The five-part HBO mini-series Chernobyl is not classical horror—it’s a meticulous recreation of the 1986 Russian nuclear meltdown, dignified and somber throughout—but it’s the scariest thing I’ve seen on TV in ages. I dragged my feet watching the first episode, which airs Monday, May 6th, thinking that this seemed like the epitome of bummer TV (death, death, and more death) and don’t we have enough bummer in our lives? But the first episode, which begins (after a prologue) inside the Chernobyl control room, as technicians try to understand a mysterious explosion outside, creates an excruciating atmosphere of tension and dread. I cleared my schedule to watch the whole thing. And woke up with anxiety nightmares along the way.
The series’s Swedish director Johan Renck (who made 2015’s stylish European gangster series The Last Panthers) has done something stunning: Chernobyl creates a sense of relentless, excruciating terror with none of the tired genre cliches of horror. There are no jump scares or needless gore in these episodes. The most frightening thing about nuclear radiation, of course, is that it is invisible and everywhere. The technicians who rush out of the control room to investigate the explosion have killed themselves by doing so—they just don’t know it yet. The firemen who assemble at the burning plant, getting close enough to the exposed nuclear core to train hoses on it, who handle irradiated graphite in the debris and feel metal in their mouths, will burn (horrifically) from the inside out in days.
Meanwhile Soviet apparatchiks who run the plant refuse to admit the scale of the disaster. They rely on cheap, useless radiation monitors to downplay the threat and deliver fake news to Moscow—this while a plume of radioactive smoke is poisoning every living thing nearby. It falls to a nuclear physicist played with dignity and gravitas by the wonderful actor Jared Harris to raise sufficient alarm to the central committee and to Gorbachev himself. He is joined by another physicist (Emily Watson) in tackling the scale of the disaster.
The titanic problems that have to be solved immediately—put out a raging fire, prevent an apocalyptic thermonuclear explosion, contain a melting core—involve dramatic acts of sacrifice and ingenuity by ordinary Russians who stoically down vodka and throw themselves into the fatal work. Visually these sequences (one breathtaking one involves a helicopter crash as it attempts to drop sand and boron on the burning core) are magnificently authentic, one after the other. If there is a weak link it is occasionally the script, by series creator Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II and III), which flirts with melodrama by amping up the heroism and bureaucratic villany. But the sterling cast—mostly British actors (who thankfully do not try on Russian accents)—never let you forget how grave this episode was, and how pitiless. When Harris’s character tells his superior, a party member played with growling confidence by Stellan Skarsg?rd, that they will be dead themselves, of cancer most likely, in a few short years, the look the two men exchange of fear and hopelessness—and resolve—will buckle your knees.
Death, death, and more death: Game of Thrones may not have enough of it these days. Chernobyl is a haunting corrective, a reminder of what sky-high stakes feel like, how terrifying true tragedy can be.