Spoilers! Netflix's 'Dark' Proves Time Travel Plays Hell On Your Family Tree
Netflix’s German time travel show, Dark, might just be the smartest show out there today. I say “might” because, frankly, this thing clocks in way above my IQ level. By the end of Season Two, the show’s nonlinear storyline is operating across 5 different time periods, all while mixing heavy doses of theoretical physics and philosophy with heaps of small-town intrigue (when I jokingly call this the “I’m my own grandpa” show, please understand that I’m not really kidding). I’m trying to convince Dustin to give this show some of his precious free time, which is why I’m loathe to say this next thing at the risk of turning him off entirely, but: It’s like Twin Peaks, if Lynch’s small woodland town was plagued by a scientific menace rather than a spiritual one, and the show connected all of the dots explicitly rather than leaving things up to our own interpretation. Which isn’t to say you won’t still be confused while watching Dark — it just means that when you don’t understand something, it’s because there’s a reveal still waiting in the pipeline (or maybe you just need to rewatch it a few times).
And luckily, that’s what I wanna talk about today: THE BIG REVEALS! So stop right here if you’re not caught up on the second season, because from here on out we’re skipping straight to SPOILER territory!
Does It Count As Incest When…
Probably the biggest reveal in Season One was that Mikkel Nielsen (the modern boy who was transported to 1986) grew up to be Michael Kahnwald, Jonas’s father. Which, in a very Game of Thrones-esque twist, meant that Jonas was totally in love with his own aunt, Mikkel’s older sister Martha. And honestly, that would be complicated enough for any show, but Dark one ups itself with the reveal of Charlotte Doppler’s family tree. If you’ll recall, Charlotte was raised by her grandfather (the man who wrote the book on time travel, and also built the time machine based on old-Claudia’s blueprints), but she didn’t seem to know much about her parents. Well, it turns out that the creepy time traveling preacher, Noah, is Charlotte’s real father… and her own daughter, Elisabeth, is her mother.
I KNOW! It’s still not entirely clear how all that happened, but the news comes as quite a shock to Noah, who apparently didn’t know what happened to his daughter. Another of the twists in Season Two is the reveal that Noah is not the mastermind or the big bad of the show, but is merely another cog in the machine. He is an operative for the Sic Mundus group, where he works for a mysterious man named Adam, and it’s Adam has been pulling all the strings — and who had withheld the truth of where (and when, and who) Noah’s daughter was this whole time. When he learns the truth about Charlotte, Noah begins to rebel, only to be killed by his sister Agnes.
Oh and by the way, Adam is actually Jonas, as an old man.
Wait, So Who Is The Bad Guy?
Beats me! Basically, there are two driving forces behind all of the happenings in Winden: Adam and the Sic Mundus group (which we discover includes older versions of Magnus and Franziska), and Claudia. And they are in opposition, but who is “good” and who is “bad” isn’t really clear. Part of that is because who they are as people changes throughout time (for example, younger Jonas allies himself with Claudia, even though he knows he will become Adam). And part of that is because, though their goals are opposed — Claudia is trying to break the cycle leading to the apocalypse in order to save the world, while Adam is trying to reinforce the cycle to create a new world — they all seem to think what they’re doing is for the good of humanity or whatever.
And what is the apocalypse? Oh, just the Winden nuclear power plant going kablooey, thanks to the nuclear waste Aleksander Tiedemann tried to bury there — in barrels Claudia and Jonas had already infused with the God Particle in the past, and which erupted to wipe out the town while creating wormholes to other times. And yes, the God Particle here is basically dark matter (hence the show’s title) and/or the Higgs Boson — but what it does is join together into a big ball of timey-whimey, wibbly-wobbly stuff that floats in the air until it’s hit with electricity, at which point it stabilizes into a wormhole. In the show’s philosophy, God is Time, after all. They are everywhere, and inescapable.
Free Will vs. Determinism
The philosophical underpinnings of the show are deterministic: whether or not it’s possible to find a loophole in this cycle of events and break free. For example, Claudia reads a news report about her father’s death in the future, and tries to prevent it — only to accidentally push him in the process, which is what kills him. And Jonas tries to stop the whole cycle from ever beginning by attempting to convince his father, Michael, not to commit suicide — the event that launched the whole sequence of events that led to Mikkel’s disappearance. Unfortunately, Jonas winds up being the one who gave his father the very idea to do so. Yup, Michael chooses to kill himself not out of depression, but to ensure that the events that led his younger self to the past happen properly… so that Mikkel can grow into Michael and father Jonas. He kills himself to save his son’s existence. An idea he never would have had if Jonas hadn’t gone back in time to talk to him out of it. And he also reveals that Jonas was the one who led him into the wormhole to begin with!
Of course, one of the more interesting developments is Jonas and Claudia changing tactics and deciding that in order to break the cycle they need to shift a grain of sand rather than try to move a mountain. Make smaller changes, rather than alter huge events. Which is why they decided to pour that sample of the God Particle into the barrels of nuclear waste at the power plant in the past. Detective Clausen has them dug up and opened, which triggers the start of the “apocalypse” — but does that mean the explosion occurred according to Adam’s plan (who wanted it to happen in order to generate more of the God Particle), or according to Claudia and Jonas’s designs?
Oh, this show LOVES a good paradox. In so many shows and movies about time travel, paradoxes are a thing that must be avoided or at least explained away at all costs. They’re the problem, not the solution. But Dark employs them time and again as a crucial element of the plot. It explains them to justify utilizing them, and it’s fascinating to see the show push the boundary of its own internal logic to find the line between how much paradox the timeline can sustain, and where it would all collapse.
For example, the pivotal time travel book ends up being what’s explained as a “bootstrap paradox”: something that is sent from the future into the past, enabling it to be available in the future without ever being created. Charlotte’s grandfather never wrote the book — he just received a future copy of the book, and went about getting it published in the past. So is Charlotte herself is a bootstrap paradox? Was she sent to the past as a child, to give birth to the girl who would eventually give birth to her? I honestly have no idea, but when we see the younger version of Noah enter the bunker where Elisabeth is waiting with her father to ride out the apocalypse, it’s pretty clear what’s in their future at least.
And then there are things that are somehow not really paradoxes at all, like the fact that there were multiple time travel machines in play during the same time period — not different machines, but different versions of the same machine, from different times.
Oh, you thought this show was just about time travel? GUESS AGAIN! After Adam arrives to shoot Martha (Jonas’s Girlfriend/Aunt) in front of him, killing her to propel Jonas along the path toward becoming Adam, a funny thing happens: Another Martha arrives, saying she’s from a different world. We’re dealing with a multiverse, baby! So is this new Martha from the world Adam is trying to create, or from somewhere else entirely? And why is her haircut so cute?
The good news is that Dark was planned as a trilogy, so we can expect another season to tie up all the loose threads (many of which I haven’t even touched on, like Jonas’s crazy mom deciding to stay in the past?!). Production will begin this December, so I expect we’ll see the series return sometime in either late 2020 or 2021. Which outta give me enough time to rewatch it a few times and brush up, even if I won’t have time to squeeze in a quick PhD in particle physics.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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