The opening episode of Chernobyl draws expertly on its western audience’s assumed knowledge of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – that there was one, that its consequences were profound and awful, but probably little more detail than that – to craft an artful, respectful piece of horror television. At times, Jakob Ihre’s cinematography evokes the science-fiction dystopias of Tarkovsky. But what powers this episode is the relentless dread of knowing that, despite the desperate reassurances of local bureaucrats, this catastrophe is very much not in control.
Following a brief prologue (of which more later), the episode jumps straight in at the point of the explosion. Jessie Buckley’s Lyudmilla walks around her flat at night, and the camera can see a glowing white light at a distant building; suddenly, the flat shakes. The episode darts back and forth between the close-up of the aftermath of the explosion, following several white-clothed workers at the flat, and the threatening image of the distant plant as seen from the town of Pripyat. From the start, it is made clear that the threat is just as much to the surrounding area as it is to the building.
This is no Deepwater Horizon action film, but an eerie horror, made awful by Paul Ritter’s Anatoly Dyatlov. The assistant chief engineer of the plant is on duty, and we see him first in a control room surrounded by confused people. At first he seems eerily competent, telling everyone not to panic and giving clear, systematic orders that get people moving. But when a worker arrives to tell the men that the nuclear core has gone, Dyatlov’s breathtaking denial kicks in. He simply repeats the orders to get coolant into the core, and refuses to countenance any other action, dismissing the increasingly graphic reports of the disaster as delusional. The fear of the men at contradicting him is only gradually countered by the realisation that the truth is too horrific to be ignored, and Dyatlov’s double-think is complete – it is never made clear whether he really believes what he is saying, or is able to completely divorce belief from the party line; when he finally collapses with radiation sickness, vomiting over Chernobyl manager Bryukhanov’s (Con O’Neill) conference table, the first thing he does is apologise.
From the clean control room, the camera follows several workers through the bowels of the power station, stunningly captured in Luke Hull’s period design. The dirtiness of hospitals, the utilitarian corridors of the plant, the perfectly laid out squares of the local town – this looks like documentary footage shot in the 80s, and the mundanity of the plant in particular only exacerbates the horror as workers find distorted walls, men with red burns on their faces and hands, and at the place where the core should be, a swirling vortex of dust. There are moments of quiet beauty, such as when coolant starts to fall on two men, but the twisted metal and constant billow of smoke (blowing into alarmingly high winds) are constant reminders of the ugliness of what is to come.
But this is clearly less a series about nuclear horror than it is about human horror. Bryukhanov is, it seems, the real villain of the piece, calling together the local governing council to explain that the situation is not at all serious, and allowing Donald Sumpter’s elderly Zharkov to give a rousing pro-party speech telling the assembled men not to distrust the party, and that they will be celebrated for the decisions they make that night – which include shutting off the town and letting no-one out to avoid the spread of disinformation. When Dyatlov falls ill, Bryukhanov orders Sitnikov (Jamie Ives), who has consistently defied the party line to insist on the gravity of the situation, to go to the roof to inspect the damage himself, resulting in him sustaining heavy radiation burns. And the managers refuse to accept that there is graphite scattered around the site, making the sight of Misha (Sam Strike) having his hand almost burned off by a piece he has picked up extremely hard to take.
At the episode’s end, Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov gets a call demanding his presence at a committee to handle the disaster. The pre-emptory nature of the man on the other end of the line, refusing to even listen to Legasov’s warning that the meeting cannot wait until the afternoon, gives a taste of the Soviet machinery that is already more interested in saving its own narrative than in saving lives. The fact that the prologue showed Legasov committing suicide in two years’ time tells us that his involvement will not go well. And the episode closes on the image of a bright, happy town being approached by smoke, with children running happily to school – and a small bird falling from the sky, writhing and dying. It’s an unflinching series, and the horrors of the fallout are only just beginning.