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"Vnimanie, vnimanie..."
"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.

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:

  • 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.
  • Adult Fear: Nobody is safe from the radiation and certainly not the children and pregnant women. The show references this often without being exploitative.
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  • 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 of Them:
    • The resources requested to contain the disaster start big and keep getting bigger. All of both the civil and military fire brigades within 20 miles, 5,000 tons of sand and boron, 750,000 men to clean up the mess, all of the liquid nitrogen that exists in the Soviet Union...
    • A variation in the final episode. When Legasov is testifying about the chain of events which led to the disaster (with the show visualizing it), we see several of the large monitors that show a diagram of each of the reactor rods (of which there are 211), with a square on the monitor indicating a problem with the corresponding rod. As the disaster unfolds, the entire diagram lights up, showing how the entire reactor core is undergoing a dramatic and catastrophic failure.
  • 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.
    • 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)
    • The 30-km exclusion zone around Chernobyl, set up arbitrarily by an apparatchik in Moscow. It doesn't take into account that radiation can be carried by the wind, so it is almost a given that people are being forced to leave their homes and animals are being killed in areas that are actually not contaminated, all while others go on with their lives in the highly contaminated Gomel area 200 km away.
  • All There in the Manual:
    • None of the operators or management of Chernobyl knew about Xenon poisoning the reactor; therefore you can understand their confusion (and Dyatolv's anger) when the reactor stalls. However, unlike the graphite tips on the control rods, this ignorance was due to an environment of poor training of plant personnel, and wasn't information that was suppressed.
    • The manual which contained the procedure for the turbine test contained several steps that were crossed off. Dyatolv wants a textbook run of the test, so tells them to include the crossed-out steps. As counterintuitive as it seems, these steps weren't crossed off because they were considered unnecessary, they were crossed off because they were considered too dangerous.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: In Episode 4, an old woman lists all the events that did not drive her from the farm: the Russian Civil War, Stalin's regime, and finally "the Great War." In the Soviet Union, World War II was, and in Russia continues to be, referred to as the "the Great Patriotic War."
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • As You Know:
    • 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, the KGB chief feels obligated to say that it's the USSR's highest honor. Later in that same episode, the KGB chief mentions how Legasov was a member of the Komsomol, then helpfully tells the audience that the Komsomol is the "Communist Youth".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the KGB Chairman, 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 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.
  • 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 
  • 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 
  • 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, and the ending voice-over has his words on tape leading up to what he was saying at the beginning, with the first and the last line of the show being the same.
    • 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's 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.
  • Brown Note:
    • Looking directly into what remains of the reactor core is a surefire way to ensure a painful and imminent death from acute radiation sickness, as is the fate of all of the characters who find themselves in that unfortunate position. For this reason the "biorobot" liquidators are specifically told not to look into the core when clearing debris from the roof.
    • There are numerous other very specific areas in the power plant and surrounding area that guarantee death or at least extreme radiation exposure to all those who enter, including the basement of the hospital where the firemen's clothing was dumped, the roofs of Reactor 4 (especially the roof named "Masha", which guarantees a lethal dose of radiation in only two minutes) and the "bridge of death" where various Pripyat residents watch the disaster the night of.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Central Theme: Science and truth versus politics and lies.
  • 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's flashlights dying from radiation and leaving them in the dark.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Legasov tries to bribe some nuclear plant workers into going into the reactor to drain the water. Of course it seems ridiculously small compared to what he is trying to get them to do.
  • 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 almost instantaneous 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 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 First Deputy Chairman for Ulana’s release succeeds. Shcherbina wryly points out to Legasov that he came across like a "naive idiot" and therefore not a threat.
  • 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 don't properly enrich their fuel. The same reason they are the only country in the world that uses water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient.
    "It's cheaper."
  • 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...
    Scherbina: No, no. Let's go light that roof back on fire, it was so easy to put out the first time!
  • 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 cause 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 spotted the flaw in his plan and with the help of three incredibly brave and lucky plant workers the tanks were emptied before the lava reached them.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Several factors had to align in order for the Chernobyl disaster to occur, as listed on the Useful Notes page.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Downer Beginning: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 powerplant'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."
  • 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.
  • 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 RMBK 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 example of Hot Men at Work... but in practice, the miners are rather too dirty, hairy and potbellied for that by most conventional standards. (The fact that they are sucking up radiation as they work adds to the disservice.)
    • There are fully nude firemen in this show. They lay down in a hospital with terminal radiation poisoning, covered in wounds and necrotized tissue.
  • 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.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • The Chernobyl disaster was a perfect storm of sloppiness and hubris. Basically, Bryukhanov was eyeing a (probably corrupt) promotion, which depended on him closing the books on a safety test they fudged years ago. Fomin, eager to replace his boss, orders Dyatlov to do the test at once. Dyatlov, also eager for promotion, proceeds with an extremely dangerous and sloppy test, counting on the AZ-5 killswitch if things go too south. Finally, the faulty design of the SCRAM system itself seals everybody's fate.
    • During the cleanup of the graphite from the building roof, the liquidators can only work in 90 second shifts because that's the maximum amount of time they can stay up there without suffering from lethal radiation poisoning. One soldier gets his boot trapped under heavy debris, but manages to make it back inside in time. Chillingly, his commanding officer then immediately informs him he's already suffered a lethal dose of radiation through a tiny little hole in his boot.
      Commanding Officer: Comrade soldier. You're done.
  • 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.
  • 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-Busting: 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 occured.
  • Ghost Town: By the end of Episode 2, Pripyat has been cleared of its entire civilian population.
  • Gilligan Cut: 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.
  • 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 are 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 get 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.
  • Greed: The Chernobyl Power Plant was built with serious design flaws such as no containment around the reactor and using flammable materials instead of fireproof ones for the roof because it was cheaper. It all comes back to bite them on the night of the accident. It's also made clear that Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin were determined to complete the safety test, come hell or high water, because it would mean promotions for all three of them.
  • 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.
  • 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. 350kg (771 pound) 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).
  • 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 Hiroshima's. 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.
    • After the horrifying cliffhanger of Episode 2 when the three divers are stuck without lights in an irradiated basement Episode 3 opens with the three men triumphantly emerging from the darkness having released the water gates and saving half of Europe from a possible megaton explosion. In Real Life all three would survive their radiation poisoning with two of them still alive as of 2018.
  • 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.
  • Hyperlink Story: The narrative zig-zags back and forth between several characters only connected by the Chernobyl incident. Some never meet (or only meet briefly).
  • 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.
  • Infant Immortality: Heavily implied that this will not be the case, most notably in the Bridge of Death scene, where multiple people gather on a nearby bridge to watch the fire, unwittingly exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation. Multiple children are seen among them. Special mention is shown to a man kissing his baby. Next episode, he and his wailing infant are seen in the hospital, along with every other citizen, with radiation burns. And Lyudmilla, along with who knows how many other women in Pripyat, is pregnant. Her baby absorbs so much radiation from Lyudmilla hugging a dying Vasily that the infant dies just four hours after birth.In real life... 
  • Insistent Terminology: Anything regarding the seriousness of the situation is merely "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 Thunder: Averted. When Chernobyl explodes, it takes four seconds for Pripyat to hear it and feel the shockwave three kilometers away.
  • 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).
  • Irony: Various characters note the irony that the disaster occurred during a safety test.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Mostly Played for Drama. Almost everyone is in denial about how terrible what happened at the plant is, or oblivious about how bad it can get.
    • Lyudmilla, a simple fireman's wife, worries about chemicals at the plant but is reassured by her husband Vasily that it is just a fire on the tar-lined roof. She considers her neighbors's plan to watch from closer a danger, only to be reassured again about it being just a fire.
    • Anticipating victims of radiation poisoning, Zinchenko, a doctor at Pripyat Hospital, asks an older doctor if they have iodine pills in stock, which he negates by asking why they should.
    • 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.
  • 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 Before the End: Episode 5 opens with a flashback to twelve hours before the disaster, where the people of Pripyat are going about their everyday business with no idea of what is going to happen that night.
  • 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.
  • Kill It with Water: The instant first thought of everyone about the fire is to dump water on it. But Legasov points that it is not an ordinary fire, and that will just result in the water evaporating without putting out the flames. The only solution he can think of is to bury it.
  • 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.
  • 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 begining of Episode 4 elderly lady gives a soldier a lesson in Ukrainian history, including bits that wouldn't have been discussed in 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • Played with in Episode Two, as Legasov and Shcherbina are approaching Chernobyl, Shcherbina orders the helicopter pilot to right over reactor #4 to better see the damge. Legasov advises against it due 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 consist 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.
  • 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."
  • The Needs 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 hot. 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 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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 RMBK reactor design itself. It wasn't adequately contained (unlike Western reactors, RBM Ks 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 lead 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.
  • 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.
    • 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...
    • 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 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 are 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.
  • 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 gets two moments during the helicopter ride to Chernobyl. First when he finally sees the condition of the planet 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 recieving 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 
    • Scherbina 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, Byelarussia, 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 the 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).
  • 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. The first 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.
  • Out of Character 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.
  • The Queen's Latin: Only a few actors attempt an accent. Most speak English with a British accent instead.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: Radiation in the most contaminated locations of Chernobyl is so high that any electronic device more complicated than a light switch gets turned into a fried circuit. This is a real problem when the time comes to shove the graphite back into the reactor, since the plan was to use robots to do the work but they keep breaking down because no robot in the world can withstand 12,000 roentgen bombarding it.
  • 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.
  • 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 keep their mouths shut to tell her why or even that she sees him 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 a 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.
  • 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.
  • Rage Within the Machine: Legasov and Shcherbina both 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.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale:
    • A literal case with horrifying implications. 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.
    • General Pikalov later volunteers to take a special high-range dosimeter to the top of the rubble pile at Tower 4. When he returns, it's revealed it read 15,000 roentgens, and that's the residual radiation after two days. Radiation close to the core shortly after the explosion was calculated to be in excess of 20,000 roentgen.
    • The rooftop section Masha is littered with graphite from the reactor core, giving off 12,000 roentgen per hour even several months after the accident. Even the lunar rovers, built to withstand cosmic rays can't survive that much radiation.
    • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Scapegoat: Dyatlov is made one for the accident; while he is partially responsible for how poorly managed the crisis was, Legasov makes the case that he was crucified simply so the people in power could avoid taking any real hard looks about all the failures that had to occur for them to get to that point. Interestingly, Legasov actually views this as a double injustice: first because many, many more people besides Dyatlov deserved to be punished for their parts in the disaster, but second because Dyatlov didn't deserve ten years in a labor camp for his actions — he deserved death.
  • Scare the Dog: The instant the shockwave hits Pripyat, dozens of dogs can be heard barking.
  • Scenery Gorn: The devastated and unsettling scenery is overwhelming, particularly the mutilated reactor building itself.
  • 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.
    • The victims of acute radiation syndrome are so radioactive that they're placed in lead-lined coffins, which are then welded inside airtight steel outer coffins and then buried in concrete.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: After the explosion, we get this from Dyatlov's perspective while Akimov shouts his name.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sickly Green Glow: This series was heavily researched and is highly accurate, which is why we see a sickly blue glow. Blue light is seen shooting into the sky and the horrified (and soon dead) operators who look into the core see it glowing blue. This is ionized-air glow, caused by the intense radiation exciting the air molecules, with light emitted as the gas (particularly the nitrogen in the air) deexcitesnote .
  • Skeptic No Longer: Shcherbina is at first dismissive of the damage that's been caused by the accident, but by the time he's had a chance to see the wreckage — to say nothing of the blue glowing — and interrogate Fomin and Bryukhanov, he's fully on board with how deadly the situation might be.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 thing doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. Mazin also mentioned this film as an inspiration in deciding to not use Fake Russian accents.
    • 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 the head of the KGB, expressing his hopes they have performed to the KGB's expectations. After the meeting breaks up, Legasov homes in on the KGB head 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 the KGB does to people who step out of line, but the KGB head is almost amused by Legasov's assertiveness. He agrees to release Ulana as long as Legasov accepts accountablity 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 first episode opens with Valery Legasov hanging himself in his flat, two years down to the minute after the incident.
  • 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. The head of the KGB 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 in to 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 RMBK 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the head 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 the head of the KGB could tell how painfully naïve Legasov is.
    • 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 Keepsake: At the end of Episode 3, we see a heartbroken Lyudmilla clutching a pair of Vasily’s shoes, while she watches the military unceremoniously lower her husband’s zinc coffin into a mass grave before burying it in concrete. It’s possibly the only memento she has left of her husband.
  • Translation Convention: Spoken Russian dialogue is translated into English dialogue. All written or transmitted messages, such as in television broadcasts, are preserved as Russian.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Just about every character involved is broken (or dead) by the end from what they had to endure.
  • Truth in Television: Shockingly, the complete lack of prepardness by the plant staff, local resources and Soviet party apparatus is not at all dramatized from the historical record. It was the official position of the USSR that the RBMK reactor was a pinnacle of achievement (of course the finest in the world) and a serious accident was physically impossible. The design, including any flaws, was a literal state secret and the local plant staff around the USSR were "merely" supposed to operate it without question.
    • Notably even after the globally apparent accident, Legasov was actively punished in the Soviet Union for speaking to the IAEA candidly (and prohibited from discussing the culture of secrecy in the Soviet nuclear industry) and the RBMK flaws were only admitted and rectified after his suicide.
  • 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.
  • Un-person: Legasov's punishment after coming clean at the trial. He won't be executed, because he represented the Soviet Union to the world at the IAEA conference about Chernobyl so shooting him would be too embarrassing. Instead he'll basically removed from his job and his life; he'll be left alone in his apartment, he won't be allowed friends, no one will talk to him, no one will talk about him. What the KGB doesn't count on is Legasov's Thanatos Gambit.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When the robot brought to clear the roof of graphite fails, Legasov suggests using another type of robot - "biorobots" - i.e. humans.
  • Verbal Irony: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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 horrifing shots of the entire mini-series is that of a clean-up worker's torn boot in episode 4.
  • "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.
  • You Have 48 Hours: 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.
  • 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 Cannot Grasp the True Form: The show plays around with this, particularly involving people's reaction to radiation. Many people, including doctors, simply have no comprehension of what radiation is or does, and treat the victims as if they had been conventionally burned. Chernobyl is arguably one of the few times mankind has confronted this trope in real life.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You Know I'm Black, Right?: 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.
  • 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 

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 only cared about the cost of truth, I now only ask: "What is the cost of lies?"

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