Tim Tan Huynh


  • 15 Nov 2021
  • This mini-series depicts events from 35 years ago, but the story is still interesting. It also serves as a warning that will always be relevant. The excellent acting and production will encourage more people to learn this history.
Chernobyl poster
The cover image features a man in a protective suit while he sprays decontaminant. He and his colleagues are likely in the abandoned city of Pripyat.

About a month ago, I finally watched the Chernobyl mini-series. It really was as gripping as I had expected. I finished watching the five hour-long episodes within a week. Some time during this period, I realized that the 35th anniversary was earlier this year. I’ve written about the nuclear disaster in the past, and its relevance hasn’t waned. Of course, the backdrop of the Cold War is one important reason for people’s enduring interest.

I recall Russian officials criticizing the series soon after its release. They promised (or threatened) to produce a series that would be, in their view, accurate. This response is noteworthy because the Soviet apparatus is the show’s underlying antagonist. The obvious antagonist is the tyrannical engineer who forces the fateful nuclear-reactor test. But the viewer learns that the critical explosion is the result of a state-redacted, design flaw.

This design flaw is something that I hadn’t known until now. As one official says, ‘Our power is the perception of our power.’ The need to project this power is pervasive. Using a Western-developed robot to clear debris is embarrassing. Undercover agents and redacted documents are placed where they need to be. They’re tropes, but they’re believable. The state is insecure with its grip, and it compensates with surveillance and secrecy.

Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard essentially play the same characters for which they’re best known. Harris is Valery Legasov, an otherwise-subservient technocrat who hangs himself like Lane Price in Mad Men. Skarsgard is Boris Shcherbina, a stern foil who becomes a steadfast ally like Gerald Lambeau in Good Will Hunting. Both leads are portraying real men though, and their unlikely bond is the core of this story.

Emily Watson is compelling as the third lead. She plays Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional composite who represents some of Legasov’s colleagues. The rest of the cast is good in their roles. The late Paul Ritter is the mentioned tyrant, Anatoly Diatlov. The only sub-plot that isn’t interesting is the new conscript in the exclusion zone. Everybody sounding like they’re from the British Isles is easy to overlook, after a while.

If the show is an indictment of the Soviet Union’s secrecy, it’s also a testament to its citizens. An English professor of mine once said that Russians were good at suffering. I forget the poetry of her quote, but Shcherbina alludes to it when he makes a speech to spur local volunteers. They might not be Russian, but three of them stand up to go on a foray that’s sure to be fatal.

The most tense scene, by far, is the conscripts shovelling debris from the roof. Watching Chernobyl, and First Man, I’ve realized that I gravitate to historical drama. Nothing is as terrifying as things that have happened. There’s a dread that, no matter how extraordinary, they could happen again … and next time, they might not be surmountable.