Netflix’s new supernatural series concerns a missing child in a small rural town, and the adults, teenagers, and police officers who endeavor to find that kid, and also to unravel the mysterious nature of their home, which boasts secrets in the surrounding forest, a nearby nuclear power plant and crimes that date back to the 1980s. It features period clothing and music, boys riding at night on their bikes, and unnatural strangers who manipulate events from the shadows, not to mention absentee fathers, love triangles and a villain with malevolent intentions. It even has a haunting score that occasionally indulges in a bit of retro synthesizer.
In other words, it’s a saga tailor-made for Stranger Things fanatics.
Dark is a 10-part German-language production courtesy of creator/director Baran bo Odar (Sleepless) and writer Jantje Friese, and an attempt by the streaming service to further branch out into international markets with the sort of binge-watchable original content that’s flourished here in the states. It’s also, more importantly, a consistently engaging genre effort in its own right, employing unsettling production values and an enormous cast of well-drawn characters for a narratively splintered investigation into questions of fate and free will. A thriller mired in philosophical conundrums, it’s a show that starts small and then gradually expands into an eras-spanning look at humanity’s control (or lack thereof) over its own destiny. Come for the surface similarities to Stranger Things, stay for the unique time-travel insanity.
That madness takes place in Winden, a fictional hamlet of misty woodlands, damp streets and perpetual rain that’s home to Michael Kahnwald (Sebastian Rudolph), who’s introduced hanging himself, albeit not before writing a letter that, per his instructions, should not be opened before Nov. 4, 2019, at 10:13 p.m. We won’t learn the contents of that missive until the conclusion of episode five, but its existence hangs over the ensuing proceedings, which concern his 16-year-old son Jonas (Louis Hofmann), who finds it awkward returning to school after a few months spent at the “nuthouse” dealing with his dad-killed-himself PTSD—a situation unbeknownst to his classmates, thanks to lies told by Jonas’ best friend Bartosz (Paul Lux). In the interim, Bartosz has started dating Jonas’ summer fling Martha (Lisa Vicari), although the more pressing local crisis is the disappearance of 15-year-old Erik Obendorf (Paul Radom), which continues to puzzle police chief Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn) and detective Ulrich (Oliver Masucci, looking strikingly like Mads Mikkelsen).
While everyone is concerned about Erik, it’s Ulrich who finds himself most troubled, given that 33 years ago, his kid brother Mads (Valentin Oppermann) vanished without a trace. To compound matters, a boy’s body turns up with his eyes burned off and his eardrums shattered, the latter injury also found in flocks of dead birds. And then, during Jonas and company’s trip out to an ominous woodland cave near the nuclear facility (to procure Erik’s hidden drug stash), Ulrich’s Harry Houdini-loving 11-year-old son Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz)—dressed in a Donnie Darko-ish skeleton costume—disappears into thin air. This sends the town into a panic, and for all sorts of reasons, since the rest of Dark’s characters—including Jonas’ grandmother Ines (Angela Winkler), who has Michael’s letter; Charlotte’s husband Peter (Stephan Kampwirth), who’s hiding something from his spouse; Jonas’ mom Hannah (Maja Schöne), who’s having an affair with Ulrich; Regina (Deborah Kaufmann), who runs the local hotel; and Charlotte’s dementia-addled father Helge (Hermann Beyer), who keeps escaping from the nursing home and muttering “It’s going to happen again”—all have secrets that, in some way, relate back to the kids’ abductions.
Throw in a hooded raincoat-wearing Stranger (Andreas Pietschmann), a clockmaker named H.G. Tannhaus (Christian Steyer), a wicked priest named Noah (Mark Waschke), and a sinister children’s bedroom housing an electric chair-resembling device, and Dark soon spins a tangled web of lies, deceit and betrayal—and that’s before it starts jumping backwards in time, first to 1986, and then to 1953, to detail its many characters’ (and their relatives’) origins. At least a few of its protagonists also start literally traveling between now and then, but divulging more would spoil the bombshells that begin dropping with the show’s third chapter. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that few series have boasted such ambitious plotting in their maiden season. By the end of this initial run, all of it encased in post-Chernobyl fears about atomic energy, Odar and Friese have introduced not only an assortment of fascinating cross-generational figures; they’ve presented two or three versions of those figures at assorted points in their lives (played by different actors), via concurrent storylines set in three different decades.
It’s quite a lot to take in, and there are moments when these myriad men and women’s relations to each other prove intricate to the point of inducing a mild headache. For the most part, however, Dark confidently maps out its mythology, and in doing so, generates both eerie suspense as well as an overarching portrait of the past’s constant pull on the present—as well as the future’s effect on the past. Eventually involving black holes and Einstein-Rosen bridges, it presents a vision of time and space as an ever-rotating circle, where the beginning and the end are one and the same, and in which man’s ability to choose his own path—and thus to be free of any larger force’s grand “plan”—is merely an illusion, no matter how real it often seems to be.
Even more than Odar’s stylishly dank visuals or Ben Frost’s creepy orchestral score, it’s that bleak view of individual agency that gives Dark its disquieting—and, to some extent, distinctly German—chill. In a universe where everyone is a pawn being moved around a game board (as Noah claims), there’s little hope for avoiding, or escaping, the misery born today, or inherited from one’s ancestors; rather, there’s just an endless repetition of treachery, revenge and mistakes that can’t be undone. Odar and Friese’s series makes its own small share of missteps as well—most notably, a preponderance of split screens, and a habit of punctuating episodes with multi-character music montages. Still, its refusal to indulge in shout-out nostalgia is (considering the unavoidable Stranger Things echoes) a welcome relief. And its disinterest in happily-ever-afters enhances its atmosphere of cosmic powerlessness.
In that futility, it carves out its own idiosyncratic identity, and provides hope for future thrills to come.