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HBO’s Chernobyl is sociological storytelling at its best

It delivers painfully real stories that we cannot—must not—forget.

A few weeks ago, Game of Thrones ended. Through my tears, I saw the trailer for Chernobyl: it was billed as the filler for the Game of Thrones-shaped hole in my black, gritty, depressing heart.

It turned out to be so much more than that. It was the balm for a soul burned by her Khaleesi.

Just as I was being disappointed by the collapse in GoT’s character-focused storytelling, I read an article about how sociological storytelling is often ignored in the face of famous actors or fan-favorite stars. The writers of GoT may have failed us, but then HBO gave us Chernobyl.

The word immediately evokes the disaster that dragged the Soviet Union down with it: a nuclear power plant that blew up, melted down, and exposed all that was rotten and corrupt about the USSR. The drama surrounding the crisis is not often talked about or dramatized, as it is a complicated plot with a lot of technical explanations.

There is no action hero—there is no hero. There are only the people who threw themselves at the problem, the policy discussions, and all the liquid nitrogen in the USSR. And who wants to make a show featuring multiple characters, all in their unsexy middle age having conversations that are witty and difficult?

HBO f*cking does, that’s who!

Chernobyl was promised to have all the prerequisites of an HBO drama: smart people yelling in fancy rooms, tense background music, and—of course—gratuitous nudity. If it was just all that, it would have been enough, but instead I got a tense exploration of real stories. They were painfully real ones: stories that seemed too strange to be fiction, and that was because, largely, they aren’t.

The writer and creator of Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, based his script on actual accounts of the people involved; he took the dialogue from transcripts and memoirs. He kept most of the people’s names, insisting that they need to be remembered. The commitment to authenticity over accuracy was devastating—and for a historian who loves nothing more than to nitpick, I was mesmerized. The writers were making a statement even with the changes they made. I was too riveted to even muster a single “um, actually…”

The plot follows several people as they do their very, very best against impossible odds. There is a central character in Valery Legasov, (Jared Harris of The Crown, Fringe, and Mad Men) but he is a member of an ensemble that is 150% here for this. The names you might know are Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson. Everyone else is a relative newcomer, although there are several GoT alums in the cast.

The lack of Hollywood glamor is by design: everything looks tired and worn, but in a good way. The world looks Soviet. The little glances and internal conflict are evident in each character without being over-the-top. And the director seems to specialize in tiny moments that draw you in. You really get a sense that every person here has an inner life that you don’t get to see.

The plots that do get explored in this series are unflinching and extraordinary. The stakes feel real, and the triumphs feel earned, and at every moment you are left wondering: Did this really happen?

Yes. All of it.

At the end of the day, you want your art to make you feel something, and Chernobyl made me feel it. It did what good sociological storytelling is supposed to do: make you recognize yourself in your own society and realize that everyone, everywhere is doing the best with that they have in front of them.

Maybe what they see is different from what you see. To us, the word “Chernobyl” means this disaster. It means “nuclear meltdown” the same way 9/11 means “terrorism,” but it was the first nuclear disaster. The very first one.

It had literally never happened before, and when you start thinking like that all of their choices make a tragic, human kind of sense. How could they have lied? How could they have covered it up? Because they had to. To them, the truth would have been worse.

But the truth doesn’t care that you need to lie. Physics doesn’t care that there is a bottom line that needs to be met. So, perhaps it’s that bottom line that needs to be changed.

As they say in the opening scenes of the show: “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake if for truth, the real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth.”That’s a lesson I think, in these times, we all need to take home while we take a long hard look in the mirror. Hopefully, with vodka.

Thanks, I hate it. I’ve watched it five times. I give it a 12/10. Go and watch it now.