By Darren Franich
May 06, 2019 at 07:18 PM EDT
Liam Daniel/HBO
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Not a laugh riot, Chernobyl is not a title that prepares you for good times and happy puppies. Though there are some puppies — oh god, I can’t talk about it! The horror of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is unthinkable, a cosmic event that infects the atmosphere and invades the blood. And yet I enjoyed the five-episode HBO miniseries, debuting tonight at 9 p.m. in the network shadow of Game of Thrones. It stares straight into the core of the matter. It makes the horror thinkable.

If you’re a Thrones viewer, you’ve seen those previews of Chernobyl, all frowny-freaky images of bespectacled Jared Harris pondering unfathomable radiation horror. Be scared, but don’t be scared away. The series is a vivid and detailed retelling of the cataclysm. It begins as a near-real-time thriller, following the confused reactions of various people standing way too close to the nuclear reactor. The timeline expands as the episodes progress, encompassing the official actions of the Soviet government and the attempt to understand what went wrong.

Harris plays Valery Legasov, a true-life chemist who helped lead the response to the calamity. Valery dies by suicide in the first scene, setting a deathly tone that lingers as the series flashes back to the titular power plant on the night everything went wrong.

There’s a scene that occurs constantly in the opening episodes. Someone will walk into a room — an engineer, a scientist, Valery, maybe a nuclear physicist — and they will say something like: The reactor has exploded. And the other person in the room — a middle manager, a boss, some Soviet functionary or other — will say something like: That’s not possible. Radiation seeps into the atmosphere, and fireman spray water hoses. Skin turns burnt red, and then turns other colors, and officials insist everything is going fine. Chernobyl takes pains to portray the event as a specific disaster of anti-expertise, of egotistical politicians disregarding every smart thing every smart person around them is saying.

Sound timely? Chernobyl becomes a compelling dark comedy when its attention shifts to the hallways of power, where Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) and the Soviet apparatus constantly fails to respond appropriately. Russia circa 1986 is “a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated,” says Borys Shcherbyna (splendid Stellan Skarsgård), a grandee at Gorbachev’s table paired with the bookish Valery for a mission that will more or less kill them both.

I know, I know, this all sounds depressing, and I haven’t even mentioned Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), the fireman from Pripyat called with his company to the reactor, or Vasily’s wife Lyudmila (Jessie Buckley), whose own tragic journey is one of many ticking time bombs throughout the miniseries. They’re both true-life people, and the dense realism of Chernobyl gives the show a freakish close-up terror. The director is Johan Renck, who helmed an early episode of The Walking Dead and some hours of Breaking Bad. This miniseries doesn’t have too many flourishes, and doesn’t need them. Whenever Vasily explains the statistics involved — the scope of the environmental disaster, the possibility of a meltdown seeping into the water supply — the scares are tangible.

Creator-writer Craig Mazin finds several intriguing approaches onto his subject matter. Valery and Borys make a compelling duo, the former a totalitarian lifer facing a tragedy that propaganda can’t fix, the latter a sensitive man of science adrift in a political environment that’s plenty invasive without the radiation. They’re trying to fix a busted nuclear power plant — and being followed all along by the KGB. Chernobyl spreads its attention to the local residents, and the miners called in to quick-fix a meltdown deterrent, and the soldiers tasked with clearing out the infected creatures from the dead zone.

Emily Watson also stars as Ulyana Khomyuk, a physicist who becomes the key figure in the investigation (and another target for the KGB). I gather that Ulyana is a composite character, and her arc tries to staple the show’s disparate parts together, wandering freely into other subplots. Watson’s giving a sincere performance, but you feel the character’s been given the most painfully loadbearing lines. “Someone has to start telling the truth,” she says in the fourth episode — a hopeful statement, almost a tagline, but by that point the surveillance is so omnipresent you can’t quite believe anyone would say words that direct. (For an entirely factual look at the event, I recommend Adam Higginbotham’s urgent, exciting Midnight in Chernobyl.)

The show’s best in small moments, suggesting subtly how Chernobyl revealed the existing horrors of a political system that would flail off history’s stage just a few years later. A man dying from radiation poisoning in a Moscow hospital asks his wife to describe what she sees out the window. She describes Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s — and we see, from her perspective, a bland building. “I told you I’d show you Moscow,” the man says. Maybe he knows she’s lying; either way, it’s a poem.

I found myself crying at random moments for not-so-obvious reasons: A master shot of the poisonous reactor, men wearing surgical masks that are obviously impotent against atomic invasion, Stalinist dormitories left empty after evacuation. This is the subject matter of science-fiction, of enviro-freakouts like Stalker or Annihilation. And it is a story of government cover-ups, of inconvenient facts controlled toward oblivion by the powerful.

The most compelling figure in the miniseries is the coal miners’ crew chief, a character whose name I’m not even sure we ever properly hear. (It’s “Glukhov,” HBO informs me.) He’s played by Alex Ferns with gruff fatalism, a look in his eyes like the slow creep of radiation sickness isn’t the worst death he’s imagined for himself. His men are working right underneath the Chernobyl plant, with fragile protective gear they have to toss when the supernova heat becomes unbearable. “When this is over,” he says, pointing toward his men, “Will they be looked after?” “I don’t know,” Borys says. Sad words, but at least someone’s being honest, for once. A-

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