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Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness: Why You Should Drop Everything to Watch ‘Dark’

Netflix’s sprawling, rain-soaked time-travel mystery series forces you to pay attention, and then greatly rewards you for your time

Netflix/Ringer Illustration

Dark is a time-travel crime thriller set in this small, one-main-intersection town in Germany, called Winden. Towering over Winden are the billowing columns of a nuclear power plant. Some kids go missing and others turn up dead. Concerned, but otherwise neglectful adults are slowly torn apart by grief. There’s a synth-heavy score occasionally broken up by Top 40 from the 1980s. You’re thinking Stranger Things, and I don’t want to say it’s better than Stranger Things, but it’s certainly different, in crucial ways.

The first is that it’s a German production, performed in German. And you should watch Dark in its original German, if you can bear the responsibility of subtitles, and not for the sake of purism. There’s an English-dubbed version, for cowards, but beyond the implicit weirdness of mouths moving out of time with the words, I found that watching the dubbed version made me much more likely to pick up my phone. You can overhear what’s happening well enough, but some part of the earnestness is lost, and interest tends to follow soon after that. Before long, you’re wrapped up in an article about the disappearance of animals with tail weapons, and you’ve missed how the show ended up in 1986.

Watching a show in a foreign language requires a much closer reading, literally and figuratively. With subtitles, you’re naturally willing to work harder to understand how everything is connected and why this missing persons case is so similar to the one that happened 33 years ago. The second, as Andy Greenwald said in early December on The Watch, is that Stranger Things interrupts its principle characters blithely living their lives and forces them into growing up by taking them on an adventure. The tone of Dark is, well, darker. Most of the characters are introduced having already experienced loss.

Like, I mean, right there at the very beginning. A man seals a letter, looks at the clock, gets up from his workbench, calmly sets his stool under a support beam, and hangs himself. The show doesn’t really let up from there. There are some funny parts of the series, but only incidentally funny—the name of the game here is the controlled release of twists and truth bombs, the kind that necessitate getting up from the TV and walking to the third-closest grocery store for Q-tips at 11 p.m., just so that you can breathe and feel the ground under your feet. It’s a 10-episode puzzle that just about locks into place by the end, leaving loose enough ends to demand—DEMAND—a second season. (It’s also not such an obvious hit that you’re in any danger of having the show ruined for you anytime you touch an internet-connected device, like with Game of Thrones or Westworld or True Detective.)

Fine, you’re right, I should probably explain more about the plot, but with Dark being such a plot-dependent show, I’m only giving you the bare minimum. The year is 2019. There’s a kid named Jonas, and the man who hanged himself was Jonas’s father. Jonas has just returned to town after a two-month stay in a mental health care facility, and his mom, Hannah, is having an affair with a close family friend, Ulrich the detective, who’s married to the principal of Jonas’s school, Katharina. Katharina and Ulrich have three kids—Magnus, Martha, and Mikkel—who hang out with Jonas and his best friend, Bartosz. And Bartosz and Martha are dating, but Martha and Jonas have an Unspoken Thing, and Jonas’s therapist, Peter, is married to Charlotte, the police chief, and the two of them have a daughter, Franziska, who’s kind of into Magnus, maybe. (This show is probably best understood with string vectors, which makes sense for a show about time travel.)

There are fliers all over town featuring the face of a missing kid, Erik Obendorf, and on Jonas’s first day back, there’s a school assembly about the importance of community and remaining calm, and the gang all decide to grab some flashlights and venture into the woods where Erik disappeared that night. Not to find Erik, but to find his stash spot, where there’s presumably a bunch of weed and pills. (That’s another way in which Dark is a departure from Stranger Things: every decision that affects the plot is at least slightly ignoble; there aren’t any good people, per se.) Mikkel tags along and then disappears into the night, and the next time we see him, he’s somehow in the year 1986.

I won’t say much more, but I will say that you aren’t necessarily after one person or thing in Dark; the mystery is in how this particular universe works. There is no Lovecraftian horror hugging the cave walls, swallowing time. Dark is more about the banality of evil—how personal desires bump up against Being A Good Person, and the woeful cycle that self-interest and neglect creates. People are the monsters here, in other words. There is one villain, a priest named Noah with a full-back tattoo, but by the end of the series, you might wonder how much more villainous he is than everyone else.

But again, it’s not a question of who did it—tore open a hole in space-time, that is––or at least that’s not the main issue.

Before you meet anyone in Winden, you’re primed with a quote from Albert Einstein: “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” From there, Dark slowly expands what is possible, both to its characters and its viewers (“Here is the year 1986, where there are Walkmans and crimped hair floats on the breeze, and also, here is your father, as a tween”), and examines how these people react to what they learn, or as often, what they remember. It’s not always fantastic—at some point, people start doing things because the plot needs them to, but even that is part of the puzzle.

Because it involves time travel, Dark toys around with the Baby Hitler problem, but it also addresses the massive, general question of why—the existence, or nonexistence, of free will. Do we make decisions based upon prior knowledge, or on instinct? Does it matter? Because what does instinct consist of, if not prior knowledge? These are all big, difficult ideas that the characters, and you, have to contend with while flitting back and forth across parallel moments in time.

Memory, it turns out, is as supernatural as the course of time affected by the agency of choice. Dark asks you to decide, if you can, which is more frightening: the unknown, or knowing too much.