Every secret has its price and the characters here all pay, in varying degrees, for their clandestine intrigue and acts, whether it’s sabotage by deceit, cheating on spouses, or the power that revealing their true identity can bring.
While the sludge of its pace and its heavy concepts can be daunting at first, if you stick with it, this series is a cerebral, slow burn sci-fi that will hit you in the nerves like a series of OMFG blitzkriegs. Binge this and, we can assure you, your mind will grow a few extra muscles from the complexity of the premise and how high the stakes can get.
It’s 2019, and the first episode opens with the death of Michael Kahnwald hanging himself from the rafters of his countryside house. As his body and feet sway with the motion of the rope, we see a farewell note whose envelope reads: Do Not Open Before November 4, 10:13 PM.
Prior to that we are entranced by a soothing voice and some unsettling strings for a soundtrack telling us that “Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are not consecutive. They are connected by a never-ending circle.”
Prior to that, driving home the point is the Albert Einstein quote flashed against a sweeping vista of forest and rivers: “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Well, okay then. After Michael Kahnwald’s suicide we are made welcome to the suburban, forest town of Winden, Germany, whose main industry is the nearby nuclear power plant.
And we later find out that this story involves missing children, ill-advised spelunking through underground cave networks, and elaborate pin-up maps with accompanying photos of players and a persistent insistence on the premise that time is mutable, with not-so-subtle cues that make you want to yell at the screen: “Tell me how, already!”
But Dark proceeds to its own drumbeat.
For example, one of the characters we meet early on is the brooding and sensitive teen Jonas Kahnwald, Michael’s son (the guy who hung himself), who in the wake of grieving from his father’s death has returned from his recuperative stay at a mental hospital. Going back to school and his nosy friends don’t really excite him, but he does his best to adjust.
One of those attempts is hanging out with his high school buddies, who decide to go to the woods, near the Winden Caves, chill on the dilapidated couches left by the homeless and maybe smoke some pot.
Some weird, and very loud, phenomenon from within the caves, making all the lights in the town blink and the ground shake, frightens them and motivates them all to bolt.
In the mad scramble though a friend’s kid brother, Mikkel, disappears from the group and is later declared missing. Turns out later that the missing kids, the tangled lives of the small town, and the phenomenon from inside the Winden Caves have more to do with each other than at first look.
How? Time travel.
Comparisons with Stranger Things (that other Netflix hit) will be inevitable but that’s only on the surface. This is ST’s elder brother, whose spirit was honed not in the preppy and upbeat town of Hawkins, but in the desolation of Germany’s Black Forest, under the shadow of a post-Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
If Eleven and co battled the creatures of the Upside Down with cool teamwork and zany telekinetic powers, the protagonists in “Dark” have made the very fabric of time their stomping grounds, changing elements in the continuum without any Doctor Who ethics, and nary a superpower in sight except for the ability to keep secrets across generations.
Keeping track of the timeline and the huge cast of characters at every age is one of the challenging aspects of watching the series. It’s like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, except the magic realist elements have all gone Euro slick, plus all the surnames are harshly Teutonic.
A few episodes in, though, and you’ll get the hang of the visual cues and the juxtapositions of who’s who and how they’re connected, whether by blood or by allegiance—and both in ever escalating ways as the series progresses and unfolds.
"Unfold” might not be the right term here. See, there are three main timelines in the series arc and we unpack each date—2019, 1986, and way back to 1953—like we’re unfolding complex origami creatures with black boxes for hearts, all hanging on a tense, translucent string that forms a knotted circle. The connection is there yet almost invisible if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Each time stamp’s mystery lives within those origami hearts with information only deciphered by a knowing guide, the narrator of the TV series, still unknown and yet to reveal himself.
Butterfly effects are the least of the characters’ worries here as human drama, and how karmic repercussions come into play decades later, make for a satisfying picture of how patterns of behavior per person, per family, and per generation can be seen laid out if you view the canvass whole cloth.
For example, we find out how a propensity for cheating and two-timing afflicts one family, while another has a taste for holding on to municipal authority with a chokehold on the power plant’s employment line, the town’s main industry.
The effort at detailed world-building and the sheer scope of co-creators Baran bo Odar and screenwriter Jantje Friese are simply staggering in this first season. The stabs at self-aware, and self-deprecating humor alleviating the gloom and doom are welcome breaks. Love that bit where apprentice time traveler Jonas is jokingly, deadpanly ribbed “No Delorean.”
While it really is best if you go on as spoiler-free as possible, we’d also like to warn you that you may suffer bouts of information overload during the binge.
It’s advisable to take a few minutes of downtime, after an episode or two, to gather your thoughts, reconnoiter what you’ve just watched, talk it over with your viewing companion, and clarify that you’ve got the character connections and years that stuff happened right in your head.
If you’re ready for a sci-fi dirge with rewards aplenty, all the whys, whos and, more importantly, whens that Dark sets up pay off with a rousing climax in the finale. And even in that last of 10 episodes, the end does not come as expected, because time is an Ouroboros that needs another season.
darkDark is now streaming on Netflix.