(Major spoilers ahead for the first season of the Netflix original series “Dark”)
OK, so you made it all the way through “Dark,” the twisty and ingenious new German time travel show on Netflix. You enjoyed it, but you came out the other side with some big questions.
That’s totally understandable! “Dark” is certainly a very dense show, with a ton of moving parts and — this is key — an approach to time travel that requires viewers to pay much closer attention than they would during normal binge sessions.
Here’s how it works: in 1986, an incident at a nuclear plant created a wormhole that allows anyone who enters it to travel through time — but only to points exactly 33 years apart in 1953, 1986, and 2019. Travelers from one of those years can visit either of the other two, but someone could not, for example, travel to 1982 from 2015, or 1920 from 1953.
Travelers can also go only 33 years from the exact moment they entered the wormhole. If someone on July 1 2019 wanted to see what it was like June 1, 1986, they’d have to take the long way — by going all the way back to 1953 and waiting. In the show this is why Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) tried to kill Helge as a child in 1953. It was the only way to save his brother Mads from being kidnapped and murdered in 1986 without becoming an old man along the way.
And finally, the “Dark” version of time travel uses the “deterministic” template. This means travelers cannot change anything in the past, because whatever they try to do would simply be the thing that always happened. Ulrich, for instance, failed to kill Helge in 1953, which becomes both the reason adult Helge’s ear was messed up, and the event that set Helge on the path to kidnapping and murdering Mads.
To get across how all of that limits the amount of possible time travel shenanigans, “Dark” depicts all three time periods in parallel.
Headache inducing stuff, and even after watching the ten-episode season twice I had some lingering questions. So I took them directly to the source: creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, who were very open with me as they helped me sift through their beautiful madness.
First, we discussed the rules of of “Dark,” particularly the time travel determinism that, of course, introduces paradoxes which cannot be explained and that we as viewers ultimately have to accept as unexplained. That’s intentional and part of the fun, says Odar, who compared it to the classic philosophic question of whether the chicken or the egg came first.
“We really really like that question, because there’s no answer to it, or at least humans can’t give an answer to it,” Odar said. “Everything that feels mysterious like this we really love in our stories as well, where you really raise a question that no one can answer.”
So that’s important to keep in mind. There simply are no answers to some of the questions you may have about “Dark,” because some things are intentionally paradoxical. One such paradox with I discussed with Friese and Odar, which I think sums all this up pretty well, involves the “Journey Through Time” book written by the Winden’s resident watchmaker, H.G. Tannhaus (Christian Steyer in 1986 and Arnd Klawitter in 1953). The book shows up all over the show, and Tannhaus is actually the person who provides occasional cryptic narration about the nature of time throughout the season. And the book itself is a crucially important item that can be easy to overlook when you try to break down the big picture.
The key moment for the book comes when Ulrich travels to 1953 with a copy of the book on him. He pays Tannhaus a visit in that year to consult with him on all this time travel mess, and he leaves it behind when he sets out to try to find out if one of the dead bodies the police had found was his brother Mads.
“Basically [Tannhaus] gets the book as a young clockmaker and starts venturing out into this whole idea and this whole mindset,” Friese told me. “Then he reads his own words and just writes them down again and it gets published.”
So where did the book originally come from? It’s a paradox, because he essentially plagiarized himself in order to write the book and it’s impossible, for now, to figure where the ideas contained within it originated.
But many things can be answered, and let’s get to those things.
Probably the biggest question I had involved two characters who time traveled but who were not shown crawling through the wormhole cave: Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), whose disappearance triggers the plot of the series, and Claudia’s dog Gretchen, who goes missing in 1953 and then suddenly appears in 1986. For Gretchen in particular there’s no way for her to have accidentally traveled to the past, because going through the wormhole requires you to open doors, something dogs cannot do. And it seemed unlikely that Mikkel time traveled of his own accord because he and Janos (Louis Hoffman) were running away from the cave during when he disappeared.
When I brought up this question, Odar answered by reminding me of the conflict that’s going on behind the scenes throughout the season, between Claudia (Julika Jenkins in 1986 and Lisa Kreuser in 2019) and Noah (Mark Waschke).
“They are trying to manipulate things in time, or at least to move pawns on a chess board,” Odar said, as he emphasized how crucial those two incidents are to the overall arc of the show. “Mikkel is a trigger for a lot of characters in the story. His disappearance is like a big stone that keeps everything rolling. And for Claudia [the trigger] is definitely Gretchen.”
What he’s saying is that someone did those things essentially to fulfill the time loop, which is a paradoxical concept — characters traveling through time in order to do things that they already have experienced. For Claudia, Gretchen’s sudden appearance in 1986 is seemingly what set her on her journey through time, which to me implies that Claudia herself was responsible for that. And Mikkel’s disappearance is what set everyone off in 2019 — the timing of which makes me think that Janos handled that since, given what I mentioned above about the three periods taking place in parallel, with Janos being the only character who is shown to have traveled outside those bounds and thus the only person who would have even known the timing of Mikkel’s disappearance.
Odar also said those two incidents will be explored further in season 2 should Netflix renew “Dark.” For now, we’re left to speculate about who did what, since obviously he and Friese aren’t going to drop those spoilers right now.
Speaking of Janos: he serves as sort of the lynchpin of everything that happens, thanks to the older Janos’s (Andreas Pietschmann) action at the end of the season using some sort of time device to erase the wormhole. Noah says as much during his narration over that scene, that what Janos is doing will somehow cause the wormhole to come into being several months earlier. Friese elaborated a little bit on what exactly happened there.
“He’s putting a component there that is important for it to be there so that the actual opening can happen when it happens,” Friese said, “and it has something to do with the cesium that he leaves there.” Cesium is the nuclear material that makes the time device function, as Janos explains to Tannhaus, the watchmaker, before enacting his plan. What’s also interesting is what that implies about Noah, since nobody else demonstrated they knew the specific cause of the wormhole beyond it being related to an accident at the nuclear plant.
As for what happens to the younger Janos after his older self destroys the wormhole, seemingly transporting him to a post-apocalyptic future in which the nuclear plant melted down. “At the end we open another door,” Friese said, “but we can’t explain to you yet exactly [what that door is].”
What Friese says there is hugely important to keep in mind as the series moves forward (fingers crossed) — it implies that this other door could have its own, new set of rules, or that the ruleset will be expanded somewhat as we explore a new layer to all this madness. The fact that Janos appeared to have traveled beyond the constraints of the 1986 wormhole already gave that impression, but Friese referring to that event as “another door” cements that feeling.
It also makes the wait for a hypothetical season 2 all the more excruciating.