‘Dark’, Where Nothing is What (or When) it Seems
My ongoing and somewhat obsessive journey into German television began about a year ago when someone recommended I watch 16 hour-long episodes of Babylon Berlin on Netflix. That show, huge in both ambition and scope, brought to us by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), sparked a fire that continues to this day. Netflix dropped seasons 1 and 2 of Babylon Berlin at the same time. Season 3 doesn’t come until later this year. Feeling gutted and empty in the aftermath, I algorithmically stumbled onto a show called Dark. The only thing I’d heard was that it was some sort of German Stranger Things. Not quite. Forgive the highfalutin reference, but Dark is more like Fitzcaraldo-era Werner Herzog directing Donnie Darko.
But let’s step back in time for a moment, which is what the show asks us to do.
Our journey into the world of Dark begins in the seemingly idyllic (and completely fictional) German town of Winden. The vibe from the get go in Season 1/Episode 1 is very much procedural. Missing children. Weighty tones. Rain. Think Broadchurch. It begins in June 2019 with a man named Michael in his early 40s hanging himself in his art studio. There’s a note, but his mother hides it. Cut to later that fall (this fall?) when Michael’s teenage son Jonas returns from a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Jonas and his friends need weed, but unfortunately the local drug dealer kid, Erik, has been missing for weeks. But what about his stash?
Like some European Scooby Doo crew, the teens (and one pre-teen little brother) set out to find the missing weed and soon find themselves in a creepy cave in the woods. Of course. Some unexpected noises and lights freak the kids out, they run, and in the chaos soon realize that the little brother (Mikkel) is missing. The episode ends with one of those ominous scenes of the serial killer-like room where the faceless monster straps a kid, who looks like Erik the drug dealer, into some kind of torture contraption.
Nothing new. Seen it before. Not bad but nothing revolutionary, right? The basic-seeming premise didn’t pull me in immediately. The pilot has mood to spare and it’s all shot so beautifully, things really get going in episode 2. Thank goodness I kept watching.
From this point on it’s damn near impossible to talk about Dark without giving away some serious spoilers. But, let’s just say this and look away if you must, but by the end of Episode 2, Mikkel (the missing little brother) wakes up in the cave, confused and groggy. He gets himself together and heads home. But then he/we discover that it’s not exactly home, it’s 1986. Here we go. The ten episodes of Dark Season 1 do something quite remarkable, they build a world and a mythology that, by the finale, (Episode 10) culminates in a paradigm shift that reshapes everything that came before.
Season 2 of Dark dropped on Netflix a few weeks ago. The timeline leaves us pretty darn close to when season 1 actually begins in Winden. What? Having truly binged Season 1 many months before, I was waiting for this quite impatiently. I was excited. Nervous. Worried that the bar may have been set too high.
Right before diving into Season 2, I watched a trailer that seemed to hint that there would be three seasons, or acts, to this story. That gave me a sense of relief knowing that this wouldn’t have to wrap everything up, but also a rush to think that this middle section had the potential to be the best. No need to spend so much time introducing and setting up like Season 1. No pressure to answer every question. Leave that for the third season (or cycle, as they call it). The Empire Strikes Back. All story. No pressure. Best one by far. On every level (ideas, plot, effects, philosophy) Season 2 improves on the promise of Season 1. They answer some questions. They pose more. And the paradigm shift climax totally flexes on the Season 1 finale, which seemed so bold at the time.
A bit of advice. There are a ton of characters. So many plots/subplots. Timelines. More timelines. Given the time between seasons, I wish I’d gone back and watched Season 1 again before. It took a bit to get my bearings again. There’s a recap. It’s not enough.
In the years before streaming, cord-cutting, etc, many of us had a collective mindfuck and dive down the rabbit hole courtesy of Lost, a network show that took chances on world building and ultimately didn’t stick the landing. That’s ok. The ride was great. But Lost had balls, for good or ill. It stepped up to the plate with no intention of bunting. Swing away. Dark has that same DNA and lives in a world where it can do things Lost never could.
When it comes to pop culture, fun and depth often seem mutually exclusive. Not this time. And yes, it’s subtitled, but come on, so is your life. We call them texts.