Dark seemed to pass a few people by when its first season hit Netflix, a year and a half ago. Netflix’s first German-language original series, it did well, but there wasn’t all that much hype around it, and I pretty much just stumbled into it without any real idea of what to expect. However, it quickly proved to be one of the most memorable and intriguing shows released that year, and its second season was one I was hotly anticipating. For the most part, it doesn’t disappoint.
There are various reasons why Dark didn’t get that much attention upon its initial release, from it being entirely in German (there is an English Dub available, if that’s how you choose to live your life), its complex non-linear plot, a vast cast, and the fact that, as the name implies, it’s incredibly dark both in tone and in its storyline.
There seemed to be a fair bit of confusion over just how to sell the show to viewers, with many critics simply labelling it as the German Stranger Things. Really though, this is a fairly shallow comparison to make, and one that probably has more to do with the shows airing at a similar time than with any actual similarities between them.
Sure, at a very superficial level the two shows do have a lot in common. Both revolve around the inhabitants of a small rural town where kids have been going missing, and in both, these disappearances are soon revealed to be down to mysterious portals in space-time, or some other crazy sci-fi phenomena. Both even take place (at least partly) in the 1980s, complete with some absolutely phenomenal music to help set the scene. But that’s pretty much where all similarities end, and Dark is probably not something to be reaching for if you’re looking for a Stranger Things replacement.
Whereas Stranger Things is all adorable kids, creepy monsters, and Winona Ryder getting stressed, Dark presents us with a bleak, mysterious, impenetrable world that seems to be full of people fixated on such jolly topics as the meaninglessness of existence, the lack of any true free will, and the death of God. Like the dour Scandinavian thrillers and procedurals that hit BBC Four every other month, everyone’s perpetually moody, and it appears to be almost constantly raining.
While both shows recreate the 1980s, in Stranger Things this largely equates to simple nostalgia for the films and music of the period, whereas Dark instead evokes the fears of the time, especially surrounding stuff like Chernobyl – something that was much closer to home for people living in Germany at the time. The differences in the shows are made painfully obvious in the first few minutes of each, where both shows very clearly set out just what kind of shows they are going to be. The opening scenes to Stranger Things present us with some pure 80s nostalgia, fiercely likeable characters, and some moderately spooky stuff thrown into the mix for good measure. Dark’s first episode, on the other hand, opens with a monologue on cause and effect and the nature of time, followed by a man hanging himself. Yeah, try having your Halloween party themed around this one.
But it’s not just that Dark is a more complex or “adult” show. The two shows are both entirely different beasts, with completely different stories they’re trying to tell, and probably a very different target audience in mind. A much more apt comparison that springs to mind when watching Dark is that of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and it would be pretty surprising if this was not in fact an influence during the show’s development. Both shows have some striking similarities, from a baffling overarching mystery which continually fails to provide much in the way of answers, to the ways in which both shows build atmosphere.
The town in which Dark is set, Winden, feels as if it’s wholly cut off from the outside world. Through some long, haunting shots of the area, some exquisite direction, and a gorgeous, melancholy soundtrack, the show creates an immersive, oppressive environment that really helps to draw you into its world. The show works throughout to build a sense of foreboding, of there being something unnatural going on here that defies understanding.
Much of the character drama throughout the season also feels highly reminiscent of Twin Peaks. There’s no dancing dwarfs or log lady’s here, but it does seem as if almost everyone in Winden seems to have some kind of secret, or hidden past. There are parts where it does feel almost ridiculous – especially in season two, where we find out that a new detective, who comes from outside Winden, and who apparently is not part of the time loop that dominates the story, still also has his own secret agendas and motives. Even Woller, a minor character who so far can be summed up as a guy who has something wrong with his eye, is being mysterious about this. But nevertheless, it’s these characters backstories and the ways in which they interconnect, as well as the central mystery of the show, which are the best things about Dark.
The overarching plot of the show centres around a time portal that lies in the caves beneath Winden. This leads to numerous people becoming displaced in time, living whole other lives in past decades. This, on the face of it, is nothing new, time travel being standard sci-fi fare by this point. But what makes Dark different is that it goes so much further exploring the implications behind these kinds of concepts than most time travel fiction ever does.
As the season progresses it starts to delve deeper into ideas such as time loops and paradoxes, the different characters and storylines of each time period becoming ever more tangled and interwoven. The plot takes huge twists and turns as it zips backwards and forwards in time, with viewers simultaneously following events taking place in the present, in the 1980s, and the 1950s. It’s incredible to watch how it all develops, drawing the numerous different character threads together in a way that truly makes it seem like everything is part of one huge chain, from which it’s impossible to escape.
There are few other shows which so actively and engagingly explore such complex philosophical concepts as this does, from the question of where events in the loop truly “began,” to whether the characters involved have the power to change anything, when events are already set. More than this though, it’s biggest strength is in focusing on how people both change and stay the same over time, as it examines the same relationships over huge stretches of time.
Many viewers, I’m sure, will likely find it all to be a bit overly serious and pseudo-intellectual at times. I can’t, for example, think of a character cracking a single joke in the whole course of the show. But exploring how these chains of events play out, often before they do for the characters, makes it a hugely addictive and engrossing watch. For example, the discovery of what really happened to missing kid Mikkel, halfway through season one, becomes just so unbelievably tragic once you realise who exactly he becomes, and that you have already seen how his story plays out without even knowing it. It’s an almost ludicrously ambitious level of storytelling, constantly throwing new stuff at you and expecting you to keep up.
With the release of the second season then, the big question was whether it could in fact possibly live up to season one, where it could go next, and whether it could deliver on all its many unanswered questions in a satisfying way. Season two immediately chucks viewers in at the deep end, as things get even more complicated. The new season expands the time loop still further into two whole new periods, the 1920s and the 2050s, each of which feature their own characters and plotlines. As well as this, we quickly discover that within the different time periods there’s also been a gap between seasons for the characters as well, despite season one ending on a cliffhanger.
Even if coming to the new season directly off the back of season one, you’re often left scrambling to remember who everyone is, where (and when) they are, and what their all after. The characters themselves rely on huge Charlie Kelly-style flowcharts on the walls in order to make sense of just how everything is interconnected, and what needs to happen next.
The cast is vast enough to rival the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, and the different relationships are even more complex and hard to navigate, as we follow different actors playing the same characters at completely different points in their lives. This is not a show where you can just switch your brain off and watch casually. It requires you to pay attention.
With such a huge tangled web of plotlines and characters, it seems inevitable that some will flounder a bit, and season two does have far more in the way of plot points that become a bit too convoluted to make any sense of. For example, when the main character, Jonas, attempts to go back and prevent his father’s suicide, thereby stopping the rest of the chain of events from taking place, it’s never really made clear exactly why his father living would in fact alter largely disconnected events such as Mikkel’s disappearance, or the coming apocalypse. There’s also at least three different versions of Jonas wandering around at this point, one of whom is also revealed to be the season’s Big Bad, Adam. Meanwhile, another character is revealed, in the finale, to somehow be her own daughter’s daughter.
For the most part however, there is a sense throughout the second season that it is slowly bringing everything together. Some of the best moments of this season are the character beats, as an ever wider number of people become aware of what’s been going on, of what happened to the missing people, and of the various different secrets and connections in their past they never knew about.
One of the standout episodes of the second season is episode six, the same episode where Jonas attempts to save his father. Returning to a point in time just before the start of the season, the episode allows us to glimpse the beginning of everything we’ve been watching since, seeing how and why things developed to where they are now, but with a much better understanding of what’s going through these characters heads. Slowly, all the questions are getting answered, and all that remains to be seen is how everything gets tied up in the third season.
The show has been confirmed to be a trilogy, and whilst it’ll be a shame to see it finally finish, it is at least reassuring to know this has been written with a definite ending in mind. It would have been all to easy for Dark to do as other big mystery shows such as Lost did and add a whole lot of other new stuff in order to keep running, changing what the show was about and resulting, ultimately, in an unsatisfying end. Of course, as Game of Thrones’ final season demonstrated, knowing where you’re going does not actually mean the ending will deliver. But it does make it much more likely that all the loose ends will indeed be wrapped up, and that the final season will maintain the same high quality.
The decision to wrap the show up after three seasons, despite its success in Germany and its critical acclaim, is a testament to how sites like Netflix have gotten the edge over traditional television channels, and can give writers and producers far more flexibility in what they create than would often be the norm. I do wonder if a show like Dark would have been quite the same on a more traditional platform. With such a dense plot and large cast, it seems like a show that is perfect for a format such as Netflix, where you can easily do rewatches or binge viewings. A more traditional broadcaster would likely have gotten wet feet or, as happened with both Lost and Twin Peaks, messed about with how long it was supposed to go on for.
Dark does not appear to have been saddled with any of these kinds of constraints, and as such has made for a tightly written, beautifully made little show which has perhaps more of a unique identity than almost anything else that’s come out recently. You wouldn’t want all TV to be like Dark, it’s a bit too humourless for that – but I do wish that there was more stuff out there which was even half as complex and atmospheric as this is. With an exceptional cast, high production values, and one of the best soundtracks out there, it’s a highly addictive watch that leaves you desperate for the next season.
An intelligent and complex series that doesn’t talk down to viewers, this is one of the most intriguing shows out there, with a second season that maintains the high quality of the first.