Watching Dark’s third and final season is like clutching the hand of a person who’s dangling from a helicopter over a vast canyon—you’re just holding on for dear life, desperate to maintain your grip on the wild situation. Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar’s German-language series has always been a masterpiece of time-travel intricacy, and that continues to be true with its closing eight-episode run (premiering Saturday, June 27), which keeps tying itself in temporal knots—heck, everyone even calls their interconnected circumstances “The Knot”—while simultaneously adding a new mind-melting complication to the mix: the multiverse!
For a show about existential grief and despair in which the same characters are played by multiple actors in different eras, and are linked by more convoluted and paradoxical familial bonds than one can always process—for example, one woman’s daughter is also her mother—Dark’s decision to hint at alternate realities in the last moments of its prior season was dizzying. Nonetheless, creators Friese (the primary writer) and Odar (the director) are nothing if not ambitious, and it’s a testament to their storytelling prowess that their climactic gambit not only works as well as it does, but brings the series to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. No time-travel saga has ever been this headache-inducingly elaborate, original and poignant.
If weaving Dark’s crisscrossing strands into something lucid and moving is a Herculean accomplishment, so too is trying to summarize it in a decipherable manner. In season two’s finale, moments before the apocalypse commenced, Jonas (Louis Hofmann) witnessed his older self Adam (Dietrich Hollinderbäumer)—the apparent mastermind behind this entire affair—murder his beloved girlfriend Martha (Lisa Vicari). Jonas was then stunned when a second, shorter-haired Martha materialized, revealed that she was from another world, and zapped them both to safety with a newfangled spherical time-travel device. They now reappear in a cave in 2019, with this Martha telling Jonas, “You and I, your world and my world, form a Knot that is inextricably intertwined.” Martha promptly vanishes, leaving Jonas to fend for himself in an alternate universe that looks a whole lot like his own—except, of course, for the many ways that it doesn’t.
For one, this Martha resides in a mirror-image version of Jonas’ bedroom, and house. She still lives with mom Katharina (Jördis Triebel) and her siblings, including Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), who hasn’t disappeared. Her dad Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) is stuck in a messy spot, some of which has to do with colleague Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn), whose daughters have now flip-flopped health conditions—whereas Elisabeth (Carlotta von Falkenhayn) was deaf in Jonas’ reality, it’s now Franziska (Gina Stiebitz) who can’t hear, although Franziska remains involved with Martha’s brother Magnus (Moritz Jahn). Martha has a new boyfriend named Kilian Obendorf (Sammy Scheuritzel) who lives in the trailer once occupied by trans prostitute Bernadette (Anton Rubtsov). Peter’s father Helge (Hermann Beyer), his face scar now extending to one empty eye socket, endlessly intones, “It will happen again. Tick, tock,” while clutching a crucial coin. Claudia (Julika Jenkins) is also hopscotching her way through decades, working angles that no one can quite deduce, much less trust.
Priest Noah (Mark Waschke), clockmaker H.G. Tannhaus (Christian Steyer) and everyone else eventually shows up in one decade or dimension, as do three mysteriously menacing men visiting differing iterations of Winden—one a child, one an adult, and one an elderly man, and all of them boasting the same upper-lip scar. Given that Dark’s third season is awash in several versions of the same individuals, many of them often existing in the same spaces, it’s not hard to deduce the general nature of this unholy trinity. Yet trying to guess their actual identity before it’s revealed is, as with most of the show’s secrets, a hopeless cause. Also taking place in the 1880s at the Tannhaus Machine Factory, in the 1950s and 1980s in Winden, and in a post-apocalyptic 2023 and an even-more-post-apocalyptic 2053, the plot is akin to a sprawling jigsaw puzzle full of superficially identical pieces. After a while, one simply has to embrace and enjoy a level of confusion, especially since the proceedings rarely take a moment to breathe, zipping between periods with exhilarating speed.
Factor in another potentially malevolent puppetmaster named Eva (Barbara Nüsse), and Dark often feels as if it’s daring its audience to keep up. While that can occasionally prove a bit exhausting, Friese and Odar’s habit of writing themselves into constricting corners and then figuring out bonkers ways to extricate themselves—and their characters—is also electrifying. Even better is Odar’s direction, which once again employs music montages, split screens, slow-motion and consuming gloom to haunting, and thematically relevant, ends. Visual and narrative echoes abound, as do incidents, conflicts, motifs, phrases and pop songs, all of which (like Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me”) speak to the circular nature of the action at hand.
Dark is ultimately a battle between two conjoined figures, one convinced that perpetuating the Knot is the way to save everyone, and the other certain that escape from the infinite loop is only achievable through the end of the world(s). Love and death, creation and annihilation, cause and effect, free will and destiny are the foundational dualities of Friese and Odar’s series, which imagines human nature—and activity, and history—as unchangeable no matter the endless variations in which they come. To Dark, there’s no more inherent impulse than the desire to cheat death, and to resurrect the beloved dead, which begets both inspired achievements and ruinous follies. As is often said by its players, there is no light without shadow—a notion that colors every triumph and tragedy in this bravura series as it barrels forward toward time-space calamity.
“What we know is a drop. What we don’t is an ocean,” states Adam (among others), and that sentiment is applicable not only to Dark’s narrative, but also to the experience of viewing the show. Loopily doubling back on itself, it locates hope in togetherness, beauty in destruction, and solace and peace in Armageddon, as well as the sense that all beginnings are endings, and vice versa. By the time its legendarily complex tale wrapped up, I understood it. Or, at least, I think I did. Either way, I look forward to taking a cue from its own playbook and gaining greater understanding—of its twists, its mysteries, and its insights—by watching it again.