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Malcolm Gladwell said in his 2000 book The Tipping Point that “Yawning is incredibly contagious. I made some of you reading this yawn simply by writing the word ‘yawn’. The people who yawned when they saw you yawn, meanwhile, were infected by the sight of you yawning–which is a second kind of contagion.” While I am clearly not a nuclear scientist, I do know that radiation is actually contagious, but I think Gladwell’s ideas about yawning could be applied to HBO’s Chernobyl and the effects of radiation following the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Immediate reaction: I’m basically radioactive right now.

Couldn’t Get Enough

If you haven’t heard about Chernobyl, you may be too young to remember real-life events or you don’t have secondhand access to an HBO GO account. Full disclosure, while I’ve heard the word “Chernobyl” before, I never really knew the details or scope of the tragedy, and I certainly wasn’t aware of the terrifying events that actually occurred there. Powerful, mesmerizing, haunting, terrifying – I couldn’t turn away from this HBO miniseries. The show (cast and crew alike) will likely be nominated in every category of the upcoming awards season. How the producers managed to capture two years’ worth of events and fully express its impact on the world in only five episodes is beyond me.

Though I still know nothing about nuclear science, and I regret not using closed captioning to better understand most of the dialogue (similar to my Peaky Blinders’ binge), I could not get enough. While my eyes didn’t leave the screen, part of me wished they had during Episode 3. The graphic nature of the effects of radiation exposure was horrifying. I’m not usually one to hide from blood, and guts, and gross things (oh my!), but the depiction of severe burns, hair loss, and other effects of imminent death cannot be unseen. The make-up artists outdid themselves. I’m happy to cover the cost of next day shipping for their Emmy and Golden Globes now.

Top-Notch Acting

Jared Harris is spectacular as Valery Legasov, the nuclear energy expert brought in to aid the plant’s cleanup efforts. As a key member of the commissioned Chernobyl Committee, Legasov discovers some glaring mechanical issues at Chernobyl and other nearby plants. Following the explosion at Chernobyl, Legasov shares the magnitude and the lasting effects of the radiation exposure with other committee members and the government. Many in power are unwilling to share these facts with the community surrounding the plant, and the world at large. Harris wonderfully balances Legasov’s tireless work to have the truth heard and reported, while dealing with the suspect politics of the Soviet Union. As a fan, I already look forward to Jared Harris’ next role, where his character (spoiler alert) hopefully meets a better end than both Legasov and his Mad Men’s Lane Pryce. Hashtag never forget Lane.

Stellan Skarsgård’s portrayal of Boris Shcherbina was top notch, as expected from a veteran like Skarsgård. The character growth throughout the series was the most noteworthy for me as a viewer. As the Council of Ministers deputy chairman, Shcherbina is skeptical of Legasov’s claims that the radiation effect is much worse than reported. Upon seeing the explosion site and learning more about the specifics of nuclear science, Shcherbina and Legasov become unexpected allies and truth seekers in an otherwise corrupt Chernobyl Committee and Soviet Union government.

Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk is the definition of girl power. As the female nuclear physicist who helped piece together a factual timeline and unearth the plant’s mechanical failures, she is unwavering in her search for the truth. The fact that Watson’s character acted as a combination of real life scientists on the same mission was the real all-star moment. Additionally, Watson’s Khomyuk bore an uncanny resemblance to Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter films in my eyes, so bonus! (You be the judge below.)

Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk in HBO’s “Chernobyl”. Digital Image: https://www.hbo.com/chernobyl/cast-and-crew/ulana-khomyuk
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. Digital Image: https://www.pottermore.com/features/how-dolores-umbridge-made-our-skin-crawl

In Conclusion: Go Watch It!

In an otherwise incredible depiction, one major distraction for me in this series was the actors’ accents. A major pet peeve of mine is when a show uses a blanket “Bristish accent” for a plot that obviously takes place not in Britain. Skarsgård’s Swedish accent was obviously the closest to the actual accent, but I mostly just heard a mix of actors’ various British, Irish, and others I couldn’t identify. Simply calling someone “comrade” doesn’t mean you represent an individual from the Soviet Union.

Overall, Chernobyl is spectacular and I continue to recommend it to anyone that I encounter – whether they ask about it or not. It’s educational, entertaining, and earth-shattering all in one. I, myself, would watch this HBO miniseries again in the future, if it didn’t make me feel like the 1990s version of Larisa Oleynik.

Player Piano: Chernobyl