Dark was the surprise German Netflix show that pulled me into its orbit at the end of 2017. I’ve just finished season 2 and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a somber and angst filled take on the Jeremey Bearimy time-travel plot that shows no mercy to the feelings of its characters. It also demands quite a lot from its audience, with five (and a bit) time periods, multiple out-of-place characters and circular family trees.
The premise (slowly revealed in Season 1) is that the small, insular German town of Widen is the centre of a mystery. The overt version of the mystery is the disappearance of some children in 1986 and 2019. Connected to this is a mysterious cave system in the surrounding forest and the nuclear power plant, that in 2019 is scheduled to be decommissioned. The deeper mystery is that time itself is not right in Widen and that events in 2019, 1986 and also 1953 are more directly connected. The presence of a sinister figure called Noah, who appears in all three time periods to be the same age, points to even more sinister forces at play.
Without spoiling things too much, by the end of Season 1 the human drama and the time-travel shenanigans are taking up at least equal time. Season 2 shift the modern day plot onto 2020 and brings in the 1920s and 2050s as two other time periods. Looming over all is a coming apocalypse, counting down each episode with ‘X days to the Apocalypse’ under the date. That the countdown connects with the upcoming decommissioning of the nuclear power plant is no coincidence.
Season 2 is far more overtly science fictional than Season 1. I was concerned that this would change the character of the show and it does but mainly in a positive way. Season 1 took a broader view of the characters, in particular how the teenage lives in the 1980s shaped the adult characters in 2019 and the subsequent impact on their children. The core set of families (the Tiedemanns, Dopplers and Nielsens) were figuratively trapped in patterns of emotional harm which metaphorically paralleled the timey-wimey aspects of the show.
Season 2 follows the logic of season 1 and in the process the show changes. The intertwined families are part of a literal looped timeline, as was gradually revealed in season 1. Dramatically, season 1 implied that Jonas was the central character of the 2019 teenagers but he becomes more overtly central to the story in season 2. An older version of himself (who haunted season 1 as an enigmatic stranger) has an almost Jesus like appearance but is a tortured soul, desperately trying to un-manipulate events and disentangle the world.
Along with the looming apocalypse, we have the inevitable time-travelling factions. A new character called Adam appears to be the sinister force behind whatever the fake priest Noah has been doing and also leads a group hinted at in season 1 who were responsible for mysterious iron door in the cave. On what may be possibly the side of good (or maybe not) is Claudia Tiedemann, who in the 1980s is the boss of the nuclear power plant.
For fans of time travel stories that like to dwell on the paradoxical nature of the idea, there are no genre surprises here. Indeed, the shows more science fictional elements rests on cliches of the genre and science-sounding buzz words (e.g. ‘the god particle’). Yet, it uses all of these to great effect and grounds the inherent absurdity in the emotional trauma of the characters (and that is often heart wrenching).
The visual design is also tremendous, particularly with the implied progressive development of multiple means of ways of exploiting the time-travel capabilities.
Also, surprisingly, things are actually being explained. I thought, part way through season 1, that this was a story that maybe would work best with the core mystery never resolved i.e. Widen was just a place with a spooky time rift. Instead, the connections and the nested set of choices of character is becoming clearer (maybe). The time loops are getting knottier but also the broader cast have each discovered that they are not in a noir crime drama but are in a science fiction story. Multiple characters working out the mind-bending connections between events helps the underlying story recap and explain itself.
Having said that, I was deeply grateful that the Wikipedia page for the show now has family trees and episode synopsis to help track who is who. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_(TV_series)
As with Season 1, I watched the show in German with English subtitles. I don’t speak German but I found that worked better than the dub. I can’t attest to how good the translation is but the only bit I found annoying was when one character was talking about another character’s height, he was clearly talking about centimetres but the height was given in feet and inches. Yup, the expectation is that viewers can cope with backwards propogating causality and boot-strap paradoxes but not the metric system.
A third and final season is planned. I will definitely be watching.