“Dark”: not an appreciation

I think my husband and I belong to a very select band. We are two of the very few people on the planet who aren’t in ecstasies over the German Netflix series Dark. Admittedly, we enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 quite a bit; we even watched them twice. But season 3 was, to put it mildly, a slog, and not at all what we were expecting, which was something like a serious version of Peggy Sue Got Married or Back to the Future, or a less soggy version of It’s a Wonderful World. In other words, a meditation on the “road not traveled”—an exploration of what it is to look back both at the decisions you made and at events out of your control, and imagine the other worlds you could have made. Or not. Thomas Hardy talks in one of his poems of being, as an old man, the ‘strange continuator’ of his younger self, whom he imagines looking at him in wonder. That is what we wanted: to see the “strange continuators” confront their younger or other selves.

Instead what we got was, basically, a video game. There are two sides: Light and Shadow, White and Black. One side wants total annihilation; the other, for the cycle of birth and death, killing and saving, to go on for ever and ever, rinsing and repeating for all eternity—or until the Sun turns into a Red Giant, anyway. The leaders of the two sides explicitly describe their team members as “pieces” or “counters”, who/which are dispatched to certain times and places (how this precision is achieved is never explained) to do something or other that will advance their side’s plan or impede their opponents’. So rather than the impact of three terrible events—two boys going missing in successive generations; a man hanging himself—on a few key characters—Jonas, Martha, Ulrich, Hannah, Claudia—who each make, say, one key return journey, everyone has three selves of different ages in different worlds who jump back and forth with the ease of a neighbour who has just popped round to return the sugar they borrowed last week. Or next week, I suppose.

As we got to the last two episodes in particular, there were lightning-fast, rather corny warp-speed style shifts between past and present and between the two (or three) worlds, leaving us quite confused, which is fine—but also indifferent, which isn’t. And that was the real problem: we no longer cared about what was happening (or going to happen or had happened) to anyone. Instead of watching characters slowly change and adapt, change their minds, realize their mistakes, while somehow continuing to be faithful to their own selves (e.g. Ulrich’s philandering; Hannah’s ruthless pursuit of him), what we see are pawns being moved around an invisible, vastly complex board. Inner lives and motivations remain invisible. The “counters” have labels attached putting them in a family tree—or a family copse, I should say, as there are several family trees here—as X’s son or daughter, wife or husband; or they are slotted into positions as best friend, girlfriend, boyfriend. But in the final season we learned next to nothing about how it feels to be them, to have become the person they are, to have suffered or caused suffering, to have achieved something or failed at it. There is just a game being played by other people, whose motives are as much black boxes as the various time machines they invent: their inner workings are almost wholly mysterious. After a while we began hoping for the end of the world just so we could go off and watch something else instead.

There are also last-minute “reveals”, as they say (what’s wrong with ‘revelations’? too biblical?) that come far too late for us to understand characters’ motivations. One especially striking example is that the watchmaker turns out to be driven to construct his time machine not merely by grief, but by guilt, which actually makes much better sense. His last conversation with his son had been more of an argument, in which his son furiously denounced him as unloving, cerebrally distant, and uninterested in his (the son’s) life. We also find out that Charlotte was given to the watchmaker by two unknown women to take care of, and we see him break the news to her with all the gentleness of a sumo wrestler—another sign of his emotional immaturity and coldness, perhaps, but that sign should have been given a lot earlier and with much more context. (In any case, who takes in a baby from two unidentified women, with no explanation, and without going to the authorities, even if they have lost a granddaughter? And: how did Hannah manage to make a life for herself in the 1950s without any ID?)

Now, writers and filmmakers often use love as a key explanatory factor precisely because it seems so mysterious. It takes a genius to fathom the enigma of why one person falls in love with another. The same holds for a parent’s love for a child, a bond so strong they will do anything to get their dead child back, including building a time machine or killing another child (as Ulrich tries to do)—except when they won’t do anything of the sort. Which brings us to the revelations that Katerina was abused by her alcoholic mother, thus explaining why she was such a bully herself; and that her mother was herself sexually abused as a child and had to have an abortion as a result. That kind of multi-generational damage is the stuff of which serious drama is made; here, like Katerina’s brutal murder at her mother’s hands, it was almost an afterthought—merely a device to get the St Christopher’s medal into the sand at the edge of the lake.

The constant switching between one- or two-minute long events was also off-putting. Maybe it was meant to keep our attention. If so, it failed. We found boredom creeping up on us like the tide of dirt that crept higher and higher up the faces of most of the characters (clearly combs and the secret of hot water had been lost at the Apocalypse). This ennui was varied only by mounting irritation with Adam’s and Eve’s sententiousness. Those bits of the higher gibberish meant to sound deep reminded me of a fridge magnet game I once had, consisting of about a hundred philosophical nouns and verbs and adjectives, mainly from metaphysics, that could be arranged in any order to produce loftily abstract, mysterious, but meaningless sentences. What’s more, Adam brazenly borrowed Lemmy Caution’s gravelly voice from a real sci-fi classic, Alphaville. Talk about cheap.

There was one scene, in the final episode, that almost made the wait worthwhile: when Adam/Jonas persuades Eve/Martha that they have to make one final journey back in time, to before that fateful car accident, and in turn persuade the watchmaker’s son to return to his father’s house instead of trying to drive home in a storm. When that happens a very moving version of ‘What a wonderful world’ begins, and so does their annihilation and the annihilation of all the other characters who came into being only because of that time machine. It is not that they simply choose not to be—they choose not to have ever been. It’s a real and demanding sacrifice, because they do love one another. Jonas ‘s final words to Martha are, of course, ‘We’re a perfect match. Never think anything else’—just before she disappears into nothingness. The only hint of something that survives is Hannah’s choice of the name ‘Jonas’ for her unborn child when she notices a yellow raincoat just like the one Jonas used to wear before everything went to hell in a handcart.

But the narrow confines of the series, which I take it were meant to make it manageable, actually made it more unconvincing. First, there seem to be only three or four families in Winden, who never see anyone else, never go anywhere else, never watch TV, never tell each other jokes, and never go on holiday. If a character arrives from some other place, their life elsewhere remains virtually unexplored and serves only as a signal that There is Something Mysterious About Them. Second, there is the almost complete absence of politics. The only political or politicized decision is to build (or not) the power-plant. In fact, Winden must be the only town in Germany where nothing—absolutely nothing—happened between 1933 and 1945. I suppose the writers didn’t want to get into the whole weird-Nazi-science scene, but I expect there will soon be a spin-off computer game called Winden: Die Zeitwunderwaffen.