HBO's Chernobyl mini-series is remarkable and surprisingly political

The best show on television right now is HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series. There are only five one-hour episodes, four of which have aired already. The final episode will air next Monday. It really is no exaggeration to say this is one of the greatest TV series ever made. In fact, reviewers at IMDB currently list it as the top show of all time, beating out Band of Brothers, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. Glowing reviews like these seem to have a half-life, so it’s possible reactions will cool over time, but I doubt it will fall out of the top 25 anytime soon.

Once you get past a brief prologue, the show starts with the explosion of the reactor (which took place in April 1986) and then tells the story in chronological order, minutes or hours at a time. In fact, most of the first episode is taken up with just the first few hours after the explosion.

One of the amazing things about the show is that it plays as a real-life horror movie. Remember in the original Alien film how it seemed people kept dying because they wandered off to look for that damned cat? In Chernobyl, plant workers and scientists keep being sent into the reactor to see what has happened and you know all of them are going to die. One of the striking, if fictional, moments is when we see someone look over a railing into an exposed nuclear core that is burning furiously below. It’s truly terrifying, the modern equivalent of staring into the eyes of Medusa. Anyone who sees it, even briefly, will pay with their life.

But the show is also surprisingly political. One thing the show is not shy about is the degree to which the Soviet system played a role in the disaster. I won’t go into all the details but there’s a moment early on when an old man of the party speaks up in a meeting to remind everyone of their duty to country. In the case of Chernobyl, that meant cutting phone lines to make sure no one could talk to the outside world about what was happening. Instead of evacuating the nearby town, the priority was to avoid national humiliation.

The reactor failure becomes a kind of metaphor for the Soviet Union itself, a failed experiment (which would collapse a few years later) in which no one is willing to admit to the failure for fear of being seen as disloyal to the party and hauled off by the KGB. Everyone keeps pretending that what happened can’t have happened because, in theory, the reactor design is foolproof. It’s exactly the sort of people who argue that communism hasn’t failed because it hasn’t ever been tried. It should work, therefore I don’t want to hear that communism has repeatedly gone wrong and killed a lot of people.

In his review of the show, Jim Geraghty says the show is “an epic five-part comprehensive denunciation of the Soviet Union.” But he also notes the flaws the show puts on display are human ones, not just socialist ones:

It’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a Socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.

He’s right about that, but Chernobyl makes a compelling case that communism, by emphasizing group solidarity over the individual, amplifies the worst aspects of our nature.

Finally, the Federalist points out that quite a few of the mainstream reviews of the show seem to have skipped over all of the ways in which it indicts communism. They can ignore it all they want but it’s pretty hard to deny that’s one of the main things this show is about. The show got a very positive review from the Moscow Times.