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‘The Last of Us’ is Reigniting Interest in Another Haunting Series

Lyudmilla in HBO's Chernobyl.

Before he took the helm of The Last of Us—the HBO Max smash hit that imagines life after a pandemic of mind-controlling fungi—writer Craig Mazin created another eerie series about a life-altering disaster: the five-part series Chernobyl. Now that The Last of Us is streaming and fans are hungry for similar series to help them pass the time between episodes, Chernobyl is seeing a comeback.

Here’s why, if you haven’t watched Chernobyl yet, you need to drop what you’re doing and turn it on right now.

What is Chernobyl about?

If you know anything at all about the controversy surrounding nuclear power, then you’ve probably heard the name Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in the USSR. In 1986, after a staggering cascade of safety violations and oversights, one of the reactors at Chernobyl exploded, sending radioactive particles wafting over much of Europe.

The circumstances leading to the explosion were appalling enough, but what was even worse was the Soviet government’s lackadaisical response. Responders initially ignored the overwhelming evidence that a reactor had exploded. The nearby city of Pripyat wasn’t immediately evacuated, and its citizens soon began suffering symptoms of radiation poisoning. When the government finally made an announcement about the disaster, it tried to cover up the true extent of the damage. Meanwhile, swaths of surrounding forest turned red and died, while local animals were born with horrific mutations.

Today, there’s a 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, with the personal belongings of Pripyat’s evacuees still remaining 37 years later. It’s one of the most heavily contaminated radioactive sites in the world, and researchers estimate that it will take anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 years for the area to be habitable by humans again.

Chernobyl is a dramatization of the explosion, its aftermath, and the investigation that led to the criminal trial of the engineers and bureaucrats responsible for the disaster. The series stars Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear expert brought in to oversee cleanup efforts in the wake of the explosion.

Why is Chernobyl so amazing?

Although the Chernobyl series takes some liberties with its depiction of the power plant explosion, the series is a harrowing look at one of the worst disasters in human history, and a cutting critique of the Soviet government’s mishandling of the event.

The series focuses on Legasov’s frantic efforts to first convince the government to take the disaster seriously, and then to piece together what exactly happened in the control room on the night of the core meltdown. There are so many chilling moments throughout the series. A crowd of onlookers stands on what would later be called “the Bridge of Death,” playing with drifting bits of nuclear fallout. A panicked Legasov pleads with a helicopter pilot not to fly directly through a plume of radioactive steam. Scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), trying to figure out why the radiation levels in Belarus have suddenly spiked, dismisses Chernobyl as a possibility, saying that the plant would have to be blown apart to produce the levels she’s seeing. Then she picks up the phone to call Chernobyl, and listens with a dawning horror to the empty line on the other side.

Chernobyl saves the scariest part of the story—the explosion itself, as seen from ground zero—for the last episode, when Legasov explains what happened to everyone assembled for the criminal trial. Knowing the results of every bad decision in that control room makes the disaster all the more potent, and it makes for some truly amazing storytelling.

As of this writing, we’ve got six whole days until The Last of Us episode 3. In the meantime, though, Chernobyl is there for you to binge—and it’s 100% worth it.

(featured image: HBO Max)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.