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Series / Chernobyl

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"Vnimanie, vnimanie..."

"What does matter is that, to them, justice was served. Because, you see, to them, a just world is a sane world. There was nothing sane about Chernobyl."
Valery Legasov, "1:23:45"

Chernobyl is a 2019 miniseries chronicling the aftermath of the infamous nuclear accident. It is the first co-production between HBO and Sky, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. The soundtrack is the work of Hildur Guðnadóttir.

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

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


Many details in the series, particularly the subplot following fireman Vasily Ignatenko and his wife Lyudmilla, were based on accounts in the oral history Voices from Chernobyl. Compare Chernobyl: Abyss, a Russian feature film focusing on a heroic firefighter turned liquidator.

The official trailer can be watched here.

Individual character tropes go on the character sheets, and tropes applying to specific episodes can be found on the Recap pages.

This miniseries provides examples of:

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  • Abandoned Area: The town of Pripyat, nearby to the reactor, becomes this. A montage near the end of Episode 2 shows the spooky abandoned town 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 after the evacuation. It's arguably an improvement as the hospital was overwhelmed with horrific casualties that it didn't have the resources to cope with.
  • Adapted Out: Legasov's wife and two children were kept out of the series to streamline the story, as it's only five episodes and the creator wanted to keep the focus on the disaster itself.
  • All for Nothing:
    • At the Soviet government's request, the German government provides a robot that will safely allow the clearance of the radioactive graphite off the roof. The robot shorts out less than a minute after being deployed. After a (very angry) telephone conversation with the Kremlin, Shcherbina emerges from his mobile trailer, dangling the destroyed remains of the phone, and calmly explains that the Germans' robot was not designed to withstand the radiation levels inside the plant, since the Kremlin insisted on low-balling the number when they asked the Germans for help. Not only is the scheme a flop, but they have wasted months waiting to receive and deploy the robot, while the disaster is only getting worse.
    • Averted hard in the final conversation between Shcherbina and Legasov. Boris says that, in the end he was just another Obstructive Bureaucrat, and scientists like Legasov made the real difference. Legasov says he couldn't be more wrong: a dozen scientists would have seen and reported the same things as him, but without Shcherbina's willingness to back them up, with resources on the ground and in meetings with the Politburo, nothing would have been accomplished.
      Legasov: They heard me, but they listened to you. Of all the ministers, all the deputies, the entire congregation of obedient fools... they mistakenly sent the one good man. For God's sakes, Boris... you were the one who mattered most.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees:
    • Some people complained about the plausibility of a female scientist being as involved as Ulana Khomyuk. In reality, though Khomyuk is a Composite Character and the Soviet Union was systematically sexist in many ways, the sciences were fairly egalitarian and there were indeed plenty of female scientists involved in the Damage Control.
    • Creator/writer Craig Mazin had been unaware that "Comrade" was really used so extensively as a style of address.
  • An Aesop: Lies and narratives can dangerously obscure the truth. When leaders feel the need to lie and deflect blame when a disaster happens, the disaster only compounds.
    Legasov: When the truth offends, we lie and lie, until we can no longer remember it is ever there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.
  • Anyone Can Die: Nobody is safe from the radiation and certainly not the children and pregnant women. The show references this often without being exploitative.
  • Apocalyptic Gag Order: The Soviet Union tries to keep the disaster secret until radiation reaches neighboring countries and 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:
    • "We did everything right." ...But because the engineers had been lied to about what the Big Red Button did, their pushing it like they had been instructed to do accidentally took the situation in the reactor From Bad to Worse.
    • "How can an RBMK reactor expode?" and variants thereof. At first the phrase is used by Dyatlov at the other high-ranking plant officials to shut down witnesses who point out that the reactor has been destroyed, by saying that such an event is impossible. It then ends up being asked by Legasov and Khomyuk who, even after finally getting party officials to accept that the reactor did explode of its own accord, have to admit they have no idea how or why it happened, leading to them investigating in order to prevent a similar accident.
  • Artifact of Death: Eventually, any object within the exclusion zone is considered this and abandoned. Special mention goes to the fire brigade's uniforms in Pripyat's hospital, which still emit 600 roentgen per hour (enough to significantly increase cancer risk) over three decades after the disaster.
  • Artistic License – History: Has its own page.
  • Artistic Licence – Physics: As you may expect from a series heavily featuring the dangers of radiation poisoning. Whilst the depiction is overall fairly accurate, the speed and severity of reaction, as well as the physical horror itself, is exaggerated. Notably:
    • The famous 'Red Forest', full of trees which eventually died as a result of radiation exposure, are shown as having red leaves within days after the disaster. This would in fact take several months to manifest.
    • The firefighters, who received astonishingly high doses of radiation, most certainly died in severe pain. However, the effects of acute radiation poisoning are shown to basically turn them into living zombies for their last few days, which is not accurate.
    • The graphite from the reactor core is treated as the most dangerous single material to come out of it. One of the firefighters who picks up a piece of the core graphite out of curiosity is shown in severe pain with large burns and broken skin on his hand several minutes later, and there are several shots of chunks of shattered graphite smoking ominously. In reality, the graphite itself was not significantly radioactive, but the presence of it outside the reactor is the 'smoking gun' that proved indisputably that the reactor had indeed exploded.
    • The firefighters are also treated as though they are dangerously radioactive themselves, and this is the cause of Lyudmilla's miscarriage, the baby having absorbed all of the radiation Lyudmilla exposed herself to by repeatedly seeing Vasily against medical advice. In reality, whilst the dust on their clothing and skin was (and still is) extremely dangerous, the firefighters presented no risk to others once changed and showered down, and the idea that a baby could absorb the bulk of radiation a mother is exposed to is also very medically dubious.
  • As You Know: Charkov has two instances in Episode 5:
    • During his conversation with Legasov in the beginning, he produces a certificate for the Hero of the Soviet Union award, which Legasov is in line for. Charkov describes it as "our highest honor," something Legasov would almost certainly know already.
    • Later, during Legasov's post-trial interrogation, Charkov notes that Legasov was in Komsomol. He then helpfully clarifies that Komsomol is the communist youth organization.
  • 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.
  • Based on a True Story: The show attempts to portray the disaster and its aftermath as faithfully as possible.
  • Being Watched: The KGB is observing the situation almost as soon as it happens. When Shcherbina takes Legasov for a walk, Legasov spots a couple that he recognizes as the couple he talked to at the bar observing them. Shcherbina points out that if they're observing them openly, it's because they want them to know. According to Charkov, those people watching over Legasov and Shcherbina also have people watching them.
    • When the West German robot fails because the Soviets inaccurately reported how much radiation it would be exposed to, Scherbina calls his superiors and rails at them, calling them idiots and incompetents. This is a sign of just how far he's been pushed, since when the person he's talking to reminds him that the KGB will be listening to the call, he explodes.
    Scherbina: OF COURSE I know they're listening! I want them to hear, I want them to hear it all! Do you know what we're doing here? Tell those idiots what they have done!
  • Beyond the Impossible: 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 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—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.
  • 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 from happening again, but Legasov is forced into social isolation for speaking out and dies by suicide two years after the disaster, and Shcherbina dies within five years of the disaster, just as predicted. According to the epilogue, The people of Pripyat and the surrounding evacuated areas were able to move on and start new lives, and Lyudmilla even had a son despite being deemed infertile, while Gorbachev believed that the disaster led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Blame Game: A major theme of the series. Everyone from the plant supervisors to the Soviet state itself is desperate to find anyone else to blame for the disaster, when in reality (as Legasov observes in his memoirs) it was the fault of the whole incompetent system.
  • Blatant Lies: One of the series's premises: the Soviet Union relies on the principle that whatever the state says is true—no matter how ludicrous.
  • Blind Obedience: Deconstructed. the Soviet's nurturing of this mindset is depicted not only as one of the background reasons for why the disaster happened in the first place but also as the reason the disaster was mismanaged in its early hours and the following days.
  • Body Horror: Death by radiation poisoning, which is basically your body dying and rotting from within while you're still alive, if you even make it that far. There is a time where the victims appear to be in a state vaguely resembling almost healthy, but this is a Hope Spot that quickly gives way to the final stages, where they look more like zombies than living people. At the absolute end, the victim's blood vessels have the structural integrity of a wet paper bag, causing them to bleed to death and rendering attempts at pain relief completely pointless. The plant workers and first responders are shown in the late stages of this process, and it isn't pretty.
  • Bookends:
    • The show starts with Legasov recording his tapes, but begins in the middle of his recording with him asking "What is the cost of lies?" The end of the last episode has a voiceover from Legasov that ends with the same line, catching us up to where he was in his tapes at the beginning.
    • The first episode introduces the Driving Question "How does an RBMK reactor explode?" In the final episode, Legasov answers it.
  • Canned Orders over Loudspeaker: The infamous "Vnimanie, vnimanie..." announcement blared over loudspeakers mounted on military vehicles during the evacuation of Pripyat in the second episode. The audio used is the same from the real-life evacuation and was featured prominently in the series's trailers.
  • Cassette Craze: Legasov records his thoughts and the story behind what happened in Chernobyl on audiotapes, which he hides in a crevice by the ash bin (presumably for a cohort to pick up and disseminate) before dying by suicide.
  • 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.
  • Colour Wash: Not every indoor scene is underlit with a green tint, and not every outdoor daylight scene is overcast, but it's the way to bet.
  • Commie Land: A depressing look at the Soviet Union in 1986 as it struggles to recover from a major man-made disaster that, at its core, was precipitated by flaws inherent in a system that keeps generating several kinds of obstructive problems after the catastrophe has happened.
  • The Commies Made Me Do It: A literal example—Shcherbina comments that anyone who tries to stand up to the Soviet government will not just be threatening themselves, but encouraging the government to go after their friends and family.
  • Company Town: The town of Pripyat is an "atom city" built to supply the workers and community of the power plant. As the behind the scenes videos point out, it's actually a model city, closely living up to the promise of the Soviet ideal (which isn't true for most of the rest of the country). The shelves in all the stores are well-stocked, the streets are clean, and it's actually a pleasant place to live and raise a family - until you run up against the truth that they cut corners on safety measures everywhere.
  • 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.
  • Contamination Situation: Unsurprisingly, many of the characters who stand around the exploded reactor in the immediate aftermath, like plant workers and firefighters, as well as any person who comes in contact with them before decontamination, becomes seriously ill from radiation poisoning. Everyone takes a level in cynicism following their exposure.
  • 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 series could've swung dry, just going with the science of radiation but in instead goes just enough into an unknown and unfathomable Chernobyl to join the house that STALKER built.
    • 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 comprehend, killing everything around it indiscriminately. The power that is unleashed is so horrific that even getting close enough to look straight at it means very likely death. All anyone can think of are costly, half-baked solutions to seal away the menace where it will keep existing for thousands of years to come.
      Legasov: The atom is a humbling thing.
    • This idea appears to be deliberately invoked in Episode 5, where we are shown a slow-motion shot of the core exploding. The tangled mass of graphite rods emerging from the ground (nicknamed "Elena") looks like some sort of tentacled Eldritch Abomination emerging from the depths.
    • The exposed reactor is framed throughout the story as if it were almost an Eldritch Abomination; it is constantly obscured and almost imperceptible, seen only in glimpses of smoke and unnatural light, yet is somehow angry and malevolent, warping the world around it in ways that can barely be perceived and poisoning people who make the mistake of looking at it for a single second too long or standing just a bit too close...
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Legasov tells Shcherbina about how death from Acute Radiation Syndrome is one of the most horrible ways a person can die, and the series backs this up visually, in graphic detail.
  • Cutting Corners:
    • As Legasov reveals at the trial, the fatal flaw in RBMK reactors was the result of this.
      Legasov: These [control] rods are made of boron—which reduces reactivity—but not their tips. The tips are made of graphite, which accelerates reactivity.
      Judge: Why?
      Legasov: Why? For the same reason our reactors do not have containment buildings around them, like those in the West. For the same reason we don't use properly enriched fuel in our cores. For the same reason we are the only nation that builds water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient.[beat] It's cheaper.
    • Shcherbina also states that the plant was completed at the end of a fiscal year, so that the manager could get a bonus. Naturally, not all procedures were completed.
  • Damage Control: The second through fourth episodes are all mostly focused on trying to evacuate people and control the radiation in the area. Episode 2 features the evacuation of Pripyat and an attempt to block the immediate spread of radiation Gone Horribly Wrong, Episode 3 features miners joining in an attempt to stop radioactive material from leaking into a major river, and Episode 4 has further evacuation, trying to deal with the animals who could leave the area and contaminate it, and clearing the very radioactive roofs.
  • Dead Man Writing: Legasov makes several tapes going over the truth behind what happens in Chernobyl before killing himself.
  • Deadpan Snarker: All over the place. Many characters engage in flat sarcasm, both to highlight how serious the situation really is, and to downplay it. Shcherbina's reaction to one of Tarakanov's clean-up ideas is particularly acerbic:
    Shcherbina: You want to shoot exploding bullets at an exposed nuclear reactor?
    Tarakanov: Well...
    Shcherbina: No, no. Let's go light that roof back on fire, it was so easy to put out the first time!
  • Death Glare: Shcherbina has a very effective one. When General Pikalov announces that the radiation levels are five thousand times greater than what they were initially led to believe, Bryukhanov begins, "Comrade Shcherbina...", who just looks at him, and he shuts up immediately.
  • Death World: Reactor #4 belches out radiation and debris that poisons everything and everyone for kilometers, a kind of gatekeeper to the mouth of Hell itself.
    • The different roof levels, covered in radioactive graphite, in Episode 4. They're all given harmless-sounding girls' names, but one of them in particular - Masha - is specifically referred to as the most dangerous place on Earth.
  • Didn't Think This Through: At his show trial, Dyatlov has the gall to interrupt everyone and blatantly lie that he wasn't even in the control room when the control rods were removed from the core, despite numerous witnesses all saying that he was, that he gave the order, and that he threatened Akimov when he initially refused. Given that this was a show trial, and the only way to avoid severe punishment (or execution) is to basically express sincere guilt, shame, and humility, it was an incredibly dumb thing to do — so much so that the prosecutor, Legasov, and the judge are baffled that Dyatlov even tried it.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Several factors had to align in order for the Chernobyl disaster to occur, as listed on the Useful Notes page. Episode 5 serves as a recount of all of those factors: human, scientific and political.note 
  • Disaster Movie: The series has been described by some reviewers as a more cerebral, somber and dramatic disaster movie of sorts. While it avoids sensationalizing the catastrophe, it certainly doesn't shy away from giving the people the tension and detailed disaster sequences they want to see.
  • 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.
  • Driving Question:
    • The first and last line of the series, "What is the cost of lies?", which also serves as the show's tagline.
    • "How does an RBMK reactor explode?" "Lies."
  • Drone of Dread:
    • The majority of the soundtrack, much of which was created using samples from real nuclear power plants in Lithuania.
    • Also the regularly audible dosimeters, which click faster and faster until they are whirring. This sound is used during the divers' mission in Episode 2 and the rooftop scene in Episode 4, as well as during the credits of every episode.
  • Eldritch Abomination: 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. If you want to see what it actually looks like, the official site of the power plant has pictures of the real thing.
    • In Episode 1, the gouts of smoke billowing out of Reactor 4 look like a living thing, and when the wind carries the smoke toward Pripyat, the forest beneath the cloud immediately starts dying.
  • 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."
  • Epic Fail: Naturally, the RBMK reactor safety test on April 26, 1986, counts as one. It was actually the fourth time they'd attempted the test over three years. No one suspected such a simple test could cause such a massive disaster—and it wouldn't have, if everything else hadn't already gone wrong. Shcherbina delivers an epic condemnation of the power plant's management in the trial in Episode 5:
    Shcherbina: The first time they tried it, they failed. The second time they tried it, they failed. The THIRD time they tried it, they failed. The fourth time they tried it . . . was April 26, 1986.
  • Epilogue Letter: The series ends with a passage of Legasov's tape recordings which he left before dying by suicide, followed by a Real-Person Epilogue.
  • 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 (though considering just how much radiation some of them have absorbed, a few cigarettes really is just the proverbial drop in the ocean at this point).
  • Everything Is an Instrument: Hildur Guðnadóttir's score was composed using recordings from the real power plant where some of the series was shot.
  • Failsafe Failure:
    • A tragic Truth in Television example. The RBMK reactors in Chernobyl had a serious design flaw where the graphite tipped control rods that would be used for an emergency shutdown actually increased the chances of a reactor breach, which is exactly what directly caused the reactor explosion.
    • During the trial, Shcherbina explains that the reactor has three diesel-fuel backup generators to provide power to the pumps in the event that the power to the plant itself is disrupted. However, they take one minute to be brought up to speed, which would have been enough for a nuclear disaster. Such a serious design flaw was what necessitated the safety test in the first place.
  • Fan Disservice: Full-body shots of nearly naked men? Hot. Said nearly naked men being in the final stages of Acute Radiation Syndrome? Not.
  • Fatal Flaw: The Soviet state as a whole has its obsession with PR and denial of responsibility. Half the reason that the disaster occurred was an obvious flaw in the RMBK system that could have been easily fixed, but was covered up just to avoid the minor embarrassment of having an inferior reactor design. The problem is also allowed to get much worse because the authorities are desperate to let no one know that a disaster has occurred, despite how obvious it was becoming.
  • Father to His Men: When Legasov warns General Pikalov that, even with lead shielding, whoever drives the dosimeter truck close to the fire may not survive the radiation, Pikalov replies, "Then I'll do it myself."
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Boris and Valery graduate to this, even using the diminutive with one another by the end of the series.
  • First-Name Basis: At the outset of the disaster, Professor Valery Legasov and Energy Minister Boris Shcherbina are forced to work together by direct order from General Secretary Gorbachev. When Legasov first addresses the Minister as "Boris", as his colleagues on the Council are allowed to do, Shcherbina angrily rebukes him. Later on, as they become Fireforged Friends, Shcherbina starts addressing the Professor as "Valery". By the end, he is using "Valera", the dimunative and even more familiar version (Boris's would be "Borya").
  • Flashback: After a How We Got Here prologue, the series starts one minute before the moment of the explosion. In Episode 5 a series of flashbacks shows 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.
  • Forbidden Zone: A thousand-square-mile "exclusion zone" is eventually established around the plant, delineating the area that is simply too contaminated for habitation.
  • 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.
  • Four Is Death: Reactor 4 is the one who exploded and caused the Chernobyl Disaster.
  • 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."
  • Futureshadowing: We see the explosion from afar and the worker's reaction to it in the first episode. It's not until the last that we get to see the buildup and the explosion up close.
  • Gallows Humor: True to the setting, this is how most of the characters cope with the situation. Glukhov's Establishing Character Moment provides a great example.
    Glukhov: What's as big as a house, takes 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shitload of smoke and noise, and cuts apples into three pieces? [beat] A Soviet machine made to cut apples INTO FOUR PIECES!
  • Genre Mashup: Many viewers and critics alike have noted that at times, the series feels more like a (five-part) horror movie than a traditional historical drama—it just happens to be a horror movie that's thoroughly well-researched and accurate to real events, which makes it all the more terrifying. It evolves into a Courtroom Drama with elements of How We Got Here in Episode 5 when Legasov and Khomyuk testify at the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin and explain how the disaster happened.
  • Genre Deconstruction: One founded in real life. This show explores just what kind of system would foster the kind of over-the-top Head-in-the-Sand Management commonly seen in a Disaster Movie.
  • The Ghost: Legasov on several occasions mentions a nuclear engineer named Volkov who discovered the design flaw in the Soviet atomic plants that ultimately caused Chernobyl to happen, but was ignored and punished by the Soviet government a decade before the disaster occurred.
  • Ghost Town: By the end of Episode 2, Pripyat has been cleared of its entire civilian population.
  • Glasses Pull: After being told that when the lava reaches the water tanks below the reactor, it will create an even bigger explosion that will kill untold numbers of people and make the entirety of Ukraine and Belorussia uninhabitable for at least a century, Gorbachev pulls off his glasses and sits back in his chair. Perhaps (understandably) he doesn't see the point of reading his briefing folder any further.
  • Got Volunteered: Many of the people who work to fix Chernobyl had this happen to them.
    • Gorbachev sends Legasov to assist Shcherbina on the ground after he reveals how dire the situation at Chernobyl really is.
    • Subverted. The miners are approached by the Minister of Coal and ordered to get on the buses to Chernobyl, though he can't tell them why, but they point out that there's nothing the soldiers can really do to force them and demand a better explanation. After realizing the gravity of the situation, however, they all volunteer willingly.
    • At the end of Episode 3, soldiers go from door-to-door to deliver draft notices, conscripting people into becoming Liquidators.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told:
    • Some of the series' promotional materials called it an "untold true story."
    • Charkov tells Legasov that his efforts will be hidden from the public and the credit given to other people. While the exact circumstance that leads up to this is fictional, he was indeed largely erased from the story until his death, as a combination of backlash for speaking out against the Soviet government and criticism from other scientists who thought him a Know-Nothing Know-It-All whose decisions like dumping sand and boron on the open reactor just made things worse.

  • Harmful to Touch: Anything exposed to high enough levels of radiation from the core becomes this (including people). The graphite from the broken fuel channels is especially dangerous—a fireman who picks one chunk up finds the flesh of his hand being virtually eaten away a minute later.
  • 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.
    • Averted as you go higher in the Soviet hierarchy, though. In particular, Gorbachev objects to Legasov's unprofessional outburst, but allows him to voice his concerns more calmly and takes them seriously when he does; similarly, Shcherbina initially varies from apathetic to outright hostile to Legasov, but he asks honest questions to try to understand the situation and he uses the answers Legasov gives him immediately on arrival to test Bryukhanov and Fomin. Essentially, at the very top, the management don't have their heads in the sand so much as they hadn't yet realized that Soviet bureaucratic culture has trained their subordinates to withhold information in this kind of emergency out of fear of punishment.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The creepy music, composed using recordings from an actual power plant and supplemented by Geiger counters, helicopters, and static, fuses seamlessly with the noises of the reactor, both while it is working and as it basically withers and dies after the accident. This creates a background ambiance that greatly enhances the creepy atmosphere.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Even beyond more direct cases like the divers, 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, when neither of them has 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.
  • Hourglass Plot: When they are first introduced, Shcherbina is Too Dumb to Live and completely oblivious of and dismissive of the danger of the reactor, and Legasov has to explain it to him to stop him from getting them both killed. Later in the series when the two are dealing with the political disaster, it's Shcherbina who is saving Legasov from unknowingly making Too Dumb to Live mistakes.
  • How We Got Here: After Legasov's suicide exactly two years after the disaster, the series jumps back to the moment the reactor blew up and continues from there. The events leading up to the explosion are shown in Episode 5.
  • Ignored Expert: 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. Even allowing for the fact that they, with good, if flawed, reason, did not believe it was physically possible for the core to explode, they should at least have tried to determine why so many people were saying it had.
  • In Defence Of Storytelling: Inverted. Legasov's opening monologue explicitly casts "stories" as a poor secondary substitute for "truth," and the concept of narratives—what they mean, who controls them, how they can be dangerous—is woven into the fabric of the show as a cautionary tale.
  • Inherent in the System: The series shows the entire event to be one of many symptoms of corruption, inefficiency, and politicking existed within Soviet bureaucracy, as Chernobyl's reactor saw many cheaper alterations and protocol skips that eventually resulted in the meltdown. Even during the cleanup, many lives and resources are needlessly lost thanks to false information and bureaucratic irresponsibility.
    Legasov: Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes.... lies.
  • Instant Mystery, Just Delete Scene: The actual explosion and events leading up to it are not shown in the first episode. This allows for the show to explore the mystery of what happened up until the very end.
  • Irony: Of the cruelest possible kind.
    • Various characters note the that the disaster occurred during - indeed, as a result of - a safety test.
    • During the trial in episode 5, Legasov explains that Dyatlev "broke every rule we have" in conducting the test, because he believed that, if the worst should happen (which, of course, it wouldn't) then he could simply press the Big Red Button and shut down the reactor, not knowing that, in the circumstances he created, the button acted as a detonator rather than a shutdown.
    • In episode 4, Legasov admits to Khomyuk that he and others knew about this flaw in the RBMK reactor, but didn't think it would be a problem because the failsafe would only act as a detonator if someone was dumb enough to bypass all the other safety measures and take a reactor to the brink of disaster, which is precisely what Dyatlov did.
  • Just Following Orders: Legasov says that many people were following orders, himself included, of the Central Committee and the KGB to hide the flaw in the RBMK design.
  • Kafka Komedy: Frankly, the series often goes the full-Kafka: comedy, drama and horror sharing the same bleak(ly) (hopeful?) scene. That's what makes the funny stand out when we get it: it's inherent in the system, Comrade.
  • Kangaroo Court: Played with; Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin actually are guilty of everything they're being accused of, with the only mitigating factor being that they had no way of knowing how disastrously flawed the RBMK design was. However, the main purpose of the trial is to actually divert attention away from that fact, and sell the narrative that the disaster was purely the result of the trio's incompetence.
  • 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. Legasov doesn't want to investigate further and blames himself for the disaster but believes he has to go on, and Shcherbina is horrified by how he will die just from being near the reactor and thinks his role in the response and his life is fairly meaningless anyway but continues to devote himself to his job.
    • The poem at the beginning of Episode 2 is supposed to symbolize this idea. It discusses the Russian ethos of serving one's "bitter" country despite its many flaws.
  • 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. 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 several sport moustaches.
  • The Man Is Keeping Us Down: The main characters often find their efforts at Damage Control and exposing the truth stymied by the corrupt and oppressive government they have to work within.
  • Mission Creep: The main characters start by being sent to Chernobyl to assess the damage, but Legasov realizes that they have to immediately do something to stem the contamination, and from there it turns out they are going to have to spend months cleaning everything up. And then on top of it all, they get caught up in investigating just why the catastrophe happened.
  • Multinational Team: Unlike other works, this miniseries includes people of many ethnicities and backgrounds, showing how diverse the Soviet Union was rather than merely being Russia.
  • Nature Is Not a Toy: Nuclear energy is actually quite safe and one of the most ecologically friendly sources of energy if handled properly. However, between the inherently flawed design of Reactor 4, the inexperienced operators, and the arrogance of the plant's higher-ups in the face of an increasingly obvious and dangerous life-threatening event, practically ensured the disaster to occur sooner or later. And in the process, doom thousands to horrific fates.
  • The Needs of the Many: A mixed bag.
    • Averted with the government officials who, believing that Utopia Justifies the Means, are willing to let millions suffer in order to avoid damage to the national reputation.
    • Played straight with the common people like the three divers and the group of miners who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the many.
    • Legasov tells Gorbachev that to prevent a steam explosion that will irradiate all of Belarus and Ukraine and kill millions, three operators are going to have to go into the plant and drain the water. But those three men will die from radiation exposure after they do it, which is why Legasov says, "We're asking your permission to kill three men." After taking a Beat to digest this, Gorbachev says, "Comrade Legasov, all victories inevitably come at a cost," which is all he says to give the go-ahead.
  • Never My Fault: As was typical in the Soviet Union, multiple characters attempt to shift the blame to someone else. The best example would be during the meeting between Bryukhanov, Fomin, and Dyatlov shortly after the accident. Dyatlov begins to summarize what he thinks happened, pointing out that they were working exactly as Fomin prescribed. Fomin then replies that Dyatlov was directly supervising when the accident occurred. The script even points out that both men immediately recognize what the other is doing.
    • When the radiation level is reported at the jaw-dropping level of 15,000 roentgen, Scherbina orders Bryukhanov and Fomin "escorted" to the local Party headquarters (i.e., arrested). As they are dragged away, Fomin shouts, "Dyatlov was in charge! It was Dyatlov!"
    • At the State trial, Dyatlov (looking very much the worse for wear after his poisoning) lies through his teeth and says it wasn't he who gave the order to raise the power, in fact he wasn't even in the control room.
  • 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 Khomyuk 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 poured tons of water onto the reactor fire in hopes of putting it out, but the water vaporized upon contact because the fire was so hot.note  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.
  • Nightmarish Nursery: One episode shows some volunteers in radiation suits conducting dosimeter sweeps of Pripyat to determine how much of the town is salvageable. One woman is sweeping a children's park while her dosimeter clicks in the middling range, until she approaches a little girl's bicycle. The bike's frame is steel, which absorbs radiation like a sponge, then releases it over time, making the dosimeter max out. The woman backs away from the bike, recognizing that it's too dangerous for anyone to be near, protection or no. The whole park will have to be buried under layers of concrete.
  • No One Should Survive That: Some rooted in reality:
    • Alexander "Sasha" Yuvchenko — the man who says "I don't think there is a core" – survived. He spent nearly a year in the hospital afterwards, and needed burn treatments, but was able to live with his wife and son afterward in Moscow. He was even interviewed in the documentary seen here. A Russian newspaper article about his son Kirill says he died in 2008 at the age of 47.
    • Anatoly Dyatlov received a huge dose of radiation (around 4 Sv), yet he survived and he died in 1995 of heart failure. It wasn't the first time he was hospitalized due to radiation sickness – in the sixties Dyatlov worked in a nuclear submarine shipyard in Komsomolsk and he was irradiated, also nearly fatally, in an accident.
    • Colonel-General Pikalov, who volunteered to climb the rubble towards the exposed core and take a reading because he was unwilling to risk the lives of any of his men, also didn't die. He survived and died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 78.
    • All three of the "Chernobyl Divers" survived their mission to drain the basement.
      • Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov were alive as of 2018 when they were awarded the Order For Courage in the Third Degree by the Ukranian president in a ceremony held at the nuclear plant. Ananenko was able to accept in person, while Bezpalov was absent due reportedly due to health issues.
      • Boris Baranov died of a heart attack in 2005 and was given the Order posthumously, which his grandson accepted on his behalf.
    • In general, the effects of radiation largely come down to luck and probability, especially when talking about long-term effects where it's impossible to determine who will get cancer from the radiation and whether someone's cancer was actually caused by it or not, only that some large amount of people will die. And in acute cases, many of the victims survived because of having the best medical care possible in Moscow.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The RBMK reactor design itself. It wasn't adequately contained (unlike Western reactors, RBMKs had containment walls, but no containment roof, so if an explosion happened, it would be channeled upwards and the roof wouldn't contain it) and it had control rods (meant to decrease the speed of nuclear reactions) tipped with graphite, which accelerates nuclear reactions. This meant the control rods did literally the opposite of their job when they were inserted. This led to a runaway reaction Going Critical (technically prompt-critical) and resulted in the roof being blown off the building and radioactive debris being scattered around.
    • As Scherbina explains at the trial, the reason for the safety test that led to the disaster is because RBMK reactors didn't have a reliable backup power system in the first place, and everyone blatantly knew this. The reactor requires power to run the water pumps that cool the core: if power is lost due to blackout, foreign attack/terrorism, or just plain mechanical failure, the coolant will stop flowing and the reactor will go into meltdown. They did build backup diesel generators—but it would take 60 seconds for them to come online in the event of a sudden power failure, which was simply too late to stop a meltdown. They might as well have not had the diesel backups. The safety test was an ad hoc fix to see if they could use some of the reactor's own power, while the turbines were gradually winding down, to bridge the gap—a promising idea, but one that never worked. So RBMK reactors were built throughout the Soviet Union knowing that they had no reliable backup power system, and a blackout for any reason would lead to a meltdown.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Most of the actors don't; Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson do, but Stellan Skarsgård sticks with his native Swedish accent and Jared Harris (and most of the rest of the supporting cast) speak with their English (heavily Irish-influenced, in Harris' case) accents. In the podcast, the writer reveals that they tried having the actors do accents but found that it distracted from their performances and could easily descend into narm.invoked
  • 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.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Legasov decides to go through with an admittedly risky and imperfect plan of dumping sand and boron on the reactor, believing it is worth it for containing the radiation, and that they have a month to fix the negative consequences. However, he was not aware that there is still water in the tanks, and if the melted, superheated "lava" reaches those tanks, it will immediately change the water to steam and cause a disastrous second explosion within only two days.
  • 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.
  • The Place: The title of the show. As Mazin notes in the podcast, people living at the time didn't have the association of Chernobyl with nuclear disaster—to them, it was just a place.
  • Perilous Power Source: The reactor itself proves to be this, due to its design flaws and the hubris of its operators.
    Legasov: The atom is a humbling thing.
  • Poisonous Person: Once someone has been exposed to radiation, they are portrayed as being perpetually radioactive and dangerous for others to touch. It is implied that touching Vasily is when Lyudmilla receives the deadly dose of radiation that kills her baby.
  • Poor Communication Kills: One of the morals of the series: when governments prioritize keeping secrets over actually solving problems, the cost becomes astronomical.
  • Power Trio: Legasov, Shcherbina, and Khomyuk are the three main characters working to stop the disaster from getting worse. They have their foil in Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, who . . . are not.
  • Previously on…: Episodes 2 to 5 open with a recap of the events from earlier episodes.
  • Pride Before a Fall: As noted in End of an Era, the Chernobyl disaster would be the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.
    • On one hand, there was the RBMK Reactor, held to be a state of the art accomplishment in Soviet engineering. The disaster and subsequent reveal of its fatal design flaw lead to the decline of the nuclear industry in the Soviet Union, its most prestigious arm now seen with suspicion by the people. Although the Reactor's flaws would be corrected, of the twenty-six reactors that once existed, only three were in operation by the time the series aired.
    • On the other, the Soviet Union itself: its wanton attitude both towards safety and the consequences of the disaster in an effort to preserve its reputation would lead to the glasnost and perestroika initiative of Gorbachev to gain traction and, ultimately, end in the dissolution of the Soviet state.
  • Pulling the Thread: Numerous workers and scientists make repeated remarks on various bits of evidence that the disaster must be much worse than they're being told, but are repeatedly ignored by the more powerful bureaucrats. It's only when the most powerful bureaucrat involved, armed with an Info Dump from Legasov, calls out some technical details that the true nature of the disaster starts to become accepted.
    Shcherbina: Why did I see graphite on the roof? Graphite is only found in the core where it's used as a... neutron flux moderator. Correct?
    Bryukhanov: [horrified realization] Fomin, why did the Deputy Chairman see graphite on the roof?
    Fomin: Well, that can't be. Comrade Shcherbina, my apologies, but graphite... that's not possible. Perhaps you saw burnt concrete?
    Shcherbina: Now there you made a mistake, because I may not know much about nuclear reactors, but I know a lot about concrete.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Although it's the only victory possible under the circumstances (the whole of Russia doesn't collapse from radiation poisoning), this is invoked numerous times, with characters being sent to awful and inevitable deaths simply because it's the only way to prevent a huge collapse that might lead the whole world into The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: The Soviet Union's institutional failures lead to a lot more death than might have been necessary, although a lot more than there could have been. For instance, Lyudmilla's baby might have survived if only she hadn't spent days around the dying Vasily simply because nobody told her of the intense danger, and that's just one example. There are many more, usually relating to the intentional spread of misinformation undervaluing the danger of radiation poisoning.
  • The Queen's Latin: Only a few actors attempt an accent. Most speak English with a British accent instead.
  • Rage Within the Machine: Legasov and Shcherbina both have prominent positions in the Soviet Union and start out as loyal to the party and willing to allow injustices to happen to get by. Their Character Development throughout what they go through starts to change that. By the end (and to a good extent from the beginning for Legasov, given he knows exactly how badly everyone is messing up), they are both furious at the system.
  • Readings Blew Up the Scale: In the immediate aftermath of the explosion at Chernobyl it's mentioned that most of the Geiger counters being used to measure radiation are breaking after being having their measurements maxed out. The Central Committee makes the mistake of trusting the reported "3.6 roentgen" number until Legasov points out that that's the maximum reading for such low-level equipment, and given that he fears that the equivalent of a nuclear bomb just went off, the real number is probably much higher. It takes General Pikalov driving a truck in himself with their most capable dosimeter tied to the front to confirm that actual readings are around 15,000 roentgen for anyone to take this correction seriously.
  • Real Is Brown: Many scenes are washed out and tinged gray or dingy green to illustrate the gritty realism the production designers wanted.
  • Real Footage Re-creation: The series recreates the Chernobyl Mi-8 helicopter crash through the use of CGI (and from different camera angles), albeit setting the crash at a point of time several months before it occurred in Real Life.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Every piece of 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' reaction to it.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The end of the last episode has this, showing pictures of the real people and places involved while explaining what happened to them.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: As discussed in the ending text, the three divers were rumored and believed by the west to have died as a result of their actions, but they in fact all survived.
  • Reclaimed by Nature: In the final episode, during a recess in the trial of Bryukhanov, Fomin, and Dyatlev (which has been ordered held in Chernobyl to illustrate to the rest of the country how safe the town has become) Shcherbina sees a tiny caterpillar crawling across his pant leg and picks it up with his finger, remarking, "it's beautiful." note  Even if humans cannot live in Chernobyl for another 24,000 years, wildlife is already adapting to be able to do so.
  • Revealing Cover Up: During the initial meeting between Shcherbina, Legasov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, the latter two are confident of being able to talk their way past Shcherbina, who knows nothing about nuclear reactors. But then Shcherbina asks (informed by Legasov) why there is graphite outside the building, which could only have come from inside the reactor core. Bryukhanov freezes for a moment, then turns to Fomin and asks him to explain. Shcherbina may not know anything about nuclear reactors, but he is enough of an experienced bureaucrat to know when someone is trying to cover his ass.
  • Right on the Tick: Legasov kills himself exactly at the time of the disaster, two years later, at 1:23:45. This same time shows up in Episode 5 as Legasov's Lecture as Exposition is alternated with showing the second-by-second procession of the catastrophe.

  • 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.
  • Scenery Gorn: The devastated and unsettling scenery is overwhelming, particularly the mutilated reactor building itself.
  • Scenery Porn: Contrasting the gorn are the shots in the first episode of the nuclear plant's halo directly after the explosion, as well as the cinematography of life continuing as normal in the closing minutes.
  • Science Foils: Legasov and Khomyuk are both scientists and part of the show's Power Trio, with Khomyuk's idealism about speaking the truth contrasting with Legasov, who only gets there after a lot of Character Development.
  • Science Is Good: The disaster is largely caused by people who try to ignore the science behind nuclear reactors in favor of their own political motivations and is contained by those who do have the scientific knowledge and morality to act.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: Scientists vs. soldiers and politicians. The scientist characters try to call the political party men in charge out for how they are ignoring the threat or choosing horrible solutions to it for political reasons. However, the scientists themselves are not innocent of covering up the truth, and among the ranks of the soldier and political characters are Reasonable Authority Figures and people who are willing to make a Heroic Sacrifice if necessary to help contain the radiation.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The radioactive fission within the remains of the power plant cannot be stopped. It will keep happening until what remains of the fuel runs out in 50,000 years. The only thing that can be done is to shelter the rest of the world from the radiation by burying the reactor in sand, boron, and (eventually) concrete and steel.
  • Seen It All: One old woman who stubbornly refuses to evacuate gives this as her reason: she's survived revolution, civil war, famine, and world war. None of those things ever got her to leave her home, so she won't leave because of radiation, something she can't even see.
  • Sensor Suspense: Given that you can't see the radiation, some scenes like the divers scene and the scene with the liquidators clearing the roof have to be sold completely on the "soundtrack" of Geiger counters ticking furiously—to great effect.
  • Setting as a Character: The reactor itself is as prominent a presence as any of the human characters, serving as an antagonist of sorts. This impression is strengthened when the liquidators nickname the building's three roof levels "Masha," "Katya," and "Nina." The tangle of rods in the core itself is affectionately known as "Elena."
  • Shame If Something Happened: Dyatlov forces Akimov to calling in the day shift (to maintain the now-destroyed reactor) by telling him that he may not be able to save Akimov's career, but he can certainly make it worse. Episode 5 reveals Dyatlov tried to pull this before the explosion too: he told Akimov and Toptunov that if they didn't raise the power back up from 30 immediately (against all safety precautions), he would see to it that they never found work in the nuclear industry again.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: After the explosion, we get this from Dyatlov's perspective while Akimov shouts his name. This is shown in both the first and last episodes.
  • Shoot the Dog: A pretty overt example in Episode 4, when two soldiers and one conscripted civilian are charged with "destroying" all the animals (most of which are pets) in Pripyat to prevent them from spreading the radiation. The leader of the unit, although a pretty tough and often mean guy, combines this with Pet the Dog in his violent insistence that none of them be allowed to suffer (he also sends the civilian outside and does the job himself when a mother dog along with her pups has to be shot).
  • Shoot the Television: After his phone conversation with the Kremlin, where it is explained that they were sent sub-par equipment because the Kremlin refused to admit to the German company supplying it just how radioactive the Chernobyl site was, Shcherbina emerges from his trailer, trailing the smashed remains of the phone in his hand. He drops it to the ground and calmly informs his assistant that they will need a new one.
  • 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 dying by suicide; initially written as him leaving pet food for his cat, the show's advisors pointed out that there was no pet food in the Soviet Union. Another is that all married characters wear their wedding rings on their right 4th fingers, instead of the left as is common in the west.
  • Slave to PR: The Soviet government's biggest concern even in the midst of a nuclear crisis is looking competent in front of everyone else, which leads to more problems than can be counted.
    • Fomin and Bryukhanov are more interested in passing the blame than investigating the accident, wasting valuable time while the exposed reactor is belching out radioactive smoke every second. The citizens of Pripyat are not alerted of the danger or evacuated away from the power plant until several days have passed, while the Kremlin initially believes the accident is nothing to worry about because of their underselling.
    • The Kremlin negotiates with West Germany for a robot that can handle the astronomical radioactivity on the plant's rooftop but undersells just how radioactive it really is. Several months are wasted for a robot that breaks down in seconds.
    • The RBMK reactors had serious design flaws that were classified, most notably that the AZ-5 shutdown button acted less like an off switch and more like a lit fuse to dynamite. Dyatlov was unaware of this, and he removed every other safety feature only because he thought he had AZ-5 as a backup. Legasov exposes this design flaw 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 Has to Die: Just getting close enough to the reactor to contain it means massively increased cancer risk for all the workers, but if they don't do anything, the entirety of Europe will be poisoned by the radiation.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Shares setting, themes, and some character tropes (e.g. the Ignored Expert, the Reasonable Authority Figure, the Obstructive Bureaucrat, the backup scientist latecomer) with Citizen X, an earlier HBO movie about a criminal investigator trying to catch a Serial Killer while the government insists that such a thing doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. Mazin also mentioned this film as an inspiration in deciding to not use Fake Russian accents.
    • It can also be considered an interesting follow-up to The Terror, which also starred Jared Harris and Adam Nagaitis and also was inspired by a famous historical disaster (though The Terror was an adaptation of a novel, not a docudrama, and had a few supernatural flourishes, which Chernobyl does not).
    • Several viewers have also stated that the bleak atmosphere, '80s setting, docudrama format and brutal depiction of the horrors of nuclear disaster remind them of Threads.
  • Starts with a Suicide: The story begins with a heartbroken and traumatized Legasov recording his thoughts about Chernobyl a few years after the event and then dying by suicide, implicitly over the guilt of the events of Chernobyl. We then flash back to the actual disaster and see how things got this bad.
  • State Sec: The KGB is a recurring obstacle for the protagonists, most notably to Khomyuk 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 Khomyuk when she threatens a doctor that "people are going to hear about this". However, they are also presented in a more nuanced light. Charkov, one of the highest-ranking people in the KGB, is himself is watched over by agents and he explains that the organization may be oppressive but is also a "circle of accountability". Shcherbina notes they even have power over how the nuclear reactors are built and managed, and that the RBMK reactors will never be fixed without their approval.
  • Superficial Solution: So, so many, in part due to incompetence and also because of the nature of radiation itself.
    • The drops of boron and silica—a main component of sand—into the core serve to put out the nuclear fire and reduce the spread of the radiation cloud; however, it does not end the problem as there's still radioactive corium (a name given to the melted components of a reactor) within the facility that still gives lethal radiation, which leads to the next phase . . .
    • The construction of the sarcophage. Though it worked to contain the spread of radiation, the area of Pripyat is still lethally contaminated and will be so for years, additionally, the concrete sarcophage itself had a set life of 50 years and had to be replaced in 2016.
    • As Shcherbina points out in the final episode, the implementation of the diesel back-up generators in case of a blackout to prevent a core meltdown would not have worked since it took approximately a minute for the generators to pick up the load of the pumps. The safety test being carried out that night was supposed to evaluate a possible solution to this.
  • Take That!: The series contain many of these directed at the Soviet leadership for being more concerned about covering up the sitation instead of fixing it, making everything worse.
  • 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.
  • Tentative Light: Three structural engineers in radiation suits venture into the lower levels of reactor 4 to assess the damage to the cooling pumps. All three are issued flashlights powered by 12-volt carbon-zinc batteries. All three lights fail within the first minute, due to the massive radiation making the air conductive. The engineers must feel their way around the pipes and debris in total darkness and hip-deep in heavy water.
  • Thanatos Gambit: 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.
  • This Cannot Be!: 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 Khomyuk initially think it isn't possible until they learn about several reactor design flaws in conjunction with Dyatlov's recklessness.
  • Time-Delayed Death: Outside of absolutely massive doses, death by radiation poisoning is a rather uncomfortable drawn-out affair.
    Shcherbina: They're calling it a "long illness." [It] doesn't seem very long to me.
  • Time Skip: The first three episodes more or less continuously cover the week following the explosion. The fourth episode starts four months afterward, and then the fifth takes place a whole year after the disaster.
  • Token Romance: Inverted. Legasov's Real Life wife and children are cut because it would have detracted from the actual focus of the show.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Lyudmilla's baby, thanks to the radiation she was exposed to from being around the plant and spending time with Vasily.
  • Translation Convention: Spoken Russian dialogue is translated into English dialogue. However, all written or transmitted messages, such as in television broadcasts, are preserved as Russian.
    • The reason everyone is frequently referred to as "Comrade Legasov" etc. isn't a stereotypical assumption about the Soviet Union, but because the alternative was to use a longer patronymic format which doesn't neatly translate into English (real Russians wouldn't just say "Legasov").
  • 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. Barry Keoghan's character declines an offer of vodka in one of his introductory scenes, considering it a "bit early", but as the reality of his situation sets in, starts drinking it like, well, water.
  • 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.
    • Deconstructed in another aspect however: While the number of people required to contain the disaster was indeed enormous, the Soviet fixation on not accepting the scale of the incident to its people and the world to save face leads to all of the workers and soldiers sent there being given minimal protection against the radiation. As the showrunner said, the Soviet leadership didn't understand how to deal with the earlier, more scientific problems, but a large-scale, blunt problem like "we need 700,000 men to scrub down everything in a 20-mile radius"—that was something they knew how to do. Like World War II or industrial projects, throwing large numbers of men at a problem, at a level unthinkable in the free societies of the West, was a uniquely Soviet advantage. On the other hand, they make it a point to show a new liquidator who isn't even a soldier, causing another to gravely realize that they're starting to run out of men.
  • 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."
  • Wham Shot: One of the most horrifying 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.
  • Women Are Wiser: Women in the series, especially in the first two episodes, are depicted as more cautious and sensible than their male counterparts.
    • Khomyuk, a Composite Character representing the greater scientific community, arrives at Chernobyl to reveal to Valery the fatal mistake he has made by smothering the fire with sand. Throughout the story she acts as a voice of reason and advocate for truth and integrity, urging Valery to tell the truth when he would just as soon toe the party line. Even in her introductory scene, her intuition that a serious accident has occurred is played against her male colleague, who is reluctant to believe the radioactive isotopes in the air are the result of anything so large-scale.
    • Immediately after the explosion, Lyudmilla seems to sense that something is horribly wrong, pointing out the disturbing color of the fire and wondering about the danger from chemicals. This is contrasted with her husband, who is almost jovially confident that the fire is nothing dangerous. Her intuition fails her once Vasily is in peril, however.
    • Zinchenko, the female doctor at the Pripyat hospital, correctly predicts that it's a bad sign when the hospital hasn't yet admitted any patients from the fire, as well as the call for iodine pills. She represents a generation of younger, mostly female doctors who were more open to modern medical practices than their older colleagues, who are represented by the male doctor who dismisses her fears.
    • After Khomyuk fails to convince Garanin of the seriousness of the disaster, she makes a second attempt with his female secretary, giving her a bottle of iodine pills and instructing her to take them and travel east. The secretary, in contrast to her boss, respects Khomyuk's scientific credibility and immediately takes one of the pills.
  • 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.
    • The people heavily exposed during the hours after the accident by looking directly into the reactor core are treated as dead men walking.
    • Valery asks for permission to ' kill three men'; their exposure to the radioactive water underneath the core will be fatal in a few weeks at most. In real life, all three men survived.
  • 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 from coming to Chernobyl.note 

"To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there. Whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants, it doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?"


Video Example(s):


90 seconds on the roof

During the Chernobyl disaster, 3,828 "bio-robots" were tasked with clearing the roof of graphite chunks originating from the exploded core. The intense radiation gave them only 90 seconds to work before exposure to a lethal dose.

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