailer or two and a poster were released by HBO, and of course some media attention (Deadline, THR, CoS, etc).
Chernobyl, a collaborative production between HBO and Sky, was released on May 6, 2019; two years after that initial announcement. It was, indeed, created and written entirely by Craig Mazin who was mostly known for good comedies like two movies in the “Scary Movie” franchise, and the last two “Hangover” films. That was a fact that looked really interesting to me before watching; how did a funny comedy-guy decide to approach such a dramatic subject? It is directed by Johan Renck, who directed some episodes on big shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and music videos for big stars like Beyoncé and Madonna. He wasn’t really well-known (at least not to me) to be assigned for what seemed like a big and serious production.
The cast included one of my all-time favorite actors, Jared Harris (who’s mostly known from… so many places, but for me — mostly Mad Man, Fringe and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes), Stellan Skarsgård (whom I also like a lot, and is known for Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Good Will Hunting, and more) and Emily Watson (who’s mostly known from Breaking the Waves, Punch Drunk Love) as the leads and more great actors in supporting roles, some bigger than others. Donald Sumpter appeared for only one monologue, but it was one of the most powerful performances of the entire show (“This is our moment to shine”, chilling as hell), Jessie Buckley appeared quite a lot, as Lyudmila, and her performance was just terrific and so emotional, and all around: a lot more incredible performances, we can do this all day.
Episode 1: 1:23:45
Watching the first episode, 3 days after the release, very casually, I wasn’t very hyped beforehand. I was excited though, because the new miniseries looked very interesting from the trailer and Jared Harris is in it, but not in a “this is gonna be the best thing ever” way, because nothing hyped me up (except for the IMDb score, that was a nice 9.3/10 for episode 1), the marketing wasn’t big on this, as I said before — I don’t think it was deliberate but it was a smart move nonetheless — sometimes hype ruins things for a lot of people (not for me particularly), and the result with Chernobyl was astounding, crowd reception-wise.
The first installment of the story opens with a monologue by Harris’s character, Valery Legasov, who’s preparing tapes with what seems to be “the truth about Chernobyl” (we still don’t know why and who he is) just before killing himself. “What is the cost of lies?”, he asks, as the opening line of the show. We’re going to find out. Then it jumps to detailing in length the story of the night of the explosion. It’s April 26, 1986. At 1:23:45 AM, a mysterious explosion occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The people at the plant deal with not knowing what happened and try to minimize risks while firefighters are sent to the place (in the premise of an exploded control room, a minor fire), not knowing what they’re approaching, and that it will be one of their last days breathing (poor guys). Intense stuff! The episode also deals with the attempts from the people in charge of the power plant to ignore and cover up whatever really happened.
Two days after I watched it, I found out about the Chernobyl Podcast, a podcast that HBO was releasing after the episodes, with Craig Mazin analyzing the episodes he wrote — that was my turning point with the show. So it’s Saturday night, the show’s on 8-point-something on IMDb, episode’s on 9.3–9.4 which is great, and I’m listening to the first podcast. As Craig Mazin, a really nice guy, speaks enthusiastically about his research & writing process, the show’s creation from step 1, and the real events behind Episode 1’s storyline I became fascinated. So much so that I decided halfway through it — as soon as this is over, I’m watching episode 1 again (which, by the way, started a weekly “Chernobyl ritual”). This time I watched more carefully, with headphones, appreciating every detail more (mostly thanks to that podcast!). The episode was gripping, a 1-hour horror thriller of sorts. After the episode was over I tweeted to Craig Mazin about how I wasn’t ready for how good it was and I had to re-watch it to fully appreciate it (he liked my tweet by the way — really nice person, I wrote to him a lot during the show on Twitter and he always read it, “liked” it, even answered once).
One more thing I’d like to talk about right from Episode 1, is the soundtrack. When I checked about the show on IMDb, I saw that Hildur Gudnadóttir will be helming this show’s score, which interested me, because even though I didn’t know her music yet, I did know that she worked closely with the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson (who was hired to score Chernobyl before he passed away) as a cellist and is now pursuing a solo career as a composer, and I had a good feeling about it. I remember first watching the “Bridge of Death” scene, I noticed the music very well. It was amazing. Ambient. Something between magical and terrifying, and I knew that the music is going to be very special on this one. Luckily, HBO has released that music as a single with episode 1, so I got to listen to it closely afterward. The full soundtrack is available and it’s quite great. Also, Hildur won an Emmy for the music which is amazing! She also went on to win so many awards for Joker and Chernobyl in the 2019 award season. She deserves it all!
Episode 2: Please Remain Calm
A little after episode 2 something amazing started happening. People are REALLY liking Chernobyl. Seems like I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t prepared emotionally for a show THAT huge. The IMDb rating is starting to go up, for the show and for the second episode, which is kind of rare. IMDb ratings for entire shows usually lock within a certain range after people go an rate the series judging by 1 episode (which is silly). But here, what was an high 8’s or low 9’s started rising.
Episode 2 introduces us to Boris Shcherbina (Skarsgård) who’s a Soviet politician, serving as a vice-chairman to the Council of Ministers. He’s in charge of dealing with the aftermath of Chernobyl, after it can no longer be ignored. Legasov is on the council, he’s serving as a nuclear expert, because he’s a nuclear physicist. Shcherbina instructs him not to ask questions, only to answer when addressed, but as he looks through the reports from Chernobyl, he sees inconsistencies that he understands as a scientist but no one else does. It worries him. So much so that he almost chokes. So, he speaks. From there, he and Legasov are sent to the site to check things and assess solutions. We’re also introduced to Ulana Khomyuk. She’s the only fictional main character on the show, also a nuclear scientist that represents a group of scientists that helped Legasov and Shcherbina in their quest to deal and “resolve” the explosion’s aftermath.
Episode 2 changes things, it changes the style of the show a bit, inserts more drama and more dialogue to the intense horror of Episode 1, and is also a shocker in its own ways. Mostly, for me, it was the scale of the disaster. I knew what happened in Chernobyl but only generally. The show, Mazin’s brilliant writing, and director Johan Renck are really keen on details. As the episode progresses you realize it really was one of the greatest catastrophes in history, and the fact the no greater damage to most of Europe is known to us today, is because they really handled it quite good. The question is, how? And that’s where you get more interested in the show, you know that what’s about to happen — really did happen. And the scale of it is incredible.
It also has the evacuation scene — again, bravo to Hildur Gudnadóttir on that haunting, beautiful music, wow. In a post on Facebook, Hildur writes about how the sounds on the soundtrack were sampled and inspired from real recording from an ACTUAL decommissioned power plant (Ignalina, in Lithuania), which, for a film scoring buff like me, is super interesting! Remember the “Chernobyl ritual” I talked about? So, right before Episode 3 was released I listened to the corresponding podcast and watched Episode 2 again. I did that with every episode until the finale.
Episode 3: Open Wide, O Earth & Episode 4: The Happiness of All Mankind
I decided to combine Episode 3 and 4, not because they’re expendable or not relevant, but because it’s getting long already. I would’ve put 5 here too but 5 has to have its own paragraph.
After episode 3, Chernobyl’s popularity went from “rising” to being no. 1 on IMDb’s top TV Show list. It’s unprecedented. No new show that was released 3 weeks ago has ever climbed up near there. It was so amazing seeing that I’m not the only one obsessing over that show, that more people are seeing what I’m seeing — a phenomenon. I eventweeted about it to Craig Mazin, I caught it very early on, and he replied to me. HBO liked the tweet so it kind of went semi-viral. 48 retweets and 343 likes are not bad. The rating later went even higher, up to 9.7/10!
On episode 3, the plans to decontaminate Chernobyl as much as possible continue, and we are introduced to the miners who come to deliver on a very complicated mission in very little time. Also, Lyudmilla ignores all warnings and goes to see her husband, Vasily, a firefighter who was called to Chernobyl on the night of the explosion, thus exposing herself (and the baby she’s having) to massive amounts of radiation while watching her husband suffer the aftermath of radiation poisoning (including that ironically funny sunglasses scene) and eventually die. All the bodies of the people who suffered a substantial radiation poisoning are buried in sealed metal coffins, washed up in cement (they’re still radioactive!).
Episode 4 takes Lyudmilla’s pregnancy and uses it as a clock. While her pregnancy progresses, we are introduced to the military teams and volunteers that are supposed to decontaminate the places that surround Chernobyl. Lands and crops (sprayed), animals (killed), people (evacuated), etc. The show focuses on a small team of 3 people, Pavel, Garo and Bacho, who are in charge of killing pets. Yes, even pets are contaminated, and to stop it from spreading, they have to kill them all. Meanwhile, Legasov and Shcherbina are trying to come up with an effective plan to remove all graphite from the roof without using people, in order to start building a sarcophagus around it, to stop radiation from spreading. They found out that there is none. The roof scene is one of the most memorable on the show. With dosimeter noises serving as a soundtrack, it’s one of the most intense sequences, not because of what you see on the screen, but because of what you know about where they’re operating, and how dangerous this is. The episode ends with Legasov, Khomyuk and Shcherbina understanding what really happened and what caused the explosion and Lyudmilla sitting in the hospital after giving birth to a baby that died a few minutes later. The baby absorbed most of the radiation from Lyudmilla being around Vasily.
Overall both episodes are incredible. They both tell the story of plans to decontaminate Chernobyl and the area after the most immediate danger passes. Both of them lay out the stories really well and in a compelling way. I had a lot of fun watching them twice.
Episode 5: Vichnaya Pamyat
Vichnaya Pamyat means Memory Eternal, in Russian. It’s a fitting title for the finale of Chernobyl because it’s all about closure and memory, closing the story and emphasizing how important it is that we all remember, and also learn from it.
This episode is about the trial. The show just turned into a courtroom drama and a very good one. After several people testify, it’s Legasov’s turn to say his piece. Will he tell the truth and risk his life? Because if he does testify that lies are responsible for it all, he might face consequences. But he does just that. And the entire episode builds fantastically towards, well… an explosion, quite literally. We finally get to see THE explosion as Legasov explains how it happened.
Here, I must mention Double Negative, the brilliant company behind the visual effects on Chernobyl. It’s not just Episode 5, they did an amazing job on the entire show, on things that are clearly VFX and things you don’t even notice (what is called “invisible VFX”). And they are not new to this, this company is behind some of the biggest movies, and did some incredible things, like the VFX on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for example (let that sink in as you realize how good they were).
After the trial, Legasov is told by the director of the KGB that he is, in fact, facing terrible consequences for his testimony, not death, but something else. We now understand why eventually he’d record those tapes from Episode 1, tell the whole truth, and end his life. The show ends with a monologue from those tapes, the few lines that come prior to the ones we heard on episode one, with the last one being “what is the cost of lies?” — we now know.
The show leaves you in awe. The final credits, that add somehow to the whole experience (and I’ve heard this from some other people that felt that way), detail, as in every good biopic, what happened to the people and some more general info. In the background — the chilling “Vichnaya Pamyat”, a choir piece recorded especially for the show, which I knew from the soundtrack that was released 3 days before the episode, and I bought on iTunes a minute after midnight (when it was released).
Overall, Chernobyl is an instant classic. It is. I literally can’t think of anything bad to say about it. It’s thrilling, interesting, extremely well made, and the attention to details adds a LOT of depth. I had a lot of fun and instantly moved it up my list of all-time favorite shows. I wasn’t expecting this at all, which, maybe, added to the whole thing, because I didn’t approach this expecting the best show of the year — and I got it. For me, it’s either this or the new season of Mindhunter, a show that I love dearly (both, maybe).
The series has developed a large following and prestigious acclaim, with lots of fans around the world, memes everywhere, Facebook groups (like “Chernobyl Graphiteposting”), great reviews, and you can see comments about new shows that say, “the best show since Chernobyl”.
Chernobyl has gone down to no. 4 on IMDb’s list by now, by the way, which is still so very impressive for a new show. It puts it below Band of Brothers, but above Game of Thrones and The Wire. I think the drop might be a combination of time passing, but also some kind of trolling, just because of the suspicious amount of 1-ratings compared to other ratings, if you look at the IMDb charts, but I’m not going to develop conspiracy theories now.
It goes without saying that I’ll be now excited for everything Craig Mazin writes and keep a good eye out for Johan Renck’s future projects. Mazin said in the podcast, or on an interview, that he already has a next project WITH HBO! So, there’s a thing to look forward to!I want to thank HBO, Craig Mazin, Johan Renck, Hildur Gudnadóttir and everyone else involved for this incredible experience.
This story was published originally on HBOWatch.