Somewhere in the recesses of Abe Beame’s morass of notebooks is the pilot script for a 1990’s period drama loosely based on an underground city with 36 chambers.
WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD
When the German series Dark dropped on Netflix a month after the second season of their runaway hit Stranger Things, it seemed as if Netflix was taking a teenage sci-fi trend international. Anyone who actually took the time to sit through the dense, twisty, perverted time travel drama wouldn’t have confused the two. Dark is much more than marshmallow sludge in a shallow bowl of candied milk, binge watching Spielberg matinees on a Saturday morning in the late 80s. With its second season of eight episodes landing over the weekend, it’s a show that uses its time hopping conceit to explore the ideas of deception and distance amongst friends and families in small communities, man-made self-destruction at the hands of technology we can’t control or comprehend and the doomed, solipsistic and twisted nature of man with our hard wired, deep seeded desire for self annihilation. It’s the most German thing I’ve seen since Herzog’s forays into the jungle. And it’s great.
Dark keeps its rules of time travel engagement pleasantly murky but adds a new twist, or at least one I’m not familiar with: The future can influence the past just as the past influences the future, but the catch is in the timeline the show visits and revisits. Both the past and future have already been acted upon, and the present is merely a magnetized track where automatons believe they are acting out free will but are merely repeating a choreographed dance that plays on a loop through eternity. But “Fate” isn’t “Fate” at all in Dark. It’s a series of decisions, manipulations, and ultimate failures of morality on the part of the characters contributing to nothing less than the end of the world and humanity with it.
Within that loop boys go missing at 11, traveling 33 years back in time to father teenagers who befriend their adolescent selves who they coexist with in the small, composite German town of Winden. Grieving fathers travel back in time to undo grizzly murders and in a Twilight Zone-y twist end up ensuring they will come to pass. Armies who claim to portray “Good” and “Evil” battle it out for control of time travel and the fate of the world. Almost each character gets an older or younger version of themselves, and in some cases we get three actors, young, middle aged and old, portraying a single character across multiple timelines. It sounds like cornball shit your nerdy cousin might try to get you to watch but it’s remarkably accomplished. Its beautifully photographed, elegantly constructed and well acted by a front to back killer ensemble.
The first season of the show concentrated on fleshing out the parameters of its universe, solving a few central mysteries and establishing its dense mythology of interweaving families. The story generally focuses on Jonas, a child born of confusion and unhappiness, caught in a loop when his father traveled back in time from 2019 to 1986 then came of age in the past before hanging himself. The natural inclination, if this were an American show grappling with the same sorts of themes, would be to position Jonas as our hero protagonist, good and righteous in his pursuit of erasing wrongs wrought by time and the mistakes of the community.
Instead, what makes the second season standout from the first, is a complete subversion of expectations for this show and its characters. The Dark Universe is expanded and blown out, but the central drama is Jonas’ transformation from hero to arch villain, and basically every other character makes similar heel turns. Dark reveals itself as like Suicide Squad if the DC villains were actually all heinous people and every character’s superpower is being a selfish, meglomanic, nihilist piece of shit. There’s matricide, patricide, every-cide conceivable with more sure to come, a constant never ending string of unholy murderous betrayals. I devoured this new season over the weekend in two installments and am pretty devastated it will likely be a year plus wait for more. It feels like it’s just warming up and hitting its stride.
As constructed over the first two seasons, Dark can be a sort of narrative one trick pony, yielding what already feels like diminishing returns. Arcs begin with an impossible outcome that requires unspeakable action on the part of a protagonist, who then embarks on a quest to undo said outcome only to be thwarted by circumstance and yoked to the unavoidable, indestructible power of fate, causing the aforementioned grizzly outcome in their attempt to stop it. The twists and turns come not from the preordained result, but from how we get there. This happens a lot. Dark is a MASH letter to hard determinism.
The writers have to jump through hoops to keep pulling these reverse engineered “surprises” off. People often exchange pregnant pauses where a simple admission would collapse entire half season plot lines, so called cynical and jaded veterans of time travel and this fucked up reality allow themselves to be duped or mislead because they have to be for the story to progress, people are set up with supposedly sacred relationships to betray, which they faithfully do, with the flimsiest of motivations over and over again.
It sounds like I’m hammering the writing but it’s actually great, aside from these soapy Greek tragedies sewn through the plot they occasionally have to cheat to achieve. The creators have given themselves no small task. It’s the only show I can ever remember watching where there aren’t really any C or even B plots. Every single character no matter how peripheral has a lineage and history central to the story and each story is woven into a tapestry, without a single thread the whole thing wouldn’t hold together through what is now 18 hours of spectacular television. Even once you’ve fully digested the conceit, the fun is watching the writers set up these checkmates 15 moves in advance then executing them with relentless precision. So far they’ve been wildly successful in this pursuit. Unless you speak German it’s a good thing this show can’t be two screened, because checking your phone for a second could mean missing one of the thousands of crucial details the show becomes incomprehensible without. It’s an impressive feat.
In a trademark cliffhanger concluding the second season, we learn the next frontier in a third season set up involves travel between worlds. This opens the series up to a multiverse and offers an opportunity to break the iron wrought fate of this universe, the potential to deviate from the prison structure of the first two seasons and yield greater unpredictability. It’s an appropriate twist for Dark, a show that seemingly has dropped in from an alternate universe all its own.