Lost in Winden: Dark (2017 – 2020)

I don’t like being a snob about pop culture. I don’t like pooh-poohing films or TV series, books, comics or video games, that others seem to love. I generally try to find things to appreciate in most media I consume, and if others like them but I don’t, I try to put that down to personal taste. Sometimes, however, I look at what others say about a piece of pop culture and I simply don’t get it. I cannot reconcile what they say about it with the thing itself. It’s almost as if they watched, read or played something entirely different from me.

Dark isn’t entirely like this for me. There are things I genuinely appreciated in the German mystery series. I recognise some of my own reactions in those of others, but the longer Dark went on, the less I felt I could appreciate the things it was good at or ignore what I thought was decidedly less good. Undoubtedly, the makers of Dark are skilled stylists and the series excels at mood and atmosphere, especially in its first season – but then I read articles that call Dark smart, by people who pat themselves on the shoulder for enjoying such a smart, smart series, and my eyes roll in their sockets so much that all I see is blotchy, shapeless darkness.

I wish that I had been able to enjoy Dark better. I like a good mystery series, doubly so if it is as atmospheric and often beautiful to look at as Dark. I don’t mind complicated stories featuring a large number of characters, and my brain doesn’t immediately shape itself into a Moebius pretzel when time travel or alternate dimensions rear their quantum-entangled heads. But Dark failed for me in some respects that I consider to be pretty fundamental when it comes to good storytelling.

See, the makers of Dark obviously love their lore. What starts as a story about missing children and a town that has unexpected secrets soon becomes a tesseract constructed from high concepts and narrative loops. The series’ writers love using nouns that have that capitalised sound and that are supposed to carry significance: Dark is replete with talk of The Passage, The Origin, The Knot, and various other words intoned with a seriousness that the longer the more has an increasing whiff of the ludicrous. Characters are given names that resonate with biblical meaning – Noah, Adam, Eve – and these characters keep repeating phrases that are supposed to carry weight but that sound like New Age versions of motivational posters: The beginning is the end. The end is the beginning. What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean. (That one is by Isaac Newton, but for the sake of Sir Isaac and the people in his life, I hope he didn’t say it with the same kind of regularity that Dark‘s script break out the quote.)

Most likely, the creative team behind Dark thinks that these constitute worldbuilding, but the best, most effective worldbuilding connects the conceptual and the personal, and for that Dark would have to care about its characters as much as it cares about its central mysteries. To my mind, a world only feels alive, meaningful and engaging if the characters in it do.When it comes to storytelling, the best worldbuilding is often implicit, it is a part of the fictional fabric these characters inhabit and act on. Characters are essential to making a story feel believable and engage the audience. That doesn’t mean I have to like the characters, not at all, but I have to feel that I understand them and the things that drive them and make them do things. The thing is this: from a point roughly one third into Dark, I found myself unable to say what most of the characters what they actually wanted. Sure, they had grand plans, but they never felt like motivations so much as they came across like dreary PowerPoint presentations with slides titled “Vision and Mission”.

I can imagine that it is easy for the more appreciative audience members to identify with some of Dark‘s characters, because most of these characters are basically hollow and can be filled with anything. They are given one broad identifying trait – this woman is pathologically jealous, that one doesn’t know who her parents are, this man has a dark secret, that one is a closeted homosexual – and let loose on the German town of Winden. Then these characters are doubled and tripled as Dark expands its 2019 world to two additional eras, 1986 and 1955, so that we get older and younger versions of these characters as well as their parents and grandparents. This would be difficult enough to keep track of at the best of times – but Dark throws these complications at us before it has bothered to define its characters more clearly, so its variations and temporal echoes don’t mean much to us, and accordingly the series’ supposed revelations don’t mean much either. Everything serves the mystery, while very little serves the characters. Everyone is connected, but very few actually feel like living, breathing human beings. There are about twice as many characters as the story can support, and as a result it is easy to forget who half of them are and how they’re supposed to matter to the overarching plot – and, accordingly, I found it increasingly difficult to care.

It is this hollowness of the various protagonists and antagonists that finally makes Dark a failure in my eyes. There are a handful of characters in the series that have human, recognisable motivations, even if they are the result of the series’ mysterious sci-fi machinations: parents trying to find their missing children, children mourning their dead parents, husbands and wives unhappy in their marriages looking for happiness elsewhere, teenagers being horny and dramatic. But by the time the second season begins, most characters are motivated by Dark‘s central conflicts: shadowy groups travelling through time attempt to… what? Undo something that has happened, or keep the others from undoing what has happened. Destroy the world or save it. They speak in portentous, hushed tones of the Light and the Shadows and how everyone has to die so that everyone can live, but the series very rarely takes its time to make us care about the characters that may or may not be doomed. Versions of characters kill versions of other characters, while yet other versions return, barely defined by more than their haircuts and the clothes they wear. It feels like a game of 3D chess played by a computer against itself, narrated by Ed Wood: all grand dramatic flourishes, yet with the emotional depth of HAL 9000 talking to itself. It is an expert-level Sudoku striving to be Shakespearean but managing teen soap opera at best.

What is most frustrating about all of this: there are occasional flashes of an engaging story, especially when delivered by the actors who are middle-aged or older. When the overarching high-concept story doesn’t get in the way, Dark succeeds at making its characters feel lived-in, giving them a sense of personal history. Very rarely, the writers make the puzzle box secondary to the human drama, which is so much more relatable than all the talk about Passages and Knots and Origins and the self-satisfied cleverness of one Bootstrap Paradox strapped onto another. Whenever the characters become secondary to the mystery, even the illusion of agency is lost. Dark tries to make this a recurring motif – choice vs fate, Greek tragedy, that sort of thing – but it is difficult to pull off that well-worn chestnut if you can almost make out the flowchart between the characters’ actions but can barely tell why they do what they are doing on a personal level. What do these people want? Something something, Origin, Knot, Beginning, End.

Dark may be perfect for an audience hungry for puzzles and mysteries and Reddit discussions, an audience trying to preempt whatever twist the writers will come up with next, and as such I can imagine that this is part of the series’ appeal. It lures in viewers that want to feel clever, because they figure out that this character has accidentally traveled to the past, that character is actually an older version of so-and-so, and what we’re seeing is actually not what we think we’re seeing before the episode explicitly makes the reveal. But to me, without characters that are interesting and engaging, that I actually want to listen to when they talk, it all feels like a Skinner Box where solving the next puzzle gives the audience a jolt of pleasure, getting them hooked on each little puzzle, but we the viewers are still rats in a box pushing a button on a convoluted machine.

I remember when Lost was entering its final few seasons. I was still watching it, but the series’ puzzle boxes had become tiresome. However, even at its worst, Lost had characters I’d come to like and care about, so I wanted to know what happens to them, even if I didn’t much care whether the island was Limbo or Heaven or the Matrix or whether they had all been dead, alive or characters in a snowglobe being shaken by an autistic boy. For me, Dark simply fails to put in the up-front work of making me care about its characters first and its mysteries second. Perhaps it was the perfect series for a pandemic where time feels gooey and stretchable like taffy. Dark was often gorgeous (if somewhat samey in its monochrome palette) to look at and it certainly whiled away the time – but a good series, let alone a smart one? I’m afraid that those qualities remained obscure to me.

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