Hi, welcome to this article. Have you watched Chernobyl yet? If not, proceed at your own risk because SPOILERS AHEAD. But also like… you kind of know what’s going to happen when you start watching (i.e., you just get a sense that this isn’t going to be a romantic, comedic, or uplifting hour of television). What it is, is this: an incredibly well-done series of five episodes that will make you whisper “oh no oh no oh no” at your TV more than you have ever done in your life! Here are some ~ thoughts ~ I had in the midst of watching. Spoiler alert for my thoughts: I was really sad, you guys.
1. *immediately texting everyone I love* THE WORLD IS A DARK PLACE ARE YOU OKAY ARE WE ALL OKAY PLEASE CALL ME
I decided to watch Chernobyl by myself at 9pm on a Wednesday evening while working on a freelance project. You know, a normal, I’ll-throw-this-on-in-the-background show. After the first five minutes in which a major character dies, I was like “OH OKAY” and there began my horrified fixation as every character on the show was confronted with the knowledge of a nuclear core explosion. Someone picks up a hunk of metal (~graphite~) and then two seconds later is screaming while blood pours from their hand. AND YET the firefighters still got closer to the building??? The soundtrack is ramping up, people are running around giving each other weighted looks, everything is terrible.
2. Don’t go in there, sir. Oh, you really don’t want to go in there. Sir. SIRRRRRRRR.
At various points of the five episode run, I was whisper-screaming at the TV as some poor, unsuspecting person with a sad, ’80s hairdo (the ’80s of it all made everything seem so much more depressing — everyone was wearing giant glasses and ill-fitting suits in shades like puce) got WAY TOO CLOSE to the building where the nuclear core had exploded. People were just wandering about like, “Do we know there was an explosion? Maybe we should go put our faces in the debris to check!” I have never felt such an aggressive desire to fall through the television and start tackling people to the ground before they could ruin their bodies with radiation and curiosity.
3. Omg, I need to buy Iodine. Can you buy Iodine tablets on Amazon? How much Iodine is too much Iodine?
The most important thing I learned while watching Chernobyl was from the badass female scientist who was basically running circles around everyone else in the damn (radioactive) room. She figures out the core has exploded from running her finger along a windowpane (TRUE) and starts running around, shoving Iodine tablets down people’s throats like “you’ll thank me later.” And you know what?! THEY DID BECAUSE THEY WERE THE ONLY ONES ALIVE. Here’s the gist: apparently ingesting iodine stops your thyroid from absorbing radioactive Iodine which helps to defend against the negative internal effects of radiation. The entire show, Jared Harris’ character is describing radiation like 1 million bullets, so I’m assuming ingesting Iodine pills is like wearing a bulletproof vest for your insides. Listen, I’m not a scientist, but I am an alarmist!
So of course, I immediately bought Iodine tablets on Amazon at 12:30pm, three episodes deep in Chernobyl and in a frantic, emotional pit of ~feelings~. I also downloaded this fun, beach read to my Kindle app:
Side note: If you start ordering things like survival manuals and Iodine pills on Amazon, your recommended products will become very weird.
4. If my husband was this poor firefighter would I go into the tiny room past that creepy plastic to be with him as he died even though I might be contaminated??? I guess it’s a moot point since I’m not married…
The most devastating part of this incredibly devastating series is the subplot involving a young firefighter and his pregnant wife. In the first episode, these completely unsuspecting people (NO ONE KNEW IT’S SO SAD OKAY) are just do-do-do, going-to-sleep, living-their-lives and then they get a call. And we allllll know this call is not going to go well, don’t we. Fast forward to a few days later after all hell has literally broken loose. Our Firefighter has been transferred to a different hospital (never a good sign) and his wife, Curly Hair (look, I know these people have names in the show but I can’t remember and probably neither can you so here we are), has shot withering looks at a lot of administrative people and finally she enters the room to see Firefighter… looking okay??? And here was the point where I shook my head ruefully at the screen, like Chernobyl you are really f*cking me with right now aren’t you. Because OF COURSE, flash forward and Curly Hair has woken from a deep sleep to literal screams. You guessed it, it’s Firefighter and he’s in a bad way.
Before watching this show, I had a vague idea about what radiation could do to you body. I had labeled it under “generally bad” and went on with my blissful life. Then I watched Chernobyl. And now, now I know. A ton of radiation — like if you walk in spraying water on an exploded nuclear core — starts by presenting minimal symptoms. Something is not right, but you can still lounge in the hospital, while smoking (the ’80s) and playing cards with your firefighter buddies. This is the calm before the storm and you have been lulled into enough of a false sense of security that you can hug Curly Hair and be like “hey, you made it!” Hours later, everything is red. You are screaming because your organs are shutting down. The flesh begins to decay and fall off your bones. Are you disturbed? IMAGINE SEEING THIS instead of just reading it.
Eventually, our Firefighter is transferred to a dark, sad room and surrounded by creepy sheets of plastic. He is unrecognizable, charred, and melting. This is not an exaggeration by any means. He was literally melting. Everyone (including us) knows he’s going to die, it’s just a matter of when. Nurses are forcefully telling Curly Hair not to touch Firefighter for any reason. Curly Hair is made of stronger stuff than this, and moves past all the protective plastic, reaches out, and oh-so-gently squeezes his (unrecognizable) hand. I am in absolute tears at this point. I can’t look away and yet I want to look away with everything in me. It’s absolutely horrifying and it happened to real people. I have poured myself a glass of whiskey to cope. I may never be the same.
5. I am incredibly moved by the bravery of these people — coal miners, scientists, those guys that GOT IN THE WATER. They all know they are going to die and yet, they still got the job done. Without them, that whole part of the world would just be… non-existent.
There is very little uplifting about Chernobyl — is that coming across? This is not an uplifting show — but one thing I really appreciated about the series was the voice and depth it gave to the ordinary people who performed stunning acts of bravery, with the very real knowledge that they were probably going to die. I don’t know how true to life or accurate the show actually is — it’s up for some debate across the internet right now, per usual — but the stoic heroism on display was truly moving.
Hundreds of coal miners dug tunnels underneath the power plant, in oppressive heat and surrounded by radiation. Three men waded through water inside (inside!!!) of the plant to drain tanks before they could cause an enormous amount of radiation to leak into the air. Scientists endeavored to find answers about why this tragedy happened in the first place to ensure it wouldn’t happen again… while exposing themselves to radiation. At one point in the series, Jared Harris’ character (icon) causally gives himself about five years to live, per the steady stream of exposure he’s been receiving since arriving at Chernobyl to hunt for solutions. As I was sitting on my incredibly cozy couch, eating Cheez-Its and listening to this (admittedly fictional portrayal of a) man confronting his own mortality for the greater good, I was struck by what real nerve and courage looks like. Not always being right. Not being unafraid. Knowing what’s going to happen and doing it anyway. Because it’s the right thing.
6. OMG THE PETS. I am drowning in a river of tears.
This was the moment in the five episode run of this series where I had to literally pause the TV (I definitely shouldn’t have binged this show, what on earth was I thinking), put my head in my hands, and breathe deeply for upwards of three minutes.
Here’s the gist: everything was affected by the radiation, everythinggggg. Including the animals. You know where this is going right? I sensed it as well and yet it still sucker punched me in the gut. All the animals had to be killed, lest they contaminate anyone else. It was an act of humanity, since they would have died anyway from diseases linked to radiation. But still. There were men who had to shoot animals, including pets.
It was at this moment where I was like “Kelly, turn this off and watch Tangled instead, your psyche cannot handle this amount of anxiety.” But now I was like four episodes deep and I’m a completionist so here we are. Here’s a photo I took during this episode when I forced my cat to sit directly on top of me while I told her to her face that I would never hurt her even if she was radioactive. Please note the haunted look in my eyes:
7. Will I ever be happy again
Well, we did it. I finished this series in a haze of anger, despair, fear, anxiety, and utter hopelessness. I’m doing great! Somehow, I’ve begun to listen to the accompanying podcast from HBO because I am a glutton for punishment. I want to stress that both the show and the podcast are fantastic and fascinating and incredibly well-made renderings of a tragedy that few people understand. But they will not make you feel “good.” Consume at your own risk! Also buy Iodine! Now I’m off to watch the Jonas Brothers documentary, Chasing Happiness, as I am also, in fact, chasing happiness after this brutal viewing experience.