Dark Season 2 review: Netflix's highly ambitious show flawlessly turns ordinary into outlandish
Dark season 2 is a masterpiece of pure atmospheric pleasure and narrative audacity.
I stopped and rewound a few minutes of Dark in season 1, after a corpse of one child was revealed to be the corpse of a kid that went missing 30 years ago. I stopped and rewound again — when an old watchmaker was suddenly disclosed to be the author of a book that was given to him by a mysterious stranger. I stopped watching altogether and pulled out my notebook to make notes when the four families depicted in the show were revealed to be interconnected through three different timelines. Because each time the show switched timelines, the jump felt like an exam designed to test your participation level and detective skills.
And even when I became wholly comfortable with the world and the vast array of characters in the show, I kept sneaking back to my notebook, peeking at the character names, their ages and faces in the past, present and future — sometimes numbing myself in the process. Gradually, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. By the time season 1 ended, I knew Dark was going to be my all-time favourite Netflix show.
By midway through Season 2, Dark felt less like a sequel to a detective exam than like a masterpiece of pure atmospheric pleasure and narrative audacity. With hints of the horror of Stephen King, the sci fi adventure of Looper and the gloom of Tarkovsky, Dark Season 2 has a formal ambition that just explodes in our faces. It flawlessly turns the ordinary into the outlandish and vice versa. People forcibly wade through a nightmarish series of events; discoveries are made that could be reversed; families are torn apart for the sake of other families patching up. Over time, patterns emerge, revealing an uneasy meditation on the concept of choice, the vulnerability of a hero thrust in an unlikely situation, the power of knowing the future, and its ability to make us do something we thought we would find ghastly.
Very early on in Dark, we are told about the non-linearity of time and how the past, present and the future do not have to be consecutive — a concept explained over photographs of different people pinned to the wall. That moment is fully realised in the second season. It is a fitting topic for the show to explore as its central character Jonas navigates through it. Throughout its tremendous second season, Dark is interested in the transformational aspects of time travel. Yes, it is mostly baked in with the Back to the Future-style sci-fi genre conventions and its messy but entertaining tropes.
But this is a sci-fi story less about what happens when one man goes back in time, and more about what happens when the boundaries between the people connected to him become leaky and permeable because of the time travel. Season 2 absolutely ups its game in that department. The relationship between Jonas (Louis Hoffman), Noah (Mark Waschke) and the Winden caves they frequent is meant to terrify us less because Noah is essentially a serial killer burying his bodies in a different timeline, but because Jonas and Noah are so closely interlinked that if their relationship ever ruptures, the damage to the whole town of Winden, and therefore the world, might be unsalvageable. It is almost like Jonas and Noah are imprinted into one another, like Neo and Smith in The Matrix.
It is, admittedly, a daring strategy for the showrunners Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Freise to attempt, particularly when the first season was made on the foundation of darkly foreboding gotcha moments of ‘which character is an older version of themselves’ whodunit, and the noose tightened a bit with every episode. In contrast, the second season is more fluid and self aware with its twists and turns, particularly after its electrifying fourth episode; post which the show leaves behind its blistering pace in favour of more meditative moments between Jonas and Martha (Lisa Vicari), the love of his life whom he cannot be romantically involved with because the time travel mechanic has turned them into relatives.
The moments are beautifully captured in an uncharacteristically sunlit ‘past’ of Winden, where we see Martha wants to be with Jonas but he has to resist, even though he can feel bits and pieces of himself slipping away. And all around him, the other characters in the show’s world, like his mother Hannah (Maja Schone), his friends, Martha’s family, and even the ominous environment of his home Winden itself reflect his tragic predicament via their own prisms.
It is occasionally frustrating, especially in the episodes that jump back even further in time that go out of the way to confuse you and lead you to believe the show is painting itself into a convoluted corner. Yet the final episode, with its incredibly heartfelt finale juxtaposed to Peter Gabriel’s ‘My body is a cage’, pulls everything together into a kind of cosmic balance of storytelling. Winden suffers because Noah dwells in it and is manipulating events in it like a perfect God (or the devil). Jonas is the imperfect man who spends his time being manipulated by the person he least expected to turn on him. His character arc truly captures the essence of what it means to be a hero, even if it means failing to be the bad guy’s perfect opposite, a failure every human being would be capable of.
It makes for a well-ordered inversion of the structure of Season 1, which slowly and deliberately pulls the characters of the show apart at the seams, as Noah’s relationship with Jonas and other people in Winden, and the grand conspiracy, is gradually revealed. There is the unnerving effect of Dark being a show with no exclusively consistent centre, one where whenever the audience thought itself sure of its own footing, the showrunners yank the rug out from under it all over again. The bad guy(s) doing the yanking in Season 2 beautifully obscure their true motives from the people who know them, including us, the audience.
That could prove trying, particularly when the series was introducing, say the new ‘investigator’ character who arrives in Winden just as mysteriously as the people who seem to disappear from the town. But his presence, just like all the other characters, feels like a vestigial limb within the structure of the season. The other characters, like Jonas’ school friends, who kick-started the series of events, could have easily been lopped off to simplify the story, but their loss would have diminished the latter half of Season 2’s wild spiral, where they are forced to confront the horrors of their own actions in different timelines. One does not escape from the apparatus in the cave without scars everywhere, as Jonas and his friends find out one way or another.
The sunny ‘past’ of the second half of the season makes more sense in the context of its final episodes. The first half, which is largely set in the ‘future’ that Jonas ends up in at the end of Season 1, needs far fewer qualifications. But no matter what episode you are at, the pacing and the information rendering is relentless, making Dark the most thrilling program mounted on Netflix, made all the more harrowing with the portentous music by Ben Frost, and the showrunners’ intense understanding of the characters’ psychologies and motivations. It really is quite amazing how much transpires over just eight episodes. To imagine the creators working on a huge production and seamlessly crafting out a coherent narrative is as thrilling than anything on the show itself.
At all turns, Dark Season 2 pursues rich storytelling and murky themes. It occasionally bites off more than it can chew but is ornate, beautiful in its nastiness. It is a show that is always pushing to find new territory. With its second season, it has, much like Jonas in different eras, transformed into the most intriguing version of itself.
Dark Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
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