Everything will fall apart. In this world, just as in yours. Again. And again. Because of you. And because of me.
(SPOILERS) Early reaction to the conclusion of the German time-travel saga appears overwhelmingly positive, but I’m less convinced of its merits. On the plus side, a resolution was hatched for the interminable loop. On the minus, Dark’s Season Three plot mechanics felt a little underwhelming, hasty even, just as the resolution for Jonas and Martha proved quite touching.
It’s just as well Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese restricted themselves to three seasons, as you can just see its potential to snowball into the Damon Lindelof/Lost approach of throwing curveballs each season on an ever-upping, ever-more-absurd ante. Season One ended with the Jonas being thrown into the future, while Two announced an alt-Winden/world. Now we discover that Jonas doesn’t exist there, and that, rather than Claudia Tiedemann being pitched against Adam/Jonas (although, she is), Adam’s main opponent is Eva, actually the elderly alt-Martha.
In the first instance, Season Three settles in by re-introducing us to familiar faces in slightly skewed roles/relationships, just as it continues with a number of previously established threads. As someone who has a difficult enough time remembering the characters’ names, let alone their multiple time-period interrelationships, this meant having to refer back to the Wiki page constantly (only slightly updated for Season Three at time of viewing). Which I didn’t mind per se; a series that demands your keen attention (and invariably rewards it) is quite a rare thing.
But I could well imagine Harry Enfield doing a piss-take of this level of complexity the way he did with The Killing’s tropes; and particularly that ominous rumbling music cue thrown in every thirty seconds or so to let you know this person is really important in some way or you’ve just been shown or told something hugely revelatory and you should know that, even though you’re scratching your head trying to work out just what it could be. Eventually, you decide to sacrifice yourself to going with the flow until something seemingly really fundamental has you seeking clarity before you move on. And then the loop begins again.
While that makes for an amusement more than an annoyance, the season did begin to aggravate me, and only more so as it progressed, with its unfailing and recurring device of someone – usually an older and mistaken Adam or Martha – persuading someone else – usually a younger Adam or Martha – to carry out an action despite their having been repeatedly shown that doing anything they are told by the person in question is suspect or a lie. Mostly, this also involves the older Adam or Martha telling a younger version “Everything Adam/Eva told you was a lie”. I’m assuming mileage for this crutch varies, given the raves the season is getting, but I was already beginning to find it slightly irksome in Season Two. In Season Three, it reaches farcical proportions, with Martha being exposed to extreme full-reversals repeatedly over the space of a few scenes (especially so during the final two or three episodes).
I’m sure there’ll be any number of cogently argued explanations for every choice made by Odar and Friese, but some of them seemed especially errant in terms of internal logic. Elder Jonas not remembering alt-Martha makes sense when you realise that the younger Jonas being killed was a different version of Jonas. But the conceit of the end of 3.5: Truths, whereby Jonas is murdered and then a magic wand is waved to say “No, don’t worry, there is another” is plain annoying. There’s an attempt to justify the “logic” with a Schrodinger’s Cat prologue at beginning of 3.7: Crossroads (simultaneous life and death applied to the macro worlds) but it’s unsuccessful – for me –as a piece of coherent plotting; instead, it suggests the makers are quite willing to play fast and loose with their carefully devised rules as it suits them. I’m presuming the same is the case for old Claudia (unless the old Claudia scene in 3.10: Alpha and Omega where she meets Adam, who is aghast she is somehow still alive, takes place before she is killed in Season Two).
Connecting to that, there’s the scene in Crossroads where Noah explains to Jonas that “You can’t take your own life because your older self already exists. Time won’t allow it”. Odar and Friese prove this with a gun full of bullets, but it seems like an odd time to include a definitive law in a show run through with core temporal paradoxes; time just did, after all, allow a split Jonas to get killed on the whim of the writers.
Added to which, I’m still not entirely sold on this “You’ve seen something happen that an older you did, now you have to actually do that thing yourself” time-travel-narrative device, which I discussed in relation to Timecrimes with Season Two; the very act of re-enacting will surely make it different to doing or saying it the first (or whichever numbered) time. Since much of Season Three is predicated on this, though, it’s something you’re forced to go with or give up on the whole shebang. There’s a thin line between this kind of conceit allowing one to suspend one’s disbelief and it becoming quite ridiculous, and Season Three sails dangerously close to the latter at times. Perhaps the daftest example finds Eva slashing a massive scar across Martha’s face for the frankly batshit reason that she’ll always remember whose side she is on (rather than as an entirely spurious visual identifier Odar and Friese then had to devise a half-assed reason for).
But motivation has always been iffy territory for the series. It’s the same with the steeliness of Adam/Jonas and Eva/Martha to see their missions through come hell or high water; if there’s one thing Dark never really pulls off for me, it’s the formulation of their eldest versions’ uncompromising positions. I think this may be because we only ever encounter them in bite-size chunks. The weariness overtaking Adam that elicits a wish for total destruction – or that will enable him to ruthlessly kill his mother – or Eva’s desire to preserve the knot represented by her progeny only ever pass muster as ideas. They lack the emotional weight that would make them believable obsessions.
As for the crucial Origin – you never knew it was important until you were told it was crucial – I don’t think it really succeeds as… I was going to say a MacGuffin, but it wants to be much more than that. It wants to have significance, but it’s a significance in both instances that has only been introduced this season, and neither has an emotional or plot-reveal impact. The Origin as Martha’s offspring – “It’s born of both worlds” – sounds pretty good in concept, but entirely falls over with his realisation as the three hair-lipped killers (well, only in-betweeny seems to do the actual garrotting). They’re unnerving and sinister, but there’s no substance to their relationship with Eva. Besides which, the conceit of the three in one seemingly never leaving each other’s sides is never explained. But then, that’s exactly the same issue; they are entirely and only designed as a visual motif.
The second Origin, the “real world” one, has in its favour a means to move beyond the pervading misery of the sodden dual Windens… by visiting the sodden original Winden. Again, there’s a lot here you just have to go with. Like the host of assumptions Claudia has authoritatively made about the Origin and its source, not to mention quite how Jonas and Martha are able to get a fix on where and when they have to go so precisely (I’d suggest the inter-space enables them to choose by mental projection, but Jonas needs to use the device to get there).
Even going with that, though, we’re still saddled with the fate of the universe resting on the survival of minor characters, who have only appeared hitherto in a photo. In and of itself, it makes a nice enough vignette, but again, it rather reminded me of the way Lost’s final season added another layer that didn’t amount to much. As I said, though, the final departure of Jonas and Martha is quite sweet (“Or is that what we are? A dream?”), even if the coda’s choice of real-world individuals/variant couples seemed slightly spurious.
As ever, while the dourness of Dark is perhaps its primary signature – when you’re left with a particularly ferocious fire extinguisher-skull interface as a cathartic release, you know you’re in grim territory – the performances are never less than excellent, and the casting of different faces always seems highly attuned to both believable aging and good actors. There is a lot of grisliness this season, though, besides having to see Ulrich try to kill Helge again. The murder of relatives is rife, from Adam killing Hannah in 1911, to the protracted nastiness of Katharina’s mother bludgeoning her in 1987. And then there’s Tronte smothering Regina in 2020 (okay, not actually her father, but he could have been).
While Dark is built on portentousness, the eternal loop element felt inevitable and appropriate. Again, one questions how Claudia actually worked this out (since presumably she can’t carry knowledge on through loops, and she can’t get outside it and look in, so as to determine the precise details of Tannhaus as the real-world locus). Or how this is the last one or, that no variations from the exact path were available (“Every step had to be taken as before, until this moment… This has happened an infinite number of times”). The infinite repetition put me in mind of some of the gnostic false/corrupt universe ideas and particularly projects guy Z’s suggestion that we are currently on the last cycle of our own stuck-on-repeat experience. Albeit, the idea is that we’ll only become nothing if we fail.
I came away from Season Three feeling that, while Dark found an appealing emotional conclusion for its main characters, it detrimentally doubled down on the “You must do as I say because it’s plotted this way and I must do as I say because it’s plotted that way”, as well as introducing several incidents of unjustified “magic” into the mix. Who knows, I may feel differently if/when I revisit the show, but the rigorous determinism coded into the writers’ premise may ultimately have let to the weakness of obsessing over it through the characters ad nauseum. Even as a slight disappointment, however, this is absolutely the kind of TV Netflix should be making more of. It’s one of the very few disciplined and artistically coherent productions from their frequently sloppy and unfocussed stable.