Culture Film & TV

Spacetime Paradoxes and German Philosophy: A Review of Dark

For many people, myself included, Dark was initially written off as a knock-off of Stranger Things. And it’s true that its premise of ‘kid vanishes in a small town where things are not as they seem’ was remarkably similar. Two and a half years on from the release of the first season, the show has amassed a growing legion of fans, eagerly anticipating the third and final season which was released on Netflix last month. Needless to say, in those two and half years, the show found its own distinct and compelling voice, debating determinism and free will against a backdrop of dead birds, Latin inscriptions, horology and torrential rain. 

Now, all 26 episodes of this intricate, eerie and intelligent time-travel thriller are available to stream on Netflix which is about 24 hours for anyone who’s missing their term-time all-nighters. The viewing experience however was described by one critic “like trying to solve a sudoku puzzle on a rollercoaster” so it’s understandable if you need a little help following the show’s juggling act of timelines. Alongside Netflix’s interactive conspiracy wall (a useful spoiler-free who’s who and when’s when), I’ve also compiled some tips for the uninitiated in my very own Reader’s Guide to Dark.

Firstly, dust off your GCSE German. Those phrases you needed to express your utter confusion: ‘ich weiß es nicht’, ‘keine Ahnung’, that kind of thing. That way, when you lose the plot both literally and figuratively, you can console yourself that you at least know enough German to understand most of the characters without subtitles. Dramatic irony is a concept alien to husband and wife co-creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese – it seems they are the only people, fictional or not, who have any idea where it’s all going. In the words of mysterious clockmaker Tanhaus, “what we know is a drop and what we don’t know is an ocean”. This proclamation will pop up repeatedly, so it also merits a place in the Dark Phrasebook alongside my personal favourite “der Anfang ist das Ende und das Ende ist der Anfang”.

Secondly, brush up on your knowledge of spacetime paradoxes and German philosophy. The grandfather paradox is always a good place to start, but you’re also going to want a working knowledge of the bootstrap paradox, Nietzche’s eternal recurrence and Schrödinger’s cat for good measure. Less than two minutes into the penultimate episode the narrator is asking “what if the simultaneity of life and death also applied to the macrocosmic world?”, which, by that point, seems like a fairly normal question for the narrator of a TV show to be asking. Do some background reading on Aristotle’s principles of tragedy for extra credit.

Finally (unless you, like Odar and Friese, ascribe to the illusory nature of finality), suspend your disbelief, and have faith that all will be explained. For the most part. So if four versions of the same character appear in the same scene, roll with it. But don’t expect to find out what happened to Wöller’s eye.

In all seriousness though, this show is a thought-provoking gem. Hot on the heels of La Casa de Papel and Marseille, it’s further evidence that Netflix’s foreign language series are a recipe for success. Dark doesn’t care whether you’re lost or not; it isn’t going to waste time explaining things to you when it could be introducing another fold in the fabric of spacetime or eight new characters. You may find, like most of the characters do, that you just want out of the mind-bending mess. If not, then you’ll have to commit to unravelling multiple characters’ journeys across multiple timelines. 

The only problem with the otherwise perfectly constructed world is the inconsistencies in its core philosophy. It spent two seasons slowly but surely building a world in which there is no free will, and characters are bound by the actions of their future selves, and this meticulously deterministic weave of every plot twist and its effects from the very beginning was one of Dark’s greatest strengths. The standout moment of all three seasons came late in season one, with a certain interaction between Ulrich and Helge which made you realise that you knew exactly what was going to happen all along (without having known that you knew that). It feels a shame, therefore, that season three instead relies on some slightly gimmicky special effects and vague references to nuclear physics to present multiple superimposed what-ifs, in an unexpected break from the show’s previously fixed trajectory. A near crash in the final episode provided a heart-in-your-mouth nod to the determinism of the earlier seasons, and could have been a perfect twist if they’d followed through on it – what better ending than the realisation that nothing could ever be changed?

Despite this, the final season unites all three perfectly with its gradually developed conclusion that the motivation of all evil is love, a concept which burgeoned through the first two seasons and blossomed in the third. It renders this subtly and beautifully, especially through a recurring well-placed Schopenhauer quote: “Man can do what he wants but not want what he wants.” And so, in the way of all great sci-fi, an exploration of science unknown became an exploration of human nature, with as satisfying an ending as can be expected from a show about the suffering, grief and darkness that humanity cannot help but cause.