(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new?) But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation with determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-Its all around the walls of the office.
I tend to find these Bootstrap Paradox, unbreakable loop narratives an exasperating viewing experience, because generally speaking, it can be a free pass for the writer to rest on their laurels, getting away with shovelling a load of lazy conceits into the mix just because “It has to happen that way”. And, if the loop is an answer unto itself, you’re attempting to wear that as a badge of intellectual success rather than admitting failure to really understand how the principles “work” (often, I think such plots simply shun grappling with the underlying concepts in favour of empty carb “reveals”). For me, a prime offender in this is Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, a movie that (SPOILER STARTS) requires its protagonist to somehow, having already witnessed them, re-enact precisely the events his bandaged alter-ego has already performed (SPOILER ENDS). Then there’s Predestination, which offers an at once attention-grabbing and involved protagonist “surprise” in its time-twisting, but is also, by the very nature of the conditions it sets on its paradox, ultimately dissatisfying.
Dark is evidently aware of the manner in which characters are forced to stumble along, puppet-like, beholden to their writers’ whims in such constructions, but I’m unsure that their own god-like positioning of their creations is as pure and unvarnished as they believe. One does feel at times that the poor unfortunates of Winden – in particular Jonas – are doing what they’re doing because of the deterministic – as in, determined by the writers – nature of the plot. The writers are simultaneously aware of the narrative tensions needed through withholding information and entirely concerned with those involved explaining themselves, such that at one point Adam, Jonas’ much older and time-travel-debilitated self, explains to him what he must do and he (Jonas) goes and does it, which will only perpetuate what has already happened rather than provide an opportunity to resolve it. This scene itself gave me worried waves of Timecrimes nausea, as it could be construed that Adam is saying exactly what he knew his younger self heard, through total recall, not dissimilarly to Michael’s suicide note; I charitably decided they were willingly relaying the gist of things on both occasions, rather than dotting every I and crossing every T, as that kind of writing takes the predetermined conceit too far, to the point of inanity.
When he learns of his error, Jonas is consequently much too willing to take note of elder Claudia, in opposition to Adam and his group Sic Mundus, and his middle-aged self appears to have retained this outlook. But still, through all this, they do and are influenced by prevailing forces in an ultimately entirely emotive way that is somehow intended to justify a lack of tempered, interrogative reflection. Or even, say, young and middle-aged Jonas just sitting down and hashing out how they will inevitably keep making a hash of things through one or other entirely misconstruing how they are unable to do anything constructive. The point in the finale, where 2053 Jonas takes off with Bartosz, Magnus and Franziska, had me rolling my eyes slightly, as it makes it appear that his younger self knowing Adam’s manipulations has failed to make him second guess that doing anything will bring him closer to bringing about what he least wants to achieve (becoming Adam).
Even the curveball of the last few minutes, expanding the events of Winden into a multiverse, whereby a version of the recently deceased Martha materialises and whisks Jonas away from imminent annihilation as the power station goes nuclear on everyone not in a shelter or also being whisked away, seems designed by its miserablist creators as a false hope (the series barely has a smile in it, let alone a laugh, seemingly set on reinforcing stereotypes regarding the German sense of humour).
After all, if Adam was unaware of the existence of alternate timelines and presence of alternate Martha, he surely wouldn’t have left his younger self there to meet his certain death. And doubtless the words of elder Claudia will be underlined during the final season, as hope-against-hope Jonas tries to unravel his very being (“I’ve seen the world without you. Believe me, it isn’t what you’re expecting”). Presumably Jonas' middle-aged self is aware of alt-Martha too, yet this seems to have done nothing to dissuade him from attempting to save her, the kind of futile gesture he should surely know better than by now, but seemingly, because he’s the writers’ puppet on a string, does not.
When pinned down about their designs for what’s to come, director Baran Bo Odar expressed nothing but gloom, while writer Jantje Friese offered a sliver of hope; I expect this in itself is merely a manipulation to keep the viewer, as desperate for some as Jonas, on the hook. The show’s main achievement, however, is that, even when you’re resigned to its unrelenting bleakness, it continues to be compulsive viewing, exacting an oppressive, hypnotic hold, free from respite. If the seventh episode of Season Two was supposed to be something of a lull, a return to relative normality, it managed to illustrate that even at its most sedate, Dark is unremittingly foreboding.