When Dark first premiered on Netflix in 2017, its title gave away little in terms of what audiences might expect with regard to its story, though it told prospective viewers plenty in terms of the series’ tone. What began as a somber domestic drama that spanned generations in a small German town made notable by the presence of a nuclear power plant, soon revealed itself to be something more: a densely plotted science fiction story about time travel, its various perils, and the looming cloud of a pending apocalypse. And the series combined that with a heaping helping of multi-generational secrecies, lies, and deep family dysfunction thrown in like seasoning.
The first season played out like a mystery — both in terms of the overarching narrative and the manner in which Dark revealed its storytelling intentions. That approach amplified the genre elements at its core, making each revelation about the unwitting and witting participants in a destructive time loop all the more shocking. For instance, the discovery that the father of Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann) is the boy who went missing in the series’ premiere episode — whisked away to the mid ‘80s where he would grow up and older and father a child before killing himself — offered some clarity to what up to that point had been the series’ otherwise opaque intentions. But as the season went on, Dark demonstrated a knack for turning complexity and mystery into satisfying storytelling, parceling out revelations frequently enough that it didn’t turn into a waiting game, or worse yet, a series of meaningless red herrings.
That kind of propulsive storytelling is likely why Dark will conclude with its already announced third season (or third cycle, as the series has taken to calling it for reasons that will become obvious while watching season 2). The show is mercifully burning its candle at both ends, wasting no time in pushing the story beyond the parameters set up by its first season. As such, the start of season 2 defies expectations in that it refuses to be a rehash of what worked before. Surprisingly, the show’s creators, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, begin season 2 by moving beyond the concept of a multi-generational mystery and instead beginning the process of segueing into a different kind of deliberateness, one that doesn’t obfuscate so much, and in doing so delights in its sincere approach to science fiction and especially its commitment to its time travel paradoxes.
The result is a show that, while having some resemblance to both, is less Rian Johnson’s Looper and more Shane Carruth’s Primer, but with a greater sense of purpose, and, perhaps most attractively for a series of this kind, a grand design waiting to be unveiled.
Dark’s expansive mythology was built up by the end of season 1, but it is blown wide open at the beginning of season 2. It’s been six months since Jonas and Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) disappeared, and the series quickly establishes the emotional weight of those absences, illustrating the desperation of Katharina’s (Jördis Triebel) search for her still missing son and more recently missing husband, while Hannah (Maja Schöne) contemplates ending her life over the loss of Jonas and the man she's been carrying on an affair with. The show’s approach to both is remarkably economical. A quick glimpse of Katharina’s face as she enters the cave in which her child and husband presumably disappeared is all the series needs to establish her arc for the season, so when she finally turns up later in the season, her torment quickly registers and requires no additional explanations.
The series takes a refreshingly divergent approach with regard to its treatment of Hannah, as well as Katharina and Ulrich’s two other kids, Martha (Lisa Vicari) and Magnus (Moritz Jahn), by pushing them deeper into the mystery — and therefore the answers they seek — and by having them greet those answers with acceptance rather than rote skepticism. In addition to making Mulder proud, the series eschews certain conventions in which a character’s willingness to believe in the extraordinary hamstrings the plot’s progression. Abstaining from this practice not only frees up a lot of storytelling space, it also affords Dark the opportunity to get as weird as it wants. And after the first four episodes it’s clear Dark is ready to get very weird.
Like its characters, Dark is prepared to embrace its story, no matter how outlandish it becomes. A refusal to limit just how strange a series will be can be something of a double-edged sword. What initially appears to be unlimited narrative freedom and potential can devolve into an unkempt mess of undeveloped plot threads and thin characters. Dark circumvents this potentiality for the most part by plowing headlong into scenarios that other shows would wait hours (if not seasons) to attempt. As a result, season 2 is full of multiple versions of characters either assisting or thwarting themselves at different points in time, often armed with the knowledge (and sometimes, first-hand experience) that everything is eventually going to come to an end.
Because the series is steering toward a definitive end point, Dark puts a greater emphasis on its antagonists in season 2 as a way of cementing its plot around a singular and more tangible threat. This puts the mysterious Noah (Mark Waschke) in the forefront, as both an obstacle for the time-hopping Jonas and the source of so many answers the audience and the show’s characters seek. Yet despite having Noah, who is essentially a vehicle for exposition at the ready, Dark rarely resorts to arduous info dumps. Instead, it offers necessary information at the time it’s most necessary, making for a more fluid experience that maintains an overall sense of mystery without becoming ponderous, plodding, or repetitive.
Despite its often somber tone, Dark is at times a gleefully weird and earnestly capable genre series. But that fidelity to its classification and willingness to go to outlandish ends to achieve its storytelling goals is what makes the series so entertaining in the first place. In a summer where the paradoxes (intentional and otherwise) of a certain billion dollar blockbuster are endlessly scrutinized, often at the expense of that film’s entertainment value, Dark presents a fascinating alternative: a sci-fi series that not only revels in its many paradoxes, but makes good on them.
Dark season 2 will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, June 21.