Available on Netflix
The first season of Netflix’s Dark was probably the most quintessentially German TV show the country has given us. Not in terms of production values, since Dark had the full weight of Netflix’s budgeting behind it, and not because it was a crime show or featured a story by Rosamunde Pilcher.
But this appropriately named show had a whole bunch of concerns and themes that combined, indicated it could only have come from the land that gave us Goethe: is our fate predetermined? Does free will exist? Were “Atomkraft? Nein Danke” T-shirts ever cool?
Set in a small town called Winden – more or less the German equivalent of the US’s Springfield – Dark was a time travel drama like no other. As the producers of Avengers: Endgame recently discovered, the average person’s idea of time travel is based on Back To The Future, with people potentially able to go back in time and change their own pasts.
Dark, however, went in the exact opposite direction. What if you could change absolutely nothing if you went back in time? Even if you did change something, that change is what had always happened. Cause could be effect, effect could be cause, beginning end, end beginning. You might have a time machine, but you actually built it from some plans someone gave to you. Where did they get them from? Well, you give them to them in the future. So who actually invented the time machine? No one? God?
Smarter than the average Netflix show
As befits a country where basically everyone’s been to technical university for seven years and even the train timetables seem to require an in-depth working knowledge of calculus, season one of Dark was a complicated affair.
Set in three time zones 33 years apart – plus a bonus fourth time zone in the final episode – that meant a full roster of characters played by up to three sets of actors, all of whom can travel between years and meet each other and end up becoming one another’s/their own parents if they’re not careful. It didn’t help that half the time, they never introduced themselves, so it wasn’t until eight episodes in that you knew that “crazy white-haired lady” was actually the 66-year-older version of “cute little girl”.
Nevertheless, and despite the often alienating – not quite Brechtian alienating – characters, who were more than a little bit prone to shouting at all times, the first season of Dark was a marvellous piece of work, if you could follow it. Claustrophobic, with a great eye for period detail, a real attempt to address philosophical concerns and science, its one real-let down was its ending, which suggested a shark was about to be jumped.
Now here’s season two. Said shark has not been jumped, you’ll be glad to hear and this more streamlined season two is perhaps even better than season one.
But time appears to be repeating itself. Because guess what – I really hated that ending.
“Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein” (And if you look into the Abyss too long, the Abyss will look back in you)Friedrich Nietzsche – Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil)
There are few shows that could get away with sticking up Nietzsche’s most famous quote as their season boilerplate, but Dark is one of those few. Indeed, if it could have got Werner Herzog to read it out, it would have done, I’m sure.
It’s certainly an appropriate quote for a show about how time changes us all and we can sometimes become things that our childhood selves would have hated. Here, though, everyone gets to see in advance how they turn out and to a certain degree, how they bring about the actual apocalypse, so the fascination is in how that foreknowledge is still insufficient to prevent any real change in the person.
Season one spent a long time establishing all the various characters, their relationships and their various paths through time. It also built a considerable amount of fascinating ‘mythos’, with groups working both to fix time and make sure it takes place the way it’s supposed to and other groups fighting to ensure it doesn’t.
For about seven episodes, season two mainly consists of people going “Oh! Time travel!”, either after having worked it all out for themselves or by having someone turn up at their door to say, “Hi! I’m you/your brother/son/wife/mother/father/daughter/grandmother/grandfather/grandson/uncle/aunt/cousin from ±33 years in the future/past.” These rich cherries are then made more palatable like a black forest gateau with a rich cream of mythos expansion as the plot is expanded and explained and we learn more about all the various factions involved.
It really is to Dark‘s credit that it manages to make this never-ending series of familial revelations interesting, even as you struggle to try to remember who everyone is and how they’re related. Indeed, it surpasses the first season by downplaying the real gits, avoiding too much teenage angsts and generally making everyone just a little more tolerable. It also gives us some backstory that we haven’t had before, mainly for those who travel the most through time, so we can see why they’re doing all the things they’re doing.
Fans of the first season’s careful painting of a town’s society might be a little frustrated that the show has decided to make everyone focused on the plot, but it does lead to a more efficient, better paced affair. The absence of long scenes of child torture is also welcome, even if it’s not exactly clear why the show decided to include those in the first place. Yet. Maybe next season.
What makes the season so satisfying is that even as we’re getting a century-long conspiracy and the troweling out of facts we’d already been told last season, there’s the feeling that everything really has been well architected – we’re not having everything made up as we’re going along. There really is a grand plan and everything we see is following that plan, just as time itself seems to be doing in the story.
Whether that would hold up on a repeat viewing, I couldn’t say, but watching it, you get a real claustrophobia as everyone tries to do whatever they can to avoid the inevitable but failing hopelessly, often causing the events they were trying to prevent. You can see why people living a lifetime of this might become zealots in the belief that God’s will is immutable.
Along the way, we get musings not just about the nature of fate but also free will. “I don’t know why people say ‘we have time’, when time has us,” stuck with me, but it’s not the only the idea the show hands out.
Yeah, but no, but yeah, but maybe
All of which is why the end scene is a major disappointment. It effectively neutralises the entire philosophical argument of the entire show. You can see why they’ve done it, but it does leave you wondering what exactly the show is all about.
But as I said, I thought the end of the first season ruined that, too. It didn’t in retrospect, so maybe season three will fix it.
So watch season one and watch season two, but don’t watch the last three minutes until season three is available.
If you can do that, you’ll love this season of Dark.