This essay is part of our series Episodes, a column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the first episode (“1:23:45”) of HBO’s limited series Chernobyl.
History is, more often than not, a horrorshow. Some chapters are so horrific that filmmakers revisit them again and again on screen, holding them to the light so that the world might see their darkest parts. Other chapters of history are shadowy: the sort of tragedies most people can only imagine in rough outline because the gory details are rarely made public. Craig Mazin’s clear-eyed, monumental series Chernobyl is a feat of both filmmaking and truth-telling, a historical work that fills in the blanks of a uniquely human disaster with every shade of horror imaginable.
“What is the cost of lies?” Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) asks in the opening moments of the HBO series’ first episode, “1:23:45.” We don’t know it yet, but Legasov was an expert chemist who was tasked with leading the committee investigating the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. When the series opens, he’s speaking the long-suppressed truth about the disaster into a tape recorder. “There was nothing sane about Chernobyl,” he says, his voice tinged with both weariness and certainty. When he’s finished recording, he feeds his cat, smokes a cigarette, and unceremoniously hangs himself.
The episode unfolds like a waking nightmare, and Legasov’s suicide is the dark prologue that sets the tone. Directly afterward, a title on the screen marks a transition in time. “Two years and one minute earlier,” it reads. A pregnant woman, Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), gets out of bed in the middle of the night and vomits in her bathroom. The whole house suddenly shakes. Out her window, we see a beam of light shooting straight up from a structure in the distance: the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
The rest of “1:23:45” unfolds over the course of the first night of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, examining the ground level confusion, denial, and dread of a night in history that — as one of the wrenching end-title cards in the series’ final episode states — resulted in somewhere between four-thousand and ninety-three-thousand deaths. All at once, it’s a memorial, a cautionary tale, a historical document, and one of the most harrowing stories ever put to screen.
After Lyudmilla awakens, the series cuts to the control room inside Chernobyl. There’s dust shaking free from the jolted ceiling panels. The camera slowly rights itself from an off-kilter position, as if it, too, had been knocked askew during the explosion. “What just happened?” deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) asks, just before a man runs in to announce that the core itself has exploded.
Everyone is quiet except Dyatlov, who quickly becomes the series’ most clear-cut villain. He’s the sort of bullying, eye-rolling boss we’ve seen before, only in this case it’s one who is making life-or-death decisions. “What you’re saying is physically impossible,” he tells the shocked worker, more annoyed than scared. He decides that there must simply be a fire in the turbine hall due to a blown hydrogen tank, and he sends man after doomed man into the chaos to handle the problem.
Dyatlov’s moment-to-moment actions will be examined at length in the series finale, which follows the criminal trial in the disaster’s aftermath. But even without context, he’s a sickening on-screen presence. At one point, he looks down at sparkling debris on the ground, indicating that he may have seen the graphite that would prove the explosion was nuclear in nature hours before he gave up on his hydrogen fire theory. He shrugs off astronomical radiation readings as the result of faulty equipment, ignores the reddened faces of his radiation-poisoned employees, and only seems to see the true scale of the disaster in the light of day when a relentless pillar of smoke blocks out the rising sun. “1:23:45” spotlights many heroes from that night, but it’s only fair that it shows us the cowards, too.
In a behind-the-scenes feature about the series, Mazin talks about the “triumph of delusion” that made the Soviet Union more susceptible to denial and cover-up than other nations may have been. Dyatlov and others had a “true belief in the dream of a utopia that never was going to be — and never was,” Mazin says. And that point is hammered home by a scene midway through the premiere episode, in which the director of Chernobyl and members of the state gather to discuss next steps. At first, the group seems as if they might do the right thing: “The air is glowing,” someone points out, indicating that the disaster seems a lot bigger than a control tank malfunction.
A character named Zharkov (Donald Sumpter) takes the floor; he’s fictional, but he clearly represents the old guard Soviet perspective. “Leave matters of the state to the state,” he says, before suggesting that they cut off the phone lines and keep people from leaving. He says the group will be rewarded for the choices they make on that day, and his speech is met with rapturous applause that quickly fades as the camera takes us back to ground zero.
Chernobyl functions as a specific historical text, one that’s valuable not only for its scathing assertions about the nature of the Soviet Union’s failures but also for its heartbreakingly human element. You don’t need to know much about history to be gutted by the stories of first responders and community members — firefighters, plant employees, scientists, and even civilians — who were struck down while trying to help their communities, and whose stories were often scrubbed from official records. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Chernobyl reads differently and hits closer to home just two years after its release, but it’s a staggering story all on its own.
Much of the episode unfolds in short snapshot moments that sear themselves in the memory, thanks in part to Johan Renck’s tense direction and Jinx Godfrey’s tight editing. Outside the facility, Lyudmilla’s husband, firefighter Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), sees a coworker touch a piece of graphite in wonder. They’ve been called to the plant to put out what they think is a run-of-the-mill fire, but Vasily is still anxious, telling his coworker not to mess with it. We soon see the coworker shaking his hands, but he doesn’t put words to the sensations he’s feeling. The next time we cut back to the firefighters, he’s hunched on the ground, screaming, and his hand looks like chopped meat. By episode’s end, he’s rigid and unresponsive on the ground. The human body is no match for the power at play here.
Acute radiation poisoning is an insidious monster, one that turns what could’ve been a dry historical retelling into something more terrifying, unpredictable, and genre-busting. When plant employees are sent to check on the impacted parts of the building, we see a chain reaction of young men whose bodies seem to be boiling from the inside out. The symptoms of acute radiation poisoning, including vomiting, splotches of dark blood, sudden stiffness, and red, scalded faces, are almost too much to stomach, but Mazin and Renck understand the weight of this story and infuse each death scene with a sense of respect even as they call to mind sequences in particularly gruesome horror movies.
Worse still are the people who don’t know they’re dead yet. In one scene, locals gather on a bridge to catch a glimpse of the fire. They call it beautiful, and we watch them in slow motion as radioactive ash starts to fall. Flakes land gently on a woman’s face. Kids play in it like snow. It’s a moment that would be wonderfully innocent in any other situation, but here, it’s laced with almost unbearable dread. The final episode’s epilogue will state that every one of these people reportedly died and that the place where they stood is now called “The Bridge of Death.”
Chernobyl is hard to watch, and it’s also harder to re-watch and write about than anything else I’ve written about for this column to date. It’s a testament to the team behind the series that the story so effortlessly closes the distance between real-life history and a medium that’s meant for entertainment; Chernobyl widens the definition of what TV can do simply by telling the truth in all its devastating detail. It’s horrific and haunting, but it’s also a small-screen masterpiece.