Fate and Free Will in Netflix’s ‘Dark’

In Featured, James Powers, Reviews, TV Reviews by Impact Admin

– By James Powers –

Editor’s Note: Potential Spoilers Below for Season 1 of ‘Dark’

Most of us have probably had the freaky experience, in some high school world lit class, of reading Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. In case you don’t remember, that’s the one in which the doomed protagonist tries and fails to avoid the unsavory destiny pronounced for him by an oracle: namely, to murder his father and marry his own mother.

The tale of Oedipus, although by no means the first of its kind, has long served as the blueprint for tragedy, for stories in which characters find themselves on a path to disaster and try, in vain, to escape from it. Although we often think of tragedy as the arena of Shakespeare and Italian operas and, of course, old Greek plays, it actually still crops up a lot in our current pop culture landscape, often but not always in the guise of sci-fi or horror. HBO’s recent megahit Chernobyl is a great example, but there are plenty of others as well – AMC’s The Terror, horror films such as The Witch and Hereditary, even dramas like Breaking Bad or (most likely) the upcoming Joker

One of the best recent examples, however, has flown relatively low under the radar, a German show that premiered two years ago and just dropped its second season last week. This is Netflix’s Dark, and although the buzz around Chernobyl has largely upstaged its second season (as did Stranger Things with its first), it is, to my mind, one of the most compelling, frightening and artfully crafted things to come out of peak TV. At least if you’re willing to deal with subtitles. 

 At its most basic level, the show follows four families – the Kahnwalds, Nielsens, Dopplers and Tiedemanns – in the small German town of Winden over the course of several generations. Their relationships are more messy and intricate than you might expect, however, because their shared history doesn’t play out in linear order. A 12-year-old boy disappears in 2019, and meets his future wife in 1986. A teenager in 1986 runs afoul of a cop, and then, as a grown man, meets the same cop in 1953. The body of a boy who went missing in 1986 is discovered in 2019, but the autopsy reveals that he’s only been dead for a couple of weeks. An engineer builds the prototype of a powerful nuclear device, using only the device itself for reference. 

If you’re twisting your brain around trying to make sense of those last few sentences, well, that’s the idea. The history of Winden twists around and doesn’t make temporal sense. Instead of proceeding in a straight line from past to present to future, it folds back on itself and repeats. Rather than proceeding in a linear sequence, events happen… all at once, in a way. As one character puts it in a common refrain, the end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end. Obviously time travel is a central plot device, but it’s employed here less as a way of changing history and more as its standard operating procedure.  

There are many things that make Dark stand out, but probably the first thing you’ll hear about from critics is this incredibly complex and detailed plot. Showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran Bo Odar have built the thing like a Swiss watch, a very fitting image considering the show’s subject matter. But the quality of its casting is also just wild. Not only does it feature excellent performances throughout its diverse ensemble of virtually unknown actors, but many of its characters are portrayed across different periods of their lives – and I just can’t get over the uncanny physical resemblances between actors playing the same character at different ages. 

For example, Angela Winkler and Anne Ratte-Polle as different ages of Ines Kahnwald, Peter Schneider and Hermann Beyer as Helge Doppler, or Tatja Seibt and Anne Lebinsky as Jana Nielsen. And the production design… oof. Not to overstate the case, but all throughout it has almost the same kind of beautiful, menacing chiaroscuro quality as a Caravaggio painting. 

Perhaps the most intriguing thing, however, is how confidently the show digs into thorny philosophical issues while still remaining relatively accessible. Its primary villain, at least through the beginning of season two (which is as far as I’ve watched at this point) is curiously named Noah, a man who dresses as a priest and inhabits a church building. It soon becomes clear, however, that Noah is not actually a priest at all and has no use for God. He is ultimately a luciferian figure, an Antichrist orchestrating the lives of those around him toward some mysterious “greater purpose” that exacts innumerable casualties.

As the people of Winden find themselves swept along in a tide of events they don’t understand, a couple of them discover (more or less) what’s really going on. Through various means, they attempt to break the machinery of Noah’s plans and free themselves and their loved ones from disaster. Whether they succeed or not, well… that remains to be seen, but so far it’s not looking great. 

Like many tragedies, Dark asks big, scary questions about the relationship between fate and free will; whether there is a higher order to the universe; and, if such a higher order exists, whether it is ultimately on our side. It implicitly asks whether our lives are governed by the loving, provident God of Judeo-Christian tradition… or by the cruel, capricious theology of ancient paganism, not unlike the forces at work in Oedipus Rex and its ilk. Although the answer to such a question is theoretically a foregone conclusion to the Christian viewer, it still troubles believers and agnostics alike. Really, everyone has to grapple with it at some point or other, even if they don’t realize it. That’s a large part of what makes the show so gripping and so distressing, especially in the current pop-culture climate. 

Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus recently published an excellent essay reflecting on our widespread cultural obsession with the end of the world, and although he never refers to Dark, his insights really tap into the show’s thematic concerns. As he puts it, “the secular apocalypse running through pop culture speaks to a shared disappointment with the failed promise of modernity, or of modernism, as much as the decline of faith in religious institutions and doctrines.” In other words, our preoccupation with zombies, kaiju and evil alien demigods reflects a collective fear of impending disaster, and a disillusionment about our ability to save ourselves through any means, be they social, technological, or political. 

Dark continues this trend that Greydanus is observing – but in a decidedly unique way. Where many versions of the “secular apocalypse” channel societal fear and disillusionment into portrayals of the end of the world as we know it (e.g. Godzilla, The Walking Dead, or even Avengers: Endgame), Dark makes a rather more unsettling proposal. What if there is no actual end to the world, and instead our doom has just been playing itself out all along, in the form of history’s endless and inexorable repetitions? What if, rather than hurtling toward a single fiery Armageddon of bombs or monsters, we’re just trapped in an endless loop of our own mistakes and sinfulness, an eternal, self-inflicted misery? 

It’s an unpleasant idea – given the choice, I think I’d rather just try my luck with zombies. At least you can shoot a zombie, but you can’t shoot fate. I’m still trying to parse whether Dark thinks there’s anything out there – such as God – that’s bigger than fate. God is mentioned throughout the show as a possible recourse, as a sort of vague opposing force to Noah’s machinations, but so far it sure doesn’t look like He’s intervening much. 

This more than anything might present the show’s biggest roadblock for a Christian viewer (that, and the general roughness that comes in TV-MA territory, though apart from one needlessly graphic sex scene in the pilot and brief bouts of violence, the show is far more restrained than most streaming thrillers). Despite all this, the razor-sharp focus that the show has on both its themes and its story represents a phenomenal balancing act that most American shows can barely attempt.

I’ve only just begun season two, but so far the show’s momentum continues unchecked and I can’t wait to see what the future (and past, and present) holds for it. Even while I’m also afraid.

About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.