By Kenn Taylor
The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. So completes Dark, one of Netflix’s best original productions. A series deeply loved but that never quite seemed to break through to the mainstream imagination.
But I have a feeling its influence and popularity will be long lasting.
Dark draws you gradually into its world. The first few episodes – a missing child, troubled police officers, a small German town filled with secrets – felt like the kind of Scandi-Euro murder drama that has increasingly become a cliché with diminishing returns. Yet, little by little, the speculative nature of the series creeps out from the cave at its centre. Soon enough, you’re dealing with things across space and time and of intense philosophical and technical complexity.
What really sets Dark apart though, pushing it beyond so many other good series, is that it never loses its emotional depth. Your feeling for many of the characters is matched only by your fear and anger towards the ever-expanding cast of people that seem intent on manipulating and destroying them.
Dark leads you by the hand to a place where it presents you with a litany of big, horrifying questions. What we do to each other. What we do to ourselves. What we cover up. What we try to forget. What we will do to get what we want. But also, what we are prepared to do, what we would sacrifice, what we would go through to prevent suffering in others.
Trauma. Jealousy. Grief. Power. Control. Betrayal. Lust. Fate. Free will. Life. Death. The search for meaning. The desperate grasp for salvation and the flight from endless darkness. Choices that we all hope we’ll never have to face, but which certain characters get wrapped into ever more terrifying spirals of. Not just on our plane of existence either, but on so many other levels that become ever more labyrinthine.
Dark’s genius though is that throughout, the characters remain painfully, relatably human, as the series always retains at least one finger grip on lived reality. Fundamental questions about existence, quantum physics and morality, are threaded perfectly between the joys of shifting popular culture and the angst of teenage love. You spin me right round, like a record baby.
These factors alone would render Dark a remarkable television series. Yet more things set it apart.
Its stellar casting, as different actors play characters at different ages, in different ages, but without a blink of disbelief from the audience except of the uncanniness of resemblance. Striking design and cinematography across a small number of settings, the series contained entirely within Winden, the centre of the characters universe. So many of the shots could be photographs, I was not surprised to learn that director Baran bo Odar had shown every department the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson and told them “that’s our look”. The visual impact of the series deepens over time as the same locations, symbols and colours loop through the lives of different characters, creating a powerful sense of recognition and unease. The soundtrack too, varied from Nena to Ben Frost, is often subtle but always resonant.
Dark is not without its flaws. It is incredibly hard to sustain all of this, especially the twists, without it becoming tiresome. They just about manage it by the skin of their teeth. The third series is clunkier, with less intense, thrilling drama and more extrapolation as it tries to cope with the various threads unwound in the previous two. Occasionally, the plot straining the seams can be seen, as so many different lines of speculation are pulled back together so rapidly you get whiplash.
There are also a few points in this final season when you sense the programme falling a little too much in love with itself. Too many swipe cuts like an 80s kids’ TV show; a few too many melodramatic montages in which the characters stare into the middle distance as a song plays over. Some of this is part of the programme’s mise-en-scène, but this season pushes it towards self-indulgence. These things can be forgiven though, such is the power elsewhere.
The weight of Dark on you, can feel as dense as the uranium in Winden Kraftwerk. Throughout the last few episodes, such was the emotional investment, I kept gripping the chair at some of the more awkward moments, willing them not to fuck it up. As it draws to its resolution though, on that Winden crossroads. Well. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. Somewhere, somehow, sometime.
This piece was published by The State of the Arts in March 2021.