Tardy to the Party: Dark

This is the first time I’ve written the introduction of an article after I’ve already completed the rest of it, a situation with the paradoxical result of my end being your beginning, which happens to suit this particular piece. I also decided not belabor you with my customary party analogies this time around because (1) I haven’t been able to come up with anything sufficiently appropriate and (2) I’ve typed nearly 4,000 words already, so the article is arguably lengthy enough.

Let’s get right to it, then.

Dark is a Netflix original series that debuted on December 1, 2017. The second season was released about a year and a half later in June of 2019, and the final season came out on June 27, 2020 (an important date in the show itself). I found myself drawn to it from the start, a misfit moth captivated by the strange darkness promised by season one’s cryptic trailer.

I watched the first season shortly after its release, probably during Christmas break from school, making me roughly on time for the party. But when the second season became available last summer, I somehow didn’t get around to it (most likely I was distracted by my big, two-week trip to England…planning it in June, experiencing it in July, and basking in the afterglow of my travels in August). Because the story is quite complex, I knew I’d have to rewatch the first season before delving into the second, and once school started in September, I didn’t have the time (or energy) to give it the adequate amount of attention it required; it would have to wait. Months later, as the school year was wrapping up, I heard that the third/final season was being released at the end of June. At last, the time had come. After giving myself a few weeks to recover from the emotionally and psychologically draining experience of virtual teaching, I dove right in.

So my tardiness is all over the place in this instance—I was only about a month tardy watching the first and third seasons, and a little over a year tardy for the second.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I’m not a binge watcher. I never have been. I like to give myself a chance to process what I’ve seen in an episode, to sit with whatever was presented and think about it before moving on to the next part. I managed two episodes a day when it came to rewatching the first season because I had seen it already (I was pleasantly surprised by how much I remembered), but slowed down when I crossed over to the second, settling on a reasonable pace of one episode per day. And now that I’ve made it through the entire series, I’d make that argument that, my personal preferences aside, if ever there was a series that would be difficult to binge, this is it. With a massive cast of characters that are shown at multiple stages of their lives and action taking place across several different time periods, a great deal of information is imparted upon the viewer in each episode. I’m not sure one could binge an entire season and be able to effectively absorb all of the minutiae vital to the story. There’s also the fact that the subject matter is, well, pretty dark. I don’t know about you, but even a true-crime obsessed, horror-loving girl like me can only take so much in one sitting.

The decision to binge or not is entirely up to you, of course. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you…

Before I lead you into the Darkness of episode one, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ariadne. Perhaps you’ve heard of her—daughter of King Minos and half-sister to the Minotaur, she helped the hero Theseus on his quest to end Athens’ annual 14-person sacrifice to the half-bull, half-human creature by killing it. She not only armed Theseus, she provided him with a ball of thread and instructed him to tie the end to the entrance of the labyrinth in which the Minotaur resided so he would be able to find his way out of the maze once he defeated the beast. It’s universally agreed that he emerged from the labyrinth successful, though mythology varies on what happened next. Some versions of the story have him marrying Ariadne and taking her back to Athens, while others have him abandoning her on an island on his way home (either by his own choice, by accident, or because the Greek god Dionysus demanded it). The latter path diverges into even more possible fates for Ariadne including: (a) taking her own life by hanging herself from a tree, distraught over being abandoned by her new husband, (b) being killed by Perseus, (c) being killed by Artemis, (d) finding herself happily married to Dionysus. The good news is that Ariadne usually ends up being granted goddess-status and immortality by Zeus one way or another (in case you’re wondering how that works in the versions where she dies, Dionysus simply ends up making a quick trip down to Hades to retrieve her when the circumstances require it).

I’ve always loved Ariadne. In fact, back when I wrote fan fiction (try not to laugh), I used “Ariadne” as part of my pen name. Imagine my delight when I discovered that both Ariadne and labyrinths are recurring themes throughout Dark (keep your eye out for images of labyrinths hanging on walls in the background). And though you should be able to glean the basics of her story from various scenes, I felt like I had an advantage over the average viewer who probably wasn’t familiar with her, so I wanted to help you out a little by sharing her tale.

And now, on to the show itself. Try to keep up—it jumps around a lot, which can be overwhelming, especially in the premiere where the viewer is being introduced to everything and everyone for the first time. I’ve done my best to be as clear as possible, and as a result I’ve had to do some of my own editing, stitching together a few related scenes that are actually presented separately, in order to cut down on the number of jumps.

Here goes nothing…

Episode one, titled “Secrets,” begins with an ending…and I don’t think it spoils anything to comment on how fitting that is. Because the final episode of the series ends with a beginning. Actually, on second thought, I guess I’m bending the truth a bit—the episode actually starts with a quote from Einstein and is followed by a voiceover of a man waxing poetic about time as the camera takes us into a bunker full of assorted weapons, with one wall covered in photographs. We don’t know it yet, but these are photos of the characters we’re going to meet throughout the course of the season; some are single images, while others depict characters at different stages of their lives, either as teenagers and adults, or as children, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens. The photographs are linked to each other by pieces of thread, producing a web of connections between individuals that we can’t possibly begin to understand at this point.

It’s funny—it didn’t occur to me until I typed the previous sentence that these threads could be a veiled reference to Ariadne. Huh. Very interesting. Aren’t you glad I told you about her? That information is coming in handy already…

The bunker is then replaced by an exterior shot of a house in late June of 2019, bringing us to the “ending” I mentioned. Inside, a man carefully seals an envelope in his attic studio, then resolutely hangs himself from the rafters (another Ariadne reference?). As his body fights against imminent death, the camera zooms in on the envelope he carefully placed next to a photograph. “Do not open before November 4, 10:13pm” it instructs, a morbid message that mocks the traditional “Do not open before Christmas” tags on presents, especially since it sits next to a framed picture of him and his family standing in front of a Christmas tree.

The next thing we know, a young man bolts up in bed. He’s out of breath and distressed. Was the suicide just a nightmare? The question hangs in the air as he pops a prescription pill and makes an effort to slow his breathing.

Cut to the opening credits.

I need to pause here and convey a deep appreciation for the credits—they’re an unexpected mix of hauntingly beautiful and deeply disturbing video clips/images portraying different moments from the season as seen through a kaleidoscope of sorts. This effect distorts otherwise normal objects into grotesque parodies of themselves that both attract and repel the viewer while the dreamy, melancholic song “Goodbye” by Apparat plays over the curious collage, adding to the viewer’s sense of foreboding. Each season’s credits include images/video that are specific to that season, though the song remains the same, suggesting that while some things change, others remain constant. The image below is my favorite one from the first season (possibly my favorite from all three versions of the credits) because it features one of the few items that naturally lends itself to the kaleidoscope effect, remaining identifiable while creating a satisfying geometric pattern.

After the final image of the credits fades away, we return to the house from the beginning. It’s the morning of November 4, the day that the letter is supposed to be opened. The young man who had the nightmare, Jonas, comes downstairs and notices that the electricity is out. He calls out to his mom to let her know, unaware that she’s currently having sex in her bedroom. Even though she’s annoyed by the interruption, her partner is understanding and finishes up. As the couple says their goodbyes, it becomes increasingly clear that their relationship is a secret, a fact punctuated by the man’s choice of exit—he climbs down vines growing on the side of the house without being seen by Jonas.

This is Hannah and Ulrich.

Jonas leaves and proceeds to bike down empty streets wearing what will become his ubiquitous yellow raincoat, pausing at an intersection to study the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant before taking a moment to examine the flier on a nearby pole, a missing poster of a teenage boy named Erik. Meanwhile, Ulrich jogs home through the woods and we are given a glimpse of the ominous-looking Winden Caves.

Oddly, Jonas goes on to meet up with his therapist in a different part of the woods (What? Why?) and they discuss how he’s doing; it turns out that his father really did die by suicide in June, and he’s spent the past couple of months in some kind of mental institution as a result. He’s understandably still angry about his father’s death, especially since he doesn’t realize that his father left a note, which has been secretly kept in a box by his grandmother Ines. Throughout the rest of the episode, we’ll occasionally return to poor Ines looking longingly at the envelope, impatiently waiting for the prescribed time to arrive so she can finally read the contents within.

At this point we meet Ulrich’s family—his wife Katharina, his teenage children Martha and Magnus, and his pre-teen son Mikkel. It’s the first day of school, stereotypically hectic with each child being difficult in his/her own way: Martha refuses to eat breakfast as she studies her lines (we don’t know it yet, but she’s playing the titular character in the play Ariadne), Magnus sulkily searches the house for his black hoodie, and Mikkel stubbornly ignores his mother’s pleas to change into a more school-appropriate outfit.

Meanwhile, Jonas is already at school. He’s standing alone, watching his peers disaffectedly from afar until his friend Bartosz shows up. He tells Jonas not to worry, assuring him that everyone thinks he was in Paris for two months on some kind of student exchange program, even though it seems like they all know his secret. In the end, it takes a little effort, but Bartosz eventually entices Jonas into the building with some words of encouragement.

Next, we visit the police station, where the chief of police (Charlotte) is being confronted by Erik’s parents, who are unimpressed with her efforts to locate their missing boy. Ulrich arrives just in time to diffuse the situation, promising the parents that the police will find their son, then sends them on their way. Later, when Charlotte and Ulrich review the evidence, it becomes clear that they don’t have much to go on. And Ulrich becomes upset when Charlotte implies that this case might have something to do with his own brother, who went missing years ago when they were both kids.

Back at school, random teenage drama ensues. Magnus sneaks a joint, a seemingly goody-goody girl named Franziska surprises him by boldly stealing a puff, there’s an assembly about the missing boy, and Jonas learns that Martha and Bartosz are dating (and is obviously shocked and upset by that fact, though Bartosz remains blissfully oblivious of the awkward glances they exchange). In class, Franziska does a presentation about black holes while Jonas and Bartosz consider the possibility that Erik’s stash of weed might still be at Winden Caves. They decide an investigation is in order and make plans with Martha and Magnus to go to the caves and find out.

Between these school scenes we meet a few new characters. There’s Regina, the classy, uptight proprietor of the stylish Winden Hotel, falling behind on her bills because no one wants to stay in a town with an open missing child case. (For the record, I never understood why anyone would run a hotel like that in a place like Winden…it’s one of the few questions that remains unanswered at the end of the series. The hotel just doesn’t fit in there and I have no doubt it would fail under the best of circumstances; not to be mean, but Winden and the surrounding area doesn’t seem like it has much to offer visitors, especially visitors with the means to afford a place like that.)

There’s also Jana, Ulrich’s elderly mother, who tries to convince him that she’s seen something out of the ordinary in the forest. She produces the empty wrapper of a Raider bar (the German version of Twix) and reminds him that it was his brother’s favorite candy. She thinks Erik’s disappearance is somehow connected to her son Mads’ disappearance, that events are repeating themselves and everything is like it was 33 years ago.

That brings us to Helge, a sad old man with dementia sitting alone in his room at Winden’s nursing home, muttering the same phrase over and over—it appears he agrees with Jana’s assessment.

This is where we finally get a better look at the creepy child’s room from the trailer. The walls are covered in aqua wallpaper decorated with adorable cartoon woodland creatures, an assortment of childish items cover a desk, a stuffed panda sits in a chair, and milk and a single cookie remain untouched on a tray. Erik is lying on the bottom section of a bunk bed, his hands over his ears in an attempt to block the sound of a TV blasting the music video for Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” The whole scene is disturbing, but becomes infinitely more so when we see a shot of the entire room, which includes a contraption resembling an electric chair in its center. That’s certainly not a good sign.

A few more scenes come and go: Hannah and Ulrich flirt over the phone, Hannah performs massage therapy on the man who runs the local power plant, and we revisit poor Ines, sitting in the dark as she listens to a nasty voicemail from her daughter-in-law and watches the clock, waiting to open her dead son’s letter (she does eventually read it, right on time).

There are two main events that occur that night—the parents’ meeting at the school concerning Erik, and the group of teens going to the caves to look for Erik’s marijuana. Both are standard fare for the most part, until the kids’ harmless quest takes an unexpected turn. When booming noises suddenly emanate from the caves, branches start to break nearby as if someone is in the forest with them, and their flashlights all inexplicably blink in strobe-like patterns, the friends become frightened and decide to run. At some point Jonas becomes separated from everyone else and has a vision of his father dripping in black goo as he calmly says his name, which scares him even more. It’s pouring rain by the time they regroup under a bridge, but they’re not all present and accounted for. One of them is missing. Mikkel, the younger brother of Martha and Magnus who tagged along because his babysitter was sick, is gone.

The teenagers all call their parents, who race to the scene to make sure they’re ok. While Ulrich runs into the woods towards the caves yelling his son’s name, the other parents attempt to comfort their children. Jonas and Magnus seem to be the most deeply affected by the events, each silently blaming themselves for the younger boy’s disappearance—Jonas for losing track of Mikkel as they ran away from the caves, and Magnus for not looking after his brother.

A police investigation immediately commences and lasts throughout the night until a body is found. Ulrich arrives at the scene prepared for the worst, but as he examines the corpse half-buried by leaves, he comes to a startling conclusion. It’s not Mikkel. It’s not Erik either. It’s another child.

The episode ends with a return to the creepy room. While another cheerful ‘80s music video plays on the TV, a gagged Erik is carefully strapped into the electric chair-looking contraption by a figure whose identity is hidden by his long, hooded coat. After placing a coin hanging from a red cord around Erik’s neck, the figure clicks the contraption’s final piece into place and the screen goes black.

Everything about this show is exceptionally well done—the writing, the acting, the direction, the score, the settings—they’re all bordering on perfection in my opinion. It’s the most ambitious show I’ve ever seen, and is thoroughly impressive in its ability to deliver. I can’t tell you how many times I asked myself things like: “How could they possibly answer all of questions they’ve posed? How are they going to tie up all these loose ends in a way that will make sense? How will they manage to explain away the all the impossible aspects of the story?” The first season is relatively tame (and simple) compared to seasons two and three, so I don’t think I started seriously having reservations about where the story was going until I got to the second season. Because it had become increasingly clear that the show’s ending would be everything. Luckily, the conclusion addressed all of my concerns; I found it completely and utterly satisfying.

Dark is a wonderfully complex fusion of ancient Greek tragedies, police procedurals, and quantum physics lessons, with shades of the movies Donnie Darko and Triangle, as well as the series Stranger Things. And yet, it also stands apart from these works, a surprisingly innovative show that takes already existing ideas to create something entirely unique. Philosophical views are debated, scientific conundrums are tested, and existential questions are contemplated, all in a show that begins in what appears to be a small, ordinary town full of small, ordinary people. But that simplicity ends up being an illusion. The reality involves an intricate tapestry of relationships, woven with great craftmanship, each thread carefully placed so that it follows the pattern exactly, not only creating a series of endless loops, but somehow managing to include a hidden beginning and end. Unfortunately, unlike Penelope’s shroud, which she would never fishish (Ooooh—another reference to Greek mythology!), this masterpiece has been completed. There are no more connections to uncover, no more trips to the past or future to see what characters are like at different points of their lives…but that’s not to say that the work can no longer be appreciated. Closer inspection of the piece reveals hidden clues hinting at the final reveal as early as the first 5 minutes of the first episode, and a rewatch of the entire series allows the viewer to cultivate an even deeper admiration for the writers/creators, who meticulously planned every last detail so exquisitely.

As you can tell from this ridiculously long (and hopefully well-written) article, I enjoyed this show enormously, possibly more than I’ve enjoyed any other show I’ve watched. It’s that good. Of all the shows I’ve written about, this was the best, and I hope my readers will watch it. If you decide to give it a go, I have some suggestions for you based on my own experience:

  1. I’ve neglected to mention this up until now, but the show is in German. Please don’t let the fact that it’s in a foreign language prevent you from watching it. The default setting on Netflix presents the series dubbed in English—I recommend that upon starting the first episode you go to settings and change them to the following: Audio – German (Original), Subtitles – English. The first time I watched the first season I did so with it dubbed; I was entirely unimpressed with the voice actors responsible for the dubbing. They weren’t all bad, but some of their performances left a lot to be desired. And while I wouldn’t go as far to say that this ruined scenes, I did find myself taken out of the moment when a character’s tone of voice didn’t match what was going on. The original German voices and subtitles made for a much more fulfilling viewing.
  2. You might want to make yourself a list of characters; it can be difficult to keep track of them at first because there are so many…it gets even more confusing when the show goes back to 1986 and we see all the adult characters (in the present) as teenagers. I had some issues with this myself the first time around, so I decided to try making a list this time and I found it immensely helpful. I just wrote down the basics—name, relationships (married to, parent of, child of, etc.), and job. Rest assured, it gets easier to remember who’s who as you progress through the series, but it can be overwhelming in the beginning.
  3. I recommend visiting a couple of websites to help you process the series because it can be a lot to take in. I found the official Dark website and this description of characters and where they are/what they’re doing in each season particularly useful to that end. WARNING: Both of these sites contain spoilers, so proceed with caution. You can avoid spoilers on the official Dark website if you follow the directions (only click on the specific season/episode you want information about). As for the second link, it includes information on all three seasons and should not be visited until you’ve completed the series (unless you don’t mind spoilers).

Believe it nor not, I’ve barely scratched the surface of my deep admiration for this show. But with secrets lurking around every corner, I dare not go on any further. Dark is a thinking man’s/woman’s show that’s so much more than it appears to be at first glance, one that is well-worth the time, energy, and attention necessary to give it its due. So take a deep breath, gather your courage, and as you enter Winden, remind yourself that you’re not alone. I’m right there with you in the dark.

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