The following contains Chernobyl spoilers.
Before HBO’s gripping mini-series Chernobyl premiered in early May, the audience’s general knowledge of the event it’s named after could probably be split into two categories: those who remembered the nuclear disaster as it happened back in 1986, and those who’ve learned about it via the lens of popular culture. Now that the fifth and final episode of Craig Mazin’s terrifying docu-drama is set to air, no one can really insist on being a part of only one of these groups, and everyone has largely come to the same conclusion.
Chernobyl is purely a horror show that’s based on an even more horrifying reality. The thing is, it’s also designed to be that way. Sure, one could argue that it shares many of the same visual designs and narrative pacing that a genre horror film or television program will exhibit, but that’s not all that informs Chernobyl. On the contrary, Mazin designed its terrifying attributes within the very essence of its story’s structure and themes.
From trade magazines and print newspapers to entertainment blogs and social media itself, just about everyone agrees that, more than anything, Chernobyl qualifies as “horror.” No, there aren’t any mythic monsters lurking about, as was the case in actor Jared Harris’ previous television series The Terror. But as his character here, Valery Legasov, calmly explains to his superiors in episode two, “You are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before.” In other words, a nuclear reactor has exploded, causing untold amounts of dangerous radiation to spill out into the natural world. Anything could happen, all of it is bad.
Yet matter how much devastating realism Mazin and company inject the mini-series with, the HBO and Sky co-production must contend with decades’ worth of deception on the part of the Soviet Union and popular culture. The former makes perfect sense, as the since-collapsed socialist state was notoriously secretive and spent much of its efforts trying to avoid international embarrassment. Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina explains this point perfectly in the fourth episode when he describes the U.S.S.R. as “a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated.”
The latter, however, requires a bit more prodding to understand. As stated earlier, if you cannot recall living through the Chernobyl incident back in 1986, then your primary exposure to it has been via popular culture. That means found footage horror films like 2012’s Chernobyl Diaries, the classic X-Files episode “The Host,” video games like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise and other media have served as your principal conduit to the historical incident. There have been plenty of feature-length and televised documentaries about the disaster, as well as titles that were more prone to channel realism than these examples, but zombies, monsters and other fantastical beasts of irradiated lore have proven to be the rule rather than the exception.
That’s not to say that these fictional treatments of Chernobyl are inherently bad. On the contrary, many of these films, shows, and video games have played a rather large and significant part in shaping our popular entertainment. And therein lies the rub for Mazin and his creative team: How do you dramatize what actually happened on April 26th, 1986 — and make it as terrifying as it actually was — without relying on tried-and-true horror tropes like monsters and mutants?
You tell the truth. Kind of.
In countless interviews, Mazin has insisted that it was never his intent to make a “horror show” (among other specific genres) with Chernobyl. Rather, he was more concerned with the truth of what happened to Reactor Number 4 at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, and how (and why) so many people conspired to lie about it. Of course, a result of this specific storytelling endeavor is the undeniable fact that the deeper down the Chernobyl rabbit hole viewers go, the more horrifying it all becomes.
Consider Legasov’s haunting words, which he records in a secret memoir at the beginning of the premiere episode.
“What is the cost of lies?” he ponders. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves, instead, with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is, ‘Who is to blame?’”
“When people choose to lie, and when people choose to believe the lie, and when everyone engages in a passive conspiracy to promote the lie over the truth, we can get away with it for a very long time,” Mazin told NPR’s Peter Sagal on the show’s official podcast. “But the truth just doesn’t care, and it will get you in the end.”
So, yes, Chernobyl contains none of the literal monsters that its found footage and science fiction-driven predecessors have unleashed upon their viewers. Instead, it boasts the two-headed monstrosity of cellular-killing radiation and the lies that allowed it to foster longer than it ever should have. What’s more, the brooding, slowly paced and darkly lit shots of each episode do everything in their power to enhance the power and reach of these monsters.
But, again, it’s the way in which Mazin went about telling the story (and the lies) of the Chernobyl disaster that makes the program one of the most frightening on television today. As he explained on the podcast, “stories are sometimes very good ways of conveying interesting truths and facts, but just as simply, stories can be weaponized against us. To teach us and tell us anything.”
“So,” he jokes,” of course I choose narrative to tell an anti-narrative story.”
Think about this from the perspective of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the Pripyat resident whose firefighter husband Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) is one of the first responders to the initial explosion. Every time she tries to find her husband, or find out what has happened to him, she is either lied to or told nothing. Meanwhile, all the signs of the ongoing nuclear fallout — or, at least the ones the authorities can no longer write off as nothing — tell her that something very bad has happened to him.
It’s a horrifying scenario. Mazin writes it as a terrifying ordeal from Lyudmilla’s perspective. Director Johan Renck shoots it in a confusing and occasionally omniscient manner that adds to the character and the audience’s terror. And, as the final bit of radioactive icing on the skin-melting cake, all of this actually happened. This is real, excruciating horror from the ground up, which is something that Chernobyl Diaries, The X-Files and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. never came close to replicating.
How scary is that?
The fifth and final episode of Chernobyl airs Monday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.