I watch a lot of TV, and now, here in eternal quarantine, more than ever these days. But over the years, with hundreds of shows and thousands of episodes consumed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series as mentally exhausting as Dark, where I just finished three seasons over the course of the past week.
Dark is a Netflix series from Germany, and it’s impossible to talk about without discussing its central concept, which is revealed within the first few episodes: time travel.
I won’t get deeper into spoilers than that in this review, but it’s sort of key to the entire thing.
I have always been opposed to time travel stories in science fiction, for the most part. The concept works well in comedies (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted), but in serious production it opens up the door for endless plot holes and misunderstandings about how time travel should work, were it actually possible.
But Dark has gone deeper into the concept than any series or movie I have ever seen, and seems determined to craft what has to be the most intricate and detailed time travel sci-fi tale I’ve ever seen.
The series is centered on four main families in a small German town, and when people start to go missing, it seems like this is a crime drama. Instead, most of the missing are wandering into a nearby cave, which has doors open to the past, and occasionally the future.
While this starts as a “find the missing kid lost in time” story, it evolves to become much, much more than that. Why is Dark so exhausting?
For every character, you have to keep track of whose father, son, mother, daughter, brother, sister, grandparent or grandchild they might be. And then you have to keep track of that across what ends up being something like six total timelines. The show time travels based on a 33 year cycle, so it starts in 2019, goes back to 1986, then to 1953, and 1920 and even the 1800s. It also hops 33 years into the future in 2052. So you have to keep track of all these characters from all these families in essentially three different stages of life, child/teen, young adult/middle age, and old age, and remember how they’re all related to one another. Those relationships get very complicated due to time travel, though I won’t spoil anything there. And in case that wasn’t enough, the final season throws in the concept of parallel dimensions as well, just in case you weren’t confused before.
I cannot explain how hard this show was to keep track of. It never got easier. I was in the final episodes of the third season and still having to count off in my head who was whose father and what this recent plot turn revealed about who was really whose ancestor.
But this is the best, and really only way, to consume the show, in one giant gulp now that the series has ended. I watched season 1 several years ago when it first aired, but this is not a series you can be “refreshed” about through a three minute recap. I rewatched season 1, then the next two, and I was just barely hanging on to this plot the whole time.
All this complexity serves a purpose, however. Once you zoom out and see the web that has been created, you can see Dark for what it is, a work of genius, and quite possibly one of the only time travel stories that actually makes sense, given how it handles cause and effect. Namely the idea that the past has to create the future, and the future, in turn, has to create the past if time travelers are heading back in time to be involved in events. Again, it is brutally hard to even attempt to explain what this looks like in practice, but trust me, it works.
I was very concerned that I had sat through this entire series and in the end it was just going to throw all its carefully crafted rules out the window for an unsatisfying ending. And yet I can say that I actually was satisfied with how the ending of the series played out, which is no easy task for a story like this.
If Dark has any flaws, it’s that it’s hard to get invested in the characters themselves as the show is just so wrapped up in the storyline that you don’t really form attachments to many of them as people. They’re just puzzle pieces in this picture you’re trying to figure out the shape of.
Additionally, despite all its twists and turns, sometimes the show eventually can seem predictable. Once you understand its rule of cause and effect, you know a lot of future scenes that will have to happen. You hear that so and so dropped off a child as a baby after time traveling who grew up to be this character. But it’s not enough to reveal that fact, you know that you will literally have to watch that scene like four episodes later as the show is obsessed with filling in all its “gaps” onscreen, even if it’s information you already know. That part can get a bit repetitive.
And yet overall, it’s an incredible series, one of Netflix’s best, and one of science fiction’s best, honestly, especially in the time travel genre. I am probably willing to declare it the best time travel story ever told with how much care and intelligence it devotes to the subject. I highly recommend it, but prepare for your brain to be fatigued for the next month or so as you make your way through it.