Spoiler alert: this review discusses the ending of Dark: Season 2.

The climax of Season 2 of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s small-town mystery-horror-science-fiction drama involved the shocking death of a major character. Teenage Martha (Lisa Vicari) is shot dead in front of her love interest, Jonas (Louis Hofmann), by ‘Adam’ (Dietrich Hollinderbäumer), a scarred old man who is Jonas’s future self. Adam tells the young man that the murder is necessary to ensure he evolves into a time-warping mastermind in order to ensure the small town of Winden (and perhaps the world) survives the day of the apocalypse (27 June 2020) and transforms into paradise.

Just as Jonas, whose Peter Parker-like bad luck streak began with the suicide of his father Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) in Season 1, struggles to process all this, another Martha, with a different hairstyle and one of the series’ trademark facial scars, arrives from a parallel world. Until this moment, Dark seemed to trade solely in time travel, with an ouroboros bracelet indicating the serpent-eating-itself nature of causality.

The new Martha reveals that the real sigil of the saga is the sideways-eight infinity symbol. The knot Jonas and others have been seeking to untangle or preserve extends to a whole new world.

In the first episode of Season 3, characters whose complicated relationships already require diagrams and family trees to keep track of are reintroduced in alternate (though similar) versions with entirely new relationships. In the first season, broken-nosed cop Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), Martha’s father, was cheating on his wife Katharina (Jördis Triebel) with Jonas’s mother Hannah (Maja Schöne). In the alternate world, Ulrich has divorced Katharina and married Hannah, who isn’t a widow or a mother because Ulrich’s missing son Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) didn’t go back in time and grow up to become Michael; here, Ulrich is cheating on his new wife with Charlotte (Stephanie Amarell), Winden’s police chief.

In the parallel timeline, Jonas was never born. He spends the first hour watching the lead-up to the apocalypse unfold in a roughly similar fashion to the plot of Dark Season 1, catching on that this It’s a Wonderful Life vision of a world without him in it is still as doomed as the original where he half-felt that the apocalypse was his fault.

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Louis Hofmann as Jonas in Dark: Season 3

With its small-town, provincial German setting – Winden is a company town, dominated by a nuclear power plant – Dark has always felt like Edgar Reitz’s Heimat (1984) fed through a science-fiction blender, offering snapshots of Winden’s leading families at 33-year intervals from 1888 to post-apocalypse 2053. With Season 3, following the plot and the premise requires even more illustrated lectures in dark matter and quantum physics – though Schrödinger’s Cat could probably do with a rest, since the poor thing always gets dragged into the argument (Carol Morley’s Out of Blue, 2018, similarly used the thought exercise as a plot motor).

The application of parallel world theory in mainstream drama has come a long way since audiences needed a blackboard talk to keep up with Back to the Future Part II (1989). Odar and Friese offer parallel worlds after sustained use of the premise in the ‘mirror universe’ strand of the Star Trek franchise and five seasons of Fringe (2008-13), but the closest precedent is a 1970 Doctor Who serial, Inferno, which likewise posited a new universe where the regular cast lived different lives but doom was still impending.

A real strength of Dark, for all its you-need-a-scorecard complexity, is that its ultimate knot isn’t so much the dark matter that’s a by-product of the power plant as an intimate, grief-driven personal drama suffered by a tertiary character whose reality-fracturing project in yet another universe mirrors Jonas’s own lifelong sense of missed opportunities to connect with loved ones.

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Dark: Season 3 (2020)

A debt to Twin Peaks was obvious from the very first episodes, which concentrated on missing-child cases and events around a cave system that connects with the power plant; and the home stretch of Dark runs parallel for a while with David Lynch’s looping-back in Twin Peaks Season 3 to afford a happier outcome for much-abused Laura Palmer in a fresh timeline that’s also a reboot of the show.

Nothing as simple as changing the past to effect a tweaked upbeat finish will do for Dark, which does have a character cite Back to the Future in an attempt to explain what’s going on. Various factions headed by the biblically-named antagonists Adam and Eve (older versions of the slightly more covertly biblically named lovers Jonas and Martha) claim to be seeking paradise but might also be courting oblivion.

Dark risks being too cerebral an exercise, and is notably short of the humour found in most science fiction-crosses-over-to-mainstream-success franchises – it doesn’t even trade much in nostalgia in its 1980s sequences – but now that the pattern is complete, it’s an astonishing, challenging achievement.

Originally published: 18 August 2020