When a child goes missing, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Pushing the idea that ‘everything is connected’ is Netflix’s Dark, which amplifies the horror to the entire townsfolk.
The Show: Dark
The Network: Netflix
The Genre: Science fiction/thriller/supernatural
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: To put it lightly, the eeriness Dark will knock into you about idealistic Winden will make you want to holiday there as much as you’ll want to visit Silent Hill. Thirty-three years ago, young Mads Nielsen disappeared. Now in 2019, the same thing happens to little Mikkel Nielsen. And no, they don’t just share an unfortunate surname. Mads was Ulrich’s (Oliver Masucci) brother and Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) is his youngest son.
The series opens up with a voiceover that plays after displaying an Einstein quote: “We all think 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.”
The missing boy’s incident is only skimming the fat from the surface. This spiderweb of a story is so intricately laid out that frankly, just throw away the word ‘premise’. Time-travel, parallel universes, ritualistic-feel kidnappings and a whole lot of dead sheep. Sold it yet?
Writing about Dark is like pulling teeth because it’s impossible to categorise, and that’s kind of like a writer’s painful dream come true.
Because they’re both on the same streaming service, they involve missing kids, flickering lights, and throwbacks to the eighties, Dark will be compared to Stranger Things. But there is one drastic difference. Stranger Things sugarcoats us and the characters with youthlike wonder, infesting the horrors of the Upside Down with D&D and first kisses. However, Dark tilts its head at youth and mercilessly rips it away from our young characters. It is no offense to anyone to be compared to Stranger Things. But the two shows are universes apart in tone, plot, structure–and everything else.
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It’s time to just let Dark stand on its own two, horrifying, ‘do not watch it alone’ feet. Truly, Netflix has treated us to some big whammies this year, but honestly? We’ll say it: there has been none quite so relentlessly pummelling, so unforgiving and bold as Dark. It’s not perfect. Nothing is perfect. But when a show makes you pause the playback in order to hastily draw a family tree of the characters so you know who everyone is, you know you’re hooked. (…Gosh, who would even do that?)
Even by episode four, we really don’t know the full picture. Quite like its trippy intro, the scale of the show feels almost kaleidoscopic. You look one way and see a dozen other versions of that one way. Yet unlike some of the pacing issues on other shows, Dark doesn’t mix the slow-burn with the storytelling snail. In every episode we’re utterly rapt by its goings-on. And then it’s onto the next episode.
If it won’t win awards, then it certainly wins for creating the best formula for binging. Like all the best recipes, though, it’s completely secret.
Dark feels impossible to give the hard-sell, and in a way, that’s kind of the USP.
The difficulty of nailing down exactly how to categorise the show is both a charm and a hardship. Dark is a whirlwind; it’s a complicated, growing, evolving beast. We’ve only barely touched the tips of the plot and it is, truthfully, a struggle. However, it’s that same struggle that also locks in our curiosity because the bizarre addictiveness is impossible to wriggle free from. Alas, there will also be viewers who are understandably turned off by the overt complexity of the show. And it’s not for lack of patience or knowledge. It’s because it is a flaw.
The reason why Netflix can pride itself on this bold series is because viewers are going to turn off. You may turn around and say, well, “hey! Numbers, dude!” and that’s fair. But Dark doesn’t feel like a show that’s been built for viewership en masse. It’s perplexing, infuriating, pacy and confusing as hell. It’s not trying to tempt viewers and heighten their expectations. Bluntly, Dark is what it says on the tin.
Refreshingly, even though Winden scares the living creepers out of our souls, creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese don’t rely on the jump-scare at all. Which possibly makes everything even scarier. Instead, we’re surrounded by sinister shots of the forest, the horrible cave entrance we never want to see again, and everytime a child is in a shot alone, there’s a myocardial infarction waiting. Odar and Friese have cleverly squeezed horror into the entirety of the show. It’s terrifying and so compelling. With every baited breath you almost expect something awful to happen. And that’s certainly an alluring way of making television.
“We’re all connected”–and that cannot be truer, but it doesn’t always click because the ensemble is truly so large.
Now, this point almost feels like a quid-pro-quo of sorts. With such a large ensemble, it is genuinely difficult to keep track of who Charlotte was, or who Katharina was. (Hence the, er, family tree that this reviewer definitely did not draw).
The reason why it becomes an issue is because we’re supposed to believe that this tight-knit group of small-town folk are all in this together. Yet we can’t tell a Hannah from a Charlotte, and we keep forgetting who that old dude muttering is. The point is, it becomes hard to invest and connect with this vast array of characters. As meticulously, stupendously well-played they are, we catch flashes of humanity from Dark but not a winning deal of it.
But: “we’re all connected”.
Damn right we are. And that’s why we can’t think to put forward the solution of trimming the cast, because we’ve barely scratched the surface of the mystery. As it expands, inevitably luring more of the characters across its event horizon, we’ll need that size cast.
To be fair, sometimes it works. We don’t abandon these kids after the horrors of what they’ve endured. In fact, we even follow Mikkel for a while as he navigates being thrust thirty-three years back in time. It provides us with that continued trauma that almost heightens the horror. Like we said before: these childhoods are being torn away from these kids. There’s no jump-scare necessary for that notion to be scary, and Dark feeds off it.
Think of Dark like the frustrating mystery box you can’t unlock but secretly don’t want to. It’s very much a slow-burn process yet so much happens in its stead that it’s remarkable the end-product is so clean-cut.
Dark is not a show that can be described as ‘tantalising’. It’s quite the adjective and an attractive one too, because every show wants to be tantalising. You want to lift your viewers’ expectations higher and higher. Yes. It’s tantalising.
And nope. Dark does not do that. Instead, the show gruffly offers you a Marlboro (of which you reject and then decide to stress-smoke the whole pack) and you watch. You watch, ignoring the sudden appearance of your family doctor who’s frantically checking your blood pressure and pupil movement as Dark smashes zero expectations. And it’s a triumphant formula. Why? Because Dark doesn’t give a damn whether or not you thought it was trendy and cool to like. Instead, it lays it plain on the table.
The sheer gratification and satisfaction you get from watching something like this is that you’re completely engrossed. You’re not waiting for the next Easter egg to catch or pop culture reference. Rather, you’re coaxed by the story itself–no frills–and that is the show’s allure.
It won’t work for some. And that’s completely to be expected. Is there a universally-liked show? The hard truth is, it’s gruesome and actually hard work to watch. It’ll be frankly unenjoyable and gloomy, thus a turn-off. Or you’re already embracing the foreboding corkscrew.
As bold as Dark is, it could also prove divisive. Some will trash it; others will sing songs of praises. Who’s right? Neither side! Strap in and get completely mind-frazzled. That’s how it goes down in Winden, right…?
FINAL VERDICT: Netflix will have its blockbusters, but Dark’s creepy escapism is something you cannot miss.
Fair disclaimer: you will need to watch something like Broad City after binging Dark just to balance your brain out. And let out the breath you held for…ten hours…
But in all seriousness, this isn’t really something for light viewing. We’re not going to advise you to cuddle a loved one before watching. However, if relaxation after a long week is binging a mind-boggling, honestly disturbing and horrendously underrated show, Dark may just be it. With smatters of other European dramas such as The Returned, The Bridge and The Killing, it’s honestly pleasing to see such dramas make it onto a mainstream platform like the American Netflix. For years, they’ve flown massively under the radar.
Ben Frost’s chilling, hauntingly gorgeous score sometimes tips it a little too far over the ‘ominous’ scale. But in contrast to its sole friend, Eerie Silence, they work synergistically to create a bleak, lingering feeling that something’s missing. It’s in Nikolaus Summerer’s cinematography too. There’s just copious blank space that’s both aesthetically pleasing and asking us, the viewer, to join in with the tempting, horror-coaster ride the townsfolk of Winden are trapped on.
The script does a decent job of swerving away from over-the-top cliches when it nears, but still, the most compelling part of Dark is just how it is. It doesn’t reach; it doesn’t tease. Instead, its very own impeccable, indescribable charm of its complexity and understatement is quite brilliant. Just don’t get sucked in too deep.
Now, where–sorry, “when–is my pen…”