When Netflix’s Dark was first announced, a lot of people (myself included) drew comparisons to Stranger Things — after all, both series start with a child who mysteriously disappears, are set in small towns, and prominently feature ’80s nostalgia. But a few minutes into Dark’s first episode, and it becomes very clear that any such comparisons are trivial at best.
For starters, Dark is, well, much darker than Stranger Things, which balances its horror aspects with a healthy dose of nerdy humor. No such humor, or any humor for that matter, exists in Dark. I’m hard-pressed to remember a single scene in which the characters weren’t brooding, scowling, looking forlorn, confused, or stoic, or crying. Dark is pervaded with gloom, from the unceasing rain to the ominous forests that surround the town of Winden, which also lives in the shadow of a nuclear power plant and its unending clouds of smoke.
Dark does begin with a child’s disappearance but gets progressively weirder as the apparent kidnapping duplicates events that occurred three decades ago. Furthermore, everyone in Dark seems to have some secret shame or grief: affairs, family dysfunction, corporate cover-ups, police corruption, and more seem to be woven into the very fabric of Winden life. And as the town further unravels following additional disappearances, everyone’s private sins are dragged into the open for a reckoning.
Indeed, as Dark skips between three different eras — 2019, 1986, and 1953 — we see that Winden and its citizens seem to be locked in a cycle: events (e.g., kidnappings) that happen in previous years are echoed in the present day. But the cycle works both ways, as characters find themselves — thanks to a mysterious cave on Winden’s outskirts — traveling back and forth in time. In Dark, the past affects the future, but the future also affects the past in an interesting take on various time travel-related paradoxes.
Dark gets pretty convoluted, its multiple storylines spanning three different eras. But following the convoluted plot is all part of the fun, and to its credit, Dark’s inexorable pacing and sense of atmosphere makes every twist feel like a massive revelation. (Ben Frost’s haunting score helps in this regard.) But the characters often seem lost in the story’s machinations. Or, as Todd VanDerWerff writes, Dark “has found a unique way to examine how people change and evolve over time… but eventually it becomes so wrapped up in plot mechanics that characters start doing things simply because the plot needs them to.”
So what does Dark’s plot need its characters to do? Much like Lost, another series that enjoyed using multiple timelines and temporal shenanigans to put its large cast through the emotional wringer, Dark practically demands that its viewers come up with their own pet theories… so here are some of mine. Needless to say, the following contains potential spoilers.
We’re introduced to a number of characters throughout Dark’s first season, and given the temporal jumping around, we see many of them at different stages in life. But arguably the most memorable character, despite only appearing in a handful of episodes, is an enigmatic priest named Noah. We hear his name before we see him, but suspicions are immediately raised when he begins appearing in different timelines without ever appearing to age.
One minute, he’s counseling a frightened young child, the next he appears to be the man behind all of the disappearances. One minute, he’s confronting a character’s apparent atheism, the next he defiantly states that there is no God. He wears a priest’s wardrobe, but he’s working on a time machine. Oh, and there’s that massive tattoo on his back of the Emerald Tablet, an important text in hermeticism and alchemy.
Kim Renfro has published an exhaustive breakdown of Noah’s character and his actions in Dark’s first season, but based on his speech to Helge in episode nine, I suspect Noah’s some sort of demonic figure, perhaps even Satan himself. And his attempts to build a time machine, which requires abducted children as its guinea pigs, is to find a way to break free of time, and therefore, God’s influence.
Of course, being the Father of Lies, he’s claims he’s trying to save humanity itself: “If we can harness this energy, we can change everything. Then we decide the world’s fate, far removed from all the evil and from all pain. We’ll create a time machine that reorders everything, the beginning and the end.”
Additionally, perhaps he’s using the time machine as a way to increase human suffering, similar to The Tree of Pain in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels. Dark’s characters seem doomed to experience the same terrible things that happened three decades ago (from their perspective), only to find themselves traveling back in time and creating the very circumstances that give rise to those terrible things.
In a sense, Winden has become time-locked, and Noah’s responsible. Or, as he puts it: “As long as we’re in this time loop, we who know have to make sure that every step will be repeated exactly as it was before. No matter how inhumane it seems to us. No matter what sacrifices it demands of us.”
So where does this leave Dark for its recently announced second season? In season one’s finale, troubled teen Jonas — who might be the closest thing Dark has to a protagonist — finds himself cast into the far future, to the year 2052, after his future self sets off a bomb in the caves under Winden in 1986. In the future, Winden lies in ruins, apparently the result of future-Jonas’ bomb, and it’s populated by a group of Mad Max-looking survivors.
Was this event just another event in a cycle of misdeeds and misery, a cycle that we now see expands even further into the future? Or for all of its new uncertainty, does it represent the first break in the cycle? I suspect it’s the latter, making it a calculated attack against Noah’s machinations to find a way to control time. But its success and Noah’s estimations of its effects remain to be seen.
Dark’s first season did a masterful job of piquing viewers’ curiosity and building layer upon layer of mystery even as it answered precious few questions about just what in the heck happened. Given how tightly wound and assured season one was, one has hopes that series creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese know where things are heading and not just pulling a Lost on us (i.e., making things up as they go along). Odar and Friese have promised plenty of surprises for season two, but will those surprises bring with them answers to Dark’s tantalizing mysteries, or just hide the fact that viewers are being strung along?