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"Vnimanie, vnimanie..."

"What does matter is that, to them, justice was served. Because, you see, to them, a just world is a sane world. There was nothing sane about Chernobyl."
Valery Legasov
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Chernobyl is a 2019 miniseries, chronicling the aftermath of the infamous nuclear accident. It is the first co-production between HBO and Sky. It was created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. The soundtrack is the work of Hildur Guðnadóttir.

At 01:23:45 on April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station explodes. It soon becomes clear to personnel on the ground that a catastrophic failure of the reactor vessel has blown up the whole building it's in, and is sending a cloud of radiation all over Eastern Europe. Soviet authorities race to contain the disaster—or at least some of them do, while others are more interested in denial and cover-ups.

Jared Harris stars as Valery Legasov, a nuclear physicist called in to give advice on the unfolding disaster. Stellan Skarsgård is Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet apparatchik who works with Legasov. Emily Watson is Ulana Khomyuk, another physicist who is the first person to see just how dire the situation is.

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Official trailer. Individual character tropes go in the characters page.


Tropes include:

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    A-G 
  • Abandoned Area: A montage near the end of Episode 2 shows the spooky abandoned town of Pripyat, hours after all the citizens have been put on buses and evacuated. One of the shots features the interior of a restaurant with half-eaten food and drinks still on the tables. (It is of course still abandoned, and is the most infamous Real Life abandoned area in the world.)
  • Abandoned Hospital: Pripyat Hospital becomes a real-life example after the evacuation. It's arguably an improvement as the hospital was overwhelmed with horrific casualties that it didn't have the resources to cope with.
  • Adapted Out: Legasov's wife and two children were kept out of the series to streamline the story as it's only five episodes and to keep the focus on the disaster itself.
  • Adult Fear: Nobody is safe from the radiation and certainly not the children and pregnant women. The show references this often without being exploitative.
  • After-Action Villain Analysis: A deleted scene in episode 3 had the characters doing this to Dyatlov while reading his files, which discussed how as is Truth in Television, he had survived near-fatal radiation poisoning decades earlier and the incident might have been related to the death of his young son from leukemia. They theorize that this might have inspired an obsession with "taming the atom". This scene was deleted because it was felt to be too much armchair psychology.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Zig-Zagged. The Central Committee ends up negotiating with West Germany to get a police robot to push the graphite off Masha, but they give the propaganda figure (2,000 roentgen, not 12,000) and it fries within seconds. Later, Shcherbina wonders if they can ask the Americans, but Tarakanov points out that even if the Americans have the technology needed and are willing to help, the Central Committee will never stoop so low as to ask them.
  • All for Nothing:
    • Several core technicians expose themselves to lethal amounts of radiation in an attempt to cool down the core. The problem is, there is no more core, and the entire exercise is pointless. The only reason it happens to begin with is because the plant chiefs are too far in denial to admit just how bad things are.
    • Bryukhanov, Fomin, and Dyatlov, refuse to accept Sitnikov's readings and observations of graphite on the ground, and send him to the roof to observe the damage. Sitnikov gets a lethal dose of radiation while in there and his new report is still not believed, even though he is sitting there with obvious radiation burns on his face.
    • Legasov's exchange with Shcherbina about how to put the fire out after learning the Pripyat fire brigade was in surely lethal conditions emphasizes that water is useless.
    • As revealed in the podcast, the feared filtration the miners were brought in to prevent ended not happening in the end. One in four miners died. Still, the podcast explains why this was tragic but completely justified: you can't just take a 50/50 gamble that most of the Soviet Union's fresh water supply gets heavily contaminated with radioactive fuel. Even if they had all died, it's a decision that any sane government would and should make. Some of the surviving miners even acknowledged that it's good their work was for naught, but are still proud of the job.
    • The Soviet military pressures the government to get more advanced robots from abroad to replace the lunar vehicles as roof cleaners. After refusing to ask the Americans and getting in long negotiations with West Germany, they acquire a police robot called "The Joker" which is fried as soon as it is placed on the roof. Turns out, even after accepting the loss of face needed to ask the West for help, the USSR could still not bring itself to inform them of how bad the situation actually was, and told the Germans that the robot needed to withstand 2,000 roentgen (nasty but survivable for a robot) instead of 12,000 (kills everything more complex than a light switch). The response team loses precious months and has to resort to human workers to clean the highly contaminated roof. When Shcherbina discovers this, he is so furious he destroys the telephone after calling/screaming at the Kremlin.
      Shcherbina: OF COURSE I KNOW THEY'RE LISTENING! I WANT THEM TO HEAR! I WANT THEM TO HEAR IT ALL! DO YOU KNOW WHAT WE DO HERE? TELL THOSE GENIUSES WHAT THEY HAVE DONE! [pause] I DON'T GIVE A FUCK! TELL THEM! GO TELL THEM! RYZHKOV! GO TELL THEM HE'S A JOKE! TELL FUCKING GORBACHEV! TELL THEM! [slams phone repeatedly in frustration]
    • Subverted surprisingly in the final episode. Shcherbina now diagnosed with terminal cancer, muses to Legasov how he has spent is entire life working for the government only to be sent to certain death in the end. He laments that he is an "inconsequential man" who life was wasted in the pursuit of self importance. Legasov rebuffs him however, pointing out that no one else could have directed the clean up, rallied the troops or acquired all the resources that made the operation possible. Far from it, Shcherbina's actions ended being just as important, if not more so, than any of the scientists or workers. He really did matter in the end.
      Legasov:There are other scientists like me. Any one of them could have done what I did. But you... everything we asked for, everything we needed; men, material, lunar rovers. Who else could have done these things? They heard me, but they listened to you. Of all the ministers and all the deputies. Entire congregation of obedient fools, they mistakenly sent the one good man. For God's sakes Boris, you were the one who mattered the most.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Khomyuk interviews the people who are dying from radiation to find out what caused the explosion. Justified, as they really did take that long to die.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees:
    • Some people complained about the plausibility of a female scientist being involved. In reality, though Khomyuk is a Composite Character and the Soviet Union was systematically sexist in many ways, the sciences were fairly egalitarian and there were indeed plenty of female scientists involved in the Damage Control.
    • Creator/writer Craig Mazin had been unaware that "Comrade" was really used so extensively as a style of address.
  • America Saves the Day: Discussed. When they brainstorm possible solutions for the "Masha" roof, Shcherbina brings up the Americans as a last resort for help. Tarakanov doubts if they had the means and reminds Shcherbina that the Soviet government would never stoop to ask their arch enemy.
  • Apocalypse How: Ulana tells Gorbachev and the other senior officials that they are looking at a Class 0-1 as the worst case scenario. If the radioactive material hits the water tanks, it will explode, taking out the other reactors, and wipe out both Kiev and Minsk. Afterwards, radioactive material will spread across the entirety of the Eastern Bloc, forcing the relocation of at least 60 million people. As Ukraine is the Soviet breadbasket, the consequences to the rest of the USSR will be catastrophic.
  • Apocalyptic Gag Order: The Soviet Union tries to keep what happened secret until they are forced to admit it. And even when they are working with West Germany they downplay just how bad the radiation is.
  • Arc Words:
    • The first and last line of the series: "What is the cost of lies?"
    • "How does an RBMK reactor explode?" "Lies."
    • Also: "Do you taste metal?" (At radiation levels as insanely high as those of Chernobyl, ionization of the air does in fact give it a metallic taste, as well as a smell of ozone.)
    • To a lesser extent, "I did everything right."
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • "How does an RBMK reactor explode?" Fomin uses this to push past Sitnikov's reports about the reactor core being open, using his power as chief engineer coupled with the Insane Troll Logic that if Sitnikov can't explain how the core exploded, then he's wrong about the underlying fact of the explosion. He's less successful when he tries the same tactic on Legasov, who simply refuses to answer the question in the hours after the explosion (letting the facts, such as the 15-kilorem dosimetry readings and visibly exposed graphite shards, speak for themselves), but ultimately gives the answer at the trial of Bryukhanov, Fomin, and Dyatlov: "Lies." The longer explanation he gives is this: The RMBK reactors had a flawed AZ-5 system that caused power spikes when engaged. The Soviet government knew this, but nobody actually involved in the experiment did. The power spike caused by the AZ-5 when Reactor #4 was already undergoing a runaway reaction broke the control rods, leading to the disaster. Dyatlov likely ran the reactor as riskily as he did because he thought he could always AZ-5 the reactor in case everything went horribly wrong, but in this case the the AZ-5 was worse than useless.
    • "Why did I see graphite on the roof?"- Shcherbina to Bryukhanov and Fomin. As Legasov had told Shcherbina in his briefing, graphite is used in the reactor cores and nowhere else; for graphite to be on the roof, the core would have to have exploded. The pair trying to pass it off as burnt concrete lets Shcherbina know they're lying; he knows enough about concrete to realize that whatever the rubble was, it sure wasn't concrete.
  • Artifact of Death: Eventually, any object within the exclusion zone is considered this and abandoned. Special mention goes to the fire brigade's uniforms in Pripyat's hospital, which still emit 600 roentgen per hour (enough to significantly increase cancer risk) over three decades after the disaster.
  • Artistic License – History: Has its own page.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: The general description of the mechanics of the disaster is fairly accurate but there are some glaringly inaccurate claims made by the miniseries:
    • Provided they've been properly decontaminated, a victim of radiation exposure is of no threat to the people around them, quite the opposite in fact. The plastic shrouding is, in fact, intended to protect the victim from infection as a strong enough dose of radiation will destroy the victim's white blood cells and bone marrow, leaving them without an effective immune system.
    • The idea of a steam explosion in the megaton range is quite simply preposterousnote . You'd probably have to flash-boil a small lake's worth of water to pull it off. The water in the bubbler pool would generate a pretty vicious steam explosion and definitely would disperse what's left of the reactor over an area too wide to control, but turning the whole of Europe into a desolute wasteland? That was never on the cards.
  • As You Know:
    • When Legasov is called up and notified about the accident, the man on the other end asks if he is "Legasov who is the First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy" just so we know as well.
    • While briefing the Kremlin on the effects of the potential third explosion, Ulana takes a second to note that Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia are all part of the Soviet Union.
    • Reporting back to Gorbachev, Shcherbina brings up the importance of the Dnieper basin as a food producer for the USSR.
    • When Legasov is offered a Hero of the Soviet Union award, Charkov feels obligated to say that it's the USSR's highest honor. Later in that same episode, Charkov mentions how Legasov was a member of the Komsomol, then helpfully tells the audience that the Komsomol is the "Communist Youth".
  • Awful Truth: Implied to be the reason why Akimov and Toptunov act as if the reactor did not explode in Episode 1 and futilely open the valves manually. Accepting otherwise means that the situation is not only exponentially worse but also completely beyond their control to stop or contain.
  • Bad Boss: All three senior leaders of the power plant are motivated purely by the prospect of career advancement and force the safety test through. Anatoly Dyatlov definitely takes the cake, though, true to his real life counterpart (who was infamous for being a horrible person who was extremely mean and disrespectful to everyone below him). He angrily defies repeated pleas by his staff to halt the test, threatening to destroy their careers and lives unless they obey his insane and extremely dangerous orders. He then repeatedly rejects the warnings and testimony of his subordinates reporting to him (and everyone else) that the core has exploded and that their actions are meaningless (or worse). Put another way: while the fatal flaws in the Soviet RBMK reactor design (and the lies and secrecy that deliberately hid those flaws from the people who operated and ran those reactors) caused the explosion, it was Dyatlov's colossal recklessness, insanity, threatening his subordinates, giving false reassurances that he knew what he was doing and that it was safe, and unwillingness to accept anything that he didn't want to hear that put the reactor in a disastrous state where the emergency shutdown was even needed.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: Zharkov starts to praise a member of the emergency committee who wants the city evacuated for having the interests of the People at heart, but turns this into a speech over how the People should not be troubled with matters that are better left to the State to handle.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: A variant where a soldier threatens to shoot an old woman if she continues to refuse to evacuate. When she continues refusing, there is a gunshot which turns out to be aimed at her cow.
  • Bambification:
    • A shot used prominently in the trailers shows a dead roe deer in the Red Forest.
    • Episode 1 ends in a similar note, just without a deer. As the oblivious inhabitants of Pripyat start their daily routine, including several children going to school, a starling falls and dies on the sidewalk.
  • Bastardly Speech:
    • Zharkov gives a lecture to the plant managers on how everyone should nobly do what's right in the name of Lenin and the revolution. What he's actually asking them to do is to cover up that anything bad ever happened.
    • When bullying his men into carrying out a blatantly unsafe procedure, Dyatlov says he has always preached "Safety First".
    • The head of the KGB claims a system where everyone watches everyone else ensures accountability, when it actually ensures that the culpability and incompetence of the authorities is covered up.
  • Being Watched: The KGB is observing the situation almost as soon as it happens. When Shcherbina takes Legasov for a walk, Legasov spots a couple that he recognizes as the couple he talked to at the bar observing them. Shcherbina points out that if they're observing them openly, it's because they want them to know. According to Charkov, those men watching over Legasov and Shcherbina also have men watching them.
  • Beyond the Impossible:
    • Perevozchenko sees the 350 kg (771 pound) caps on top of the reactor lid being lifted by sheer steam pressure right before the explosion blasts the 2,000 ton lid 30 meters into the air.
    • Similarly, everyone treats an RBMK reactor exploding as this. For those who don't know about the critical, fatal design flaw of the Soviet RBMK nuclear reactors, this is an understandable reaction, as it would be physically impossible without such a flaw. Even so, the sheer, insane denial that this has even occurred at all amongst the powerplant management is astounding, as for all they knew, someone sabotaged the reactor or planted a bomb, and numerous people qualified to make the call were all reporting that the core had either exploded or been hit by a powerful explosion.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Bordering on No Antagonist, as the series doesn't really have a central antagonist. The closest, however, would be the high-ranking KGB official Charkov in Episode 5, while the radiation serves as more of an unseen force of nature. Ultimately, the true Big Bad of the series would be the entire Soviet state, as their meddling through various means causes the disaster itself, stalls and hampers the cleanup efforts, and (almost) turned the entire disaster into a historical footnote.
  • The Big Board: At the trial, Legasov uses blue and red tiles on a shelf to represent the different factors in how an RBMK reactor works.
  • Big Damn Heroes: There were a lot of heroes at Chernobyl, but some of them (like the firefighters) went in because they didn't understand the danger, and others went in because they believed bullshitters like Dyatlov and Fomin. Special mention has to be given to the three Liquidators - their names are Boris Baranov, Alexei Ananenko, and Valeri Bezpalov - at the end of Episode 2, who volunteer and go into the depths of the plant to drain the water, knowing that it likely means their doom, with radiation so bad that their dosimeters emit a continuous hiss and their flashlights go out thanks to the radiation flux.note 
  • Big Red Button: The AZ-5 button, which was used in case of an emergency shutdown. Due to gross negligence during the safety test procedure and a fatal design flaw in the reactor core rods, instead of shutting the reactor down it causes it to explode.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The disaster is contained, but at great cost in human life. The surrounding area is an irradiated no man's land, though life is slowly creeping back into the area. Steps are taken to prevent another such disaster happening again, but Legasov is forced into social isolation for speaking out and commits suicide two years after the disaster. Shcherbina dies within five years of the disaster, just as predicted. The people of Pripyat and the surrounding evacuated areas were able to move on and start new lives, and Lyudmilla's even had a son despite being deemed infertile. Gorbachev believes that the disaster led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. note 
  • Blame Game: During the first meeting of the power plant administrators, Dyatlov and Fomin each try to subtly shift Director Bryukhanov's attention to the other. Episode 2 and the arrival of Shcherbina make the game a lot less subtle. By then, Bryukhanov has an entire list of people other than himself who are "accountable".
    • Of course, it isn't just those three. It takes so long to get anything even vaguely or half-arsedly done because all the layers of red tape spend most of the time pointing fingers, passing the buck, outright scapegoating and lying in the name of brown-nosing. It costs lives. And tanks the economy.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • While in Pripyat's hotel, a tourist couple (actually a pair of KGB agents) asks Legasov if there is any reason they should be worried. He says "no" to not spread a panic and they are relieved. The show then cuts to a dead deer in the forest while the containment helicopters fly overhead.
    • Upon being evacuated, the population of Pripyat is told that they would eventually be able to return to their homes. Of course, none of them will be able to return there in their lifetimes.
  • Blind Obedience: Deconstructed, the Soviet's nurturing of this mindset is not only one of the background reasons for why the disaster happened in the first place but also why the disaster was mismanaged in its early hours and the following days.
  • Body Horror: Death by radiation poisoning, which is basically your body dying and rotting from within while you're still alive, if you even make it that far. There is a time where the victims appear to be in a state vaguely resembling almost healthy, but this is a Hope Spot that quickly gives way to the final stages, where they look more like zombies than living people. At the absolute end, the victim's blood vessels have the structural integrity of a wet paper bag, causing them to bleed to death and rendering attempts at pain relief completely pointless.
  • Book-Ends:
    • The show starts with Legasov recording his tapes, but starts in the middle of his recording with him asking What is the cost of lies? The end of the last episode has a voiceover from Legasov that ends with the same line, catching us up to where he was in his tapes at the beginning.
    • The first episode features the question "How does an RBMK reactor explode?" In the final episode, Legasov answers this question.
  • Bothering by the Book: The miners' staple. Their "friendly" patting of the Minister of Coal covers him in coal dust and likely ruins an expensive suit. They are later denied fans to cool down while working at 50C/122F beneath the reactor core, so they strip and work naked.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: Two of the old Soviet Lunokhod lunar rovers are taken out of mothballs and re-purposed as remote-controlled bulldozers (their design already being radiation-hardened in order to survive in space) and are used to help clear the debris on the roof.
  • Brutal Honesty: When Legasov and Shcherbina are expecting the coal miners' foreman, Shcherbina advises Legasov not to lie to him, as they're simple folk who already distrust anyone above them. Legasov takes this to heart and admits that he doesn't know if the breathing masks will protect the miners and that the entrance to the tunnel will not provide adequate protection. Later, when the miners strip down to work in the scorching heat, exposing themselves to the radiation even more, the foreman asks Shcherbina if his men will be taken care of. After a beat, Shcherbina replies that he doesn't know, fully aware of the tendency of the Soviet authorities to sweep things under the rug. The foreman nods and goes back to work.
  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth: Or caterpillar of death and rebirth. Shcherbina sees a caterpillar in the exclusion zone, showing how life has recovered, and also immediately following him talking about his own impending death.
  • Canary in a Coal Mine: Not an intentional one, but a starling flopping down to earth and dying as the people of Pripyat go about their daily routines is an indication of the danger they're in.
  • Canned Orders over Loudspeaker: The infamous "Vnimanie, vnimanie..." announcement blared over loudspeakers mounted on military vehicles during the evacuation of Pripyat in the second episode. The audio used is the same from the real life evacuation.
  • Cassandra Truth: Precious days are lost before people finally start to believe what several of the nuclear workers and scientists have been (correctly) saying: the nuclear core has exploded. Before that point, that statement was handily ignored by all authorities at the power plant.
  • Cassette Craze: Legasov records his thoughts and the story behind what happened in Chernobyl on audio tapes before his suicide.
  • Central Theme:
    • Science and truth versus politics and lies.
    • When leaders feel the need to lie and deflect blame when a disaster happens, the disaster only compounds.
    • How authoritarian states of all economic leanings are especially badly equipped to handle man-made catastrophes. At the end of the day, all leaders are people and people make mistakes but when you position yourself as being almost godly, it makes it much harder to deal with disasters. You have to either admit you’re not as perfect as you portray yourself to your people or lie and deflect and since there’s no way for you to be held accountable for your actions (voting), most go with the latter.
  • Children Are Innocent: The first episode ends with children heading to school, oblivious of what is happening around them. After arriving at Pripyat, Shcherbina comments that children in Germany have been forced to stay indoors because of the contamination, yet Soviet children literally in the disaster's backyard aren't being afforded the same consideration.
  • Cliffhanger: Episode 2 ends with the divers' flashlights dying from radiation and leaving them in the dark.
  • Cliffhanger Copout: The opening of Episode 3 reveals that there wasn't actually a crisis at hand since the divers had backup wind-up flashlights on them.
  • Colour Wash: Not every indoor scene is underlit with a green tint, and not every outdoor daylight scene is overcast, but it's the way to bet.
  • Comfort the Dying: The entire reason that Lyudmilla disobeys Dr Vetrova in the Moscow hospital is because she doesn't want Vasily to face an agonising death alone.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Legasov tries to bribe some nuclear plant workers into going into the reactor to drain the water by offering a yearly stipend of 400 rubles. Of course it seems ridiculously small compared to what he is trying to get them to do.
  • Commie Land: A depressing look at the Soviet Union in 1986 as it struggles to recover from a major man-made disaster that, at its core, was precipitated by flaws inherent in a system that keeps generating several kind of obstructive problems after the catastrophe has happened.
  • The Commies Made Me Do It: A literal example - Shcherbina comments that anyone who tries to stand up to the Soviet government will not just be threatening themselves, but encouraging the government to go after their friends and family.
  • Composite Character: While most characters are specific Real Life people, the sheer number of people involved in the real disaster forced the writer to omit some and give their actions to others. The most notable example is Ulana Khomyuk, who is a fictional representation of various scientists that discovered the crisis on their own and were raising the alarm bell in the days immediately after the disaster.
  • The Constant: Legasov is survived by his pet cat in the prologue. When the plot reintroduces the younger-looking Legasov in 1986, the first thing we see of his is the cat.
  • Contamination Situation: Unsurprisingly, many of the characters who stand around the exploded reactor in the immediate aftermath, like plant workers and firefighters, and also any person that comes in contact with them.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: In Episode 5, Legasov is willing to say things in court that would risk his life because he knows he is dying anyway.
  • Cop and Scientist: Though Shcherbina isn't a cop, he has this dynamic with Legasov, with Legasov making plans with his scientific knowledge and Shcherbina dealing with the political and human side of things.
  • Cosmic Horror Story:
    • The nuclear side of the disaster reeks of this. Mankind harnesses a power they don't fully understand, which grows beyond their control and takes a form none of them can perceive, killing everything around it indiscriminately. The power that is unleashed is so horrific that even getting close enough to look straight at it means very likely death. Everyone can only think of costly, half-baked solutions to seal away the menace where it will keep existing for thousands of years to come.
      Legasov: The atom is a humbling thing.
    • This idea appears to be deliberately Invoked in Episode 5, where we are shown a slow-motion shot of the core exploding - the tangled mass of graphite rods emerging from the ground (nicknamed "Elena") looks like some sort of tentacled Eldritch Abomination emerging from the depths.
  • Courtroom Episode: Episode 5 takes place at the trial of the plant management.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Legasov is stunned when his blunt plea to the KGB Deputy Chairman Charkov for Ulana's release succeeds. Shcherbina wryly points out to Legasov that he came across like a "naive idiot" and therefore not a threat.
  • Creepy Basement: The three men who volunteered to go under the reactor to drain the water do so with their protective gear, three flashlights, and a Geiger counter. Crawling through half-flooded rooms surrounded by pipes, they get to a point where the Geiger freaks out... and then the flashlights die. All that's left for the audience is the sound of three panicked men breathing and a Geiger counter clicking non-stop...
  • Critical Research Failure: In-Universe. Dyatlov dismisses the blue light coming from the reactor as the Cherenkov effect (which does produce a blue glow with minimal radiation). What he should have known (and probably did, but was in denial), and what Legasov immediately realizes, is that the Cherenkov effect only occurs underwater. What's actually happening is that the air around the reactor is being ionized by the incredible amount of released radiation.
  • Cut Phone Lines: Following Zharkov's advice, the local authorities in Pripyat cut the phone lines and forbid people from entering and leaving.
  • Cutting Corners:
    • During the trial, Legasov states that the boron control rods, which are meant to reduce reactivity, have tips made of graphite, which increase it. The judge asks why. Legasov replies that it's for the same reason that they don't use containment buildings around RBMK reactors, like in the West. The same reason they designed a reactor specifically to use unenriched fuel. The same reason they are the only country in the world that uses water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient.
      Legasov: It's cheaper.
    • Shcherbina also states that the plant was completed at the end of a fiscal year, so that the manager could get a bonus. Naturally, not all procedures were completed.
  • Cutting the Knot: As a soldier tries to convince an elderly Ukrainian lady to evacuate, she continues to milk her cow while explaining why she will never leave her farm. After he dumps out the milk, she still refuses. The soldier then shoots the cow, giving her no reason left to stay.
  • Damage Control: The second through fourth episodes are all mostly focused on trying to evacuate people and control the radiation in the area. Episode 2 features the evacuation of Pripyat and an attempt to block the immediate spread of radiation Gone Horribly Wrong, Episode 3 features miners joining in an attempt to stop radioactive material from leaking into a major river, and Episode 4 has further evacuation, trying to deal with the animals who could leave the area and contaminate it, and clearing the very radioactive roofs.
  • Day Hurts Dark-Adjusted Eyes: Vasily asks his wife to open the curtains of his hospital room but his eyes can't take it so she makes him wear sunglasses.
  • Deadly Euphemism:
    • The "Animal Control" teams are death squads for wildlife, pets, and livestock in the exclusion zone.
    • "Bio-Robots" are humans sent up to clear graphite off the 'Masha' roof, which was radioactive enough to kill the actual robot sent first.
  • Deadly Hug: In the hospital in episode 3, Lyudmilla and Vasily hug each other while Vasily still seems healthy, despite the doctors' warnings of them not to touch. Lyudmilla's exposure to radiation from this and the rest of the time she spent with him leads to the death of her unborn baby and severe health consequences for her. In fact, as the camera is spinning around them, we are subjected to lens flare, seemingly indicating Lyudmilla being exposed to radiation. It also plays the same musical cue that is played throughout earlier scenes of deadly or dangerous radiation exposure, first and most prominently heard when the plant workers look directly into the burning core.
  • Dead Man Writing: Legasov makes several tapes going over the truth behind what happens in Chernobyl before killing himself.
  • Deadpan Snarker: All over the place. Many characters engage in sarcasm, both to highlight how serious the situation really is, and to downplay it. Shcherbina's reaction to one of Tarakanov's clean-up ideas is particularly acerbic:
    Shcherbina: You want to shoot exploding bullets at an exposed nuclear reactor?
    Tarakanov: Well...
    Shcherbina: No, no. Let's go light that roof back on fire, it was so easy to put out the first time!
  • Definitely Just a Cold: While going on about how the core is still intact, Dyatlov vomits and immediately he and his supporters conclude it is just from him being around the feed water so long.
  • Derelict Graveyard: In Episode 5, as Legasov and Shcherbina drive to the trial in the city of Chernobyl, they drive past a yard containing hundreds of the vehicles used in the aftermath. This is Truth in Television; every single vehicle, from APCs to helicopter gunships, cargo trucks to massive cargo helicopters that was used in the cleanup absorbed so much radiation, none of them can ever be used again.
  • Desolation Shot: In episode 2 after Pripyat is abandoned.
  • Didn't See That Coming: In Episode 2, Legasov makes a near apocalyptic mistake despite it being scientifically sound. To put out the fire, he requests Boris to fly in five thousand tons of sand and boron to smother the core. The sand and boron would eventually melt as he expected, but what he didn't expect were the water tanks still being full at the time — made even worse by the fire trucks constantly spraying and flooding the plant with water. The molten sand and boron would've caused a thermal explosion powerful enough to pop the other cores, essentially making half of Europe virtually uninhabitable for thousands of years. Insanely luckily for him (and pretty much all of Western civilization), Ulana Khomyuk spots the flaw in his plan and with the help of three incredibly brave and lucky plant workers the tanks are emptied before the lava reaches them.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Several factors had to align in order for the Chernobyl disaster to occur, as listed on the Useful Notes page. Episode 5 serves as a recount of all of those factors: human, scientific and political.note 
  • Disaster Movie: This series has been described by some reviewers as a more cerebral, somber and dramatic disaster movie of sorts.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The scene where Khomyuk meets with a politician who belittles a nuclear scientist as needlessly alarmist despite knowing nothing about the subject may as well have been between a climate scientist and a global warming negationist. Critics, viewers, and Mazin himself have also pointed similarities in the dissonance between the disaster already having a large impact on nature and people remaining oblivious or in denial about it.
  • Don't Create a Martyr: Legasov isn't killed or punished in a way that would make it obvious he is punished because he has already become famous in the outside world for his testimony in Austria; it would become an embarrassment and make him a martyr if anything was done to him. Which is exactly what happens after his suicide.
  • Double-Meaning Title:
    • "Open Wide, O Earth" shows both the miners digging a contingency tunnel under the reactor and the firemen's funeral.
    • "Vichnaya Pamyat" (Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal") is an exclamation said at the end of Eastern Orthodox funerals. It stands both for the In Memoriam to the people involved in the disaster at the end of the episode, and for Shcherbina and Legasov's enduring legacy despite the KGB's attempt to unperson them.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: The Central Committee's actions in Episode 4 encapsulate what's wrong with the USSR. They are being asked to find a machine capable of handling the 12,000 roentgen conditions on the "Masha" roof. Legasov has explicitly stated that machines useful in 2,000 roentgen conditions - with heavy shielding - can't survive the former. The Central Committee uses the 2,000 number anyway when asking the West Germans for technical assistance. West Germany operates nuclear power plants; they will know that 2,000 roentgen on a roof itself means a catastrophic core accident and also that no machine can survive the true conditions. Even months into the reality of this crisis the Central Committee haven't learned either the basic physics or that physics don't care about belief.
  • Dramatic Slip: During their Timed Mission on the rooftop of reactor 4, one of the liquidators gets his boot trapped under heavy debris while running to the exit. His boot gets ruptured in the process but we never learn what happened to his man afterwards.
  • The Dreaded: The KGB are treated like this, true to form. They are a pervasive, sinister state entity that is so overly-paranoid they are actively spying on themselves in addition to every other person of interest in the Soviet Union.
  • Drone of Dread: The majority of the soundtrack, much of which was created using samples from real nuclear power plants in Lithuania. Also the dosimeters of the technicians going under the reactor at the end of episode 2, which pop more and more frequently until they're continually hissing.
  • Dutch Angle: Paired with Shell-Shock Silence when we first see Dyatlov in the control room right after the explosion.
  • Eldritch Location:
    • With the effects the massive radiation had on the environment, technology, and people, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and Reactor #4 in particular, could be considered one after the explosion.
    • Although not alive, Reactor #4 becomes an Eldritch Abomination, a powerful force that like Medusa would kill you if you saw it, belching out radiation and debris that poisons everything and everyone for kilometers, a kind of gatekeeper to the mouth of Hell itself. In Episode 5, the audience gets a brief glimpse of the damaged control rods attached to the dislodged upper biological shield, which appears as the twisted and bent branches of a demonic tree lit by the exposed core below, which starts glowing brighter and brighter with an unearthly light as if coming alive just before it explodes and consumes everything in flames.
  • Empty Piles of Clothing:
    • The afflicted fire brigade's uniforms are thrown into a pile at Pripyat's hospital's basement. As shown in the epilogue, they are still there to this day... and they are probably the most radioactive spot in the city aside from the reactor core itself.
    • Invoked again after the evacuation of Pripyat, when a shot shows several clothes hanging on lines that will never be picked up.
  • End of an Era: The disaster happens in the final years of the Soviet Union and, according to the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself, it was a "turning point" that "opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue."
  • En Route Sum-Up: Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works to Shcherbina while they are already on a helicopter to the disaster site. Justified by the head-spinning speed they're thrown together as a team, and the fact that Shcherbina only realises while talking to Legasov that his lack of basic knowledge will put him at a disadvantage when interviewing specialists.
  • Epic Fail:
    • To clear the graphite from the roof, the Liquidation Command Team deploys an impressive, state-of-the-art autonomous construction robot ("Joker"). Radiation fries its circuits and renders it inoperable in four seconds. The Team is disappointed. Made worse because like Chernobyl itself, Joker's failure is completely self-inflicted. When party officials contacted the Germans to see if the robot could handle high radiation, they specified the "propaganda number" of 2,000 roentgen instead of the actual 12,000 it would have to endure.
    • Naturally, the RBMK reactor safety test on April 26, 1986 counts as one. Notably, it was also the fourth time they'd attempted the test over three years. Shcherbina delivers an epic condemnation of the power plant's management in the show trial in episode 5:
      Shcherbina: The first time they tried it, they failed. The second time they tried it, they failed. The THIRD time they tried it, they failed. The fourth time they tried it... was April 26, 1986.
  • Epilogue Letter: The series ends with a passage of Legasov's tape recordings which he left before committing suicide.
  • Everybody Smokes: Most of the cast are puffing away like chimneys; given the stress they're under it's not surprising. This is Truth in Television, as smoking was much more prevalent in the Soviet Union than in the West, even in the 1980s. Makes it a little ironic considering they are trying to stave off a source of radiation and cancer while consuming another one.
  • Ethereal Choir: The music during the Real-Person Epilogue.
  • Everybody Lives: All three of the "divers" who go into the reactor at the end of episode 2 survive, despite everyone being sure they were undergoing a Suicide Mission.
  • Facial Horror:
    • By the time Khomyuk interviews Akimov, there is nothing left of his face.
    • The first episode uses an unusual approach to this trope by emphasizing the skin discoloration that results from massive radiation exposure, first with Perevozchenko's "nuclear tan," then the trainees' and later Sitnikov's faces turning bright red in seconds as they stare into the open reactor. While actual gore isn't seen (the result simply looks like a bad sunburn), the implications make it chilling, especially as it continues to appear on more characters, particularly Vasily.
  • Failed a Spot Check: One of the KGB agents assigned to watch Khomyuk redacted the majority of documents she was requested to look over, and tore out two pages of the one she was allowed to read. He failed to do the same to its Table of Contents, leading her to suspect a design flaw in the RBMK reactors was a major factor in the explosion.
  • Failsafe Failure:
    • A tragic Truth in Television example. The RBMK reactors in Chernobyl had a serious design flaw where the graphite tipped control rods that would be used for an emergency shutdown actually increased the chances of a reactor breach, which is exactly what directly caused the reactor explosion.
    • During the trial, Shcherbina explains that the reactor has three diesel-fuel backup generators to provide power to the pumps in the event that the power to the plant itself is disrupted. However, they take one minute to be brought up to speed, which would have been enough for a nuclear disaster. Such a serious design flaw was what necessitated the safety test in the first place.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • Badass working men doing hard labour naked? Sounds like a perfect opportunity to showcase Hot Men at Work... but in practice, the miners are rather too dirty, hairy and potbellied for that by most conventional standards. They're also exposing themselves to radiation because it's too hot to wear the protective equipment.
    • The firemen are all in good shape, and they are presented almost completely naked, with only small covers over their genitalia... while in the hospital, dying of acute radiation syndrome, and the nude shots mean the viewer is spared none of the Body Horror.
  • Fatal Flaw: The Soviet state as a whole has its obsession with PR and denial of responsibility. Half the reason that the disaster occured was an obvious flaw in the RMBK system that could have been easily fixed, but was covered up just to avoid the minor embarrassment of having an inferior reactor design. The problem is also allowed to get much worse because the authorities are desperate to let no one know that a disaster has occurred, despite how obvious it was becoming.
  • Foreshadowing: The poem at the beginning of Episode 2 not only serves as a historically accurate detail (patriotic poems were often played on the radio in the Soviet Union), but its content about sacrificing one's life for your country was put there to foreshadow the ending with the divers asked to go on a Suicide Mission.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Boris and Valery graduate to this, even using the diminutive with one another by the end of the series.
  • Flashback: After a How We Got Here prologue the series starts at the moment of the explosion. In Episode 5 a series of flashbacks show the events that led up to the explosion — Bryukhanov and Fomin's desperation to get the test done, Dyatlov's recklessness as he plowed ahead with it in violation of all protocols, Akimov frantically pressing the AZ-5 button as reactor power spiked, and the explosion, leading back to the same Dutch Angle shot of Dyatlov that started the story in Episode 1.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Most people are at least passingly familiar with the amount of horror the Chernobyl disaster brought and its ultimate consequences (i.e the exclusion zone). We also know from the opening scene that Legasov kills himself, and Dyatlov ends up in prison.
  • Foreign Language Title: Episode 5, 'Vichnaya Pamyat' (Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal").
  • Freakier Than Fiction: So much of what goes on after the explosion is utterly incredible, and difficult to believe for a modern Western audience. While there's a fair amount of dramatic license, a lot of what happens in this series also went down in real life. And bear in mind that Craig Mazin, when researching and writing the plot, always chose to go for the least dramatic narratives. In fact, 3/4 or more of the accompanying podcast is Mazin saying "yes, this actually happened. Except it was even more unbelievable in reality."
  • From Bad to Worse: Bad enough that there's an explosion in a nuclear power plant, there's graphite on the ground, the core has been cracked open and the plant is pouring out deadly radiation. Then Ulana figures out that Legasov's solution of dumping sand and boron to try to smother the core is going to cause a steam explosion in the plant's water reservoirs, wiping out everything in a 200km radius and poisoning much of Eastern Europe. Averted, however, in the sense that the measures taken by the scientists and military actually prevent this from happening.
  • Functional Genre Savvy: Averted. In the first podcast episode, Mazin points out how it seems strange to people looking back from modern times how set many people were in their belief that the explosion wasn't as bad as it was, but part of their reaction stems from how they didn't have the same associations with Chernobyl that we have as soon as you hear the word.
  • Futureshadowing: We see the explosion from afar and the worker's reaction to it far before we see the real thing and everything that led up to it.
  • Gallows Humor: True to the setting, this is how most of the characters cope with the situation. Glukhov's Establishing Character Moment provides a great example.
    Glukhov: What's as big as a house, takes 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shitload of smoke and noise, and cuts apples into three pieces? [beat] A Soviet machine made to cut apples INTO FOUR PIECES!
  • Genre Mashup: Many viewers and critics alike have noted that at times, the series feels more like a (five-part) horror movie than a traditional historical drama — it just happens to be a horror movie that's thoroughly well-researched and accurate to real events, which makes it all the more terrifying. It evolves into a Courtroom Drama with elements of How We Got Here in Episode 5 when Legasov and Khomyuk testify at the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin and explain how the disaster happened.
  • Genre Deconstruction: One founded in real life. This show explores just what kind of system would foster the kind of over-the-top Head-in-the-Sand Management commonly seen in a Disaster Movie.
  • The Ghost: Legasov on several occasions mentions a nuclear engineer named Volkov who discovered the design flaw in the Soviet atomic plants that ultimately caused Chernobyl to happen, but was ignored and punished by the Soviet government a decade before the disaster occurred.
  • Ghost Town: By the end of Episode 2, Pripyat has been cleared of its entire civilian population.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Why Legasov decides to dump boron and sand on the reactor at first. He knows that this will just melt everything down into "lava", which could cause a lot of problems, but he thinks they have a month to fix that and right now the most important thing is dealing with the huge immediate problem. Unfortunately, it turns out that the dangers of this method were far worse than even he thought.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: Downplayed in Episode 4, with Khomyuk acting as the good angel telling Legasov to go public about the disaster's causes in Vienna, and Shcherbina acting as the bad angel telling him to take the KGB's deal and contain himself.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • In Episode 3, Ulana interviews the surviving members of the reactor staff. Each of them is shown in horrifying states of living decomposition except for Akimov, who is only shown from an obstructed angle. Later, Ulana will only say Akimov's face was "gone."
    • None of the dogs killed in Episode 4 are shot on screen.
  • Got Volunteered:
    • Gorbachev sends Legasov to assist Shcherbina on the ground after he reveals how dire the situation at Chernobyl really is.
    • A bunch of miners gets sent to Chernobyl to dig an emergency tunnel under the reactor as part of an effort to prevent the core from melting down to the water table.
    • At the end of Episode 3, soldiers go from door-to-door to deliver draft notices, conscripting people into becoming Liquidators.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Charkov tells Legasov that his efforts will be hidden from the public and the credit given to other people. While the exact circumstance that leads up to this is fictional, he was indeed largely erased from the story until his death, as a combination of backlash for speaking out against the Soviet government and criticism from other scientists who thought him a Know-Nothing Know-It-All whose decisions like dumping sand and boron on the open reactor just made things worse.

    H-R 
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Given how "nothing bad ever happens in the Soviet Union," the Soviet hierarchy initially refuses to believe the seriousness of the disaster.
  • Hellish Copter: In the second episode, the helicopter Legasov and Shcherbina are on nearly crashes when the latter orders the helicopter to fly over the reactor core. Later in the episode, the same happens to a helicopter that is trying to dump in sand and boron for real. note 
  • Hell Is That Noise:
    • The constant droning repetition of "Vnimanie, vnimanie..." (Russian for "Attention, attention") serves as this in the trailer, sampled from the real-life evacuation warning for Pripyat.
    • The increasingly loud Geiger counters of the repair team at the end of episode 2, especially once their flashlights start fizzling out.
    • The creepy music fuses seamlessly with the noises of the power plant, both while it is working and as it basically withers and dies after the accident.
    • The repeated clanging of the control rod caps which make up the cover of the reactor, as they're forced partially out of their mountings by the rising steam pressure. 350 kg (771 pounds) hunks of metal aren't supposed to just start jumping up and down like that.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • The liquidators know that they're going to die from radiation poisoning in journeying under the reactor but do so anyway because they know the alternative is letting the reactor explode and allowing millions of people to die.
    • Even beyond more direct cases like those above, anyone who went near the plant at all to help contain the damage counts. As Legasov blurts to Shcherbina, both of them will be dead within five years just from the radiation they've already been exposed to, and neither of them had even gotten particularly close to the exposed reactor site. Anyone willing to go within even the general area of the plant to help is shortening their own lives by years at the very least, if not giving themselves mere weeks or even days to live. The sole exceptions were the divers and Colonel-General Pikalov, who, because they were wearing proper protective gear and given warnings, survived into old age (two of the three divers were still alive as of 2018, and Pikalov died at the age of 78).
  • Historical Downgrade: Mikhail Shchadov, Minister of Coal Industries, is depicted as a smarmy, thin guy in a suit. In real life, he was a burly, middle-aged man (but looked older); was a former coal-miner himself; and upon obtaining his ministerial position, he worked to improve working conditions for coal-miners, gaining a healthy amount of respect from them as a result. Thus, he didn't need to bring armed soldiers with him to recruit the coal-miners for cleaning up the Chernobyl disaster, nor did he try to hide what they were needed for and what risks they would face.
  • Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Once accurate readings of the radiation levels are taken, Legasov points out that the fire is emitting the equivalent of two Hiroshimas. Every hour. And it's been burning for 20 hours already, and will burn for months.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: Shcherbina sees a caterpillar living in Chernobyl one year after the accident, representing the beauty of life and how it will always find a way to survive. Animals in the Exclusion zone aren't too different save for a shorter lifespan.
  • Hourglass Plot: When they are first introduced, Shcherbina is Too Dumb to Live and completely oblivious of and dismissive of the danger of the reactor, and Legasov has to explain it to him to stop him from getting them both killed. Later in the series when the two are dealing with the political disaster, it's Shcherbina who is saving Legasov from unknowingly making Too Dumb to Live mistakes.
  • How We Got Here: After Legasov's suicide exactly two years after the disaster, the series jumps back to the moment the reactor blew up. The events leading up to the explosion are shown in Episode 5.
  • If Only You Knew: Ulana is introduced at the beginning of Episode 2, getting radiation alarms in her lab in Minsk, 400 km from Chernobyl. Her assistant mentions the Chernobyl plant as a possible source, but Ulana dismisses that possibility, saying, "They'd have to be split open." They are split open, and when further analysis soon convinces her that Chernobyl has to be the source of the contamination, she springs into action.
  • Ignored Expert: A lot of nuclear workers and scientists are summarily ignored for far too long, but by Episode 2 the Soviet authorities (namely Boris) start to change their tune after realizing the gravity of the situation.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: At the trial, Boris Shcherbina excuses himself from the courtroom during a coughing fit. Afterwards, his handkerchief is bloodstained, confirming that he has a terminal illness related to radiation exposure from the exclusion zone.
  • Infraction Distraction: Legasov goes to Austria and tells a conference how human error caused the explosion, thereby concealing the larger design flaw.
  • Inherent in the System: The series showed that the entire event to be one of many symptoms of corruption, inefficiency, and politicking existed within Soviet bureaucracy as the Chernobyl's reactor saw many cheaper alterations and protocol skips that resulted in the meltdown. Even during the cleanups, many lives and resources were needlessly lost thanks to the false information and bureaucratic irresponsibility.
  • Insistent Terminology: Anything regarding the seriousness of the situation is mere "misinformation." Dyatlov tries to insist to his workers that it was a hydrogen tank that exploded, not the reactor, because RBMK reactors don't explode. Technically, he is partially right: the mechanism of the explosion was a mystery to the workers because they didn't know everything about how the reactor was constructed, due to issues of state secrecy.
  • Instant Cooldown: Actually inverted. The counter-intuitive control rod design meant that inserting them would mean an instant heat up, followed by the normal cooldown. Turns out, when a reactor that's already having a runaway reaction is exposed to the graphite tips of the control rods, the short amount of accelerated reaction time is all it takes for the point of no return to happen.
  • Instant Mystery, Just Delete Scene: The actual explosion and events leading up to it are not shown in the first episode. This allows for the show to explore the mystery of what happened up until the very end.
  • Instant Thunder: Averted. When Chernobyl explodes, it takes four seconds for Pripyat to hear it and feel the shockwave three kilometers away.
  • Insult Friendly Fire: After Legasov rants about how career party men make arbitrary decisions (referring to the exclusion zone with boundaries that have nothing to do with science), Shcherbina shouts at him that he himself is also a career party man, so Legasov should be careful what he says.
  • Inverse Law of Fertility: In the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, Lyudmilla is told that she will never be able to have a child, but this turns out to be wrong (as is Truth in Television).
  • Ironic Episode Title: Episode 2 is titled Please Remain Calm. It naturally consists of people realizing just how bad things are, having to evacuate and a second explosion nearly occurring that would make things much, much worse.
  • Irony: Various characters note the irony that the disaster occurred during a safety test.
  • It Will Never Catch On: A positive version at the end of the trial. Charkov vows that the truth of Chernobyl will be covered up and Legasov will die forgotten by history, with all his accomplishments attributed to others instead. Legasov's recorded memoirs and suicide exposed the whole mess to the world, making it impossible for the KGB to continue the facade.
  • It Won't Turn Off: The reactor won't turn off even when the shutdown button is pressed - in fact, all it does is turn the situation from bad but manageable to a true disaster.
  • Jitter Cam: A shaky, bouncy Jitter Cam follows a liquidator on his 90-second trip across the roof at the Chernobyl plant, shoveling graphite over the rail into the reactor hole—90 seconds because that's all the soldiers are allowed to be up there, disposing of the unfathomably radioactive graphite.
  • Just Following Orders: Legasov says that many people were following orders, himself included, of the Central Committee and the KGB to hide the flaw in the RBMK design.
  • Kafka Komedy: Frankly, the series often goes the full-Kafka: comedy, drama and horror sharing the same bleak(ly) ?hopeful? scene. That's what makes the funny stand out when we get it: it's inherent in the system, Comrade.
  • Kangaroo Court: In Episode 5, Legasov outright says that Dyatlov, Fomin and Bryukhanov will only get a show trial in a conversation he has with Khomyuk.
  • Kill the Lights: A the end of Episode 2, the three men sent into the reactor building to drain the water have their lights go out, leading to a Cliffhanger This is Truth in Television.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Discussed in the podcast as a major theme of the show; Mazin tried to depict a grim aesthetic with little in the way of beauty, and show characters who, despite their cynicism, would sacrifice their lives for it anyway. The poem at the beginning of Episode 2 is supposed to symbolize this idea. Legasov doesn't want to investigate further and blames himself for the disaster but believes he has to go on, and Shcherbina is horrified by how he will die just from being near the reactor and thinks his role in the response and his life is fairly meaningless anyway but continues to devote himself to his job.
  • Lecture as Exposition:
    • In Episode 2, as the helicopter whisks them to Chernobyl, Shcherbina demands that Legasov give him a basic lesson of how nuclear power plants work. And so Legasov does, explaining how the plant generates power and why it is very bad that graphite was seen outside the building (graphite is only present in the core, which means the core must have exploded). Shortly thereafter, Shcherbina artfully puts this to use in forcing the truth from plant management, who had been underplaying the incident.
    • The same thing happens in Episode 3. This time Shcherbina asks Legasov to explain just what the radiation exposure is going to do to his people. Legasov then tells him about how the initial exposure leads to wide-scale internal cell death, followed by a "latency period" in which the victim seems to be recovering, before their body starts falling apart—bone marrow death, arteries and veins splitting apart, horrible suffering and pain. This comes in the same episode that focuses on the workers at the plant that are dying slow and terrible deaths in a Moscow hospital. Lyudmilla arrives at the hospital to find her firefighter husband Vasily sitting up in his bed and playing cards with his buddies—the period of latency. This is followed within a day by Vasily going through an excruciating death, as his body rots while he is still alive.
    • At the beginning of Episode 4 elderly lady gives a soldier a lesson in Ukrainian history, including bits that wouldn't have been discussed in the Soviet era, like Holodomor, the name of which was unheard of in USSR.
    • Episode 5 has the trial of Dyatlov, where Legasov's testimony starts with a quick rundown of the elements creating the precarious balance at work in a nuclear power plant... and how these changed at the time of the disaster. He is preceded by Shcherbina and Khomyuk giving other details that led to disaster and why Fomin and Bryukhanov are also accountable, not just Dyatlov.
  • Lens Flare: Shown during the Orbital Hug scene of Lyudmilla and Valery in the hospital, likely indicating Lyudmilla getting irradiated by touching her husband.
  • Let Them Die Happy: When Vasily asks his wife what she sees out of the window of the Moscow hospital room, she pretends she is seeing all the sights a tourist would crave for just so he could feel happy.
  • Light Is Not Good: The reactor core post-meltdown is depicted as a hellish light so radioactive that anyone who gets a glimpse of it is doomed to die of ARS. In addition, the blue light above the exposed core is radiation smoke ionizing the air, showing just how dangerous the situation really is.
  • Line in the Sand: When the government is looking for three divers for a Suicide Mission, none of the workers is eager to volunteer. Then Shcherbina delivers a short Dare to Be Badass speech about the millions who will die if nobody acts. It works.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Including plant workers, military personnel, and government officials. It gets particularly hard to keep track of the plant workers during the immediate aftermath of the explosion because they all wear the same uniform and many favor moustaches.
  • Long Last Look: At the end of the last episode when Legasov is taken away in a car by Charkov, he gets a shot of looking at the courtroom he is leaving and the friends he is being taken away from one last time. Shcherbina and Khomyuk get similar shots of looking at the van one last time.
  • Love Makes You Stupid: Lyudmilla spends an unsafe amount of time with Vasily when he is in the hospital despite being warned against it causing the death of her unborn child. Justified because she wasn't told why it was so dangerous until Vasily was literally dying.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: In Episode 3, the coal miners, working in a 50 C tunnel without any ventilation, take all their clothes off. Glukhov, the utterly unashamed foreman, strides up to Boris and Valery in the nude when they arrive to find out what's going on.
  • The Man Is Keeping Us Down:
    • The main characters often find their efforts at Damage Control and exposing the truth stymied by the corrupt and oppressive government they have to work within.
    • The West Germans were perfectly happy to help supply robots to the Soviets - it's too bad the Soviets were lying to them about just how much radiation was on the roof for propaganda purposes, so they ended up with robots not suited to the job.
  • Meaningful Background Event: After the jump back to 1986, the series cuts to a sleepy Lyudmilla making tea in her apartment. A small dot of light, from the initial and smaller explosion, is seen in the distance through the window. It then grows to a bigger ball of light. Then the shock wave of the second and much more serious explosion arrives.
  • Mercy Kill:
    • Discussed in Episode Two. As Legasov and Shcherbina are approaching Chernobyl, Shcherbina orders the helicopter pilot to right over reactor #4 to better see the damage. Legasov advises against it due to the fact that flying through the radioactive smoke would be fatal, but Shcherbina angrily tells the pilot to fly right over, or he would have him shot. Legasov then goes to the cockpit and tells the pilot that if they fly over the reactor, "I promise you, by tomorrow morning, you'll be begging for that bullet!" After a few nervous seconds, the pilot decides to swerve away from the reactor.
    • In Episode Four, when Bacho tells Pavel that they have been assigned to be "animal control", which consists of them hunting down pets and farm animals so that they don't spread radiation outside the containment zone. Right before they go on patrol, Bacho says he has two rules: 1) Not to point the weapon at him; and 2) If he shoots an animal, make sure it's dead, "don't make it suffer." When Pavel shoots his first dog, the poor thing is left lying and bleeding out, then Bacho comes and finishes it off.
  • Mission Creep: The main characters start by being sent to Chernobyl to assess the damage, but Legasov realizes that they have to immediately do something to stem the contamination, and from there it turns out they are going to have to spend months cleaning everything up. And then on top of it all, they get caught up in investigating just why the catastrophe happened.
  • Multinational Team: Unlike other works, this miniseries includes people of many ethnicities and backgrounds, showing how diverse the Soviet Union was rather than merely being Russia.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Played with. While it's humorously shocking at first to see the miners walking around in the buff, the levity fades when the lead miner Glukhov bluntly tells Shcherbina that it's too hot to wear the protective gear, and they knew the gear wouldn't protect them from the radiation. The only funny thing is when Glukhov mockingly tells Shcherbina "We're still wearing the fucking hats."
  • Nature Is Not a Toy: As it turns out, nuclear energy is actually quite safe and one of the most ecologically friendly sources of energy if handled properly. However, between the inherently flawed design of Reactor 4, the inexperienced operators, and the arrogance of the plant's higher ups in the face of an increasingly obvious and dangerous life threatening event, practically ensured the disaster to occur sooner or later. And in the process, doom thousands to horrific fates...
  • The Needs of the Many: A mixed bag.
    • Averted with the government officials who, believing that Utopia Justifies the Means, are willing to let millions suffer in order to avoid damage to the national reputation.
    • Played straight with the common people like the three divers and the group of miners who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the many.
    • Legasov tells Gorbachev that to prevent a steam explosion that will irradiate all of Belarus and Ukraine and kill millions, three operators are going to have to go into the plant and drain the water. But those three men will die from radiation exposure after they do it, which is why Legasov says "We're asking your permission to kill three men." After taking a Beat to digest this Gorbachev says, "Every victory requires casualties", which is all he says to give the go-ahead.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!:
    • Legasov's idea to smother the fire with sand and to slow the reaction with boron results in the sand being liquefied into radioactive "lava" and pouring towards water pooled underground, threatening to cause an even greater disaster if they interact. The only way to avert this is to send three men into the dark and highly irradiated underground to pump the water out; even if they succeed, it is a Suicide Mission, and he needs clearance from Gorbachev himself to order it. In his defense, Legasov was aware that dumping the boron/sand mixture would "create problems of its own" (and much of the sand that the lava was made of was already in situ around the reactor where it was intended to act as a safety blanket), but putting out the fire had to take priority because it was spewing radioactive smoke, and he wasn't aware of the pooled water until Ulana alerted him to it; in addition, unlike basically everyone else who fucked up to any extent regarding the disaster, he owns his mistake and sets to work trying to prevent its potential consequences.
    • Toptunov, Akimov, and the firefighters pour tons of water onto the reactor fire in hopes of putting it out, but the water vaporizes upon contact because the fire is so hotnote . The water that hadn't boiled away pools under the reactor, where it must be drained away lest the core melts its way down and touches the water which would trigger another steam explosion.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Appears at the end of the fourth episode, which has a whole lot of animal shooting.
  • No One Should Survive That: Some rooted in reality:
    • Alexander "Sasha" Yuvchenko — the man who says "I don't think there is a core" — survived. He spent nearly a year in the hospital afterwards, and needed burn treatments, but was able to live with his wife and son afterward in Moscow. He was even interviewed in the documentary seen here. A Russian newspaper article about his son Kirill says he died in 2008 at the age of 47.
    • Anatoly Dyatlov received a huge dose of radiation (around 4 Sv), yet he survived and he died in 1995 of heart failure. It wasn't the first time he was hospitalized due to radiation sickness - in the sixties Dyatlov worked in a nuclear submarine shipyard in Komsomolsk and he was irradiated, also nearly fatally, in an accident.
    • Colonel-General Pikalov, who volunteered to climb the rubble towards the exposed core and take a reading because he was unwilling to risk the lives of any of his men, also didn't die. He survived and died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 78.
    • All three of the "Chernobyl Divers" survived their mission to drain the basement.
      • Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov were alive as of 2018 when they were awarded the Order For Courage in the Third Degree by the Ukranian president in a ceremony held at the nuclear plant. Ananenko was able to accept in person, while Bezpalov was absent due reportedly due to health issues.
      • Boris Baranov died of a heart attack in 2005 and was given the Order posthumously, which his grandson accepted on his behalf.
    • In general,the effects of radiation largely come down to luck and probability, especially when talking about long-term effects where it's impossible to determine who will get cancer from the radiation and whether someone's cancer was actually caused by it or not, only that some large amount of people will die. And in the acute cases, many of the victims survived because of having the best medical care possible in Moscow.
  • No OSHA Compliance:
    • It is stunning just how little the local hospital was prepared for dealing with radiation exposure...even though they live within sight of a nuclear plant with four reactors. When they first hear of a fire at the reactor, a doctor asks if they have sufficient stock of iodine tablets. Another doctor casually waves it aside by asking why they should; they are the hospital for the company town that directly services four nuclear reactors and with Iodine 131 being a radioisotopenote  only produced in nuclear reactors. Their slow response was possibly explained by that the doctors were still being lied to that the reactor roof was simply on fire, but by that point the firefighters from the first response were clearly suffering from early stage radiation poisoning, with extensive vomiting. They were treating their radiation burns with milk of all things (a folk remedy for regular burns that doesn't even work).
    • The one thing they could have done that might have given them some small chance of survival? Take off their clothes which were saturated with radiation at the reactor site — one of the most basic rules of dealing with radiation exposure. Literally none of the doctors thought of this until Zinchenko berated them for it. Hours passed with the firefighters not only getting bathed in more radiation but exposing the health workers (who get radiation burns on their hands just from throwing the discarded clothes in the basement). Generally, it seems the larger point of the miniseries was at play: the Soviets were so convinced that a reactor meltdown could not happen in their socialist utopia, that they did not bother to adequately prepare for one. Their clothes are still lying in a hospital room to this day, still giving off lethal doses of radiation.
    • As if to exemplify how shittily prepared the hospital was, they didn't have enough IVs for all the patients (not even all the children), meaning they weren't prepared for any sort of large-scale disaster. And of course, any disaster involving a nuclear reactor will inherently be large-scale.
    • The RBMK reactor design itself. It wasn't adequately contained (unlike Western reactors, RBMKs had containment walls, but no containment roof, so if an explosion happened, it would be channeled upwards and the roof wouldn't contain it) and it had control rods (meant to decrease the speed of nuclear reactions) tipped with graphite, which was used to accelerate nuclear reactions. This meant the control rods did literally the opposite of their job for just a short amount of time. This led to a runaway reaction Going Critical (technically prompt-critical) and resulted in the roof being blown off the building and radioactive debris being scattered around.
      • As Scherbina explains at the trial, the reason for the safety test that led to the disaster is because RBMK reactors didn't have a reliable backup power system in the first place, and everyone blatantly knew this. The reactor requires power to run the water pumps that cool the core: if power is lost due to blackout, foreign attack/terrorism, or just plain mechanical failure, the coolant will stop flowing and the reactor will go into meltdown. They did build backup diesel generators - but it would take 60 seconds for them to come online in the event of a sudden power failure, which was simply too late to stop a meltdown. They might as well have not had the diesel backups. The safety test was an ad hoc fix to see if they could use some of the reactor's own power, while the turbines were gradually winding down, to bridge the gap - a promising idea, but it never worked. So RBMK reactors were built throughout the Soviet Union knowing that they had no reliable backup power system, and a blackout for any reason would lead to a meltdown.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Most of the actors don't; Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson do, but Stellan Skarsgård sticks with his native Swedish accent and Jared Harris (and most of the rest of the supporting cast) speak with their English accents.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • Several scenes are sold entirely on silence and atmosphere. This is particularly evident because radiation often kills without making any visual cues.
    • No trace of plant worker Valery Khodemchuk was ever found; as he was working down at the pumps near the reactor, it's presumed that he was vaporised when the reactor exploded. If not, his body is still down there and can never be recovered.
    • We're never shown Akimov's face as he dies a slow, painful death through ARS. Khomyuk remarks to Legasov that when she interviewed him, he had no face left. This is notable, as both Toptunov and Ignatenko were both shown with varying stages of ARS induced damage.
    • The scene of the cleanup crew being sent to the roof to clear the graphite debris is completely devoid of any music and there really isn't much action going on the shot other than them hurriedly throwing the graphite debris back into the core. However, the entire scene is accompanied by the ticking of a Geiger counter which starts ticking faster and faster the closer they get to the core. The cleanup crew is also only given 90 seconds to work to prevent them from absorbing lethal amounts of radiation, and those 90 seconds are played out in real time.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing:
    • In episode 2, Legasov decides to go through with an admittedly risky and imperfect plan of dumping sand and boron on the reactor, believing it is worth it for containing the radiation, and that they have a month to fix the negative consequences. However, he was not aware that there is still water in the tanks, which will ignite and cause a disastrous second explosion within only two days.
    • In episode 3, miners are sent to dig a tunnel to prevent radioactive material from contaminating the river system, an action which could lead to the deaths of many of them. Everyone knows that this trope might be the case, since there's only around a 40% chance that the rivers will be contaminated even if they do nothing, but the risk is just too horrible to take any chances on. And indeed there really wasn't any danger.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Deconstructed and examined; the politicians of the Soviet Union are more concerned with finding someone to blame for the unfolding catastrophe than they are with solving it, or even understanding its seriousness. This is because the governmental system of the USSR pretty much encourages everyone to just pass the buck, and the man left without a chair when the music stops is either Reassigned to Antarctica or executed. No one who knows the truth of the magnitude of the nuclear accident can admit it because it is political suicide at best, and literal suicide at worst.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Miniseries.
    • The plant operators when they realize their experiment has gone seriously, seriously wrong, when the power spikes in Reactor #4.
    • Kudryavtsev and Proskuryakov, the two plant workers sent to manually lower the control rods into the reactor, when they find themselves staring into the exposed, burning reactor core.
    • Sitnikov, when he is ordered by his superiors to go the roof to visually confirm the condition of the core. The thing is, Sitnikov already knows the core had been breached, and he knows perfectly well that going to the roof is suicide.
    • Ulana Khomyuk when she realises there must have been a nuclear accident, then when Chernobyl — which could only be the source of the radiation readings she's getting if there were an explosive meltdown — fails to answer the phone.
    • Legasov's horrified expression when reading Shcherbina's initial report says it all. Even if said report downplays the magnitude of the disaster.
    • Legasov gets two moments during the helicopter ride to Chernobyl. First when he finally sees the condition of the plant with his own eyes and realizes the true scale of the disaster. The second comes when Shcherbina orders the pilot to fly closer to the reactor for a better look, prompting Legasov to tell him such a move is suicide. There's a bonus moment for the pilot, who has to choose between possibly being shot or possibly receiving a lethal radiation dose.
    • When the military-grade dosimeter reveals a radiation level of 15,000 roentgen at the reactor instead of the officially reported 3.6 roentgen.
    • Shcherbina, when Legasov blurts out that they will both be dead in five years simply from being at the site. note 
    • Shcherbina and, by extension, the whole Soviet government when they learn that the West is aware of the incident after the radioactive wind was picked up by scientists in Sweden who alerted the USA, who took satellite pictures of the still burning reactor, meaning the USSR can't act as if nothing happened anymore.
    • The personal secretary of the public official who refuses to listen to Ulana takes her warning much more seriously, particularly when Ulana gives her iodine tablets and recommends that she get out of Minsk as soon as possible. She immediately swallows a tablet, and looks ready to bolt for the door.
    • Ulana's report evokes this from everyone present at her briefing:
      Ulana: When the lava enters these tanks, it will instantly superheat and vaporize approximately 7,000 cubic meters of water, causing a significant thermal explosion.
      Gorbachev: How significant?
      Ulana: We estimate between two and four megatons. Everything within a 30-kilometer radius will be completely destroyed, including the three remaining reactors at Chernobyl. The entirety of the radioactive material in all of the cores will be ejected at force, and dispersed by a massive shockwave which will extend approximately 200 kilometers and likely be fatal to the entire population of Kiev as well as a portion of Minsk. The release of radiation will be severe and will impact all of Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, as well as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and most of East Germany.
    • Doctor Zinchenko gets one after carrying a load of the firefighters' gear to the hospital basement and sees that her hands have radiation burns.
    • Ulana at the Moscow hospital, when she realizes that she's gotten the attention of the KGB.
    • Ulana and Legasov each when they find out the reactor exploded after Akimov pressed the AZ-5note  button.
    • Shcherbina, when Legasov confronts Charkov, the Deputy Chairman of the KGB, about them being followed, and Legasov's blunt demand to have Ulana released from custody.
    • It's a subtle one, but Dyatlov when Legasov reveals the flawed control rod design that ensured the reactor's explosion.
    • Perevozchenko in the flashback, seconds before the explosion, when he sees the control rod and fuel channel caps jumping up and down on Reactor #4's steel lid (due to the pressure building up inside thanks to the accelerating reaction).
  • Ominous Hair Loss: Experienced by Professor Legasov in the final episode; by this stage, he already knows that he's been exposed to enough radiation to guarantee cancer within a few years of the disaster, but finding a clump of hair in his hand confirms that he's running out of time.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Well, Slavic rather than Latin. "Vichnaya Pamyat" - Ukrainian for "Memory Eternal", and played during "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue of the episode of same name. After all, a funeral rite just fits a postmortem.
  • The Oner: In Episode 4, the liquidators are tasked with removing graphite from the roof of the reactor buildings. They are only given 90 seconds to do their work. Their shift is done in one shot.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Legasov at the government cabinet meeting... because he is the only one who can understand that the reports are wrong. At least Gorbachev has the good sense of listening and sending him to further investigate.
    • The one guy at the first emergency meeting who points out that Bryukhanov is bullshitting — aid workers are vomiting, the air is glowing blue, the radiation is out of hand and they need to evacuate Pripyat. He is ignored.
  • Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Lyudmilla's neighbor plans to watch the burning plant from the railroad bridge. When she asks if it will be dangerous, the neighbor's husband says that it is just a fire and they'll be too removed from it to be in any danger. As soon as he says it, he remembers (with a rebuke from his own wife) that Lyudmilla's own husband is a fireman, who is putting out the fire himself, and apologizes.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: In Episode 2, the Soviet news show Vremya broadcasts a twenty-second segment announcing that an accident has occurred at Chernobyl. As was noted by Western journalists at the time, the mere fact that the Soviets were admitting something bad had happened — at all — showed just how serious the accident was.
  • Outscare the Enemy: Legasov pulls of a variant himself. When Shcherbina threatens to shoot the pilot of the helicopter the two are on if he doesn't fly over the reactor, Legasov counters by saying that flying over it will give him a far worse death than what Shcherbina would do to him.
  • Phlebotinum Analogy: An example where the phlebotinum is something from Real Life, but that the in-show audience of the lecture and much of the real-life audience wouldn't understand. Legasov compares radiation to millions of microscopic bullets that pummel one's body.
  • Pillar of Light: A faint blue sky beam emerges from the nuclear power plant once it explodes. It is ionized air that is the first clear indication that the core is now exposed to the exterior.
  • The Place: The title of the show. As Mazin notes in the podcast, people living at the time didn't have the association of Chernobyl with nuclear disaster - to them, it was just a place.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • While Lyudmila was told not to touch Vasily and not to stay with him for more than half a hour, nobody bothered to tell her why or even that he's suffering from radiation burns and what exactly that means — this becomes apparent when she states to a doctor that he is "just" burned. For this reason she ignores the warnings. Or, alternatively, the doctors knew exactly what they were looking at but were told to keep their mouths shut by the KGB to prevent the spread of the truth. The contamination resulting from her staying with Vasily for too long costs the life of her, at that time unborn, child.
    • Even someone as pig-headed as Dyatlov probably wouldn't have been so reckless if he'd have been told about the crucial design flaw in the reactor control rods.
    • The government not bringing itself to tell the Germans the real amount of radiation is bad enough, but actually following with delivering the woefully unprepared robot to the response team without even telling them the robot is unprepared, that takes the cake. The team loses the robot without even having a chance to somehow fit it with extra protection themselves, and has to resort to using human cleaners (the exact scenario they were trying to avoid).
  • Power Trio: Legasov, Shcherbina, and Khomyuk are the three main characters working to stop the disaster from getting worse. They have their foil in Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, who... are not.
  • Previously On…: Episode 2 to 5 open with a recap of the events from earlier episodes.
  • Pride Before a Fall: As noted in End of an Era, the Chernobyl disaster would be the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.
    • On one hand, there was the RBMK Reactor, held to be a state of the art accomplishment in Soviet engineering. The disaster and subsequential reveal of its fatal design flaw lead to the decline of the Nuclear Industry in the Soviet Union, its most prestigious arm now seen with suspicion by the people. Although the Reactor's flaws would be corrected, of the twenty-six Reactors that once existed, only three remain in operation nowadays.
    • On the other, the Soviet Union itself: its wanton attitude both towards safety and the consequences of the disaster in an effort to preserve its reputation would lead to the glasnost and perestroika initiative of Gorbachev to gain traction and, ultimately, end in the dissolution of the Soviet state.
  • Pulling the Thread: Numerous workers and scientists make repeated remarks on various bits of evidence that the disaster must be much worse than they're being told, but are repeatedly ignored by the more powerful bureaucrats. It's only when the most powerful bureaucrat involved, armed with an Info Dump from Legasov, calls out some technical details that the true nature of the disaster starts to become accepted.
    Shcherbina: Why did I see graphite on the roof? Graphite is only found in the core where it's used as a... neutron flux moderator. Correct?
    Bryukhanov: [horrified realization] Fomin, why did the Deputy Chairman see graphite on the roof?
    Fomin: Well, that can't be. Comrade Shcherbina, my apologies, but graphite... that's not possible. Perhaps you saw burnt concrete?
    Shcherbina: Now there you made a mistake, because I may not know much about nuclear reactors, but I know a lot about concrete.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Although it's the only victory possible under the circumstances (the whole of Russia doesn't collapse from radiation poisoning), this is invoked numerous times, with characters being sent to awful and inevitable deaths simply because it's the only way to prevent a huge collapse that might lead the whole world into The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: The Soviet Union's institutional failures lead to a lot more death than might have been necessary, although a lot more than there could have been. For instance, Lyudmilla's baby might have survived if only she hadn't spent days around the dying Vasily simply because nobody told her of the intense danger, and that's just one example. There are many more, usually relating to the intentional spread of misinformation undervaluing the danger of radiation poisoning.
  • The Queen's Latin: Only a few actors attempt an accent. Most speak English with a British accent instead.
  • Race Against the Clock: Ulana and Valery tell Mikhail Gorbachev that they have 48-72 hours to get personnel into the lower levels of Reactor #4 to drain away the water, to prevent the melted core from causing a steam explosion that will kill millions of people. The problem? The operators that will have to go in and turn those valves to drain the water are certain to die within a week from the radiation that they will absorb while they are turning the valves. All three survived, and two remain alive as of 2018.
  • Rage Within the Machine: Legasov and Shcherbina both have powerful positions in the Soviet Union and start out as loyal to the party and willing to allow injustices to happen to get by. Their Character Development throughout what they go through starts to change that. By the end (and to a good extent from the beginning for Legasov, given he knows exactly how badly everyone is messing up)they are both furious at the system
  • Ray of Hope Ending: The Real-Person Epilogue at the end of Episode Five does a pretty good job of hammering home the devastating consequences of the disaster, and the sacrifices and sufferings of the people involved. However, the epilogue does have a few bright spots that prevent it from becoming a Downer Ending. Firstly Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov to the surprise of most people survived the very dangerous mission to open the gate valves. Secondly, Lyudmilla Ignatenko was able to eventually give birth to a son, confounding medical opinion that the radiation exposure had rendered her unable to have children.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale:
    • Immediately after the accident, dosimeters in the building register radiation of 3.6 roentgen per hour—not great, not terrible, but certainly survivable. The problem is that 3.6 is the maximum those dosimeters can read, meaning the real amount could be much higher. Multiple characters note this, but Dyatlov, deep in denial, decides that 3.6 roentgen is the true number. He continues to believe this even as an operator comes into the control room to report and vomits on the floor. The fact that 3.6 roentgen is the high end of the scale is a clue that leads Legasov to believe that things in Chernobyl are much worse than Bryukhanov is letting on.
    • Later a horrified Sitnikov reports to Fomin and Bryukhanov that his 1,000 roentgen dosimeter fried when it was turned on and his 200 roentgen dosimeter also pegged at the top of the scale. Fomin and Bryukhanov initially believe that the dosimeters themselves are faulty, but when Dyatlov starts vomiting on the conference room table as he's trying to deny it, they're forced to admit that something has gone very wrong.
    • The conditions of Reactor 4 during the safety test created a feedback loop where more and more power is generated with nothing capable of calming it down. The last recorded power output before the reactor blew up was 33,000 megawatts, when it was designed to operate at 3,200 MW.
  • Reality Ensues: Whilst Ulana is trying to persuade Legasov that he should go public with the design flaws in the RBMK reactors, Shcherbina is quick to remind her of this.
    Shcherbina: I've known braver souls than you, Khomyuk. Men who had their moment and did nothing. Because when it's your life and the lives of everyone you love, your moral conviction doesn't mean anything. It leaves you. And all you want at that moment... is not to be shot.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles:
    • This series has a cast of almost all British actors and obviously is in English. Yet when the government trucks drive around Pripyat in Episode 2, blaring the order to evacuate the town immediately, the loudspeaker warnings are given in unsubtitled Russian. You don't need to speak Russian to understand what is going on; the trope here is used to underline the fear and disorientation that the residents of Pripyat are feeling as they are told with no notice that they have to leave town right away. Likewise, the TV report on the incident is in untranslated Russian even though it's not the original Soviet broadcast but a recreation.
    • Every text, even single word buttons, is in Russian with Cyrillic script. The only way to know what they say is either by being Russian literate or by the characters's reaction to it.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The end of the last episode has this, showing pictures of the real people and places involved while explaining what happened to them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In a social and political system that encourages selfish preservation and emboldens Obstructive Bureaucrat mentality, reason is a liability. But some still manage to use their power for good.
  • Red Sky, Take Warning: As civilians start venturing out to see what's happening, the sky has gone red from the blaze and there is a beam of blue light that some think is due to floodlights; it's actually ionisation of the air from the incredibly high radiation.
  • Redemption in the Rain: A variation, Stolyarchuk and Yuvchenko get indirectly drenched due to the hoses of the firefighters after the latter said "it's over". The two would be amongst the survivors of the catastrophe, living to see the new millenium.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: As discussed in the ending text, the three divers were rumored and believed by the west to have died as a result of their actions, but they in fact all survived.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: Ulana initially discounts the idea that Chernobyl might be the source of the radiation spike she's been detecting, since that would mean a catastrophe has occurred at the plant which is located over 400km away. She decides to call them anyway to see if they know anything about the radiation, but then can't get through to anyone on account of the phone lines being cut — confirming a catastrophe at Chernobyl.
  • Ridiculously Potent Explosive: As mentioned in the Artistic License page, while the threatened steam explosion in Episode 2 would have indeed have been a major From Bad to Worse moment, that would have been a result of there being much more radiation, and the explosion itself could never been as powerful as claimed.
  • Right on the Tick: Legasov kills himself exactly at the time of the disaster, two years later, at 1:23:45. This same time shows up in episode 5 as Legasov's Lecture as Exposition is alternated with showing the second-by-second procession of the catastrophe.
  • Rotten Robotic Replacement: When trying to clean up the roofs, the working plan is to use robots this time instead of using real people as they had in the last two episodes, given that tends to be very dangerous at best and a Suicide Mission at worst. This all goes fine with the first two, relatively less radioactive roofs, but the robot West Germany sends for the most dangerous roof, "Masha", proceeds to break down as soon as it's sent up there thanks to it only being designed to withstand 2000 roentgen (the amount that the Soviets told them was on the roof as propaganda, but way less than the amount that was actually there). This forces them to use humans to clear the roof once again.

    S-Y 
  • Sadistic Choice: Everyone is forced to make one, either to contain the disaster or because of the Soviet government's intolerance of disobedience.
    • The night shift for Reactor 4 can either obey Dyatlov's boneheaded orders to put the reactor into meltdown or get themselves banned from ever working again. They choose the former only because they are unaware of how bad things could get.
    • Fomin and Bryukhanov order Sitnikov to get up on the reactor rooftop and look into the core to report its status, under threat of getting shot in the face. Shcherbina later gives his helicopter pilot the same choice, but the pilot is smart enough to listen when Legasov says a bullet is a much more merciful death than Acute Radiation Sickness.
    • Legasov and Shcherbina can expose many men to dangerous amounts of radiation to clean up and contain the situation or let the reactor continue poisoning the world.
    • Legasov can either expose the truth of the RBMK reactor's design flaws and incur the wrath of the Kremlin for humiliating the Soviet Union, or he can toe the party line and let the possibility of a second Chernobyl happen.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: A variation; the Minister for Coal Industry turns up at Glukhov's mine and informs him and his crew that they'll be helping out at Chernobyl. After pointing out that the armed guards don't have enough bullets to shoot them all, Glukhov "agrees" by very slowly and very deliberately clapping him on the shoulder, covering him in coal dust in the process. The rest of his crew do exactly the same thing.
    Worker: Now you look like the minister of coal.
  • Saved by a Terrible Performance: Legasov tries to convince Charkov, a high-ranking KGB official, to let Khomyuk out of KGB's custody. Charkov at first goes for the old complete denial routine, claiming that he has no idea who or what Legasov is talking about, but Legasov insists on pressing the issue, saying that he must know since he has him and Shcherbina under constant surveillance. At this point, Shcherbina tries to apologize on Legasov's behalf, knowing how dangerous it is to make demands of someone like Charkov. But Charkov just takes Legasov's behavior in stride, and even appears to be somewhat perversely amused by it, and he then casually agrees to arrange for Khomyuk's release, as long as Legasov promises to take responsibly for her actions. Shcherbina then "compliments" Legasov afterwards, saying that he did a good job acting like a naive idiot so he will be Beneath Suspicion.
  • Saying Too Much:
    • After getting frustrated with Shcherbina pestering him about why the people of Pripyat should evacuate when they themselves aren't, Legasov accidentally mentions that they themselves will be dead in five years just from being this close to the reactor.
    • Khomyuk rages at Doctor Vetrova, due to Lyudmilla sneaking into the isolation ward to comfort Vasily, especially as Lyudmilla is pregnant. Khomyuk tells the doctor that everyone will know about the incompetence of the hospital staff, only to then be arrested by a KGB agent who overheard this, as the KGB are working to keep a lid on things.
  • Scenery Gorn: The devastated and unsettling scenery is overwhelming, particularly the mutilated reactor building itself.
  • Science Foils: Legasov and Khomyuk are both scientists and part of the show's Power Trio, with Khomyuk's idealism about speaking the truth contrasting with Legasov, who only gets there after a lot of Character Development.
  • Science Is Good: The disaster is largely caused by people who try to ignore the science behind nuclear reactors in favor of their own political motivations and is contained by those who do have the scientific knowledge and morality to act.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: Scientists vs. soldiers and politicians. The scientist characters try to call the political party men in charge out for how they are ignoring the threat or choosing horrible solutions to it for political reasons. However, the scientists themselves are not innocent of covering up the truth, and among the ranks of the soldier and political characters are Reasonable Authority Figures and people who are willing to make a Heroic Sacrifice if necessary to help contain the radiation.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The radioactive fission within the remains of the power plant cannot be stopped. It will keep happening until what remains of the fuel runs out in 50,000 years. The only thing that can be done is to shelter the rest of the world from the radiation by burying the reactor in sand, boron, and (eventually) concrete and steel.
  • Secret Test:
    • A disturbed Legasov has retreated to the hotel bar when a tourist couple mentions the explosion and asks him if there's anything to worry about. He lies and says no. He thus passes the Secret Test, as the tourist couple is actually a pair of KGB agents.
    • Shcherbina employs his own test when he gets Legasov to explain the graphite exposed on the roof during their helicopter ride, so that when they are greeted by Fomin and Bryukhanov he can ask them about it like he knows what he's talking about. It catches both bureaucrats completely off guard and they try to lie and bluff their way out of the question claiming instead he saw "concrete." As soon as that happens, Shcherbina tells them he already knows what concrete looks like and that he can't trust a word out of either man's mouth from that point on.
  • Sensor Suspense: Given that you can't see the radiation, some scenes like the divers scene and the scene with the liquidators clearing the roof have to be sold completely on the "soundtrack" of the Geiger counters- to great effect.
  • Shame If Something Happened: Dyatlov forces Akimov into calling in the day shift (to maintain the now-destroyed reactor) by telling him that he may not be able to save Akimov's career, but he can certainly make it worse. Episode 5 reveals Dyatlov tried to pull this before the explosion too: he told Akimov and Toptunov that if they don't raise the power back up to 200 or 700 from 30 right now (against all safety precautions), Dyatlov will see to it that they would not be working at Chernobyl anymore... or at any other nuclear plant.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: After the explosion, we get this from Dyatlov's perspective while Akimov shouts his name.
  • Shoot the Dog: Twice in Episode 4, though both would probably be considered a Mercy Kill in the long term.
    • The episode opens with one of the soldiers sent to evacuate the cities and villages surrounding Chernobyl trying to convince an elderly woman to leave her small farm as she's busy milking her cow. She lists off everything from the Bolshevik Revolution, to Stalin's regime, and finally the Great [Patriotic] War, that she has lived through while staying on her property and tells him the radiation won't change that. The soldier promptly shoots the cow, and tells her to come with him.
    • A more literal example occurs later with Pavel, a new conscript in the Soviet Army, who was assigned to an animal control unit tasked with destroying the pets people had to leave behind, as well as any remaining wildlife. It's made absolutely clear that neither he, nor his superior officer and the other soldier in his unit, enjoy doing it, but see as a task that must be done. And while they, sadly, have to do the same with any pups or other offspring they find, they try to make the deaths as quick and painless as possible.
  • Shown Their Work: Some Artistic License aside, the show manages to not only be one of the most accurate portrayals of the Chernobyl incident in fiction but one of the most accurate portrayals of living in the 1980s Soviet Union. Some viewers who lived in the Soviet Union during the events portrayed have remarked that the show can be hard to watch, simply because of how Close to Home it can get for them. The first example of many is how Legasov leaves some extra food for his cat before committing suicide; initially written as him leaving pet food for his cat, the show's advisors pointed out that there was no pet food in the Soviet Union. Another is that all married characters wear their wedding rings on their right 4th fingers, instead of the left as is common in the west.
  • Slave to PR: The Soviet government's biggest concern even in the midst of a nuclear crisis is looking competent in front of everyone else, which leads to more problems than can be counted.
    • Fomin and Bryukhanov are more interested in passing the blame than investigating the accident, wasting valuable time while the exposed reactor is belching out radioactive smoke every second. The citizens of Pripyat are not alerted of the danger or evacuated away from the power plant until several days have passed, while the Kremlin initially believes the accident is nothing to worry about because of their underselling.
    • The Kremlin negotiates with West Germany for a robot that can handle the astronomical radioactivity on the plant's rooftop but undersells just how radioactive it really is. Several months are wasted for a robot that breaks down in seconds.
    • The RBMK reactors had serious design flaws that were classified, most notably that the AZ-5 shutdown button acted less like an off switch and more like a lit fuse to dynamite. Dyatlov was unaware of this, and he removed every other safety feature only because he thought he had AZ-5 as a backup. Legasov exposes this design flaw in front of the international community and is punished for exposing the Kremlin's incompetence.
      Shcherbina: What you're proposing is that Legasov humiliate a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated.
  • Smoking Gun: Legasov telling everyone about just how faultily designed the reactor was at the very end of the trial, which reveals things to be more complicated than just the operators' incompetence. Justified because he wasn't supposed to say anything about the subject, and that was the point where he decided he would tell the truth after all, before it was too late.
  • Snowy Screen of Death: The screen goes all static when "Joker" dies.
  • Solemn Ending Theme: The theme that plays during the Real-Person Epilogue, and the credit themes (which often are also ''scary'' ending themes.
  • Someone Has to Die: Just getting close enough to the reactor to contain it means massively increased cancer risk for all the workers, but if they don't do anything, the entirety of Europe will be poisoned by the radiation.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Cruelly subverted. While Lyudmilla's pregnancy comes to term, months after Vasily's death, her daughter dies four hours after birth because of having been exposed to radiation while in the womb.
  • Sound-Only Death: Pavel only hears the shots of Bacho killing the puppies.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: At the beginning of Episode Three, Lyudmilla finally tracks down Vasily to the Moscow hospital, and they are joyfully reunited. We see them hugging, kissing and smiling, all whilst the dialogue and ambient sound fades away to be replaced by a dark, foreboding motif making it clear that all is not well.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Shares setting, themes, and some character tropes (e.g. the Ignored Expert, the Reasonable Authority Figure, the Obstructive Bureaucrat, the backup scientist latecomer) with Citizen X, an earlier HBO movie about a criminal investigator trying to catch a Serial Killer while the government insists that such a thing doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. Mazin also mentioned this film as an inspiration in deciding to not use Fake Russian accents.
    • It can also be considered an interesting follow-up to The Terror, which also starred Jared Harris and Adam Nagaitis and also was inspired by a famous historical disaster (though The Terror was an adaptation of a novel, not a docudrama).
    • Several viewers have also stated that the bleak atmosphere, '80s setting, docudrama format and brutal depiction of the horrors of nuclear disaster reminds them of Threads.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Ulana is able to do this without a visual representation, as she describes, one by one, the countries that a steam explosion at Chernobyl will devastate.
  • Spy Speak: Amateur spy speak. But Ulana and her physicist friend in Moscow, well aware that the phone may be tapped, engage in an elliptical conversation about escaping from "the heat", as well as mentioning a couple of numbers and names (five-year-old Boris and fourteen-year-old Simka) that actually refer to elements of the periodic table. This is how Ulana learns that the government in Moscow has ordered sand and boron dumped on the reactor to cover the core and stop the venting of radiation.
  • Staring Down Cthulhu: In Episode 3, Shcherbina and Legasov give an update on the situation to the Kremlin. Shcherbina concludes with a very subservient appeal to Charkov, Deputy Chairman of the KGB, expressing his hopes they have performed to the KGB's expectations. After the meeting breaks up, Legasov homes in on Charkov and expresses his disgust at being followed and demands the release of Ulana Khomyuk who was taken into custody. Shcherbina watches on with horror because he understands what Charkov and his ilk in the KGB does to people who step out of line, but the old KGB man is almost amused by Legasov's assertiveness. He agrees to release Ulana as long as Legasov accepts accountability for anything that happens with Ulana from that point, then politely excuses himself and walks away. Shcherbina is equally relieved and frustrated with Legasov at the outcome.
    Shcherbina: Oh, that went surprisingly well. You came off like a naive idiot. Naive idiots are not a threat.
  • Starts with a Suicide: The story begins with a heartbroken and traumatized Legasov recording his thoughts about Chernobyl a few years after the event and then committing suicide, implicitly over the guilt of the events of Chernobyl. We then flash back to the actual disaster and see how things got this bad.
  • State Sec: The KGB is a recurring obstacle for the protagonists, most notably to Ulana who is investigating the cause of the reactor's explosion. The agents are everywhere disguised as the most innocuous people, stalk the protagonists, and even arrest Ulana when she speaks out that "people are going to hear about this" second after she shouts the line. However, they are also presented in a more nuanced light. Charkov, one of the highest ranking people in the KGB, is himself is watched over by agents and he explains that the organization may be oppressive but is also a "circle of accountability". Shcherbina notes they even have power over how the nuclear reactors are built and managed, and that the RBMK reactors will never be fixed without their approval.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse:
    • In Episode 2, Ulana gives a graphic description of exactly what will happen if the reactor is allowed to melt down into the water in the bubbler pools. The immediate worst-case scenario is a thermal explosion that will have a 30 kilometer blast radius and a 200 kilometer shockwave that will wipe out Kyiv and Minsk. And that's before the accumulated radiation from all four of Chernobyl's reactors renders vast swathes of the Soviet Union uninhabitable.
    • Episode 5 has Legasov have to give a detailed explanation as to how the explosion happened and the factors leading up to it. Along with his explanation, we're shown what exactly happened in the control room before the explosion and the immediate aftermath shown in Episode 1.
  • Stupid Sacrifice: Dyatlov, Fomin, and Bryukhanov send several men to their deaths for no reason. Dyatlov wants to cool down the reactor core that's currently in small pieces, and Fomin and Bryukhanov send Sitnikov to look into the core even though he already saw it. Every man gets nothing for their troubles except lethal doses of radiation and in Sitnikov's case, an earful of denials.
  • Sudden Principled Stand:
    • Legasov suddenly turning his testimony towards the many problems Inherent in the System that caused what happened at Chernobyl, rather than merely a few people's incompetence. Not sudden for the audience, but definitely for the people at the trial.
    • To a lesser extent, Shcherbina in episode 4, angrily calling out the government for getting them bad robots because of propaganda.
  • Suicide Mission:
    • The mission to drain the reactor facility of excess water so it won't explode is a terrifying slog through almost certainly fatal radiation exposure in near pitch-black darkness, with no guarantees that the three-man volunteer team will even be able to pull it off.In real life... 
    • Sitnikov goes to the roof to look down into reactor #4, on Fomin's order, despite having seen graphite on the ground and thus already knowing that the core has exploded. He takes a lethal dose of radiation.
  • The Summation: The final episode details the precise personal, political and technical circumstances that allowed the disaster to occur, complete with flashbacks.
  • Superficial Solution: So, so many, in part due to incompetence and also because of the nature of radiation itself.
    • The drops of borom and silica - a main component of sand - into the core serves to put out the nuclear fire and reduce the spread of the radiation cloud; however, it does not end the problem as there's still radioactive corium (a name given to the melted components of a reactor) within the facility that still gives lethal radiation, which leads to the next phase..
    • The construction of the sarcophage. Though it worked to contain the spread of radiation, the area of Prypiat is still lethaly contaminated and will be so for years, additionally, the concrete sarcophage itself had a set life of 50 years and had to be replaced in 2016.
    • As Shcherbina points out in the final episode, the implementation of the Diesel back-up generators in case of a blackout to prevent a core meltdown would not have worked since it took approximately a minute for the generators to pick up the load of the pumps.
  • Suspicious Missed Messages: After detecting heightened levels of radiation and trying to call everyone around who might be responsible, Khomyuk ends up calling the titular power plant and finding the phone lines are cut off and she is getting no response, making her realize that something is very much going wrong there.
  • Tempting Fate: This is the Soviet Union's unofficial motto. The disaster happens because the reactor was shoddily designed and built, with Dyatlov pushing it into meltdown mode because all of them thought nothing could go wrong. This attitude of always pretending things are perfectly fine and nothing bad will happen is a natural extension of the Soviet's obsession with public image, which always leads to disaster. Charkov and Legasov sum it up perfectly in the last episode.
    Charkov: Why worry about something that isn't going to happen?
    Legasov: "Something that isn't going to happen"? [laughs] Oh, that's perfect! We should put that on our money.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Arguably, Legasov's suicide can be considered this, as it was his death combined with the tapes he disseminated that finally drew public attention to the design flaws of the RBMK reactors. Afterwards, the Soviet government has no choice but to publicly admit the flaws and fix them.
  • That's an Order!: Dyatlov doesn't actually say it, but his increasingly hostile commands convey this. When he orders Akimov to raise the power, in violation of every safety regulation that they have, Akimov asks him to record his command in the logbook. Dyatlov tosses it away.
  • This Cannot Be!:
    • Dyatlov refuses to believe it when one of the workers says that the reactor is "gone" (i.e. exploded). Then later, after Sitnikov reports that he saw graphite debris scattered around — a very very bad sign, as it shows that the whole reactor vessel exploded — Dyatlov digs further into denial: "You didn't see graphite...YOU DIDN'T! Because it's not there!" What makes this really horrible is that Dyatlov saw graphite himself when making his first look-see around the building.
    • Several people, especially Fomin, disregard the news of the explosion on the grounds that reactor cores "don't/can't explode". Even when investigating the explosion, Legasov and Ulana initially think it isn't possible until they learn about several reactor design flaws in conjunction with Dyatlov's recklessness.
    • Fomin does this again in Episode 2, insisting that Shcherbina could not have seen graphite on the roof of the building, that he must have seen "burnt concrete". This is a mistake, as Shcherbina shoots back that while he doesn't know beans about nuclear power, he does know a lot about concrete, and what he saw on the roof of the building was not concrete. Fomin and Bryukhanov exit stage left immediately.
    • In Episode 3, Ulana is interviewing the dying plant operators to find out what happened. When Toptunov gasps that they actually did press the scram button and the explosion happened after that, Ulana flatly says, "That's impossible." It's later revealed that a design flaw in the RBMK reactor meant that insertion of the rods would actually cause a brief power increase before shutting the reactor down. With the reactor already unstable thanks to Dyatlov's recklessness, that was all it took to blow it up.
  • This Is Going to Be Huge: Zharkov tells the local authorities to isolate but not evacuate Pripyat and trust "the State" to handle the crisis. He calls this their moment to 'shine' and is convinced that they'll be rewarded for such actions instead of living in infamy for it.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: After Misha falls to the ground in pain after touching the graphite chunk, Vasily is ordered to pick up a hose. He looks down and sees that he is standing right next to more pieces of graphite, realizing that what is gonna happen to him next.
  • That Satisfying Crunch: After the team's robot breaks down thanks to the West Germans giving them a robot designed only to withstand a far lower amount of radiation than is actually on the roof (thanks to the Soviets telling them a lower propaganda number), Shcherbina breaks his phone in anger while shouting at the people who told the Germans this.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Sitnikov is forced by his superiors to go to the plant roof and report back on the damage to the core; after he witnesses the immense blaze he turns back with a dead stare and a burned face, knowing that he's absorbed a fatal dose of radiation.
  • Throwing Out the Script: Not with a literal script, but Legasov goes Off the Rails with the testimony he was supposed to give at the trial in episode 5. It's pointed out that he's contradicting what he said in Austria, and Legasov responds that he had lied then.
  • Time-Delayed Death: Outside of absolutely massive doses, death by radiation poisoning is a rather uncomfortable drawn-out affair.
  • Timed Mission: In Episode 4, Shcherbina has no choice but to make soldiers go to the extremely radioactive roofs of the power plants and clear out the contaminated rubble. Each soldier has about 90 seconds to work before they must evacuate the roof and be decontaminated because they'll receive a lifetime of radiation during this minute and a half, that's how deadly the zone is. The soldier the camera follows is unfortunately exposed to the roof, and his torn off shoe is a death sentence.
  • Time Skip: The first three episodes more or less continuously cover the week following the explosion. The fourth episode starts four months afterwards.
  • Token Romance: Inverted. Legasov's wife and children that he had in real life are cut because it would detract from the actual focus of the show.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Shcherbina gets a big moment when he orders the government helicopter he and Legasov are on to fly directly over the smoking reactor building to get a better look at it. (The smoke is underlit by blue light, by the way, which Legasov points out.) He refuses to shy away from this course of action (as he was personally ordered by Gorbachev to "take a look at the reactor" himself) even as a nuclear physicist tells him that doing so is tantamount to suicide, threatening to have the pilot shot if he does not follow the order immediately. Legasov is still able to convince the pilot not to do it, and Shcherbina gets to see first-hand later just how bad an idea it was when a military helicopter meant to dump sand on the open reactor core flies directly over it and subsequently crashes against a crane.
    • Legasov later has a moment of this himself when he directly petitions Charkov, the Deputy Chairman of the KGB, for Khomyuk's release. It works, and Shcherbina, experienced political operative that he is, tells him the only reason he is has not been detained and potentially disposed of himself is that Charkov could tell how painfully naïve Legasov is and therefore didn't consider him a threat.
    • In a meta-narrative sense, the USSR itself. Its authoritarian secrecy policies extended to things like critical flaws in their nuclear reactor design (which none of the staff knew about), and trying to cover up the incredibly un-cover-up-able Chernobyl incident just led to it getting to it growing from a crisis to a catastrophe.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Lyudmilla's baby, thanks to the radiation she was exposed to from being around the plant and spending time with Vasily.
  • Translation Convention: Spoken Russian dialogue is translated into English dialogue. All written or transmitted messages, such as in television broadcasts, are preserved as Russian.
    • See "We All Live in America": the reason everyone is frequently referred to as "Comrade Legasov" etc. isn't a stereotypical assumption about the Soviet Union, but because the alternative was to use a longer patronymic format which doesn't neatly translate into English (real Russians wouldn't just say "Legasov").
  • Trauma Conga Line: Just about every character involved is broken (or dead) by the end from what they had to endure.
  • Unbroken Vigil: Lyudmilla stays with her husband as long as she can while he is dying, despite being told by the doctors not to.
  • Understatement: The Soviet ministers try to dismiss the levels of radiation as no worse than "a chest X-ray." Even if this were accurate, though, continuous exposure to even that level of radiation is dangerous, which is why technicians who have to administer X-rays every day stay behind special shielding.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When the robot brought to clear the roof of graphite fails, Legasov suggests using another type of robot - "biorobots" - i.e. humans.
  • Villainous BSoD: At the trial, Legasov reveals that the AZ-5 SCRAM system, which is supposed to shut down a nuclear reactor if something goes wrong, had the opposite effect, and Dyatlov gets one of these. The look on his face, as he realizes that the failsafe never would have worked, shows that he finally grasps what his actions led to.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: Pretty much every single male character is shown drinking vodka, at all hours of the day. It is even enforced by the government. The liquidators are given free vodka as reward or to keep morale high.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: As the symptoms of radiation poisoning emerge, several characters start puking up their guts. It's used for particularly dramatic effect when Dyatlov — who remained firmly in denial about the whole situation even when a subordinate vomited right in front of him — is suddenly and violently sick mid-rant, finally forcing Fomin and Bryukhanov to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a crisis.
  • Walk into Mordor: The team tries to use robots to clear the highly radioactive roofs of graphite. Unfortunately, this only works for the first two roofs, thanks to the Soviet Union underselling the amount of radiation on "Masha" to West Germany for propaganda purposes and getting a robot that isn't equipped for the job. This forces them to get people to clear them themselves.
  • The War Has Just Begun: Legasov tells a government committee who thinks that the catastrophe has been handled, telling them that they still have months of grueling, potentially deadly clean-up work left.
  • War Is Hell: Downplayed. Bacho mentions how actually killing someone is never as glamorous or exciting as it looks in the movies, just strange and traumatizing.
  • We All Live in America: Averted thanks to the work of advisors who lived in the Soviet Union.
    • The first scene was written with Legasov leaving extra pet food for his cat. An advisor pointed right away that there was no pet food in the Soviet Union: pets just got table scraps if they were fed at all. In the final scene, Legasov just makes extra food and divides it in 'cat-sized' portions.
    • Similarly, characters were going to be addressed by others on a Last-Name Basis (e.g. Shcherbina calling Legasov, "Legasov"), but it was said that this only happened when preceded by the word "Comrade" (thus, Shcherbina calls him Comrade Legasov and so on). The advisors would have preferred if they used another, more common formal addressing, the first name followed by patronymic (i.e. Shcherbina calling Legasov "Valeri Alekseyevich"), but Mazin had difficulties explaining this in the dialogue, and the "Comrade Last Name" form was then only used as a compromise.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Even in the face of a nuclear disaster it's a fight to have people get along with what to do to solve it. A lot of the complications come from misinformation and people trying to cover their reputations.
  • We Have Reserves:
    • Played sympathetically as most of the people who are knowingly ordering people to risk their lives are doing so only because there is no other option. They tried using a robot once, but the radiation levels were so high that they almost immediately fried the thing.
    • Averted when General Pikalov volunteers to get a direct reading from close to the reactor core himself rather than order one of his soldiers to do it.
    • Deconstructed in another aspect however: While the amount of people required to contain the disaster was indeed enormous, the Soviet fixation on not accepting the scale of the incident to its people and the world to save face leads to all of the workers and soldiers sent there being given minimal protection against the radiation. As the showrunner said, the Soviet leadership didn't understand how to deal with the earlier, more scientific problems, but a large-scale, blunt problem like "we need 700,000 men to scrub down everything in a 20 mile radius" - that was something they knew how to do. Like World War II or industrial projects, throwing large numbers of men at a problem, at a level unthinkable in the free societies of the West, was a uniquely Soviet advantage. On the other hand, they make it a point to show a new liquidator who isn't even a soldier, causing another to gravely realize that "they're starting to run out of men". Moreover as said in the end montage, Gorbachev himself felt that the drain on resources of both Chernobyl and the war in Afghanistan ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Wham Episode: Episode 4, "The Happiness of All Mankind." After unrelenting human suffering has been on full display for three episodes, the show goes for the gut punch detailing how pets and domesticated animals have to be dealt with because of radioactive contamination, in conjunction with the actions of the "bio robots" used to clear the plant's roof of lethally radioactive debris. And, just to really pile on the pain, Lyudmilla's baby dies hours after being born because of radiation exposure.
  • Wham Line:
    • "It's not 3 roentgen. It's 15,000."
    • "We're staying here." "Yes, we are, and we'll be dead in five years!"
    • A fairly extended example, but when Khomyuk lays out exactly what will happen when the nuclear material/lava reaches the water tanks below, rendering much of Eastern Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of years and killing many thousands across the entire continent, if they don't get divers in to drain the tanks in time. But, to list a line:
      Ulana Khomyuk: No, you don't have a month. You have approximately two days.
    • "Bio-robots. We use bio-robots. (pause) Men."
    • "Comrade soldier. You're done."
    • "It's cheaper."
    • "How does an RBMK reactor explode? Lies."
  • Wham Shot:
    • When the Pripyat residents are watching the fire from the bridge, the camera cuts to a close-up... showing ash from the plant blowing in the air.
    • Tellingly, one of the most horrifying shots of the entire mini-series is that of a clean-up worker's torn boot in episode 4.
  • When It All Began: The explosion itself, which is not actually shown until the last episode (with the show proper starting a few seconds afterward, not counting the How We Got Here moment).
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Episode 5 ends with this, along with footage of the real people and events.
    • Legasov's tapes were recovered after his suicide and circulated through the Soviet scientific community. Eventually, the flaw in the RBMK reactors was rectified.
    • Shcherbina died four years and four months after being sent to Chernobyl.
    • After their release from prison, Dyatlov died from radiation-related illness while Fomin was given an administrative job at another nuclear plant.
    • Lyudmilla suffered multiple strokes and was told by doctors that she would never have a child. They were wrong. She eventually gave birth to a son and they live in Kiev.
    • About 100 miners who took part in the digging operation beneath Reactor #4 never lived past age 40.
    • It is believed that of all the people who viewed the fire from the railway bridge in Pripyat, none of them survived.
    • More than 300,000 people were displaced by the disaster. They were told it would be temporary.
    • The total cost in human lives remains unknown. While it is estimated that thousands of people died, the official Soviet figure, which remains unchanged since 1987, is 31.
    • Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the USSR until its dissolution in 1991. He later wrote that "Chernobyl was the main cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union."
    • A new containment structure was completed in 2017, which is expected to last 100 years.
  • While You Were in Diapers: When Toptunov questions him, Dyatlov retorts that he has been working in nuclear power as long as Toptunov has been alive.
  • Women Are Wiser: The show has no shortage of wise and foolish male characters. Female characters, on the other hand, are few and always reasonable...Or, at least, it seems that way at first, but Lyudmilla and Zinchencko make some seriously bad decisions that will eventually lead to Lyudmilla's child dying hours after birth.
  • "World of Cardboard" Speech: Shcherbina's Rousing Speech at the end of Episode 2 doubles as this, marking the moment where he recovers form his Heroic BSoD from learning that he will die from being near Chernobyl.
  • Worst Aid: The male maternity doctor is not only woefully uninformed about treating radiation injuries, but the medical knowledge he does have is itself lacking. As such, when faced with a mob of people bearing obvious radiation burns, he responds by treating them as thermal burns. Zinchenko finds him trying to treat a firefighter's burns by wiping them down with milk, itself an example of this trope.note  He also has not removed their contaminated clothing, which only happens when Zinchenko yells at the staff to help her. Justified as many old Soviet doctors, especially in rural areas, did not receive any formal training save for folk remedies or the occasional textbook. Younger doctors, like Zinchenko, had access to Soviet universities and schools and were thus better trained and aware of modern procedures (NBC wounds and sickness training was still usually reserved for military or specialized doctors).
  • You Are Already Dead: As a general rule, any character who develops a radiation burn (especially on the face) is likely to die, very soon, and very, very horribly.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Legasov and Shcherbina take a moment during the trial recess to assure each other that they were essential at containing the disaster. Particularly affecting is Legasov's reassurance when Shcherbina, terminally ill, talks about how he didn't matter, how he was sent to Chernobyl in the first place because he was an expendable bureaucrat.
    Legasov: For God's sake, Boris, you were the one who mattered most.
  • You Did Everything You Could: Akimov keeps on saying "we did everything right" to himself and the crew running the safety test when the reactor exploded. The sad truth is they didn't, because they were forced to obey Dyatlov's ridiculous orders.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Downplayed. When Legasov finishes explaining how a nuclear reactor works, Shcherbina responds that he doesn't need Legasov anymore since that was his whole purpose. However, it is soon clear this is only meant as "so now you can stand in the background and let me do what I was sent for in silence" rather than any kind of threat.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: A technician runs into the control room to say that the reactor core exploded, but Dyatlov is in such denial that he insists the man must be in shock.
  • Younger Than They Look:
    • The radiation has done a number on Legasov by 1988; he's only fifty-two when he dies, but looks at least two decades older.
    • One of Ulana's interviewees in the Moscow hospital resembles an ancient, rotting corpse. She's shocked when she finds out he's the 25-year-old Toptunov. When she interviews Dyatlov, we find that his hairline has receded significantly, and his remaining hair and mustache have gone dead white, in a matter of weeks.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Lots of characters are all too aware that the amount of radiation exposure they've received will kill them. If they're lucky, in a few years time... if they're unlucky... not quickly enough. Legasov tells Shcherbina that both of them are doomed to die of radiation poisoning within five years just by coming to Chernobyl.note 
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"To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there. Whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants, it doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?"

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