August 16, 2022

On paper, Chernobyl and The Terror might not seem like they have much to do with each other. The former dramatizes the infamous nuclear catastrophe by taking a largely fact-based approach, only occasionally taking artistic license; the latter is a historical horror story about John Franklin’s lost expedition getting destroyed by a supernatural polar bear. But it turns out the two shows have more in common than a bunch of characters who really should have listened to Jared Harris. While Chernobyl isn’t usually classified as a horror series, its emphasis on body horror and suffocating dread make it a kindred spirit to The Terror’s voyage into icy oblivion. And both series, in their own way, are about the hubris of mankind; more specifically, the hubris of the global powers behind their respective disasters.

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The Terror belongs to a long tradition of narratives about doomed imperialists. Whether they’re conquistadores succumbing to a nightmarish river journey (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) or Australian settlers whose Victorian trappings literally vanish into the wild (Picnic on Hanging Rock), it’s a common way to explore nature’s indifference to the best laid plans of mice and men. But The Terror, unlike similar stories, is partially based on true events: namely, the story of Erebus and Terror, two British ships that set out in 1845 to find a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic and never returned. Much of what happens in The Terror, as well as its 2007 source novel, is a mix of conjecture and fantasy; still, the fact that the series concerns people who actually existed lends it a chilling resonance.

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Image via HBO

At the beginning of the series, the main symbol of British hubris is Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), a man whose overconfidence and desire to leave a positive legacy leads to his doom. It would have been easy to portray Franklin as an arrogant lout drunk on empire (essentially as he was in the original novel), but The Terror makes him a more compelling, tragic figure. Hinds plays Franklin as a man of great warmth and optimism, reassuring his men and speaking earnestly of his belief that “nature’s author” will pave the way for “an adventure of a lifetime.” Even as the situation grows more dire, Franklin displays a stiff upper lip, that great British virtue, and tries to put on a brave face for his crew. But neither Queen nor country can save him when Tuunbaq, the monstrous polar bear, attacks; the decorated officer of the Royal Navy dies in panic and agony, hundreds of miles from civilization.


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That same fate befalls virtually every member of the expedition. Some are killed by Tuunbaq, and others are killed by the cold, which is brutal enough to freeze hands to metal and cause teeth to explode. Lead poisoning from improperly-stored food kills some and drives others to madness, such as Dr. Stanley, who sets himself ablaze at a morale-boosting carnival celebration and kills dozens of others. Mutiny, murder, cannibalism – nothing staves off the inevitable. In the end, the only survivor is Captain Francis Crozier (Harris), the sullen Irishman who had been ostracized from higher society in the past due to his nationality. (So much for “Queen and country.”)

Franklin’s lost expedition wasn’t the first Arctic expedition; it wasn’t even the first Arctic expedition led by Franklin. Everyone involved knew exactly how dangerous this was, and yet they put their faith in God and empire to see them through; nature, of course, cares nothing for those things. And what would it have gotten them? Just before Blanky (Ian Hart) is killed by Tuunbaq, he comes across a frozen body of water: the mythical Northwest Passage to the Pacific. It’s a final moment of triumph, but it’s also a bitter reminder of why these men were sent on this terrible expedition in the first place. All of this carnage was for a marginally faster trade route that wouldn’t be feasible for centuries.


the terror AMC
Image via AMC

Chernobyl concerns itself with a different time, a different global superpower, and a different kind of hubris. While The Terror sees the British Empire playing a game of chicken with the elements in order to expand their influence, Chernobyl sees the Soviet Union trying to maintain what it already has, even as it becomes clear that it’s impossible to sustain for much longer. (In real life, the Chernobyl disaster was one of many things that led to the dissolution of the USSR.) And just as something like Franklin’s lost expedition was bound to happen eventually (and in fact, had happened before), something like Chernobyl was inevitable.

Chernobyl often functions as a horror series. It offers unflinching looks at grisly radiation burns, the soundtrack hisses and scrapes like a Silent Hill game, and the exposure of the core brings to mind the tentacles of Cthulhu. But just as frightening as the nuclear meltdown itself is the environment that allowed it to happen – and then made it even worse. The audience watches helplessly as warnings are ignored, safety measures are sabotaged, and politics are put before human lives. There are plenty of hiss-worthy villains, like the petty tyrant Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) and the delusional true believer Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), but it’s clear the problem runs much, much deeper than any one person.


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Image via AMC

Chernobyl portrays a culture of incompetence, paranoia, and dishonesty. Cronyism runs rampant, to the point where well-connected shoemakers overrule health experts. Corners are cut and pennies are pinched at every turn, leading to dangerous workplaces filled with obsolete equipment. The Party has eyes and ears everywhere, and the wrong word can destroy a career or a life. And everywhere, there are lies: white lies, doublespeak, false reassurances, propaganda, and flat-out denial of reality. There are only 3.6 roentgen in the air. There is no graphite on the roof. The reactor didn’t explode at all. Chernobyl illustrates the way in which lies, when repeated often enough, become their own kind of magical thinking. The idea that anyone could run a country this way is mind-boggling, and the true believers seemed to believe it would last forever.


The hubris of the Arctic explorers in The Terror was their belief that they could survive inhospitable conditions through nothing but gumption and a stiff upper lip. The hubris of the Soviet Union in Chernobyl, however, goes deeper: the petty functionaries and party officials of Chernobyl seem to believe they can rewrite reality as they please, that they can say something and make it so. But just as Valery Legasov (Harris) warned that “every lie incurs a debt to the truth,” every attempt to defy reality just makes it want to prove a point.


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