Sunday, July 12, 2020

In the Loop: Thoughts on Dark

The era of streaming TV is now about a decade old, and every now and then critics of the form will get to discussing whether it has produced any actual masterpieces. Has the different economic model, the ability to free artists from the constraints of a time slot and the demands of advertisers, resulted in an expansion of what TV is capable of, or have we simply been inundated with a flood of slickly-made good-but-not-great shows? This latter point is an accusation frequently lobbed at Netflix, still the dominant platform for streaming TV, with dozens of original series but, it often feels, very few that one can point at and call enduring, important art. Orange is the New Black, Unbelievable, Master of None, When They See Us... that seems like a fairly comprehensive list. 

When it comes to genre shows, the situation seems even more dire—if you're a fan of science fiction,  fantasy, or horror, has Netflix produced anything that might stay with you and become a touchstone of your cultural life the way Star Trek, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, Firefly, or the new Battlestar Galactica have for people who grew up on broadcast and cable? Sure, everyone loves Stranger Things, but even its biggest fans would have to admit that it is a nostalgia exercise that relies on its talented cast to obscure a growing hollowness at its core. Black Mirror is great, but more of a wave Netflix was smart enough to ride than something it brought into the world. The Netflix MCU, despite kicking off with great promise, sputtered into a wet mess of samey, unexciting storylines. And the platform's myriad adaptations of beloved genre staples—The Umbrella Academy, Locke & Key, Altered Carbon, The Witcher, Lost in Space—have mostly been handsome and entertaining, but also easy to put down. Very little genre television produced by Netflix feels like vital work in its own right—most of these shows come off as riffs on previously-successful material that never quite manage to spark into an independent existence, one that might grab fans and become their dominant metaphor for explaining genre for years to come.

If I had to pick the Netflix genre shows that do achieve this alchemy, even imperfectly, it would be a fairly short list—Russian Doll, The Haunting of Hill House, Sense8. Now we can add Dark, a German-language series whose third and final season was recently added to the platform. I want to immediately clarify that in saying so, I'm not claiming that Dark is a perfect show, or even great TV. On the contrary, it has substantial flaws, and long stretches that I found tedious and hard to get through. But Dark, despite starting off from a familiar, even predictable premise—it is a time travel mystery set in a small town that is tightly-knit but full of secrets—ends up taking its story in directions that are both unexpected and bold. It breaks a lot of the rules of the type of story it tells, and unblinkingly accepts the consequences of choosing to do so. While it's not exactly the type of show one could describe as exciting—it is too gloomy and mournful for that epithet—there's nevertheless something invigorating about a series so willing to go to unexpected places, and especially when it comes from a platform that so rarely delivers that.

Dark kicks off in the summer of 2019, in the small German town of Winden, which sits surrounded by vast and ominous woods, and overlooked by the cooling towers of the local nuclear plant. In its opening scenes, a local man named Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) commits suicide in the attic of his home, leaving a letter which he directs not to be opened until a specific date and time in November of that year. Flashing forward to that day, we meet Michael's teenage son Jonas (Louis Hofmann), who has been struggling emotionally since his father's death, and his wife Hannah (Maja Schöne), who is having an affair with Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), a married man and one of the town's police detectives. That evening, Jonas, his best friend Bartosz (Paul Lux), and Ulrich's two older children Magnus (Moriz Jahn) and Martha (Lisa Vicari) decide to explore the local caves, looking for a stash of drugs left there by local bad boy Erik, who has recently gone missing. Tagging along for the adventures is Magnus and Martha's younger brother Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), and at the caves the group meets the police chief's daughter Franziska (Gina Stiebitz), who had the same idea. A sudden burst of strange lights and sounds coming from the caves causes the children to run and scatter, and when they regroup, Mikkel has disappeared.

One of the most interesting things about Dark is how slowly and deliberately it clues viewers into the full extent of its weirdness. In its opening episodes, the show proceeds like a standard missing child procedural, following Ulrich and his boss, Franziska's mother Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn), as they investigate Mikkel's disappearance and debate whether it has anything to do with Erik, or with another child who vanishes soon after. You get the standard overcast vistas reflecting the grimness of the story's subject matter, the expected family drama as secrets are brought to light by the investigation, the predictable emotional turmoil as long-simmering disputes boil over under the emotional strain of coping with a child's disappearance. Only a few elements suggest that there is more to the story—the strange lights at the caves, the sudden appearance of a mysterious, bedraggled stranger (Will Beinbrink) who checks into the local hotel, most of all, the discovery of the body of another child, dressed in clothes from the 80s but apparently killed only hours before being discovered. When Ulrich tells Charlotte about the disappearance of his younger brother Mads in 1986, most viewers with any genre reading protocols will make an obvious connection, but Dark holds firm to its slow pace of revelation. It isn't until the end of the season's second episode that we see Mikkel wander out of the caves, and not until the next episode that we realize the Winden he's returned to is 33 years in the past. 

Slowly, over the course of the season, more and more details about the McGuffin at Dark's core are revealed. The Stranger starts planting clues in Jonas's path that lead him to discover a passage through the caves which allows him to travel to the past in 33-year increments. In 1986, the new director of the nuclear plant, Claudia (Julika Jenkins), learns of a covered-up accident at the planet months earlier. In 1953, the bodies of children wearing strange clothing are found at the construction site where the plant is to be built. And back in 2019, Ulrich discovers a connection between the disappearances and Helge, the son of the nuclear plant's founder. This confounds Charlotte (who is also married to Helge's son) since Helge is currently a demented old man. But Ulrich insists that a younger version of Helge has been spotted in town. Helge himself keeps blaming the disappearance of the children on someone named Noah, which happens to be the name of a man who meets Charlotte's younger daughter, Elisabeth (Carlotta von Falkenhayn), while walking in the woods. The season takes its time walking viewers through the possibilities that a non-linear murderer might take advantage of, such as the fact that the detectives in 1953 and 2019 immediately suspect that the kill-room where the children were taken is a bunker on Helge's property, but find no evidence there, because the murders actually occurred in the bunker in 1986.

It's a cleverly constructed mystery, but also something of a red herring. The real point of the season isn't to unravel it, but to use its convolutions to illustrate the loop that all of our main characters are trapped in. First and foremost, there is the matter of Mikkel. Once again, most experienced genre viewers will have worked out, some time before Jonas realizes it, that Mikkel and Michael are the same person (and thus that Jonas's tentative romance with Martha is incestuous). It may sound like a criticism of the show to keep saying this, but at least to begin with, the fact that Dark's revelations are predictable feels more like the result of the show properly laying the groundwork for them—as we were saying of The Good Place a few months ago, knowing how to properly seed your twists so that your audience is neither wrongfooted by them, nor bored by waiting for them to arrive, is an art, and one that Dark masters. The importance of Mikkel being Jonas's father isn't in the revelation of a twist, but in the way that it derails Jonas's life, and forces him into an impossible choice—if he goes back to the past to save Mikkel and spare his family anguish, he will be cancelling out his own existence.

The idea that this is a choice, however, is itself something of a misdirection. The most important revelation in Dark's first season comes in its final episode. Jonas, having made the decision to sacrifice himself, arrives at the hospital where Mikkel is being treated, only to be confronted by a younger Helge (Peter Schneider) and Noah (Mark Waschke), who kidnap him and take him to the bunker, where they have been conducting their own time travel experiments with the kidnapped children as unwilling test subjects. Struggling to escape, Jonas hears the Stranger on the other side of the bunker's door, and calls out for help. The Stranger, however, is only there to reveal that he is actually a 33-years-older Jonas, and that he isn't going to help his younger self because he himself wasn't helped. 

Because of its small town setting and its 1980s storyline, Dark originally garnered some comparisons to Stranger Things, but the show it most powerfully reminds me of is actually Twin Peaks. Like that show, Dark is most effective when it combines an investigation into the town's SFnal weirdness with high-strung soap opera shenanigans. Everyone in the town is connected to one another through ties of long-simmering enmity, lust, or love that follow them well into adulthood, and into their children's relationships. The love triangle between Ulrich, Hannah, and the woman he actually married and had children with, Katharina (Jördis Triebel) is shown to have been holding them all in flux for most of their lives. Childhood enmities, for example the resentment held by hotel owner Regina (Claudia's daughter; Bartosz's mother) towards Ulrich and Katharina for bullying her as a child, linger into adulthood and poison relationships that have never managed to move past them. The detective investigating Mads's disappearance, Egon (Claudia's father, Regina's grandfather, Bartosz's great-grandfather) is a dim-witted, easily distracted old man, but when we meet him in 1953, he's upright and dedicated. It takes the length of the series to reveal what has left him so dissipated, and how that dissipation ends up poisoning the lives of others—his daughter's disappointment in him, or the way he hounds the teenage Ulrich for Mads's murder and other crimes while ignoring what's actually happening around him. The dominant tone of Dark is of being held back by the past, by patterns established long before you were born.

None of this would work if Dark wasn't an effective and at times outrageous soap opera. The incestuous connection between Jonas and Martha (and the fact that the Stranger, despite being thirty years older than her, clearly still carries a torch for his lost love) is perhaps the show's most controversial and headline-grabbing soapy trope, but it is matched and even exceeded by some of the adult characters' shenanigans. Ulrich, for example, is a sickeningly brilliant creation, a pillar of the community whose easygoing facade conceals a monumental selfishness, and a quickness to anger, that ultimately lead to his undoing. (Ulrich is, in fact, more the show's protagonist than Jonas in its first season, and his story would be tragic if it weren't mostly his own fault.) Not that Hannah and Katharina fall much short of Ulrich in their willingness to be drawn into psychotic behavior, and when we return to 1986 we learn that the two's streak of outrageous, anti-social behavior isn't a recent development—when Hannah, for example, catches Ulrich and Katharina having sex, she jealously reports them to Egon, claiming that Ulrich was raping Katharina. Other soap opera tropes that recur in the series include blackmail, secret identities, secret queerness, secret cancer diagnoses. But what it all keeps returning to is the way that violence and abuse reverberate through the generations—Katharina is a teenage bully, for example, because her mother is an abusive religious fanatic; but when we return to 1953, we meet Katharina's mother as a scared young girl about to have an abortion, worried that she's going to hell.

Time travel lends itself perfectly to such a theme, and it doesn't take Dark long to reveal that some of these traps are literal loops. Michael, we're told, was always an outsider, never quite able to fit in—a perfect state for a man who lived his life out of time, slowly coming to recognize himself in the child next door. And when the town's denizens in 2019 start traveling to the past, the opportunities for setting in motion mayhem that just happens to be the foundation for their lives in the present only compound themselves. Arriving in 1953, Ulrich encounters Helge as a small child and, having convinced himself that this is the only way to save his brother and his son, viciously attacks him and leaves him for dead. But Helge survives, and his injury and disfigurement put him in the path of Noah, who grooms the traumatized child into his apprentice—so Ulrich's actions ensure the very thing he sought to prevent.

There are more examples of this type (what ends up happening to Katharina, for example, when she also travels to the past to reclaim her son, is both shocking and incredibly bleak), but Dark makes an extra turn of the screw when it confronts Jonas with his future self in its first season finale. We are, after all, accustomed to stories about small towns with dark secrets that have to be untangled by plucky teenage heroes before the darkness at their core can be made right. What Dark ultimately reveals is that Jonas is just as trapped as his ancestors, just as much a part of the loop as they are. It's sad when we meet Ulrich, Hannah, Katharina, and Regina as teenagers and realize that, despite their youthful rebelliousness and determination to escape Winden's gravitational pull, their fate has already been decided. But in our minds, we had already classed them as lost causes. Jonas and his contemporaries were introduced to us as the type of protagonist whose future has not yet been written, who might have agency and the ability to make choices. The revelation of the Stranger's identity forecloses that possibility, and fundamentally alters the nature of the show. The horror on Jonas's face when he learns the Stranger's identity is something worse than a fear of death or suffering. It's the realization that one day he will become the man on the other side of that door, and will choose not to help his younger self, and to let things play out as they always did.

Dark's second season ups the stakes by vaulting Jonas into the future. We quickly learn that in the summer of 2020, some unspecified calamity destroyed Winden (and, eventually, the rest of the world). Jonas, who is seeking to prevent this apocalypse, is under a clock—with the passage in the caves destroyed in the calamity, he needs to find a different way to get back to 2020 before June 27th, the day it occurred (because of the restrictions of the show's form of time travel, which carries travelers forward or back exactly 33 years). Back in 2020, meanwhile, Jonas and Ulrich (who was arrested for attacking Helge in 1953) have been missing for eight months, and their remaining friends and family have been slowly losing their grip on sanity, and slowly realizing the strangeness that has engulfed their lives. Meanwhile, time travel is still happening. The Stranger, as well as an elderly version of Claudia (Lisa Kreuzer) have been using machines powered by a radioactive isotope produced by the 1986 nuclear plant accident to travel independently of the passage in the caves, continuing to set in motion events that will lead to the apocalypse and beyond it.

It's in this season that the show turns the screw yet again by revealing that certain characters and items aren't just trapped in loops, but are in themselves loops. Jonas and Claudia are each other's time travel masters—she teaches him as a young man, and then he teaches the younger version of her, which means that that knowledge has no genesis outside of them. The time machine they both use creates itself—when Jonas brings the completed version of it to a local clockmaker to fix, he produces the version he built thirty years ago from blueprints provided by Claudia, and is able to put the finishing touches on it by looking at its future version (there is, in fact, only one time machine, which exists in two time-displaced versions). That same clockmaker is the author of a book about time travel that was never actually written—he was given a copy of it as a young man, then published it, and then that copy ends up in Jonas and Claudia's hands, and they pass it on to its "author". One of the characters is even revealed to be her own daughter's daughter. The more we learn, in fact, about the hidden connections between the four families at the center of the show's story, the clearer it becomes that their family trees are hopelessly tangled, and may in fact be a single one—a tree that loops back on itself, with no beginning or end. Or, as the characters start to call it, a knot.

It is therefore once again predictable when Noah's master—who calls himself Adam (Dietrich Hollinderbäumer)—is revealed to be yet another, even older, version of Jonas. When the two finally meet, Adam convinces Jonas that he wants to break the loop that has entrapped them both, and to prevent the apocalypse, and dispatches him on what he claims is a necessary mission to achieve this goal. But unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a ruse. The task Jonas is sent on—to prevent Michael's suicide—in fact achieves the opposite goal. Michael, as it turns out, had no designs on killing himself until the future version of his son showed up to tell him that he would. Nor is this the last time something like this will happen. Again and again, characters on the show are directed by someone from the future, often a future version of themselves, along a path that, they're told, will finally break the loop they're trapped in. And again and again, that path ends up leading towards exactly the future the characters were trying to prevent.

This is yet another way in which Dark bucks the conventions of its type of story. In a typical genre tale, when young people discover weirdness—time travel, or aliens, or magic—they become more powerful, and more in control of their story, the deeper they delve into that weirdness. Dark is the exact opposite. The more embedded Jonas and his friends become in time travel shenanigans, the less agency they have, and the easier it is for future versions of themselves to manipulate them, until some of them finally give up—Magnus, Franziska, and Bartosz, for example, end up working for Adam. Finally, one has to conclude that it is impossible for a character to outwit their older self, because they will always be at a disadvantage, knowing less about the future, and lacking the insight that their older self has into them. The younger you are in Dark, the less control you have over your story, in direct contravention of most stories of its type and of our expectations.

At this point we have to pause and acknowledge that Dark is a German series that moves back and forth across the twentieth century. It's hard to know how to interpret the fact that the show's time travel scheme entirely skips the 1930s and 40s—or, for that matter, a scene set in 1953 in which Egon and his boss, who are both old enough to have served in the war, ask each other such questions as "what drives a man to kill?" and "who could kill a child?" One might assume that series creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese chose to skip WWII and the Holocaust because to acknowledge them would create a gravity well that their story couldn't escape. But on the other hand, it's impossible to look at Dark—whose story is fundamentally about generational guilt warping the lives of people born decades after it happened; whose young people are repeatedly used, manipulated, and forced to be soldiers in a fight not their own not only by their elders, but by older versions of themselves; whose characters grow coarser, crueler, more indifferent to the lives of others the older they get—and not see a reference to Germany's most infamous historical crime.

It is also, however, a story prone to obvious pitfalls, which Dark mostly fails to avoid. There's been some discussion recently over whether Netflix's all-but-stated three-seasons-and-done policy is stifling creativity and artistry. But in the case of Dark, a short order was very much to the show's advantage, and may not even have come soon enough. There are only so many times one can watch a character be told "if you do this, you will save the world", only to discover that what they've done is actually a necessary step on the path to the world's destruction, before the whole thing starts to feel dramatically inert. It certainly doesn't help that Adam (and eventually, his counterpart Eva (Barbara Nüsse), the future version of Martha) seem to love nothing more than to deliver endless speeches on such vague topics as "light" and "darkness" that are nothing short of soporific. 

It's a choice that also makes the show's more sympathetic characters, chiefly the younger ones, seem whiny and passive, constantly railing against the nightmare that their lives have become without ever taking any real steps to change it—chiefly, recognizing that whenever an adult tells them to do something, they should do the opposite. By the end of the series, it's hard to find anyone to root for. Most of the adults have become monsters (or, like Ulrich, are simply selfish people who pursue their own pleasure without considering how much it hurts the people around them), while the children seemingly lack the willpower or the intelligence to take control of their lives—which will, in the fullness of time, cause them to become monsters themselves.

It's a particular shame because in its third season, Dark goes in some truly gonzo directions with its ideas about time travel, introducing the concept of alternate universes, and more importantly, the idea that it is possible to "slice" into someone's timeline, not to prevent time from proceeding as it always did, but to create an offshot from it where new possibilities might be explored. When Jonas arrives back in 2020 too late to prevent the apocalypse, he is simultaneously left to take shelter, and rescued by an alternate version of Martha, who with him creates another timeline, one that follows an alternate version of her along a very similar path to Jonas's first and second season adventures. (Just as Ulrich handed over protagonist duties to Jonas in the show's second season, the third season is Martha's story, with Jonas playing a supporting role.) As the season progresses, even these alternate timelines are sliced into, creating different offshoots. The twistyness of the show's storytelling ascends to a new level, with multiple versions of Jonas and Martha existing, being folded into the existing timeline, and, finally, finding a way to escape from it.

It will—once again—come as no surprise that in a story that has established nearly all of its characters' embeddedness in a tangled knot of looping family connection, such an escape does not equal a happily ever after. The best that one can offer these poor souls is the option of choosing oblivion. The only consolation the show offers is a glimpse of yet another new world, in which the characters who were not born of the knot but simply caught up in it—Katharina, Hannah, Regina—are glimpsed, and the provocative suggestion that without the melodrama of the tangled family tree they unwittingly attached themselves to, they are all living better, happier lives. It's yet another way in which Dark sets itself apart, as a story about the supernatural that concludes that we would all be better off without it. For all the show's flaws, this is sufficiently different that I'm glad that it existed, and glad that Netflix gave it a platform that put it in my path.

5 comments:

maimed autarch said...

Has Netflix indicated that they are in the business of creating masterpieces? My impression is that they're much more interested in making easily-bingeable content that aligns with current entertainment trends.

Thanks for the review though. I struggled through the first season of Dark and didn't feel compelled to continue at the time, but I've wondered if I should have a second go at it.

Ethan Hoddes said...

Surprised that the OA didn't make that list. Anyways, I'll check out Dark.

Stephen said...

Dunno if it's quite up to "enduring work of art", but I will admit to really enjoying the Netflix genre series Travelers (also a time-travel series, although it sounds like quite a different one) quite a bit. Check it out if you haven't had a chance. Give it a few episodes — the first three or so aren't quite as good as it becomes after that.

Adam Roberts said...

This is a really good account of the show, not least in the way it so deftly summarises the immensely intricate web of relations on which it depends. I was worried, watching the 3rd series, that it was going to do a Lost, but in the event I found the ending pretty satisfying. I suppose I wonder if the writers were perhaps over-invested in their s2/s3 cool idea, viz. "imagine a town in which everybody was their own, like, great-grandfather/mother! imagine if their family tree was a gigantic set of tangled loops!", which means that the plotting spent a lot of time showing how X went back to the 1890s to start the family that would eventually lead to them. Other things not related to the family tree, things that were teased-in early on, got disposed-of pretty clumsily I thought: why did Eve have that scar? Because she slashed her younger self in the face with a knife for no reason. Why did Old Adam's head look like a pickled walnut? Because that's the awful toll time-travel takes (although lots of other characters travelled back and forth plenty of times without being effected). And some elements made me think the writers, having looked at any given episode script, had said: look, the show's called Dark, we'd better ramp-up the senseless violence or horrible cynicism a couple of notches beyond what the story actually requires. But one thing I admired very much was the sheer perversity of making a popular TV show that was so uninterested, really, in whether its audience could even follow what was going on. There's something splendidly rebarbative in that, and in larding in quotations from Schopenhauer ("man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills" and so on) to bolster its pessimism.

Unknown said...

Very interesting, though I have to admit it sounds like the enjoyment of the show isn't in the Buffy tradition of characters or hard choices, but a kind of bingeable "where will they go next" type.

Reading about characters who are "loops" made me think of one chapter in Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie where he examines Tim Power's The Anubis Gate and how the central character experiences ontological weirdness when he learns that a poem by his favorite author "doesn't exist" because HE turns out to be the one who writes it in the past from memory. In that story the weirdness leads to a question to follow the deterministic path or not, but it seems that Dark's multiple characters lessen the effect on the viewer in favor of a cynical knife twist.

Post a Comment