By Peg Aloi
Despite Dark’s complicated structure, the characters are motivated by utterly realistic desires and emotions, which balance the show’s more abstract elements.
After discovering this brilliant German series on Netflix last year, the debut season’s cliffhanger ending left me eager for the second season. And Dark’s next installment does not disappoint: it’s full of the same complex storytelling and stunning visuals. The show’s time travel conceit is more integral and complex than before, and although the relationship intricacies do sometimes take a back seat to the strange phenomena — and the impending apocalypse becomes a major plot point — there is no shortage of emotional depth and intrigue, thanks to the dazzling cast and superb writing.
I strongly suggest that you watch the first season before the second. Maybe, like me, you’ll want to re-watch the first season in order to refresh your memory of the labyrinthine connections among the characters, many of whom are portrayed in the past, present, and even (post-apocalypse) future. Indeed, I can’t think of a better show to binge-watch now, particularly if you’re the sort of person who takes comfort in scary narratives. The goings on here offer solace for the unimaginable horror in the real world, despite its parallels to our own environmental collapse. Speaking of scary, be sure to watch with subtitles — beware of dubbing!
So, about that impending apocalypse. We saw a hint of it at the end of the first season when Jonas (the wonderful Louis Hofmann), after discovering the time travel device brought by a mysterious visitor, ventures into the woods of Winden. Near a cave sits an underground passageway that leads beneath the town’s nuclear power plant, where there seems to be a sort of energy vortex. The explanation for it is both scientific and metaphysical. There, Jonas travels 33 years into the future; he is welcomed (then immediately attacked) by a ragged band of survivors. He narrowly escapes their torturous plans for him, and quickly masters the time travel device. It is a sort of complex clockwork contraption made of wood and metal that fits in a small suitcase, its design at once inscrutable and beautiful. Jonas is the story’s central character this season, much as Ulrich was key in Season One. Jonas understands he must survive the future at all costs so he can return to warn his loved ones in the present, whereas Ulrich (Oliver Manucci, still fabulous) finds he has returned to the past (1954) and the roots of Winden’s doom. The town’s cursed vibe began (perhaps) with the construction that year of the nuclear power plant; but at one point the narrative jumps back to 1921, offering more clues to the location’s strange history.
If that all sounds crazily complicated, it is. But as the characters begin to move back and forth through time more quickly, and more often, the story keeps pace and the parallels and connections are clarified. One character collects framed photos of all the major characters, in different eras, with lines linking them drawn back and forth — it is a sort of mystical journal. This visual aid mirrors the efforts of police detectives to solve rapidly multiplying missing persons cases, as there seems to be a new victim every few hours. Charlotte Doppler (Karolyn Eichborn, still wonderful) is forced to work with a new task force leader who challenges her methods. She also begins to discover the vital part that her own origins (Charlotte’s unknown parents) play in the mysterious puzzle that overshadows the town. And the increasingly unhinged Hannah (Maja Schöne) uses time travel to play some manipulative games with Ulrich.
Jonas has nightly dreams of his crush Martha (Lisa Vicari, one of several extremely talented young actors in the cast), whose performance as Ariadne in a school play serves as a potent metaphor that illuminates the disappearance of her brother Mikkel, who remains trapped in 1986. Meanwhile, Martha’s father Ulrich has traveled back in time to 1954, desperate to find his missing son. There he meets the police detective (Egon) who tried to ruin his life in 1986. Egon’s daughter Claudia is seen via her past, present, and future selves; she winds up being a vital figure in understanding how time travel manipulates the outcome of events, not to mention how it ensnares people in the trajectory of time. Time’s circularity and connectivity is an inevitable topic of conversation in Dark. The drama centers on how characters engage, in a myriad ways, with the forces that control them, inviting viewers to speculate on how free their choices in life have been. But the narrative’s ethereal aspects are grounded in a wonderfully solid production design (like the purple house with blue shutters that Jonas lives in with his mother Hannah, full of dark wood paneling). These visuals invite us to compare how the characters live; we also see how these dwellings change over the years as scenes jump back and forth across decades.
Despite Dark’s complicated structure, the characters are motivated by utterly realistic desires and emotions, which balance the show’s more abstract elements. Once these figures understand that time travel is not only possible (a fact many of them rebel against at first), but necessary, they begin to see their intertwined fates as being about more than their individual impulses — but connected to the regret, pain, and guilt of a collective past. Co-creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese have crafted a stunningly intricate philosophical adventure, beguiling in its intensity but also as compelling as any crime thriller or family drama (for it is those things as well).
The show’s gorgeous opening credits (don’t skip them!) offer a tantalizingly fragmented line-up of images taken from various scenes, some dramatic, some mundane. The flash of naked flesh or the silhouette of a tree suddenly takes on an otherworldly appearance. This kaleidoscopic credit sequence, for me, embodies up what is so artfully fascinating about Dark: time and existence and storytelling interact through a juxtaposition of images, which are mysterious parts of a larger, unknowable picture.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.