The thing about Dark is you are not ever really going to understand it.
You can try—lord knows that people have, creating elaborate flowcharts of characters and timelines in attempts to make some sense of things.
But with the arrival of the third and final season of the German-language Netflix original—well, take a representative early quote as your guide. “The question isn’t what time,” a definitely-dead-but-somehow-alive-and-also-suddenly-cyberpunk character tells another. “The question is what world.”
Insofar as Dark has a central plot, it’s the love story of Jonas and Martha, who met as moony teens in their small, fictional hometown of Winden. Time travel and nuclear hijinks ensued, and they have subsequently been revealed to be aunt and nephew. This has, er, not really put a damper on things.
The show’s first two seasons were almost proudly confusing, moving viewers—and an increasingly large number of characters—between the present, the 1920s, ’50s, ’80s, and a deeply unfortunate post-apocalyptic 2052.
In Season 3, we arrive not merely in a different time—now, it’s a different timeline, to which Jonas was transported in the closing moments of Season 2, just as his own timeline went to crap courtesy of a meltdown at the ominous local power plant (sure!). In this alternate Winden, everything is similar—same school, same ominous power plant chugging along in the background, same creepy-ass woods—but not quite right: characters have different romantic partners, different homes, and even, egads, bangs. Here, as in all the other Windens we’ve seen, things aren’t going very well: Unidentifiable kids keep turning up dead, and a trio of strangers has taken to traipsing around and garrotting people. All this is set against a series of elderly figures—older versions of the main cast members, principally—who clutch the lapels of any young person they can find to exhort them to either end or perpetuate the interlocking timelines, which, depending on who, when, and which when you’re talking about, is either the cause of good (“light”) or evil (“dark”). At the season’s core is a fundamental mystery: What was “the origin”—the exact point when all the timelines started crossing? It is, as they say, a lot.
(It is probably worth noting very briefly that the show is also an exercise in pretending you cannot think of any other conceivable thing to worry about than the fate of a small town and/or your aunt while time traveling to and fro across 20th-century Germany, even as people start turning up in military garb.)
Jonas is confused perhaps even more often than his audience, stumbling around caves and log cabins and bunkers and asking whole generations of townsfolk just what in the Sam Hill is going on. (With precious few exceptions, they don’t know, either.) You can crush yourself under the mythology, covering whole walls of your home with yarn tacked from points A to B to, uh, X Æ A-12. But you can also just, you know, see what’s on the other side of the tunnel.
Dark is the kind of show where you stop keeping track of murders. There is, by my estimate, not a single Windenizen who is not either a murderer, murder victim, adulterer, or secret love child. For critics, the third season screeners arrived with a list of some 32 different plot points not to be spoiled. “You’ve gone insane,” characters are fond of telling each other, and it’s never particularly uncalled for.
(Not that it’s not a show that lends itself to spoilers very easily, anyway. “Quantum entanglement,” one character summarizes after an absolutely incoherent explanation of the conflicting timelines.)
But I bring some cheerful tidings along with the recommendation that if you choose to watch Dark, have some ibuprofen nearby: This is not, thank goodness, Lost. There are answers. The show might be tying itself up into a bow, but it’s one it manages to untie in the end. So don’t sweat the small stuff: You can study the show’s official family tree, or you can spend the bulk of the season having as much of an idea of what’s happening as poor Jonas does—you’ll get there in the end. But then, of course, what could be more fitting for Dark than to boot it all right back up again in search of answers?