There have been time-travel series and then there’s Dark. This is on an entire league of its own.
The worst thing about a television show is its pretentiousness: whether it’s worthy of it or not. Dark possesses none of it. It tells the story as it is, and that is remarkably refreshing.
There wasn’t a single weak link in the cast.
It’s unapologetically morose and bleak, but not for a second can you accuse it for being slow-moving.
It feels like a Christmas dinner: indulgent, delicious, scrumptious...but you stuffed yourself far too full.
Did anyone not guess that it was future!Jonas from...like...the first moment he appeared on-screen?
They covered so much in the first season it’s hard to envision what’ll happen next. To see the reasoning behind Mikkel’s suicide would be a key allure.
Netflix’s new headline-grabber is German export Dark, which is really as addictively bleak as it says on the tin.
Welded together by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is an immaculate, heart-wrenchingly acted ten-episode thriller set in a small German town, Winden. If you’ve seen numerous base-level comparisons to Stranger Things all over the internet, we’re here to dispel them. Dark is absolutely nothing like Stranger Things. Tonally, atmospherically, script-wise and, well, the entirety of it.
Admittedly, it’s hard to compare Dark to big-hitters like Westworld or Mindhunter because it’s so inherently difficult to categorise. In its own way, Dark is in a league of its own. Unlike Stranger Things, the kids from Dark find their childhoods destroyed. Our protagonist, Jonas, has not only returned from a stint in a mental institution following his father’s suicide, but is frequently weighed down by conversation like this:
Tannhaus: “Is time an eternal beast that can’t be defeated?”
At this rate, we would have promptly bolted out the door. But because Louis Hofmann’s Jonas is so enviously patient and good, he’s also the victim of witnessing the crap hitting the fan. Full-scale. Except this is deeper and bolder than any Netflix show we’ve seen thus far. By no means is it 100% brilliant.
But Dark isn’t afraid to really tackle subjects such as adultery, grooming, grief and PTSD. All amidst your usual teen (and adult) drama. There’s no huffing and soap-opera close-ups. Save for the tense music usually in the more action-packed scenes, scuffles (real hard punches in one instance) and pent-up jealousy simmers in the background of silence. And in Dark’s case, the silence is all we need, because you will not divert our attention away from the riveting performances with some overly-soapy score.
It’s excellently executed. And really, television across the pond could learn a thing or two…
With the plots threaded so intricately, it leaves little room for humanity in the finished product—saved only by truly convincing performances by the meticulous cast.
Frankly, with his manipulative psycho of a mother, Hannah (Maja Schöne) it’s a wonder Jonas turns out half-decent. And that’s just one instance of a completely bananas character with a very shallow explanation of her past. It’s quite similar with most of the grown-ups on the show, too. The thing is, Dark can’t really avoid this problem when faced with two massive hurdles. Firstly, there’s the huge ensemble. And you can’t cut anyone, because like it’s drilled into our heads, everything—thus everyone—is connected. Secondly, Dark’s plotline dug so intricately with mind-boggling complexity that it was inevitable it had to lose some humanity. That’s not to say we don’t empathise with the characters. But you can’t have, in a ten-episode season, a spiralling vortex of a wicked plot as well as truly, fully-fleshed characters.
However, with all the talk of wormholes let’s talk loopholes. Because whether or not Dark did this intentionally or not, it works. The idea of not fleshing out these characters as well as we’d like Dark to actually goes hand-in-hand with the story itself. The older Jonas is attempting to break the 33-year-old cycle and finally give the Winden residents free will.
Sure, plot devices for characters have a bad rap. But if the point of this story is that the residents of Winden are inherently trapped by their lack of free will—the plot—then yes, our eyebrows are raised, but that’s a damn loophole for one of Dark’s biggest flaws.
We’re not excusing Dark’s flaws. However, the series is so deep that you really can’t tell if a normal narrative, already flipped by the show, where characters should drive a story, is really the case vice-versa.
Dark solidly cemented its place for a next season by foregoing fads and trends, but rather telling a brutally complex tale.
The German production really holds nothing back. There’s two telling, extremely disturbing scenes. One of them is an implication—or rather a revelation. The second is just outright brutal. Firstly, we have the back-story as to how Hegle ended up as Noah’s accomplice. Due to the time-breach the Older Jonas opened up, both he and Ulrich unwittingly created the perfect puppet for Noah’s sick ploy. And the worst of it is that Hegle is at his lowest. He’s just nearly been beaten to death by a rock and left in the underground hideout where Noah presumably finds him after nine-year-old Hegle touches Jonas through the time-breach.
Next up is genuinely one of the most shocking scenes on television. It’s depraved, sick and by no means glorified. The fact that it’s done at the hands of a desperate but well-meaning cop, Ulrich, is even more disconcerting. Yes—we’re talking about the scene in which Ulrich desperately tries to change the boys’ future disappearances by killing who he knows is responsible. Except Hegle is nine when Ulrich brutally beats him to near-death. And in a tragic swing of karma, Ulrich doesn’t manage to kill Hegle. Only scar him enough for him to willingly be played by Noah.
Though Dark is much more than just ‘time-travel’, it’s the most raw and devastating exploration of the overtly-dreamy idea of going back in time. It never loses sight of consequences. And we’ll explore that later. But another thing it never forgets is the sheer ugliness and depravity man will go to when they hit rock-bottom.
Refreshingly, it’s very much Girl Power on Dark!
Quite like the rest of the show, this isn’t even an issue or mentioned once on the show. Surprisingly—and it is a surprise because it’s just presented to us with no muss no fuss—the women really spearhead the show. Firstly, we have the first female boss of the new nuclear power-plant in 1986. It’s not celebrated for that apart from one young female employee who briefly states it’s such a relief to work for a woman in charge.
Next up we have Headmistress of the school Jonas & co attend, Katharina. Furthermore, in present-day 2019 whilst her husband runs the power-plant, it’s Regina who also works full-time and runs, seemingly single-handedly, the hotel. And whilst she’s somewhat, er, a little cuckoo, Hannah Kahnwald does raise Jonas as a single mother after his father died.
And that’s it.
Nah, you didn’t think so, right? Karoline Eichhorn’s steamrollering performance as the determined, emotional but always professional detective Charlotte is an inspired performance. Compared to her brash detective partner Ulrich, she’s able to detach her emotions from the case even though it clearly internally kills her.
RELATED l Dark: Four Episode Challenge
These women don’t hold back. Even brave young Martha Nielsen rightfully confronts Jona about his understandably off-behaviour. Just like Queen, the show must go on, and she is determined to carry on with a school play in order to raise morale. Even though her brother is missing and her father and mother aren’t exactly best buddies.
Truthfully, the only thing missing is perhaps some ethnic diversity in Winden, 2019. Understandably, it’s a small-town (and with the proportion of time spent in 1986 and 1953). And realistically, the more diverse populations would likely be in the bigger cities of Berlin, etc. However, for this downfall the iron-strong performances of the women are admirable in Dark’s stylish, understated, non-pretentious presentation. It’s wonderful because it’s not celebrated or made a razzle-dazzle of: it’s just there.
Is there truly just dichotomy? Good and evil? Hate and love? Like many shows, Dark explores this deeply. And no, it doesn’t sugarcoat it at all.
Bluntly, the answer is no. The show does a pretty obvious job of explaining why, via Older Jonas’ theories, the blatant Hermeticism and the symbolic fact that the caves underneath the power-plant lead to not two, but three time periods. Sure, it could’ve led to five or six or fifty. But it’s difficult to watch a show like Dark and not narrow your eyes at the blatant use of ‘three’.
Mixing in with the already complex (teetering on over-complex for its first season) plot, Dark doesn’t just demand patience. We’ve stated before that Dark isn’t the type of show to hold your hand through its convoluted plot. And frankly, that’s been refreshing. However, sometimes it does stretch to a point where if you didn’t take certain lessons at school, you just…don’t know.
With the trinity knot on Noah’s back, which is barely and poorly explained, it’s actually rather indicative of his beliefs and intentions. And that’s important because aside from that, we really know nothing of what Noah truly intends. Hermeticism believes that there are three parts of the universe’s wisdom: alchemy, astrology and theurgy. The latter is explained by the relation to a being of something like an angel. (This reviewer went to a Christian school). Three is an inherently important number in this particular faith. Without the pagan trinity knot, where do you think the Christians’ holy trinity originated from?
It’s difficult viewing. Consequentially, it’s a flaw for many viewers as much as it is rewarding for viewers who do get it. So again: it’s really a 50/50 risk. But that’s what makes Dark somewhat different. It’s not trying to please everyone. Odar and Friese know their story, and they will tell it with pizzazz.
FINAL VERDICT: Honestly? Dark was so traumatic sometimes that it nearly provoked dry-heaving. But it’s not disgust that wells up. It’s relief—because as fictional as the show is, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of human nature…and exploit it.
Honestly, it’s like somebody at Netflix told Odar and Friese they had one season to cram their entire story, and they did. Mind you, it was not a poor effort at all. With so many storylines, revelations and plot-twists, it would likely have benefitted from a couple of breather episodes. Not filler, though we’re unsure the writers at Dark know the meaning of that word.
But often, watching the show and its thumping story masquerading behind a slow-sprawl plot left no time for you to catch your breath. And that’s important because it allows consequence to sink in. Consequence allows for the expansion of humanity and connection to these characters, which was sorely lacking. Despite the exceptional acting of the entire cast.
Nonetheless, through Dark’s dreariness is a painful beauty that isolates lonely Winden from reality. It’s not just your normal mystery or horror. As much as the plot was overwhelming, it was admirably ambitious. And actually, Odar and Friese really nearly pulled it off.
It was never just about missing children or faith or dead birds. Everything is connected. And it’s the severing of those connections we see—from the past, present and future—that is ultimately what Dark presents to us, artfully and beautifully. Imperfectly and ruggedly, too, yes. But find a series that tried to jump as high as Dark did this year. You’ll struggle.
DARK is streaming now on NETFLIX.
Season One Verdict: “Dark” [Netflix]