Dark: Season One Review - More Than Just an Adult ‘Stranger Things’
A piece of advice before embarking on the rollercoaster that is Netflix’s new original series Dark. Switch to German audio and put on the subtitles for your native language. German speakers - this one’s easy. Though it may be second nature for fans of German Expressionist Cinema to ensure the subtitles are on, Dark is Netflix’s first German language original series and the dubbing is spectacularly awful. Trust me, you do not want to miss any of the nuances or subtle linguistic choices. With that done, you are about ready to dive into a 10 hour hole of time travel, familial drama and kidnapping with religious undertones and an added sprinkle of incest.
Dark (Baran bo Odar & Jantje Friese) takes place in the small town of Winden, situated deep in the Black Forest in the Southwest Region. A quick google tells me that Winden is based on the real town of Winden im Elztal, and I have now resigned myself to never, ever, ever going there. The town is also said to have been the inspiration for many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which is hardly surprising given it’s densely wooded areas, winding forest road and sparsely spread community. Dark certainly has the makings of a eerie fairy-tale, and one that I am sure the Grimm’s would have been proud to have called their own.
Boasting a large ensemble cast, the series opens with the suicide of Jonas’ father, Jonas being one of the main characters. We learn quickly that Jonas’ mother (Hannah) had been having an affair with local cop Ulrich, who in turn has his own demons to battle with. In a similar vein to HBO’s Big Little Lies or ITV’s Broadchurch, every character is revealed to be hiding something and more often than not, it’s something from their past.
Comparisons have been drawn (very liberally) from Strangers Things to Dark, most notably that Dark is Stranger Things but for adults, but the basis for this seems to only be the disappearance of a young boy, Mikel (Ulrich’s son), at the end of the first episode. Mikkel goes missing whilst in the woods at night after becoming separated from the group including his brother and sister, and Jonas himself.
After Mikkel’s disappearance, the people of Winden are on high alert. Jonas, the last person to be seen with Mikkel is distraught. Soon after, the bodies of two young boys are found in a field next to the forest but neither is Mikkel’s. One of them, however, appears to bear an uncanny resemblance to Ulrich’s brother Mads, who went missing as a boy in 1986. Ulrich is confused, Charlotte, Ulrich’s colleague and fellow detective, is confused - well to be honest, everyone is confused. This discovery is only the tip of the Winden iceberg, as everyone is about to find out. Whilst It’s true that both shows start from the same point, Dark is a completely different vehicle to Stranger Things, and is arguably doing something far more sophisticated and original. The parents of Dark are more than just grieving parents and it’s through the various timeliness that we see the trauma of their own lives. This in turn explains why characters like Hannah, Regina, Peter or Katharina (amongst many others) behave the way they do. Understanding these motivations is absolutely crucial to understanding Dark, and Odar and Friese ensure that these are full explored.
That’s not to say it’s an easy show to watch. Describing Dark as complicated is akin to calling the Titanic disaster a slight inconvenience to its passengers. Fortunately, it’s the complexity and relentless barrage of new information that makes Dark so brilliant. In direct opposition to the hand-holding that many TV shows do to keep their audiences happy and comfortable, Dark expects us to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Spanning across three different time periods (1953, 1986 and 2019), it is mostly left to the audience to connect the various characters in different eras. There is a helpful montage early in the series which uses split screens to show which who is who between 1986 and 2019. For any other show, these technique might seem heavy handed, but it is absolutely necessary in Dark. Other than that we are mostly left to make our own connections by picking up on small nuances and details. You cannot afford to not pay attention, but when you correctly fit the puzzles pieces together, the feeling of satisfaction is unparalleled. This is not a show you can watch whilst knitting, tweeting or whatever else it is you like to do whilst watching Netflix.
In addition to its labyrinthine narrative, Dark is also really… well dark. Odar and Friese do not shy away from difficult and at times terrifying topics. It can be hard to watch - not only does it evoke the fear factor of dimly lit caves and kidnapped children, the situations the characters end up in (particularly Regina, Ulrich and Mikkel) are genuinely heartbreaking. The development of each individual character is plotted throughout the series and giving access to the vast majority of characters across at least two periods of their life means we identify with them even more.
The setting of Winden is hostile and scary too - an isolated town which always seems to be in a state of dusk or dawn. Odar and Friese develop the town into its own character which has its claws into the townsfolk and shows no signs of letting go soon. It is the Winden caves which have caused the entirety of the narrative to take place and so the town is, in a very literal sense, the antagonist of the show. The repetition of a thunderstorm every time time travel occurs only adds to this idea that the town is a real character, with it’s own motivations. Of course, the backdrop of the nuclear power station heightens this fear factor, especially when the 1986 timeline is playing out. The direction and production design make it clear that nuclear war is a huge threat and that the townsfolk are very distrusting of the power station. As it turns out, they might just be right to be suspicious.
In amongst the crisscrossing narratives, Dark also manages to weave in a keen discussion of some pretty interesting gender politics. Onscreen and in art, women are often forced to take a backseat – playing sidekick to their male counterparts whims and wishes. Not so in Dark. Regina, one of the most complicated characters, and her mother Claudia are both business women who are written to supersede the idea that career women are either uptight or pseudo-men. There is also a subtle, yet beautiful, blossoming romance between Agnes (Ulrich’s grandmother) and Doris (Regina’s grandmother) in the 1950s timeline. These women are not here to play supporting roles – they are the foundations upon which Dark is built.
Fundamentally, Dark treats it’s audience with respect. Odar and Friese have an expectation that we, as a viewer, will try to connect the dots or form our own theories. Watching Dark is not the passive experience that we are becoming used to in the age of binge-worthy television. Of course it is impossible not to steam through Dark in one sitting (every episode leaves you wanting more) but you need to be switched on all the time. Complete with impressive cinematography, interesting characters, Dark is a refreshing and rewarding experience.
Luckily, it’s just been renewed for a 2nd season so with any luck, we may get a few answers. I am not holding out any hope though.