There’s not much series creator Craig Mazin can do about the impenetrable Russian names, nor the fact that the first episode of Chernobyl mostly features indistinguishable boilersuited figures rushing around in a flame-flickering gloom reminiscent of a medieval fresco of hell. There are some concepts we need to grasp from the start: the fire in the turbine hall, the water tanks and the graphite core of the nuclear power reactor which has just exploded. Except it hasn’t, because that’s not possible, and this is the Soviet Union, where a man-made catastrophe can more or less be willed away by the Party.
But first there’s a preamble. It’s two years after the disaster, a scapegoat has been identified and punished, and nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is wrapping up the dictation of his version of events almost to the minute of the anniversary. “They’ll deny it of course, they always do.” Flashing back to the night itself, Lyudmila (Jessie Buckley, barely recognisable under the Dory Previn wig) is reluctant to let her firefighter husband rush to the stricken reactor as it’s his night off. He laughs off her fears; It’s just a fire on the tar-covered roof, easily contained. Comrade Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill), director of the facility, has the petulance of a man who didn’t have time to style his hair before leaving the house.
In five parts, Chernobyl doesn’t begin truly to grip until episode two when the experts arrive to impress upon the authorities the urgency of the situation. The radiation exposure is no more significant than a chest X-ray, an emergency committee in Moscow is reassured. No, yells Legasov, a mere chunk of graphite from the core is the equivalent of four million chest X-rays. Gorbachev (David Dencik) grasps the initiative, instantly dispatching Legasov and highly sceptical Comrade Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) to the scene. Shcherbina’s en route demand for an explanation of how a nuclear reactor works “or I’ll have one of these soldiers throw you out of the helicopter” does at least put some urgency into basic exposition.
Meanwhile worried scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) has rushed from Minsk, having already failed to convince her local Party chief of the need to evacuate. “I prefer my opinion to yours,” oozes the functionary. She has spotted the flaw in Legasov’s plan to drop sand and Boron (in code, “little Boris, who’s five”) into the core. Shcherbina’s face crumples when Legasov informs him, “We’ll be dead in five years,” but the Soviet state demands an even greater sacrifice. The Soviet people, the pep talk for the suicide mission goes, have “a thousand years of sacrifice in our veins and every generation must know its own suffering”. Director Johan Renck distils dread from every shot of drifting smoke, sifting particles and insidiously seeping waters.
‘Chernobyl’ is available on Now TV and HBO
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