In Greek legend, Ariadne, Goddess of the Labyrinth, unspools her thread for the Athenian, Theseus: She is an accomplice in his escape from her father’s maze, after he’s gone in to slay the Minotaur. In the new German legend, Dark, which debuted on Netflix in December, Ariadne appears as a form of stagecraft, clutching a blood-red segment of rope: She is a metaphor for our entrapment in the series’ maze, its drama of overcomplication. For “Ariadne’s thread” is also a term from the realm of logic, an approach to multivalent problems in which each path to a potential solution—each thread—is followed to its conclusion. “Trace every step, inch by inch, point by point,” as Carole Maso describes the process in her novel Mother & Child. “Blindly exhaust the search space completely.” This, to my mind, is the trouble with Dark: It asks us to follow its threads as far as we can bear, but in the end its problems may not be worth solving.
Even dashing off a synopsis of Dark, co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, is no simple task. The first episode opens with the promise that “everything is connected”—intoned over photographs of the same people at different ages, in different fashions, pinned to the wall of an underground fallout shelter and connected by stretches of twine—and on this, at least, the series keeps its word. In the remote outpost of Winden, Germany, in 2019, Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann), reeling from his father’s suicide and the disappearance of a high-school classmate, embarks on a search for the missing boy and becomes embroiled in a supernatural mystery that’s been compared to Stranger Things, Twin Peaks, and The OA, one that reaches back to 1986—six months after the Chernobyl disaster—and thence to 1953—when Winden’s own nuclear power plant, slated to go offline in 2020, is under construction.
If its initial allusions—Einstein, The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange, Goethe, Back to the Future—feel as threadbare as those of Stranger Things, albeit with a certain “highbrow” gloss, Dark nonetheless succeeds in drawing one in; as with countless sci-fi, horror and crime dramas of recent vintage, it suggests the pleasures of puzzles and riddles, plopping us down in the center of its very own Carcosa and inviting us to scrabble our way out. As the series toggles among the three timelines, the intertwined fates of four families come into focus: In addition to the Kahnwalds, headed by an estranged matriarch named Ines (Angela Winkler), there’s local cop Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), whose brother, Mads, disappeared 33 years prior, and his wife, Katharina (Jördis Triebel), the high school principal; police chief Charlotte Doppler (Karoline Eichhorn) and her husband, a rather suspicious-looking psychologist named Peter (Stephan Kampwirth); and unhappy hotel manager Regina Tiedemann (Deborah Kaufmann) and her son, Bartosz (Paul Lux), Jonas’ best friend. Add to this the other adolescents of Jonas’ generation, the 1986 and 1953 iterations of their parents and grandparents, and a handful of other shadowy figures—a man in a black hood, an expert on black holes, a janitor, a priest—and Dark is as tortuous as Minos’ labyrinth. The problem, though, is not that the series tosses these threads to the four winds and expects us to gather them together. It’s that what it delivers, when we tie it all up, has the heft of an empty package.
This is the drama, and then the danger, of overcomplication: That it in fact leads us time and again to the center of the maze, each revelation also an attempt to reset the board, such that stringing the viewer along becomes the point, rather than building to it. It’s not that it can’t be fun, slowly piecing together the relationships among four families over the course of 66 years, though Dark, from its title and its insistently foreboding score to its mournful coloration, works against the notion that the journey is more important than the destination. The series is suffused with a sense of its own consequence: “Every decision for something,” as one character explains in the season’s latter stages, “is a decision against something else.” Most frustrating—and least fun—are these hollow attempts at a profound statement about the nature of time, some drawn from scripture (Mark 13:33), some from pseudoscience (an alchemical treatise called The Emerald Tablet), others from philosophy (“causal determinism,” “eternal recurrence”), still others from the dogged reliance on phrases that aspire to the mythic but instead sound inane. “The beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning.” “Nothing can arise from nothing.” “Everything is connected.” Forgive me for saying it, but this feels more like being caught in the spider’s web than it does solving a problem or escaping a maze: Dark is so desperate to chase each model for its imagined universe to its logical conclusion, to say everything about time and trauma—their circles, spirals, lattices, chains—that it finally seems to say nothing at all.
Curious, then, that a series so obsessed with time, set in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two years into Europe’s uncertain future, should be so innocent of history. Despite the unease that accompanies the nuclear facility, from its construction to Chernobyl to its looming closure, Dark’s allegorical implications—the atomic age as a kind of calamitous wrinkle in time—are ultimately crowded out by the attention to Winden’s family trees, to the lunar-solar cycle, to the secrets and lies and tattoos and scars so familiar from its TV counterparts. We are left, rather, with a German police officer in 1953 wondering if one is born a murderer, or becomes one—and no indication of what the rise and fall of Nazism might have done to shape the answer to his question. We are left with the Sony Walkman, a pfennig coin, and the popularization of death metal in 1986—and no suggestion of the divided nation implied by their presence. Not all German fictions need wrestle with its past to be worth consuming, of course. But a treatment of time so invested in timelessness, deploying period details when it’s convenient and sweeping them under the rug when it’s not, may not be a series as concerned with connections and consequences as it wants us to think: Whether intimate or writ large, history is the thread that links causes and effects into a coherent narrative, even when traveling through time can change that narrative after the fact.
The point here is not that Dark is a failure, per se; The OA similarly bedeviled me, only to win me over in the home stretch, so of course the “right” resolution is in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it’s that Dark stumbles, with no small amount of self-importance, into the same erroneous belief as Westworld, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones: That the twist in the story, the wrench in the works, is enough to sustain a narrative that lacks the scaffolding of strong characterization or aesthetic innovation. The truth is, TV that’s created in order to be “solved”—its mysteries theorized half to death on the far reaches of the Internet—often encounters this particular issue; only Dark, so far, has offered it a name. In one version of the legend, Theseus abandons Ariadne after he follows her thread out of the labyrinth, and she proceeds to hang herself from a tree. The lesson here is multifold, as is often the case with the most compelling myths, but if I might offer one moral for TV writers present and future, it’s this: Completing the puzzle or escaping the maze is not the same thing as a satisfactory ending. If that’s the case, the labyrinth is all there is.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.