If you haven’t watched the first season of Dark and would rather not know what happens in it, turn back now. This post contains spoilers. Like, right after this sentence.
Dark is a German drama on Netflix about time travel and confused teenagers. But if you were constructing a course about its themes, Item 1 on the syllabus would be the variable concepts of responsibility and free will; Item 1a would be multigenerational trauma. I guess I no longer need to describe Dark as grim—central to the plot is the unexplainable disappearance of two young boys in the small town of Winden—but the show’s preoccupation is whether or not we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes.
Other salient questions: How far in the past? How past is the past? How changeable are the present and future? There’s a nuclear power plant in Winden; in the first episode, a fuzzy radio broadcast congratulates the town on never having an incident. Yet every 30 years or so, birds fall from the sky and dead livestock dot the fields.
Dark is an extremely plot-driven show best understood in flow charts and infographics, but to attempt a brief summary: There’s a blond kid named Jonas. He just returned from a mental health facility in France, where he was getting clinical help dealing with the emotional and mental aftereffects of his father’s suicide. Jonas returns to school to find things not as he left them—his best friend is now dating the girl Jonas finally kissed last summer before his nervous breakdown, and the guy he used to score weed from vanished without a trace a few days before. The town is in a real tizzy about it; there are a lot of community meetings and curfews are put in place. Also, Jonas’s mom is having an affair with Ulrich, the lead detective on the missing persons case, who’s married to the principal at Jonas’s school. Ulrich’s son Mikkel also goes missing, and over the course of 10 really gripping episodes, you come to realize that Mikkel was also Jonas’s dead father “Michael,” and that control—like the boundaries between past, present, and future—is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Dark returns to Netflix for its second season this week, so I’ve enlisted my colleague and fellow Dark fan Meg Schuster to help unspool some of the key events of the show, address lingering questions from the first season, and otherwise ramble about determinism.—Micah Peters
Peters: SO. Megan. My first question is also my most annoying: Is time linear? Or is everything happening at once, across infinite timelines? IS THERE A DARK CINEMATIC UNIVERSE? Please say no.
Megan Schuster: Micah! I’m so glad you asked, and I just want to say off the bat that I’m both thrilled and preemptively terrified of opening my mind back up to the Galaxy Brain of television shows. But here we go.
In the Dark universe, time is an obsession. Every character is touched by the Matrix fluctuations that occur in the present (2019), past (1986), and super-past (1953) timelines. In the show’s “present day,” H.G. Tannhaus, a Winden watch-repairer-turned-apocalypse-machine-maker-turned-writer (same) explains his theory of time to the Stranger, a hooded figure who later reveals himself to be the future version of Jonas. To illustrate his idea, Tannhaus uses the image of a light shining into a dark, infinitely large room. Without interruption, the light should continue on its path indefinitely. Toss an obstacle into the mix, though—something rational like, oh, I don’t know, a wormhole—and all bets are off.
Having recently delved back into the Dark texts, my instinct is to say that all of these timelines are happening at once. Despite how difficult that is to wrap my limited human brain around, it somehow feels like the tidiest solution? Take, for example, the way characters time-hop, the fact that Senile Helge could confront Middle-Aged Helge in 1986 and not have the world implode, and even the realization that Michael (a.k.a. grown-up Mikkel/Jonas’s father) and the original Mikkel had to have existed in the same timeline—in the same town—for at least 11 years. It all makes me think these loops are plodding along on some predetermined schedule, hitting all the right notes in concert with one another. But is that theory too easy? (“Easy” obviously being a relative term since we’re talking about time travel here.)
Peters: You’re right, I wouldn’t say there’s anything easy about understanding what’s happening in Dark. But let’s expound on “predetermined schedule” because another obsession of the denizens of Winden, or at least of future-Jonas and present-Tannhaus, is the question of whether our decisions between separate courses of action are distinctly our own. At the beginning of the penultimate episode of Season 1, “Everything Is Now,” there’s a long cut of the different temporal versions of all the characters we’ve met so far staring blankly into the camera. I want to stress blankly, because it elevates a really heady Tannhaus voice-over about man’s origins, the meaninglessness of existence, and whether or not we’re all just pawns on a chessboard being moved by forces we can never hope to fully comprehend.
Schuster: Here is where I’d like to jump in and briefly mention how extremely “hits blunt once” Tannhaus’s character is, but also give him kudos for being … almost entirely spot on?
Peters: I mean, as far as we know? The paper trick Tannhaus does is a visual representation of an Einstein-Rosen bridge, which is basically just a guess at how divergent points across space-time might be connected. So if what happens at one point affects all the rest, then does anything that anyone does actually matter? If Jonas pulls back from a kiss with Martha Nielsen and spares his best friend’s feelings instead of following in his mother’s romantic footsteps (which would mean making out with his aunt), does the world as we know it still end? “Is it even possible to change things? Or is time an eternal beast that can’t be defeated?”
Schuster: That first question—which Tannhaus asks in Episode 8—is especially interesting to me heading into the show’s second season, because in Season 1, the answer was largely no. We saw so much of the “present day” plot play out in the first few episodes that each trip back in time seemed designed to show us how we got there. Ulrich had to travel back to 1953 and bludgeon a Young Helge (essentially trying to “kill baby Hitler”) for Middle-Aged Helge to turn into a pawn who could be easily manipulated by a stronger presence (more on that in a bit). Future Jonas couldn’t let Present Jonas out of the bunker in the final episode because then Future Jonas couldn’t complete his mission. Any time a character gets an original idea— Present Jonas trying to bring a Young Mikkel back to the present; Old Helge attempting to reason with his younger self—there’s a force there to stop them.
But toward the end of the season, two puppet masters revealed themselves: Claudia Tiedemann, who controlled the town’s nuclear power plant for years, and in the 2019 timeline resides in a creepy Unabomber-like basement, and Noah, the non-religious priest who possesses a talent for manipulation. Noah convinces Middle-Aged Helge to kidnap children so he can use them to test a time machine. And Claudia incepts Future Jonas to think he’s actually shutting the wormhole down, when in fact his actions cause it.
Both have their own agendas: Noah, in a recruitment-style conversation with Jonas’s friend (and Claudia’s grandson) Bartosz Tiedemann, says that there are light forces and dark forces vying for control of time travel; he claims to be on the side of the light (though that is extremely up for debate, given that he kills children to achieve his ends). Claudia is a bit more of a mystery, though her motivations seem to be tied up in her former role within the power plant.
I want to hear your thoughts on this idea of predetermination, Micah, and whether you think Noah and Claudia have control over this world, or some kind of extra information that we don’t. But also, given the screen time Noah has in the Season 2 trailer, I also wanted to ask you: What do you think his role is in all of this?
Peters: Well I was gonna say that in the beginning, it seems as though there are a lot of people doing stuff for no other reason than because the plot says so. Eventually, we come to find that Noah sort of wants to be the plot, via a choice of a back tattoo:
Schuster: Perhaps the only back tat that could rival Ben Affleck’s.
Peters: Yeah Noah’s is extremely less … Spencer’s Gifts. Anyway, Noah is probably definitely not to be trusted. He dresses like a priest but he’s actually a hermeticist. Without getting too into the weeds about it: He believes that God gave one true theology to man long ago, and that all the world’s religions are like denominations of the same faith. He also believes the world is doomed, and that the completion of his time machine can save it. That’d be a noble endeavor if it weren’t for the fact that, you know, it necessitates kidnapping and experimenting on kids.
Still, though—regardless of what we know about how or why Claudia wields her soft power—I don’t really love the idea of any one changeable human person deciding the fate of the world. Universe? Multiverse? Are we even clear about what exactly is on the line here?
Schuster: We are certainly not! At least I’m not. Since we really only see how all of this time-hopping mumbo-jumbo affects Winden, it’s unclear whether there’s been any impact on the rest of civilization. It seems impossible that there wouldn’t be, and yet, Winden is so insular—and has been for generations—that we have to at least entertain the idea that it’s largely been contained.
I suspect we’ll find out more about this in Season 2, though, because the final scene of the first season shows Jonas being spat out into the future—the year 2052, to be exact—and it appears as though we’re in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world. Given how nuclear catastrophes tend to work (I just finished watching the wonderful HBO series Chernobyl, so I feel pretty confident in my expertise on this matter), there’s no way the damage is contained to Winden. Or Germany. Or probably even Europe. I don’t expect we’ll stray too far beyond Winden this season, but we might get some insight into Noah’s and Claudia’s larger plots. I mean, there’s really no point in “harnessing time” if your machinations affect only one small German town.
Another interesting wrinkle to the future plot comes from the last line of Season 1. When Jonas is sprung forward into 2052, he’s met by an armored truck full of what look like guerrilla forces. They’re all masked—though I must say, quite poorly for an area that’s crawling with radiation. (Again, I’m an expert.)
A woman steps down from the truck and approaches Jonas. He asks her what year it is. She stares him down, and then, right before knocking him out with the butt of her gun, says, “Welcome to the future.” Micah. MICAH. How does she know she’s in “the future”? Do people in 2052 all know about time travel? Is this what we have to look forward to in 33 years?
Peters: So you’re sure we’re in 2052 and not further in the future? I wasn’t—when Helge and Jonas switch places across a time rift between the year 1953 and the weird wallpaper room in 1986, respectively, right before Future Jonas sets off his time machine, doesn’t that mean he could’ve ended up anywhere? Anywhen.
But still, whenever he ended up, it’s definitely on the other side of an apocalyptic event. My guess is this season we’ll see exactly what that event was, and whether reversing it, or ensuring that it happens, is the quote-unquote right thing to do. What if the rest of the world survives because of what happened to Winden? What if saving Winden means the end of everything else? I mean, otherwise, I can’t figure what the point of the 2052 (?) timeline would be.
Schuster: When Season 1 wrapped up, it felt like they purposefully kept the year of the future foggy because, outside of the 33-year loops, that plot really could have come at any time. (Netflix has since said that it’s 2052.) The important part isn’t the year, it’s that we get closer to answering the overarching “What’s the point” question.
As you wrote when the show first came out, Season 1 was so plot-driven that we didn’t get much in the way of broader scope. So much energy was concentrated on keeping characters straight and setting up plot developments that it could only hint at Larger Ideas at work. Now that the table is set and characters’ motivations have been laid out, it’s time to more closely examine those themes.
About a minute into the trailer, white letters flash across a black background: EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. That’s the idea that the first season set up. Season 2’s responsibility is explaining why that connection matters.