There’s a scene early in Chernobyl where a man pries open a metal door and accidentally looks right into the exposed core of a nuclear reactor—a blinding, lethal, white snowstorm of poison and chaos that scorches him where he stands. This is, you might reason, not a bad metaphor for life online in 2019: the surprises, the gravitational yank of innocuous portals, the toxic aftershock. And then one episode later, Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) has a conversation with a Soviet apparatchik about the “incident” at Chernobyl that brings the analogy fully home. “I’ve been assured there’s no problem,” the bureaucrat says. “I’m telling you that there is,” Khomyuk replies. “I prefer my opinion to yours,” he says. “I’m a nuclear physicist,” she counters, adding, “Before you were deputy secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.”
Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II and III, Scary Movie 3 and 4), who created and wrote all five episodes of Chernobyl, isn’t being subtle here. When societies undermine not only expertise but also the nature of truth itself, he seems to be saying, catastrophe inevitably follows. Hence the twitchy panic the first hour of Chernobyl induces as it charts the immediate aftermath of the infamous 1986 explosion at a nuclear power plant in northern Soviet Ukraine. After an opening interlude in which Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) records his memories on cassette tapes that he hides from the KGB, the series jumps back two years, to mere seconds after reactor No. 4 has apparently blown up. While a series of junior engineers try to grapple with the scale of the crisis, their supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), rejects their analysis and berates them for being hysterical. “We need to get water moving through the core,” he urges. “There is no core,” an engineer replies. “It exploded. The core exploded.” In other words, it’s not the kind of event that’s discussed in the training manual.