During series two of Dark I had, let’s call it, an episode. Who the fuck is that badly burnt fella that’s just appeared on the screen? And what’s he on about?
Thankfully Dark’s moments of disorienting opacity are fleeting. This isn’t a cynical piece of make-it-up-as-you-go-along shite (I’m referring specifically to Lost here). It quickly earns your trust that everything has been thoroughly thought through and sequesters your attention with the consistency of its drip fed exposition, which, when weaponised well, as it is here, and married to a plot that gets increasingly complex, piques your intellectual conceit. You want to see if you’ve correctly guessed what that means, or who that may be, what’s the connection between this and that, or what will happen next.
At the beginning we’re presented with the German town of Winden. We’re introduced to four families around which the events, past, present and future, centre. On the surface it seems normal – not just from a pre-Covid perspective. Teenagers go riding on their bikes after school, and bitch about stuff, the adults do likewise and have affairs. The first episode crests after the revelation that Jonas’s father has recently hanged himself – he’s left a suicide note instructing that it shouldn’t be opened before a time that coincides with the youngest son of another family going missing.
When consuming science fiction we happily disregard implausibility, provided the story is compelling. Still, even I was impressed by how little regard I had for suspending my disbelief when Dark quickly escalated beyond the preliminary intrigue of curious serendipity into an expansive, dense, fatalistic, dystopian piece science fiction.
Meticulousness and ambition abounds here, even the Netflix bio is skilfully vague; ‘In 2019 a boy’s disappearance stokes fear in the residents of Winden, a small town with a strange and tragic history.’ The title also understates what you end up getting. Little doubt this is intentional. I once took a creative writing class and the curriculum emphasized the importance of a story or article’s title and how it can influence initial expectations and or add intrigue. Normally a title is topical, relational to the plot or accentuates the importance of a significant event, character or central theme. In Dark’s case the title comes to make sense retrospectively, as all of the main characters, at some point, disappear into the cave, where the portal to time travel first opens, the dark metaphorically enveloping their normal selves, leading to them suffer varying degrees of torment.
All works of fiction borrow ideas that are ubiquitous in mainstream culture, and Dark quotes quite a few. I’ve already mentioned the cave, and its central importance to events, which reminded me of the movie The Lost Boys.
We’re treated to Se7en and Silence of the Lambs style ritualistic murders and grotesquely mutilated cadavers. There’s a Threads like post-apocalyptic landscape and nuclear catastrophe which creates a suspicious black goo similar to that found in the Alien franchise’s Prometheus. Characters become aware of existing within an infinite cycle of futility, yet choose to repeat the same actions to maintain it, matching Rust Cohle’s resigned pessimism from True Detective. It’s unfair to categorise Dark as nihilistic, rather it offers an observation that it’s delusional to believe that either fate or individual will can truly be absolute. Circumstances, biology and time’s linearity form a volatile paradigm which we simply can’t reckon with, emphasized by the extreme metamorphoses of Jonas and Claudia, who, by the end of season two, become haunted by being subject to it.
Back to the Future’s underrated analysis of ethical and philosophical dilemmas related to interfering with history is referenced. We see a mother’s daughter becoming her mother, and grappling with the dire permutations of interfering with said circular dependency. Different versions of the same person advise, manipulate or eerily observe younger, older or alternate versions of themselves.
Season three even manages to weave the biblical fables of genesis and an inversion of Adam and Eve into leading vulcanised alternate realities. The shifting between alternate realities is reminiscent of Stranger Things. But, on reflection, this comparison isn’t valid, Dark asserts itself as a serious drama, while Stranger Things, with its kitsch fandoms and light humour, does not.
So yeah, that sounds like a lot. In Dark’s case it perfectly parses its complexity by using an episodic structure, good thing to, given there are so many characters and versions of characters mingling in different eras. Limiting the number of character arcs per episode allows a greater focus on characterisation and lets the plot breathe. Thankfully, and Netflix deserve kudos here, they afforded the writers of Dark the conditions and parameters where they weren’t pressured into compromising the nuances of character development or suspense for ratings. Usually a series is ordered with a set number of episodes, and can often result in bipolar pacing, with a particular episode cramming in too many events while others consist of pure filler. Or, in the case of The X-Files, narrative fragmentation. Look, I loved that show, but it was decidedly odd to watch Mulder and Scully be a step away from the finding The Truth Is Out There, only for the next episode seeing them dispatched to Iowa tracking down a flaky teenager with unusual abilities, as if last week’s events had changed nothing.
Any criticisms I have are minor. The third series is the least captivating, primarily as mystery is reduced for exposition. But the first two seasons were so engrossing that they made me feel I was owed clarification. I can’t decide if hooking me in so emphatically is a grander achievement than resolving Dark’s intricate plot. As a writer all I can do is doff my cap and state that I’m insanely jealous they pulled both off.