Spoilers Warning: I’m going to talk about the conclusion of Dark, but luckily the show is so dense, whatever I reveal will only scratch the surface of the plot and will likely not ruin the experience of watching it if you haven’t yet.
Is it still considered incest if you’re in love with your aunt, but she’s from an alternate reality where technically you never existed in the first place? That is just one of the many pleasantly diverting questions Netflix’s German mindboggle, Dark, invites viewers to consider. Over the course of three seasons, the series has taken the entire notion of linear storytelling and twisted it into a Möbius strip of narrative inevitability. The first two seasons revealed that the sleepy town of Winden had been built around an inextricable knot of paradoxes, formed as characters travelled through time to save their loved ones, stop an apocalypse, and generally… well, prevent the knot from forming in the first place. In the third and final season, a parallel universe is introduced where one key event never happened — where one key person never happened — but everything else still did, or does, or will in one shape or another, and so the knot continued to expand. It is a show that, if I can steal an observation from Dustin, Moffats harder than even the Moffat-iest season of Doctor Who, though I’d add it does so with one key difference: Dark isn’t self-satisfied. Instead of trying to stump the audience to prove its own cleverness, it respects that the audience is smart enough to keep pace with all of its confusing loops and yarn-walled machinations.
Still, I’ll admit I had serious doubts as I watched the third season barrel toward its conclusion while continuing to expand its own mythology. How — or when — would Dark manifest a satisfying conclusion from this tangled web? The answer: Pretty much in the very last episode. Like a rabbit out of a hat, the show revealed a third reality where the actions of a different very-important-person set in motion a different apocalypse, one that produced the two other realities we’d spent so much time watching. That was the origin of the knot, and in saving that world Jonas and Martha chose to extinguish their own. Everything we’d watched for three seasons never happened at all. Embracing oblivion was the only way to break the loop and end the show.
At first, that 11th hour sleight of hand didn’t sit well with me. For two seasons we followed Jonas (Louis Hofmann) in his distinctive yellow raincoat as he sought to unravel the events that let to the end of his world — and the death of his love, Martha (Lisa Vicari), only to discover that he himself caused it all. Or at least, his older self did, a scarred madman called Adam. No matter what choices Jonas made, he was bound to the path that would eventually set him in Adam’s shoes, shooting Martha — who, yes, is Jonas’s aunt, because her little brother went backwards in time and eventually grew up to be Jonas’s father. The third season found Jonas dragged to an alternate universe by an alternate Martha, and in this reality his father never got lost in time, so Jonas was never born. Here Martha is the one in the yellow raincoat — the primary figure trying to stop the destruction of her world and discovering that she too has an older mastermind version of herself named Eva who is manipulating events behind the scenes.
Yup: Jonas and Martha are Adam and Eve, and while that seems to be another nod to the duality between these two characters and these two realities, it actually should have been the first hint as to what shape the ultimate conclusion of the series would take. So much of Dark was concerned with finding the “origin” of the knot in an effort to undo it and subvert disaster (or to preserve the origin, and thus preserve the endless loop). The biblical Adam and Eve, as the origin of humanity, would seem to be a symbolic gimme, and for a moment it seems the series is going to take it very literally when it reveals that alt-Martha is pregnant with Jonas’s baby. Adam, believing that baby to be the origin, attempts to destroy it, while Eva herself has been deploying young, middle-aged and elderly versions of the child throughout time for her own purposes. Or course, it’s all a red herring. Adam and Eve may be the origin of humanity, but God created them first. The question we all need to be asking is: what created Jonas and Martha? What created these two worlds?
Enter the clockmaker.
Yes, having a clockmaker be the lynchpin of a time-travel show may be a wee bit on the nose, I’ll admit. E.G. Tannhaus (Christian Steyer) has been on the periphery of the series from the start — he raised Charlotte as his granddaughter, though in reality she is the (checks notes) time-displaced kidnapped child of her own daughter. Yes, Charlotte’s mother is her daughter, Elisabeth. Time, amirite?! Anyway, what Dark reveals is that, in the origin reality, Tannhaus lost his son, daughter-in-law and infant granddaughter in a car accident and instead of dealing with his grief he decided to… build a time machine. Natch. Activating said time machine is what causes his reality’s apocalypse — splintering his world into the two we’ve already been watching. Through some handflappy nonsense about, like, time standing still at the moment of armageddon, Jonas and alt-Martha are able to transport into that origin reality and save the lives of Tannhaus’s family. He never builds the machine, reality doesn’t splinter, and Jonas and Martha never exist. We watch them affirm their love for one another as they dissolve into glowing particles, extinguished.
The rapidity with which this solution came about in the final moments of the series, and the implication that basically every person and event we’ve witnessed never happened, took me aback at first. It felt uneven, unsatisfying, unfair somehow. But the longer I chewed on it, the more I grew to appreciate the feat Dark pulled off with this last act. Tannhaus’s original sin was being unable to let go, and that was the mistake we saw Jonas and Martha (and Ulrich, and Claudia, and so many others) commit time and again. That was what formed these alternate realities and the endless loops they became trapped within. The solution was never going to be anything other than “just let go” — and that applied to the audience as well. What matters isn’t that Jonas and Martha are erased but that they ACCEPTED their shared destruction together. Their sacrifice has meaning even if they no longer exist — just as the show, and the worlds it created, has meaning to us even as it erased itself.
The knot was ultimately not a loop of events in time, but an intangible weaving of relationships. Characters were driven by their love for one another, or were created out of the love their ancestors (or descendants!). The journey we went on as viewers, as we scratched our heads and puzzled out the intertwining generations, mapping their relations and trying to predict who was who through the ages, also had meaning. I know I, personally, built a relationship to the series. I craved the confusion and the revelations, and I appreciated the mental workout the show gave me. I was a viewer, but I was never passive. The show did not exist outside of my understanding of it, and thus it always evolved and changed as I rose to its challenge and got better at decoding it. That experience isn’t invalidated just because the loop was unwound or the characters extinguished.
As Jonas realized at the end of the series, he and Martha were mistakes and they were perfect for each other. There was no binary, just as Adam and Eve and the two worlds weren’t binary either. One does not need to win out over another. Sometimes the answer is everything. Sometimes the answer is nothing at all. For three seasons, desperately grasping didn’t work. For Dark to end, its characters had no option but to let go — and the same goes for us as well.