Credit where due. Dark is one of the best shows I have ever watched. I had put up a post about Season 1 a while back, and it launched pretty close to Stranger Things – so most of the air was taken away. They share similar first episodes, with a child disappearance. By episode’s end, Dark decides to just go for it and drop time travel on the table. I remember thinking that it was risky, given that normally only works well in comedies (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted) and that most sci-fi stories get stuck in the mud (Lost).
Oh boy was I wrong.
It instead spends 3 jam-packed seasons, meticulously playing out card after card of a deck of amazing storytelling, in what often appears to be a random order. Each and every twist and action has a reason. Some know more than others based on where they are in the overall timeline, and sometimes, they are just a few minutes apart. The thing I enjoyed the most was that the series respects the viewer, if the viewer respects the series. You can’t watch it out the corner of your eye, you’ll miss too much.
I should also mention that the penultimate episode manages to close off nearly every single question posed. The finale wonderfully closes the entire story, making the arcs feel worthwhile. I cannot recall the last time any show did that.
Some Spoilers Ahead
The comparison’s to Lost are apt. Both are sci-fi stories where character decisions have to be taken on faith of the underlying story. There’s the mystery box (literally in both), and the character motivations/allegiances seem to shift over time. But Lost stopped thinking before writing in Season 3 (the cages) and went full reactive mode from then on. Dark never strays.
There’s an old idea about time travel that asks what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandparents. In most cases, that means you die, multi-verse be damned. Dark doesn’t actually let you do it, instead it shows the repercussions of you trying. Helge’s disfigurement is the present is caused by someone going back in time trying to kill him, to prevent his future self. But it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point. Time is immutable.
In practice, that means that the series covers nearly every action and consequence, just not in a linear fashion. People end up being their own fathers, or grandparents. It feels more like a close ecosystem of cause/effect. At the end of Season 1 you get to see part of the larger picture with Adam providing a more menacing viewpoint. Season 2 is a marvel to watch through, and ends with a twist that is evident when you look back. Season 3 deals with the duality / mirror effect of all this time travel impacts. Close to what Fringe delivered, but a better execution.
Interesting bit is the way season 3 is filmed. The mirror effect is practically applied – stairs that went left go right, right handed people use their left hand. Scars change. It’s like an uncanny valley, where you know something is wrong but not quite sure what. The story takes center stage, and you get the perception that the characters are but characters in a play – or pieces on a chessboard. That would be accurate, given the themes of determinization.
I also want to give a massive shoutout to the music in this series. I listen to the opening credits everytime. And each episode carries some poignant song that reflects the themes of that episode. I often found myself finding that song outside of the series, just to get some time to reflect.
The series gets so complex that Netflix has an accompanying webapp to help out. Really well done, as you can set the spoilers to only apply to the episodes you’ve watched. It comes with a timetravel timeline too, which makes a world of difference in understanding how everything fits together.
I’d be remiss not to mention that the series is filmed in German. There are English voiceovers, or subtitles, to your leisure. Both are of great quality. Given the visual aspects are important to the story, I prefer the voiceovers.
I am setting expectations a tad high, but to me this is the new gold standard in sci-fi story telling. Heck, just story telling in a visual medium.