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1899 netflix.png

Spoilers: Unpacking Netflix's Polarizing Head-Scratcher '1899'

By Tori Preston | TV | November 26, 2022 |

By Tori Preston | TV | November 26, 2022 |


1899 netflix.png

If you listened to this week’s Podjiba then you already know at least one thing about Netflix’s old-timey maritime mystery show, 1899: The big twist ending. I want to dig into all those spoilers and theories in more depth here but first let me do a quick spoiler-free review of the series for the uninitiated:

1899 comes from showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the creators of Netflix’s mind-melting German time-travel show Dark. The 8-episode season follows the multinational passengers and crew of the Kerberos, a ship crossing the Atlantic from Europe to New York in — yup, you guessed it — 1899. These immigrants, from First Class to the bowels of the boat, are all fleeing misdeeds in their pasts and are determined to make a fresh start in the United States. Along the way the Kerberos receives a message — a set of coordinates — and the Captain believes it may be a distress call from another passenger ship called the Prometheus, which has been lost at sea for four months. He decides to make a detour to investigate, to the extreme displeasure of his impatient passengers, and sure enough he finds the missing vessel … completely empty, save for a small boy locked in a cupboard. The mystery of what happened to the passengers and crew of the Prometheus becomes the mystery of what is happening aboard the Kerberos as people turn up dead, navigation instruments go haywire, and an impenetrable fog rolls in.

And that’s not even counting the strange hatches under the beds that lead to chambers built out of memories…

A show like 1899 will succeed or fail almost entirely on the strength of its core concept — in this case a mystery that gets more and more convoluted until a big reveal upends everything you thought you knew. However, I think it’s safe to say that the best thing about 1899 is its incredible cast and the way they’re deployed during the series. Emily Beecham (Into The Badlands) stars as Maura Franklin, an Englishwoman and doctor who specializes in the mind, and she is the main POV character who is either unraveling or at the center of the show’s secrets. Andreas Pietschmann (Dark) is Captain Eyk Larsen, who heads up the largely German crew and finds himself teaming up with Maura. The rest of the sprawling main cast includes Maciej Musiał (The Witcher), Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk), Miguel Bernardeau (Elite), Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen (The Rain, Borgen), Clara Rosager (The Rain), José Pimentão (Al Berto), Mathilde Ollivier (Boss Level), Jonas Bloquet (The Nun), Yann Gael (Saloum), Isabella Wei (Our 4°c - Able World), Gabby Wong (Rogue One), Rosalie Craig (Lovesick), Maria Erwolter (The Ritual) and Alexandre Willaume (The Wheel of Time), and I’m loath to say too much about their characters and relationships because those connections are also part of the puzzle that is 1899.

What’s important is that this diverse cast is mostly speaking in their native tongues — English and German, yes, but also Danish, French, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, and those are just the ones I managed to count — and that language barrier is a feature of the story. Some characters are bilingual and will translate for others, but often two characters will find themselves alone and unable to understand each other. Not that it stops them from communicating! Something beautiful happens as these characters find meaning even without understanding, unburdening their hearts and hoping even a fraction of their message is received through expression alone. This melting pot is neither a burden nor a cause for conflict but instead demonstrates how strongly people can unite against impossible odds.

If you’re familiar with Dark, then you likely will approach 1899 with a different set of expectations. I found 1899 to be a slow burn for the first few episodes, but I was also more willing to be patient with it, trusting it would pay off because I have so much faith in this creative team — and in particular, faith that no matter how mind-boggling the show gets, it will always err more on the side of the philosophical than the pseudo-intellectual. Whether that faith is warranted is a big part of the spoilers, so let me just say that this show doesn’t quite live up to Dark’s example just yet. What made the first season of Dark so gripping was that it gave you its conceptual hook right off the bat: It’s a show about time-travel, with characters wandering through tunnels and ending up in the past (or future). The payoff to that season was the revelation of how that conceit impacted the characters — for example, the little boy who got lost in the past grew up to be the main character’s father, which meant the main character was in love with his aunt (it makes sense in the show, just roll with it).

The plot was convoluted but the stakes were grounded by these characters, and that’s what 1899 doesn’t quite land in its freshman outing. We spend so much time trying to guess what the central mystery is that it sort of takes us away from the characters, and when we do get our answer in the final moments of the season it calls into question everything that came before. Still, there’s been plenty of puzzle box shows from Lost to Westworld, shows that started out with a bang and then became something of a letdown, and I personally still have faith that at least 1899 knows where it’s going. If it gets a second season — and it certainly is set up for one, and maybe more — I think there’s a good chance this slow start will get the payoff it deserves. And if nothing else, it’s nice to watch a show that really challenges you as a viewer. I certainly haven’t stopped thinking about it.

So that’s it, that’s the spoiler-free review: It’s good, it’s not perfect, it has potential, and it does some things really well. It coulda used more holes, though. Now’s the time to bail, because from here on out I’m going to be talking SPOILERS for those of you that have already seen the show or just want to learn more about it.

THE TWIST:

When I started watching 1899, I remember thinking the set-up reminded me of a pretty standard space sci-fi plot: A spaceship receives a mysterious signal, goes to investigate, and discovers an empty vessel, often from a lost previous mission. It’s sort of how Event Horizon starts, it happens in Sunshine, it’s basically the “Night Terrors” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I mean, maybe it’s also a regular plot in, I dunno, maritime boat fiction, but I watch more space stuff. ANYWAY. Point is, I was at least a little bit delighted by 1899’s big reveal, that actually all of the characters are sleeping in pods on a spaceship in the year 2099, because it felt like the show came full circle IN MY MIND!

The reason they’re trapped on a spaceship is because they’re plugged into a simulation — a program set 200 years earlier, which is the story we just watched. Maura thought her father designed it, but it appears that he’s trapped as well and that actually she herself designed it as part of her research into the human brain. The problem, of course, is that after you find out that none of what you watched was real, it’s a little hard to trust even these revelations — so when I say that the boy on the Prometheus, Elliot, is supposedly Maura’s son, and the mysterious stranger with the popped collar, Daniel, claims to be Maura’s husband, just know that it may be true… or it may not be. Maura has no memory of them or of creating the simulation, which may be the point of her experiment or it may mean that actually something else is going on still. Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. We simply don’t have enough information yet — and that’s likely what’s coming in Season Two.

Season Two?

1899 has not been renewed yet, and we won’t know for a few weeks/months if it will be given Netflix’s track record. I think there’s a good chance the show will be back for more, though. It’s currently trending in the #2 spot for English language series on Netflix’s Global Top 10, it has truly international appeal, and the success of Dark has likely given the showrunners a longer runway with the streamer — runway they’re hoping to capitalize on, given their comments in 1899’s making-of documentary. Sidenote: If you haven’t seen the documentary, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It doesn’t delve into the show’s mysteries, sadly, but it’s a fascinating look at the production of the series. One tidbit I loved was that, due to the pandemic, it was largely shot on an LED Volume soundstage instead of on location, which means the show about a simulation was shot INSIDE a simulation.

Anyway, the end of the first season sets up even more questions for another season to answer. If Maura designed the simulation, why would she enter it and give up her memories? Is it because Elliot is dead? Is her brother really running the program now, and how did Daniel sneak in and hack it to help her? Who are all the other passengers, and how did they come to be involved in the simulation? And more importantly: Was anything we saw real at all?

That last question is the clincher, really, because we went on journeys with these characters. We saw their painful pasts and heartaches, we saw them grow together. If those journeys were just a part of the program, was it built on anything real — inspired by their own pain, translated to a different time period, or is the experiment all about how memories impact individuals regardless of whether they’re manufactured or true?

So It’s Westworld?

No. Kinda. Look, shut up.

One Wild-Ass Theory

Unlike Westworld, which always thought it was smarter than it was, I’m betting that 1899 has more going on than we realize. That is why I’ve been nurturing a super nerdy pet theory based on what may or may not have been a throw-away reference to Plato. Sure, the show makes plenty of Greek allusions — Prometheus, destined to suffer and die every day as penance for giving knowledge to humanity, and Kerberos, the many-headed guard dog of Hades, but the Plato thing is something else. Maura’s father, Henry (the delightful Anton Lesser), claims that Maura’s intellectual path was shaped by reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in his office when she was a child — and misinterpreting it. The story imagines people chained in a cave, facing a wall and watching shadows play across it. They can’t turn their heads to see the fire producing the light, or the things moving in front of it to cast the shadows. To those people, the shadows would be their only truth — their whole reality. Maura’s interpretation of the story more or less stopped here, according to her father — she believes that human perception IS reality, which does line up with some of Maura’s own comments throughout the season. However, Plato was not defining a purely subjective view of reality. The allegory continues that if someone were to break away, they might be blinded by the light, confused, but eventually recognize the models that cast the shadows he saw. Even further, out of the cave, the sunlight would be painful but eventually he would adjust and come to understand the full extent of reality and how different it is from those shadowy representations in the cave. The allegory, of course, is about enlightenment — or rather, education. The journey of the soul and mind beyond a sensory understanding of the world to a deeper intellectual understanding and how that would change their desires.

I think 1899 is exploring subjective vs. objective reality — I think it’s why Maura is so adamant that, even after she is given proof that Daniel is her husband and Elliot is her son, she still feels “nothing.” That objective truth has no subjective bearing on her. However, I’m starting to wonder if the show is actually retelling the Allegory of the Cave, and we just watched the simulation play out the shadows on the cave wall. Maura, finally, has broken away — but she’s not out of the cave yet. She sees more, but not everything. And will she be able to drag anyone else out into the light with her? Because that’s the other thing about the Allegory of the Cave — it understands how hard it is to teach people, to open their minds. The truth is scary and not everyone can understand it. I figure the show could go at least another season or two copying Plato’s structure if it wanted.

Less Holes, More Triangles

Look, SOME OF US are really into giant mysterious holes through time and/or space, and it seemed like 1899 would deliver a new entry in the budding genre. And it did, sort of! When the ships pass through the end of the simulation, it takes the form of a sinkhole in the middle of the ocean, and the hatches that open into memories are kind of like holes if you wanna be loose with your interpretation. Still, holes ain’t really the shape you need to worry about on this show. Triangles are the thing, here, and they’re EVERYWHERE. It’s a visual motif that starts out rooted in the show’s story — the symbol of the ship’s company, which in turn is owned (or is it?) by Maura’s father — so when it pops up on the carpets and set dressing you can kind of explain it away. But then you notice them on the passengers, on earrings or kimonos, and the first mate sends secret messages in a code made out of triangles, Daniel has a machine with triangle buttons, Elliot has a triangle tattoo, and eventually you end up in a strange otherworldly realm where a giant pyramid stands in the distance.

Triangles have a lot of symbolic meanings: The Holy Trinity, strength, balance, but they can also represent enlightenment or higher perspective. In the Greek alphabet, the uppercase Delta is a triangle and it represents change or difference in mathematics. In alchemy, an upward triangle with a line through it represents air while a downward-pointed triangle with a line through it represents earth (many of the triangle symbols on the show have lines through them, likely referencing this). The triangle has a grab bag of meanings that are open to interpretation, but I think reading something into “enlightenment” is fair because the backdoor that Daniel codes into the simulation to wake Maura up is a triangle. In fact, it’s a miniature pyramid, like a puzzle box, and inside is a keyhole and the message: “Wake Up” (a phrase that is repeated in every episode’s cold open, as a character wakes up out of a memory/dream, and a triangle appears in their eye). Awakening is also referenced by a book in Maura’s room that she constantly looks at, a novel by Kate Chopin titled “The Awakening” that was published in 1899 and deals with a woman struggling to find herself amidst social constraints. Thematically that sort of ties to Maura’s backstory within the simulation, but I’m gonna be honest — I think the showrunners just wanted an excuse to cut to the book’s cover and have us thinking about AWAKENING.

Now I’ve digressed, and I could do this all day, but there’s really only one thing left that I desperately NEED to talk about: The Love Triangle!

Eyk vs. Daniel

So Daniel sneaks into the simulation and makes sad puppy dog eyes behind his popped collar at Maura, and she isn’t picking up what he’s putting down (“please remember that I’m your husband!” basically). Meanwhile, Maura is growing closer to Captain Eyk, who also rocks a popped collar peacoat like nobody’s business, but their flirtation just barely reaches season two Bridgerton levels of meaningful glances and chaste arm touching. Assuming we can trust that Daniel really is Maura’s husband, then what does it mean that she doesn’t feel anything for him — and what does it mean that she does feel for Eyk, considering they came together in a simulation where neither of them are who they think they are. Which emotional truth will win outside of the simulation, in the harsh reality of SPACE? And will these two ridiculously handsome men still have their faces framed by the largest collars in the solar system because dammit, I HAVE NEEDS.

What I’m saying is that, philosophical underpinnings aside, I’ll watch a second season of this show purely for the eye candy. And the coats.