By James Powers
I remember reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid and having my mind blown when, at the end, the four Pevensie siblings return to 1940’s England and find themselves children again after having already grown to adulthood in Narnia. What a weird experience that must be, I thought, to go back to childhood after having grown up. And to then grow up again, in completely different circumstances and therefore (perhaps?) as a completely different person. To live one-and-a-half lifetimes, basically.
The idea both fascinated and unsettled me. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I think I understood that my identity has a lot to do with my story, my memory of the sequence of events in my life. And what happened to the Pevensie children got me to second-guess that understanding. What if, like those four siblings, I found myself reaching adulthood with two sequences of growing up stored in my memory? The idea felt too big and strange to wrap my head around, almost like I was trying to imagine two Jameses inside the same body. Yet I couldn’t help but try and make sense of it.
I don’t know if it’s a pity or a mercy that C.S. Lewis didn’t devote more attention to this weird question in his children’s book. But from a young age, I’ve always gotten a mixture of delight and disturbance out of such existential thought experiments and the stories that flirt with them. Time travel, body-swapping, döppelgangers, parallel universes and teleportation – such concepts are fun, freaky and in a sense very useful, even if they have little basis in reality. They allow us to better understand fundamental concepts that we otherwise take for granted – things like time, space, our bodies and our selves – because they shake up that experience and put it in a new context.
All of which is to say that, when I discovered the German Netflix series Dark a couple years ago, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. The show is a veritable Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of ornate and mind-bending storytelling, and although it isn’t for everyone, I’d call it almost essential viewing for that particular type of egghead who likes to hang out at the intersection of sci-fi and philosophy. Now that the series has dropped its third and final season, I can confirm that it’s one of my top five favorite things to come out of streaming television. Full stop, hands down, period.
Beyond that, though, I think it also has some trenchant things to say about the uniquely chaotic moment we now find ourselves in. Although production on season three wrapped well before either COVID or George Floyd hit headlines, I can’t shake the feeling that the show’s conclusion was almost timed for the hot mess of 2020. It reads as a warning about humanity’s collective tendency to fall into fear, ignorance and violence – but also, perhaps, as a small expression of hope in our ability to overcome those things.
If you know nothing about the show, well, lucky you – I wrote a piece about a year ago covering the basics of its premise and themes, so go check that out for some helpful context. But if you think you’d like to watch it, or are in the process of watching it, be advised about reading further. On the one hand, some pretty major spoilers follow herein. On the other hand, the show is (in my opinion) so gripping, detailed and complex that it’s still well worth your time even if you know a few big plot points.
Oh, and since this is a blog focused on Catholic media criticism, I should also warn potential viewers that Dark features occasional nasty violence and a number of needlessly graphic sex scenes. But as I noted in my previous post about it, it’s still considerably more restrained than the likes of Westworld or Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. So just, like, follow your heart, I guess. 😛
*** Editor’s Note: Heavy Spoilers below for all 3 seasons ***
The first season reveals how the small town of Winden is entangled in a series of “time loops” that cause various of its inhabitants to bounce through history in three 33-year increments – from 2019, to 1986, to 1953 and back again. This knotty cyclical timestream would seem to cause a lot of paradoxes and impossibilities, but as it turns out, it’s the foundation of Winden’s history rather than its undoing.
For example, young Jonas Kahnwald is the son of Michael Kahnwald, who turns out to be the adult version of Mikkel Nielsen – the little brother of Jonas’s friend (and love interest, but it’s complicated) Martha Nielsen. Mikkel disappears early on in the show, transported back to 1986 where he stays and eventually matures to become Jonas’s father.
As you can probably imagine, this one twist isn’t isolated and is connected to a multitude of others that, at the very end of the season, has Jonas getting shot forward into the post-apocalyptic future of 2053. Throughout season one, we’ve been led to believe that a sinister figure known only as Noah is behind the unnatural events in Winden. But in the second season, we quickly discover that isn’t the case.
Turns out Noah is just part of a larger organization known as “Sic Mundus” – short for the Latin phrase sic mundus creatus est, or “thus the world was created.” The head of Sic Mundus is a disfigured old man who goes by Adam, and if you guess that the Biblical names are more than just a coincidence, well, you’d be right. As one seasoned old time-traveler reveals to Jonas, Sic Mundus is one of two parties that are “at war” for control of the time-travelling knot that entangles Winden.
And Jonas, it turns out, is more important to Sic Mundus than he could imagine. In fact, he’s pivotal. The major reveal of the second season’s climax is that Adam is the older version of Jonas himself. Jonas finds this to be a horrible gut-punch, as Adam has orchestrated not only the deaths of numerous Winden residents, but also several relationships and births that border on incestuous, as well as the time-shattering cataclysm that wipes everyone out and results in the wasteland Jonas witnesses in 2053.
“But wait,” you might ask (or you might not, as there are plenty of other things to be bamboozled about in the foregoing explanation), “if Sic Mundus is one of two groups at war over time travel, what’s the other group?” In other words, who are the good guys??
Enter season three.
As if the writers didn’t have enough on their plates, season three immediately smacks us with the revelation that a parallel version of Winden exists, one in which little Mikkel was never glitched back to 1986, and never grew up to become Michael Kahnwald, and consequently Jonas was never born. But don’t worry, fellow mystery-junkies, as there’s plenty of weirdness going on in alt-Winden as well. This time, it’s at the hands of a mysterious old woman who goes by the name (wait for it) Eva. Eva is the leader of the other group, this one called “Erit Lux” (“there shall be light”), and she’s eventually revealed to be the (or an (???)) older version of Martha. Which means that Martha is the Eve to Jonas’s Adam, both the love of his life and his mortal enemy.
Breaking the Cycle of History
And now I’m getting to the point.
Back in March, when COVID first exploded, there was a brief sense of optimism that perhaps this global crisis could bring people together and overcome the virulent political discord that has consumed our culture for years now. There was, for a time, a sense that we were “all in this together.”
Yeah, nope. That didn’t last. The pandemic and the lockdowns were almost immediately weaponized by different sides of the media, by political figures, by organizations and individuals. It took hardly any time at all for us to start going at one another’s throats about masks and social distancing, about government intervention and infringement of rights, about the devastation of the economy and the rising death toll. And we’re still doing it.
Then, with a precision and force that felt almost inevitable if not downright calculated, another news story about a white cop killing a black man exploded across the nation. Riots began in Minneapolis, and they spread to many major cities, and then there were protests everywhere, and reforms and Instagram blackouts, and fights about “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter,” and then CHOP fka CHAZ happened (is still happening?), and statues started getting pulled down, and hey, listen, I’m not gonna pretend that I’m keeping adequate track of it anymore.
But between all the COVID and BLM stuff, there’s a clear pattern emerging. There’s a war being waged over how all our lives are connected, and what that demands of us as individuals. The different battles and camps in this war are kind of messy, but broadly speaking I think they can be pared down into a couple of basic ideological conflicts.
The fight about COVID is largely about freedom versus safety; about whether it’s worth it to demand (sometimes major) sacrifices on the individual level in hopes of preserving the health of the wider community. And the fight about racism is, among other things, a fight about history – about the responsibility we may or may not have for the sins of previous generations, and about whether we are doomed to perpetuate those sins without some kind of radical intervention.
These questions get under people’s skin in a very personal way (I know they get under mine), and so we flee from them: first, by instinctively huddling together with like-minded people, and second, by demonizing those who think differently. This allows us a sense of safety from the bewildering complexity of both the present situation, and the past decisions that brought us here. But this sense of safety doesn’t actually fix anything, because it has us cling to our safe, simplified vision of the world rather than grapple with it on its own terms. And this only makes our problems repeat and warp into even worse ones, like a rut in the road sucking wheels into it and getting deeper all the time.
At its core, Dark is laser-focused on this constant human impulse to flee from reality. The show isn’t so much about time-travel as it is about people motivated by fear: its characters spend all their time trying to either escape reality or force it to fit their vision. Adam and Sic Mundus have concluded that their twisted world is unacceptable, and so they try to simply destroy it. Meanwhile, Eva and Erit Lux are convinced they know how things are supposed to play out, and focus all their energy on ensuring that “everything happens as it always has.”
In a sense, Sic Mundus strike me as a twisted version of political progressives, and Erit Lux as conservatives, but maybe that’s a bridge too far. In any case, one of Dark’s final and most trenchant lessons is that dualities are unsustainable. As one character puts it, reality is three-dimensional, and the war between Adam and Eva is pointless because both are wrong. But as disconnected from reality as their God-playing may be, it still exacts a very real toll on them, their loved ones and ultimately the whole world.
Through a final twist that I won’t spoil here, Adam and Eva finally realize their errors. The truth is revealed to be something much bigger than either of them, and by accepting that fact they finally find a sort of salvation for themselves and their respective worlds. Significantly, it’s not really Adam and Eva who bring about this salvation, but rather Jonas and Martha – their younger, more innocent and less dogmatic selves. Jonas and Martha are lovers, not enemies, and they’re able to view the world around them with a degree of compassion that both Adam and Eva have lost.
The very structure of the show itself mirrors this compassionate view, I think. It offers a sort of eternal perspective where “everything is now” and “the beginning is the end.” Because of its looping narrative form, we kind of get to see the whole story all at once, and this allows us to deeply understand the characters involved. We empathize with them even as we also see the scope of their wretchedness. I like to think that’s a little bit like how God sees us.
If only we could have such an openness to the others out there, to the “libtards” and “deplorables” that we’re so ready to blame and assume the worst of. But unfortunately the zeitgeist of today is geared toward making us enemies of each other, not beloveds. However much they may claim to protect tradition or pursue progress, to defend communal health or exercise sacred liberties, the combatants in today’s cultural war are really just interested in control. Control of the world and control of history. Control that they can never really have.
Adam and Eva’s worlds share a common doom: to relive the same suffering in an endless loop, because their efforts to escape or control that loop only make it stronger. “Everything happens the way it always has,” until Jonas and Martha finally hand over control to a higher truth that lies outside of themselves. And everything will continue to happen for us the way it always has, until we realize that we can never save ourselves. Maybe 2020 will finally smack that lesson through our thick skulls. Maybe Dark can help us learn it.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog and an alumnus of JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing (’19).
For all articles by James, click here.
Image Credits: Netflix