Dark: Paradise Found
Updated: May 26, 2022
Others apart sat on a Hill
In thoughts more elevate,
and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge,
Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge
And found no end, in
wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they
Of happiness and final
Passion and Apathy, and
glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false
The third and final season of Netflix’s mind-bending German science-fiction series couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Besides its near prescient story (the apocalypse occurs in 2020 on the show), Dark mirrors the current existential crisis happening today. We’re looking to the past and hoping for a better future all while trying to make it through the chaos, wishing for some sense of peace and certainty.
Maybe we didn’t need another heavy science-fiction show in 2020 to ask more existential questions (Devs, Westworld) but Dark is the best addition and the greatest science-fiction story to hit the screen in quite some time. The best show on Netflix ended its run, finally untying the knot of time travel, interweaving storylines, alternate universes, and deja vu with a tragic but life-affirming conclusion. It has all the expected questions and theories of quantum mechanics- fatalism, precognition, paradoxes, and free will but never ceases to get bogged down by its science-fiction ethos, expertly utilizing it to centralize its characters stuck in this time-loop hell. Ingeniously envisioned by creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is a show about many things, using its own fresh devices of science-fictional physics and defying the tropes of the genre to hit on its many themes, the two major ones being family and love. The greatness of Dark is the lack of exposition, one has to concentrate (it’s a good thing it’s in German, the subtitles really help with the connections so being an indolent American watching with dubbed- over English won’t help) to keep up with it but that’s part of the fun; the back and forth, the changing timelines, the ensemble of older and younger versions of characters who are easy to care about (it’s beyond me how they casted this, all of these people could be related they look so similar; it’s really something to see the older version of a character, a different actor/actress, and immediately know exactly who their younger counterpart is), and the eerie, convoluted rules of time-travel. The explanations only happen when absolutely necessary and the rest is accounted for in striking visual detail. Just the establishing shot will let you know what year it is, whether its a gliding aerial view of trees or the apocalypse-causing nuclear power plant (there’s a lot of Chernobyl vibes in the show). Season three threatened to be redundant and exhausting while managing to be the weakest, most confusing season yet. But there was still enough brilliance and two seasons of great character-building to compensate for that, arriving at a touching, thought-provoking finale.
Is the time of our departure predetermined? Our dying, part of an endless clockwork?
We all have one truth in common. We are born. And we die. No matter what path we take in between.
Watching Dark, I couldn’t help but notice the connections to the work of Ted Chiang, quite possibly the best short story writer living today who has written some of the best science-fiction stories of the 21st Century. He cleverly uses the science-fiction canvas to illuminate the human process. There’s comparisons to his novella “Story of Your Life” (the story that the film Arrival is based on) where the main character discovers her future through an alien language and chooses to live it out, knowing the pain and suffering that is coming; “The Merchant and Alchemist’s Gate” involves a character traveling back in time to rectify a regretful event and save his wife, only to learn that the past cannot be changed but learned from and through it there is forgiveness, repentance, and atonement; but especially in “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” which takes the multi-worlds theory of quantum mechanics and turns it into a story of accepting the consistency of your character and life path throughout all alternate universes. Dark uses this theory in the same way; the characters in the different worlds may have different means of getting somewhere, but they always get to that somewhere.
Before Dark, Chiang’s story was the only work of science-fiction I’d experienced that utilized the theory in this way. Each work crafts it in their own unique way but that’s where the comparison ends; Chiang manages it in service to his theme of acceptance of existence while Dark steers it to the service of its infinite, twisty time-loop plot before eventually eschewing Chiang’s view of it entirely to depict its final contrasting theme: acceptance of non-existence. Chiang asserts, rather simply, that whether we’re doomed to fate, free to choose our destiny, or there’s an alternate you out there doing the same thing, it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much; we should just live, heeding the easy and the hard of life, the beauty and the ugly. Living is the joy and the labor, death is the release and the rest. Dark, being the complex show it is, says there is a better world out there, close to paradise but it may not involve you or another existence of you and in order for that better world to be, you must cease to exist and accept your own paradise of darkness. It’s sort of a no-brainer for the two main characters of Dark, Jonas and Martha, when they come to this realization, being that their only alternative is to continue living in a perpetual two-dimensional time-loop that makes existence an exhausting horizontal-eight of pain and suffering. Obviously, the latter is the tougher to grasp here. Chiang’s supposition is the way to go. However, the two worlds of Dark weren’t supposed to exist in the first place, created by a faulty time machine diverging one world into two different worlds with people that initially were not going to exist.
When your existence isn’t justified in the first place, when your only reason for being is to live in a tragic, limitless time-loop of pain and deja vu then yes, it’s easier to choose the darkness of being a non-entity and see that as a sort of paradise. But through this tragic way of existence, these characters were still being. They still lived as humans. They felt pain and suffering because they loved (even made love, the actors and their chemistry is another miracle of the show) and cared and worked and had a childhood, a short time of mundanity before the disappearance of Mikkel on November 4th, 2019 set off the origin of it all. Dark is so tragically human in this way, capturing our existence like no show, science-fiction or other, has done before. Obviously we can’t completely relate being that we don’t exist (thankfully) in this tragic time-loop and even if some of these characters’ existence is futile, they are still flawed humans, dealing with the same issues and feeling the same emotions that the viewer can relate to. Their path in between birth and death may not look the same, but it’s just as real and anthropological, if you will.
You may not be following me here. That’s perfectly fine, I can barely follow myself. I just love thinking and I love works of art that make you think, I’m fascinated by things that make you think and I think things that make you think are fascinating and I love when fascinating things that make you think about how fascinating they are combine with fascinating works of art that make you think.
That paragraph (sorry) is the experience of watching Dark. But that’s the point, the joy is in the brain power, unraveling the headphone wires and decoding the cosmic opera that is Dark. My interpretation is obviously subjective (connecting it to other works of science-fiction) and maybe a bit vague (the idea of acceptance of existence resonates with me, an admirer of life, the good and bad, the poetic and prosaic; then accepting non-existence, sacrificing so that others may live life is also a beautiful sentiment to the heart) because Dark as a whole is comprised of so many more meanings, allusions and themes, referencing Greek Mythology (the name Ariadne pops up; the Greek princess of mazes and labyrinths; easy Google search as I watched the show, definitely not a Greek Mythology expert) and deploying some facile, but effective religious symbolism. The religiosity in the show really is, fittingly, quite rampant. Our two main characters are Jonas and Martha but they grow into Adam and Eva (German Eve), young lovers from different worlds who are endlessly fated to oppose one another (it’s almost like an allegory for marriage). They both play God, but being Adam and Eva, they’re still human. They try to control the time-loop, lying and manipulating to get what they want. They both want the end of all of it, but they have different views of paradise. To Adam, hardened and scarred by time-travel, it’s the aforementioned eternal darkness. That is the only way out he sees fit. Eva thinks there’s a way to save her world from the impending apocalypse and puts her pieces into position to attempt getting it back to normal. Of course, they’re both wrong. There’s no end in sight. They’re both continuously upholding the knot. It’s a limitless, causal loop. They think they know the solution, the end goal. They’re too busy searching for paradise to realize they are the managers of an eternal hell of time.
Paradise is free of pain and suffering, everything we’ve ever done is forgotten there. Any pain we’ve ever felt is erased and all the dead live.
Episode seven revolves around the idea of paradise. Adam and Eva’s idea of it and its correlation to this infinite time loop. This brings me to another separate work of art I couldn’t help but tie in as well: Paradise Lost by John Milton was published in 1667. The story about the fall of Satan from Heaven to Hell and his ensuing betrayal of God by tempting man- Adam and Eve. The connections are undeniable, even indispensable for the spiritualism of the show. The theology, like Paradise Lost, is similarly autonomous; Paradise Lost tries to make sense of a fallen world and God’s will while Dark is about two accidental fallen worlds that keep falling because Adam and Eva keep willing the same mistakes over and over again.
While Paradise Lost is occasionally sympathetic to Satan (Milton wrote it in mourning)- “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”, Jonas and Martha want nothing more than to get out of their hell, only reigning over it to get out of it. The fall of Lucifer ensured the fall of man and H.G. Tannhaus’ invention of a time machine ensured infinite falling of a surrogate Adam and Eve causing constant pain and suffering. Then there's the deep love story between Adam and Eve both in Milton's story and Dark. The difference is the “paradise lost” in Milton’s story is heaven but in Dark it is a normal life. Heaven is literally paradise so another question that momentarily arises in Dark: is life worth saving? Is it worth stopping the apocalypse when normal life also has pain and suffering? Let me loop back my most-likely-nonsensical writing here and say yes, it most certainly is. Martha/Eva knows it so she’s trying to save it. Jonas/Adam also knows it but believes it’s long gone, therefore destruction and eternal darkness is his paradise.
They’re both wrong and Claudia, the outlier of the game but an important player throughout the show discovers, through her own particular grief, the answer and the one salvation from all the mess. But it requires Martha, Jonas and all of those who exist because of time travel to no longer exist. H.G. Tannhaus created the time machine to save his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter from a car wreck. Two worlds of myriad pain and suffering born from pain and suffering. Therefore, better for the small number of those disentangled from the loop of torture and time travel to live their lives. A life that won’t include those born because of the web of time travel. A normal life that will still include pain and suffering but ephemeral rather than infinite. It’s sad to see a lot of the characters we love disintegrate into nothingness. But it’s for the best. A sacrifice for life, the lives of others. For the arduous paradise that is life.
Jonas tells Martha as they are disappearing that they are a perfect match and to never forget that. Their love was axiomatic from the start and it’s easy to believe that the love between these two, dying in love and for love, will still linger on in the darkness. Then there’s the final scene with our small group of people that continue to exist in the normal, third world. Jonas’s mother, Hannah, is pregnant and seems to be unconsciously aware of her son that has now never existed. What will she name her child? She thinks Jonas is a beautiful name.
Dark is an extraordinary show that will hopefully gain more much-deserved popularity and prominence as time goes on. On and on and on and on. Even until you and I are no longer existing in this world, whenever that is. I don’t really care to know. I’ve learned from the past, nothing needs to change there. The future, whatever it entails, is inevitable. I choose to just live. If a time machine is invented before I die, you won’t find me there. I’m good right here. Life is a paradox, watch a TV show called Dark and find light.