‘Dark’ Season 2 Is Completely Insane, and Netflix’s Best Supernatural Series (Sorry, ‘Stranger Things’!)
The German-language thriller is back for more time-travel madness and gruesome deaths. [Warning: Some Spoilers]
Netflix’s best supernatural series returns this Friday—no, not Stranger Things (that’s out July 4) but Dark, the German-language thriller that blends time travel, philosophy, and demonic evil with a deftness that its streaming-service counterpart only dreams of delivering.
Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar’s sophomore outing is of a piece with their first 2017 season, which is to say it’s an insanely intricate mystery-by-way-of-nightmare set across three separate, hopelessly interrelated, eras: 1953, 1987, and 2020. It involves child abductions, wormholes, adultery, Freud, incest and questions about destiny and free will. It also boasts perhaps the largest cast of characters in any modern TV drama, thanks to the fact that its protagonists appear in each of the aforementioned decades, played by different actors at different ages. All in all, it’s enough to make one crave a diagram of who’s who, when, and where—as well as what their knotty connections are to one another.
While it’s far from impenetrable, Dark is not for casual viewing, nor for jumping in at random—without a firm memory of the first season’s events, prepare to be lost for this go-round. I wouldn’t dare attempt to comprehensively recap that earlier action, but suffice it to say that Friese and Odar’s story concerns the fictional rural town of Winden, where a woodland cave beneath a nuclear power plant functions as a temporal passageway. It’s the sinister nexus of these proceedings, which soon involve a handful of missing children (some of them later discovered dead, with their eardrums shattered and their eyes seared off), a tangled web of friendships and romantic affairs between the townsfolk (most of whom have lived there their entire lives), a clockwork device that might be capable of closing the circular time loop that’s engulfed Winden—causing the past, present and future to incessantly affect each other—and a malevolent priest named Noah (Mark Waschke) who seems to be orchestrating everything for his own fanatical reasons.
(Spoilers invariably follow)
At the end of 2017’s season finale, Dark thrust young Jonas (Louis Hofmann)—whose suicide-deceased father Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) was actually the grown-up version of a boy from Jonas’ era named Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), who inadvertently traveled back to 1986 (got that?)—into a frightening war-torn future. This promise of a fourth time frame seemed like potentially one too many. And yet right off the bat here, Friese and Odar expertly integrate into their storyline a 2053 Winden that’s been destroyed by an unknown cataclysm. This dystopian wasteland is populated by ragtag survivors (some of whom we’ve seen before as their younger selves) who refrain from entering the ruins of the nuclear facility, which is now dubbed the “dead zone.” There are startling discoveries to be made inside that forbidden area, and, guided by old audio tapes he’s found (from a woman he doesn’t know), Jonas sets out to find a way back home.
Before answers to Jonas’ circumstances can come to light, the focus shifts back to 2020 Winden, where a task force led by investigator Clausen (Sylvester Groth) has been established to solve the area’s recent disappearances. Meanwhile in 1987, Claudia (Julika Jenkins), now fully in control of the power plant, becomes ensnared in the craziness going on around her, all of which is leading—unbeknownst to her, and everyone else—to an apocalypse that’s only six days away. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that, beginning with its prologue, Dark also visits Winden circa 1921, where a young man murders the colleague with whom he’s digging a cave tunnel that we know will eventually become a time-traveling portal.
It is, quite frankly, more plot than any show should be able to sustain—and I haven’t even brought up a key whatsit known as the God Particle that factors into Jonas’ 2053 plight. But Dark skillfully pulls on its narrative threads until they’re head-spinningly knotted. In the four episodes provided to the press, it expands on most of its myriad aspects, developing its central relationships, introducing new antagonists (including a shadowy puppetmaster), and disclosing more about its overarching mythology.
In keeping with the story’s fixation on secrets buried deep beneath the surface—a notion echoed by the fact that everything revolves around a doorway in a subterranean cave—Netflix has requested that critics keep quiet about numerous crucial incidents in this season’s earlygoing. Fortunately, even trying to divulge those bombshells would first require so much contextualization that it would quickly prove a fruitless endeavor. Suffice it to say, though, that considerable energy is expended on Noah’s origins, allegiances, and role in this sprawling scheme, as well as Jonas’ prominent part to play, especially now that “the Stranger” (Andreas Pietschmann) has revealed himself to be Jonas as an adult. To a far greater extent than before, Dark has its characters confronting their younger/older selves in a variety of unexpected ways and, in doing so, grappling with fundamental conundrums about man’s autonomy and God’s divine plan.
More tantalizing still, via clockmaker H.G. Tannhaus (Christian Steyer)—whose first two initials are a clear nod to H.G. Wells—the show more directly addresses one of its founding tenets: the bootstrap paradox, which says that if an object or piece of information is sent from the future back into the past, that act creates a ceaseless cycle in which the object or information no longer has any real origin; instead, it exists without having been created. Regardless of the escalating convolutions caused by that logic, Dark is consistently lucid. Its writing sharply juggles its many elements, and it infuses its pulpiness with the right amount of thematic heft. Moreover, despite having to move dozens of pieces around its proverbial board, the series doesn’t cheat, laying things out in a way that—however outlandish—always stays true to its characters, and its premise’s reality.
Aided by Boris Gromatzki’s confident editing and Ben Frost’s foreboding score, director Odar never loses his grip on this multi-pronged material. His grim, shadowy aesthetics exude menace, and even amidst the mounting madness, he and screenwriter Friese make sure their characters’ emotional and psychological plights remain of paramount importance. As with its darkly entrancing kaleidoscopic credit sequence, Dark is awash in instances of visual and narrative doubling. The result is a show that feels as if it’s on the verge of eating its own tail—an impression that further enlivens what is fast becoming a monumental work of sci-fi intrigue.