At one point during the decontamination of the Chernobyl site, thousands of “liquidators” are camped in a military tent city as they destroy the forests and bulldoze the earth to stop radiation being spread by the winds. A civilian joins an Afghan war veteran at the camp and is tasked with helping shoot all the abandoned pets and wild animals afflicted by radiation contamination. A supply truck arrives crammed with crates and thousands of bottles of vodka to fortify the liquidators in their work.
Viewers of Chernobyl are likewise advised to have vodka on hand. Like the liquidators at Chernobyl, it won’t help battle the radiation, but it will help blunt the pain of “processing” the horror.
Most viewers approaching Chernobyl probably think they know what happened. A reactor core blew up. But the clear-eyed, steady gazes of writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck are entirely focused on detail – the people and the stories most of us don’t know. Mazin has taken some liberties with the truth (there’s some doubt the eminent scientist Valery Legasov performed the James Stewart-in-the-court routine at the trial) and another big liberty is owned up to in the final credits, but most of Mazin’s short-cuts are probably forgivable.
What isn’t forgivable, however, is the Soviet apparatus. In almost a mirror reflection of the lies told by the USA about the Vietnam War or the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, so it was with the USSR and Chernobyl. Avoiding humiliation in the eyes of the world was paramount. Pretending it was “just a fire” - while the Swedes were recording alarming levels of radiation that could only be coming from a Soviet reactor - ranks pretty high on the scale of human mendacity.
Thus far, the best television series of the year.