[Note: The following review contains mild spoilers for Season 3 of “Dark.”]
The greatest trick nested within “Dark” is what it manages to make inevitable. Even before the third and final season of the German-language Netflix sci-fi time travel epic, each new wrinkle has arrived with a shock, but also with the storytelling confidence that this is always how it would unfold. Juggling a dizzying amount of causal loops and concurrent timelines and logical paradoxes, “Dark” has always operated with a combination of precision and patience required to make each new successive detail feel earned. In telling the story of the unassuming town of Winden, the construction of that story has felt, fittingly, like that of a ticking clock.
The giant gambit at the end of last season was that not only were Jonas (Louis Hofmann) and Martha (Lisa Vicari) destined to experience their tragic love story across increasingly stratified generations, they would have an entire new reality to contend with. Season 3 wouldn’t just be adding to either end of the 1921/1954/1987/2020/2053 web filled in even more clearly in the preceding seasons. It would be stacking on top of it.
This new season opens with a blisteringly sly reworking of the Winden that viewers may have just finished wrapping their heads around over the series’ first 18 chapters. Without the troubling set of circumstances that sent young Mikkel Nielsen (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) back in time to become Jonas’ father Michael Kahnwald, the ripple effects are both noticeable and manageable. Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) and Katharina’s (Jördis Triebel) immediate family is seemingly the same, but without the former trapped in time himself in pursuit of the missing Mikkel, it’s illuminating to see where all that extra energy gets funneled. It’s a community-wide case of both reflection and refraction.
Part “It’s a Wonderful Life,” part flash sideways, “Dark” Season 3 indulges in the curiosities of this alternate timeline for just long enough before taking an even wider view of those consequences. Co-creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar wisely recognize that for all the theorizing about certain fates and cross-generational dot-connecting, the core of the series’ success is in its attention to character. When intricate narrative puzzles treat its moving elements as pieces rather than people, that’s when a mystery can gobble up everything around it. Though Season 3’s most significant new character comes closest to that idea, “Dark” offers each of the established Winden mainstays their own chance to reckon with their part in this ever-expanding moral quandary.
Where most of the first two seasons felt like an operatic battle between fate and free will, the ongoing tussle of Season 3 finds even more clearly defined figureheads than before. There’s a pendulum swing between these sides that threatens to get repetitive — a few episode-capping cliffhangers in this final collection feature some surprising reappearances and confusing allegiances. And for anyone who may have grown tired of the push-pull between a character trying to avoid their fate, only to lay the foundation for it in the process, there’s certainly more of that to be found here, too.
But when taken in full, those philosophical questions keep recurring to a specific end. What emerges from the cross-reality tug-of-war inherent in Season 3 is the choice between all or nothing. Is generational pain worth the offsetting joys interspersed between? And if not, is erasing entire timelines from existence really the only recourse? Those competing questions eventually gather entire groups with opposing answers. Watching each player in this drama slowly sift through the implications of each side is what makes this season worth spending so much time examining that grey area in between.
All of those lofty ideas would be for nought without some of the most meticulous craft of any show on TV. For as jarring as the time-hopping sometimes gets, Odar and cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer’s palette for each new world keeps all the timespace hopscotch from being too muddled. There’s a relative simplicity in each set. Whether it’s the entrance to the cave that serves as the tunnel between decades, the interior of Jonas’ childhood home, or an unassuming bus stop, there’s no clutter to distract from the narrative task at hand. Even the aerial view of the tree-dotted Winden is a clear indication of where in time we happen to be, depending on the absence, inclusion, or destruction of the nuclear power plant that comes to be an instrument of the apocalypse.
That’s all in line with one of the impressive, consistent elements of the “Dark” approach: being hyperfocused on each passing moment without losing track of the series’ overarching trajectory. When characters come face-to-face with their older or younger selves, there’s room to live in that bizarreness, to see how the confusion of one version is met by the terror of the other. “Dark” uses its characters’ journey to mirror the audience’s as much as it can, with certain memories flickering across their consciousness like little details that bubble up from the earliest episodes.
Even though it’s certainly something that’s been part of the “Dark” conversation since the opening season, it really can’t be overstated how breathtaking the casting on this series continues to be. It’s a truly incredible feat from casting director Simone Bär to have assembled a time-traveling ensemble that always feels as if it were made of performers from a similar set of intertwined families. Characters we’ve only seen as teenagers arrive as adults, played by a completely different performer, and there’s never a doubt as to who (and what) this new arrival is supposed to represent. It’s impossible to imagine this or either of the other seasons being as potent with any less of a believable family tree.
Combining all of those swirling elements, Season 3 also feels like a logical extension of the ethical and psychological dilemmas that Friese and her co-writers have been wrestling with from the outset. With so many competing motivations and diabolical schemes being maneuvered in real time, “Dark” finds connective tissue in the idea that it’s understandable to want to do what’s best for the ones we love. Even when presented with generations of evidence, or the literal nuclear-blasted remains of a hollowed-out world, it’s hard to square the idea that fighting for your soulmate or saving a child could somehow be an incorrect choice. The most effective villain of “Dark” is the cruelty in a logic that somehow punishes people for trying to correct their mistakes.
So while the season and the series move toward an ending that seems more and more destined as the full scope of this philosophical struggle comes into view, there’s still something thrilling about seeing these dozens of people fling themselves into the unknown. That goes for the travelers from the future unsure about what they leave out of their reports to their younger versions. It goes for the petrified teenager grabbing the hand of cross-dimensional messenger insisting that they follow. And it goes for every character in this saga who, when presented with proof of the impossible, responds with something other than outright rejection. Even with all that uncertainty, “Dark” has maintained that highwire act for three of the most thrilling sci-fi TV seasons ever made. To see it make it across the chasm with its ambitions and technique intact is certainly something worth remembering.
“Dark” Season 3 is now available to stream on Netflix.