Netflix’s Dark Is an Intricate & Ominous Time Travel Story (Review)

The show’s three seasons, which span multiple eras in an isolated German town, make for some confusing and captivating viewing.

“What we know is a drop. What we do not know is an ocean.” This Isaac Newton quote, which is said during a climactic scene in Dark’s series finale, is one of the many erudite, philosophical lines that pops up throughout the series’ dialog and voiceovers. It’s also a pretty apt description of what it’s like to actually watch the German sci-fi series.

To describe Dark as “labyrinthine” seems like an understatement. It’s inevitable that you’ll be lost at some point in the series’ 26 episodes and in dire need of a family tree and/or a couple of flowcharts. There will be a frequent feeling that you’re only comprehending a fraction of the story, and that there’s a whole lot more that you ought to understand — except that whenever you think you’ve got a good bead on the knotty storyline, along come a few more twists to throw you for a loop.

But here are the basic details: Dark begins in the year 2019, in the quiet little German town of Winden. (That I include a starting year should be a clue that things will soon get complicated.) In short succession, several tragedies — a suicide and the disappearance of several children — strike the small, seemingly close-knit town, which feels cut off from the rest of the world by a thick forest and perpetually gloomy weather.

The disappearances dredge up memories of similar kidnappings that occurred in Winden three decades earlier, throwing the town into a panic. Soon enough, Winden’s dirty secrets (e.g., affairs, family dysfunction, corporate cover-ups) start coming to light, causing relationships between several of Winden’s families to grow increasingly fraught. Meanwhile, the suicide victim’s son — a brooding young man named Jonas who has just returned to Winden after a stay at a psychiatric facility — struggles to make sense of his father’s death.

At first, the two tragedies seem unrelated, but with each intricately plotted episode, they’re revealed to be inextricably linked. And with them, a deeper, darker (npi) truth begins to emerge: that Winden and its hapless families may be locked in an inescapable cycle of darkness and death that transcends space and time.

Over the course of its three seasons, Dark explores and reveals this cycle by constantly jumping back and forth between Winden’s past, present, and future. A single episode may begin in 2019, go back to 1986, return to 2019, jump to 1953, and end up in 2052. And that’s just the first season. Subsequent seasons jump even further afield in time.

As a result, we see many of the series’ characters at different periods in their lives (child, adult, senior citizen), and all of the ways in which Winden’s various families are connected (sometimes alarmingly so). And when characters from one era travel to another era — did I mention the mysterious cave on Winden’s outskirts? — and confront different versions of their friends, parents, spouses, lovers, and even themselves… well, you can see how a flowchart or two might come in handy.

As its name implies, Dark does not make for light viewing fare. We’ve already established its tricky, non-linear, and extremely tangled storyline. But then there are the series’ overarching themes, which obviously include time travel and its convoluted ramifications, but also alternate worlds, grief and mourning, free will and fate, and faith and nihilism — all of which are expounded upon with such portentous lines as:

  • “The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end.”
  • “What if everything that came from the past was influenced by the future?”
  • “There are things out there that our little minds will never comprehend.”
  • “Most people are nothing but pawns on a chessboard led by an unknown hand.”
  • “We’re not free in what we do because we’re not free in what we want. We can’t overcome what’s deep within us.”
  • “We trust that time is linear. That it proceeds eternally, uniformly. Into infinity. But the distinction between past, present, and future is nothing but an illusion. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are not consecutive, they are connected in a never-ending circle. Everything is connected.”
  • “It’s remarkable people don’t crack given the futility of their own existence.”

Yes, those are all lines from the series; that’s how Dark’s characters actually talk. Which would certainly be pretentious and annoying if not for the sense of atmosphere that Dark conjures up so effectively and thoroughly. Everything about the show’s aesthetic — the forests that surround Winden, the nuclear power plant looming on the town’s edge, the always overcast weather, the elaborate (and in some cases, opulent) set design, its clever editing and gorgeous cinematography, Ben Frost’s brooding soundtrack — combines to create a world in which it feels entirely appropriate for people to speak to each other in such a solemn and ominous manner.

As the characters’ past, present, and future selves grow increasingly and disturbingly interconnected, it’s easy to lose sight of the human element, to be moved by any one character’s plight or sense of grief. Or maybe it’s just that, over the course of three seasons, there’s so much grief — as every single character is put through the wringer and compelled by destiny, fate, and/or time itself to make the same tragic mistakes over and over again — that you end up detaching from the show emotionally.

Which is fine, because Dark still works well — and perhaps works best — as an intellectual exercise, albeit one that contains plenty of head-scratching paradoxes. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Dark is that even when I felt completely confused, bewildered, and lost amidst all of the timelines, character arcs, and whatnot, I never got the feeling that the series itself was out of control, or that its creators didn’t know what they were doing.

Here’s where kudos must be extended to series’ creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese for managing the tricky act of making Dark complex and enigmatic while still wrapping it up in a pretty satisfactory manner. That’s not to say that Dark is without flaw, though. I found season three to be the weakest and least compelling season, but that’s only because Dark’s first two seasons were so impressive and captivating. The final season introduces some elements that aren’t as well-developed as they could’ve been and I think the final revelation of what, exactly, set everything in motion could’ve been established a little better and given more narrative heft.

But even with those complaints, Dark still remains one of the most intriguing, engrossing, and stylish sci-fi titles that Netflix has released to date, and it handily transcends any early comparisons to Stranger Things. And now that I know how it all ends — and I’ve consulted a few flowcharts — I’d like to watch it again to get a better understanding of, and appreciation for, how Odar and Friese put it all together.

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