Review: Netflix’s “Dark” is as confusing as every other time travel story

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion – Albert Einstein

WARNING: spoilers below; proceed at your own risk.

Netflix’s Dark, described inaccurately by some as Germany’s Stranger Things, is a terrible name for a show. We need to acknowledge that right away. It’s a bad name because it’s non-descriptive but also because it’s ungoogleable. It’d be much more apt to call it WTF Through Dark Caves in the Land of Misty Forests.

The core of Dark is an interplay between the present, the past, and the future. There’s an underlying theory in the show that everything happens again every 30 years; that the universe runs on a 30-year cycle of infinite recurrences.

The 30-year cycle is an interesting concept, sure, but the show doesn’t spend a lot of time on it. It’s clearly not what the creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese are trying to say. That is, if they’re actually trying to say something at all. It’s not really clear.

Here’s the plot as best as I can describe it: Many years ago (around 1953), a nuclear power plant was built in the tiny German town of Winden. The nuclear power plant caused some sort of temporal explosion that created an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (a wormhole) between the past and the future.

The entire show is an elaborate dance between some individuals who wish to stop the eternal recurrences and other individuals who don’t. You have clueless teenagers, even more clueless adults, a clock-maker who can make time machines, and (what appears to be) an immortal priest. As the first season ends, we don’t really know what anyone really wants.

There are four time frames: 1953, 1986, 2019, 2052, and they all have recurring characters. The show starts in 2019 where a man, Michael Kahnwald, commits suicide. We’re then introduced to Jonas, Michael’s son, as he wakes up from a nightmare. Jonas and some of his friends — which includes Magnus, Martha, Bartosz Tiedeman, Franziska Doppler, and Mikkel — go to explore a cave in the woods. Pretty soon into their exploration, they hear weird noises coming from the caves, which causes them to run. Mikkel also disappears (alright, it’s a little bit like Stranger Things here).

A body appears soon after, and Ulrich Neilsen, a police detective and father of Magnus and Mikkel, believes it to be his son. In 1986, Ulrich’s brother Mads also went missing around the caves. Mikkel wakes up in 1986, when he meets Jonas’ mother, gets adopted by nurse Kahlnwald, and changes his name to Michael. Later, Jonas goes through the caves, ends up in 1986, and is stopped from bringing Mikkel back because Mikkel is Jonas’ father, and if he returns Mikkel to 2019 he will not exist. With me so far? Great.

This of course means that Ulrich is Jonas’s grandfather, that Martha is his aunt, and that Magnus is his uncle. There’s also a guy walking around the town and the woods in all the timelines that turns out to be Jonas from 2052. I tried to explain what’s going on without explaining too much while realizing that none of this makes sense without seeing it in its entirety. Even then, it still doesn’t.

The main issue with the show, and I think the main issue everyone would have with the show, is how confusing it is. The four separate time frames is one thing, but keeping the number of characters straight is a much harder task. There are 4 members of the Kahnwald family, 7 members of the Neilsen family (excluding Mikkel), 6 members of the Doppler family, 6 members of the Tiedeman family, and at least 5 other characters that are important to the plot.

On top of that you have to keep track of all these people over 4 different time periods, keeping in mind they look different because of age but also because they’re played by different actors. Sometimes I forget that Franziska Doppler, who is in relationship with Magnus, is not Martha Nielsen, who is in a relationship with Barotz. It should also be noted that Martha and Jonas were in a relationship before Michael committed suicide. After returning from 1986, Jonas refuses to continue the relationship because of the whole being his aunt thing, which makes Martha angry and confused.

There’s nothing particularly striking about the cinematography or the writing, however, and the setting is constantly gloomy. The town of Winden is rural and isolated. There’s repeated flyover shots of a large forest, and it’s raining repeatedly in a lot of the scenes. If it’s not raining it’s foggy and if it’s not foggy it’s dark. However, the physical darkness of Winden does not truly transition into a metaphysical darkness within the characters. Similar to the town of Hawking in Stranger Things, the people of Winden are generally good people.

The characters talk about the town as if there’s a deep, unacknowledged sickness, but outside of a few marital infidelities and teenage bullies, there isn’t much darkness. The “darkness” felt by the inhabitants of Winden is more akin to the alienation felt by those who live in a small town.

One might think of October Sky and the young Homer Hickam’s struggle to escape both the control of his father and the control of the life offered by his impoverished mining town. Like teenagers in all small town dramas, the teenagers of Dark wish to one day escape Winden. It’s imaginable that the adults also had that dream when they were kids. I suppose there is a depressing darkness in that, but that’s beyond the narrative of the show.

It reminds me of the perplexing Primer, which was about two engineers developing a time machine and going back in time to get rich by betting on the stock market. They eventually had several time machines running at the same time and there were several versions of the engineers existing at the same time.

But I reckon Dark has more in common with BBC’s Dirk Gently Holistic Detective Agency and the animé Steins;Gate. Both are about the use of devices to send messages (Steins;Gate) or people (Dirk Gently) into the past or the future. Changing the past, however, creates paradoxes. Or as Nicolas Cage in the 2007 film Next said: “Every time you look at [the future], it changes, because you looked at it, and that changes everything else”. There’s usually several ways to confront this issue:

1) confront it and completely screw it up like in Back to the Future;

2) completely ignore it like in Netflix’s Travelers or in Doctor Who; 

3) create a parallel universe for every message that is sent into the past like in Steins;Gate; and

4) create a self imposed time loop like Primer and BBC’s Misfits. Dirk Gently, similar to Primer, is a closed temporal loop. Dark seems to be going for the closed temporal loop but it’s hard to tell at the moment.

The exciting thing about Dark is trying to figure it out; trying to follow along with its convoluted timelines. There isn’t much in the show, if anything, that I can call unique or groundbreaking. Honestly, the most groundbreaking thing is that it’s set in Germany with German speakers (you can dub it in English but as the animé community will tell you, dub is for fascists).

The creators are far more interested in how the individuals in Winden interact with each other. Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese have constructed a puzzle, and are largely interested in seeing how the individuals in Winden fit into it. There doesn’t seem to be a point to the puzzle—there might not even be a picture at the end. If there is picture it’s likely one we have already seen before, but it’s fun just trying to guess how all the pieces fit together.

“Dark” has been renewed by Netflix for season 2 in 2018.


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M.H. Ibrahim

Ibrahim is probably the most famous spy of the Cold War. His most well-known accomplishments include invading Russia in the winter, drinking all of Moscow's alcohol in one night, inventing Maoism, and cleaning the lint from Che Guevara's beret. Ibrahim has read all the books, and likes capitalism, especially the Hollywood cinema. He can be found most days smoking a blunt on Saturn's moon Titan.

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