Dark and Longing for the End of the World
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the Netflix series Dark.**
Every day is like the same old song
Until everything right goes wrong
You keep the light on
You keep the light on
You keep the night light on
(“Melody X,” Bonaparte)
It wasn’t until several episodes into Netflix’s original series Dark that I realized nearly every episode contained a specific structural cue. If you have read anything about the German show, you may have seen it praised as a masterpiece, by turns meticulous, tense, innovative, complex, and bewildering. You wouldn’t think such a series would be given to an episodic formula. Yet, there it was: Within almost every episode’s final fifteen minutes, there was a montage.
This is just how life appears to many of us. It is a cycle of life and death and life coming out of death.It was as if, following the intense twists and revelations of each hour, the show took a breath. The frame rate slowed. Characters became silent. The shots tightened on their contemplative faces and deliberate actions. And, over all of this, was set an often-haunting song. Music has been described as the adornment of time. I began to wonder how these reflective moments, appearing as regular as a liturgy, adorn a show that is so much about time itself?
Excerpts of those lyrics are highlighted throughout this essay. They draw out an undercurrent of yearning in Dark—a longing for a release from cycles of suffering, freedom from destructive desires, and for a future with new possibilities. The many, many characters of Dark are stuck in a world that has no end. What they want is an eschaton, where death is undone, and the world can be made new.
Maybe this time,
Maybe this time I’ll outwit my past
(“A Quiet Life,” Teho Teardo)
At a glance, Dark is akin to that much bigger Netflix hit, Stranger Things. The first few episodes show clear parallels: in a small town, Winden, eleven-year-old Mikkel disappears in the woods. He is not the first, nor the last, to do so. Soon, Mikkel’s siblings, their teenage friends, his anguished parents, and the police are all caught in a much larger, weirder mystery. Just outside of town, there is a government facility, a nuclear powerplant, that is likely connected to the disappearance. Although Dark is at first set in 2019, the 1980s become major setting.
Dark is not content to play in pulp tropes and nostalgia, though. It’s more interested in referencing Greek myth and Genesis, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, rather than Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg. As its three seasons unfold, we learn that Winden is caught in a complex temporal knot that spans three centuries, four families, and an apocalypse. The characters fall in and out of their proper times. Their family tree, it turns out, is more of an ouroboros. It is one great loop in which they suffer, die, and desperately search for an origin so they may undo it once and for all.
But where is a circle’s origin? Every attempt to disrupt a tragedy ends up being its cause. Jonas, Dark’s protagonist, begins the series in mourning for his father, who inexplicably committed suicide. That father turns out to be Mikkel, who was transported back to 1986 and was forced to begin a new life. Jonas’s attempt to rescue his father is thwarted. After all, if Mikkel does not disappear into the past, Jonas cannot exist.
May the angels
Fill your emptiness
Guide and lighten
Up your path
But I can’t
And I won’t
(“May the Angels,” Alev Lenz)
The show’s villain, Adam, is the embodiment of the loop. He is, Jonas discovers in the second season, Jonas himself, bereft of hope, worn down, and scarred. Adam orchestrates events to ensure his past self follows the same path he did, so he may reach the end of the loop and annihilate it there. He believes he has let go of all desires, especially for his love interest, Martha. His actions, of course, only preserve the cycle.
The third season only seems to complicate things further. There is a second reality entwined with this first one—two loops, each sustaining the other, like the infinity sign. The alternate reality is driven by Adam’s antithesis, Eva, who is the aged Martha. Her aim is to preserve the loop forever, sustaining the lives of their families. Adam and Eva, sustain one another and each other’s worlds. There is no future for them. There is only the preservation of their past, with all of its agony and obsession.
An Eternal Round of Light and Shadow
No future, no past
No laws of time
Can undo what is happening
(“It’s Happening Again,” Agnus Obel)
Nietzsche called a world like this one of eternal recurrence. It is the idea that “[y]our whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again…And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life.”
This is just how life appears to many of us. It is a cycle of life and death and life coming out of death. It is the turning of the seasons and the phases of the moon. It is the Big Bang and the Big Crunch. Like the time machine that passes from hand to hand over Dark’s three seasons, the world has no origin. It always was, always has been, and will renew itself with every cycle. Every day (month, year, generation) is like the same old song.
Dualities are what keep this cycle moving. In Dark, Adam and Eve sustain the loop by their own conflict. Adam is the dark and Eve is the light. He seeks to annihilate his children; she seeks sustain their perpetual existence. As Jonas declares to Martha in their young romance, “we are a perfect match.” It is a sentiment they return to throughout their lives, sometimes re-affirming it as they come together, sometimes denying it as they pull apart. But in both their union and their conflict, they balance one another in eternity.
The Spiral of Desire and Pain
And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see
It’s a danger
(“Familiar,” Agnes Obel)
What keeps Dark’s characters trapped is not merely a twisted-up knot of time, like some abstract sci-fi paradox. They, like us, are driven by their desires. Jonas, for example, makes his choices out of love. Sometimes it is love for Martha, sometimes for his father, sometimes for his mother, Hannah.
Occasionally, this desire manifests in selfless acts and moments of beauty. More often, this love is corrupted and turned inward. A cycle of affairs haunts every generation. Hannah, from a very young age, is obsessed with Mikkel’s father, Ulrich. Ultimately, embittered and without conscience, she seeks his destruction rather than his good. Ulrich himself is driven to a reprehensible act early in the show, one that traps him for the rest of his life, because of love for his missing son.
What have we done
Let our heart leap
Then it gave up
(“Thunder,” RY X)
“Man is a strange creature,” Adam (the old Jonas) muses at one point. “All his actions are motivated by desire, his character forged by pain. As much as he may try to suppress that pain, to repress the desire, he cannot free himself from the eternal servitude to his feelings.” Desire, unfulfilled and frustrated, turned inward, always leads to destruction.
Hope is what keeps Jonas moving. He hopes for a way out, that he can save those he loves. The older generations of time travelers use this hope, promising Jonas the secret of the origin and how to break the knot. But there is no hope in eternal recurrence. All there is, is the next cycle. Noah, a false priest and henchman of Adam’s, expresses the nihilism that marks this world: “God doesn’t have a plan. There is no plan at all. There’s nothing but chaos out there. Pain… and chaos! People are bad, malicious, evil. Life is nothing but a spiral of pain. And the world is doomed to be destroyed.”
Where is the future
We long for in life
Miss you from the bottom of my heart
And as the light of day moves faster I feel,
The loss of—
(“Industry,” Mire Kay)
But do Dark’s writers think this is all there is? Do they believe Noah’s words? Is this a show that is designed to unveil the pointless cycle of violence, death, and return in which we are all trapped? Is hope a fool’s errand? Is the yearning, so often musically expressed at each episode’s end, domed to be unfulfilled?
No. Dark’s end reveals something else entirely. It turns out that, all along, this was a fairy-story.
The Fairy Hope of Dark
After a storm
I want to be brave
And keep you warm
And not fade away
(“Enter One,” Sol Seppy)
In his famed essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien gives three marks of a fairy-story: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Recovery is the renewal of our view of the world. It is the way fairy-stories help us see reality anew. “We need” Tolkien writes, “to clean our windows, so that the thing seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”
Because of this act of greater, selfless love, a new world with a new future is made. The cycle is broken.Escape is how a fairy-story transports us out of our own time. It gives us rest, a longer perspective, and it frees us from the immediate worries of the present age. It is the hope of the “Great Escape, the Escape from Death.” We recognize this same hope in Dark, even as it catches its viewers up in the cleverness of its twists and mysteries.
Finally, Consolation is the happy ending. Tolkien calls this final event a eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur.” It does not discount real suffering and pain, but it is “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Dark often seems focused on mutually sustaining dualities, but, as it occasionally reminds the viewer, it is actually built on threes. Triplets mark the show—three generations of characters, three seasons, a time-travel cycle of 33-year leaps. The Triquetra, the Trinity sign, marks the secret door that first leads Jonas across time. There are also three significant elder time travelers. I have mentioned Adam and Eva, but there is also a third, Claudia. It is Claudia who discovers the way to break the knot. It is Claudia who realizes that there is a third reality bound up with the two we have come to know. This third reality is where the other two were birthed. The third is where the round may be broken. Claudia, and her realization, is Dark’s eucatastrophe.
The temporal knot was created by a grieving father, H. G. Tannhaus, who lost his family to a car accident. He is the one who invented the time machine, hoping it would save his family. Instead, his love broke the world into two pieces. Claudia discovers a moment, a nanosecond at the apocalypse, when time itself is ruptured. It is the briefest flash of possibility. It is, in fact, an impossibility based on what we thought we knew. It is an apocalypse in that other sense of the word—not the world’s end, but a revelation. It is a fleeting glimpse of joy.
Jonas and Martha, their teenage selves, agree to take advantage of this rupture even if it means the end of their own realities. Adam and Eva, too, surrender to the hope of a new ending. The younger pair enter this third reality. They prevent the car accident from occurring. Tannhaus’s family is saved.
In that moment, Jonas walks away from the path of Adam and becomes a new Adam. He enters the world, reaches into the past, and brings the dead back to life. In doing so, he lays down his own life. Because of this act of greater, selfless love, a new world with a new future is made. The cycle is broken. As Jonas and Martha hold hands, and as Adam and Eva embrace, both pairs dissolve into pieces of light. Their eschaton is granted. They are given peace.
Dark lets this play out over one final montage. The accompanying song is another prayer of sorts, but it’s a kind we haven’t heard before. Previously, the songs were adornments of lament and longing. Only now that the characters’ hopes have been granted, now that their eschatological longing has been fulfilled, can the show sing a new song. And so, Dark allows itself a moment of earnest, unselfconscious praise:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them blue before me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
(“What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong covered by Soap&Skin)
 The show is ambiguous about what this eschaton is. Is it a release from desire or desire’s fulfillment? A re-absorption into the universe or are their selves preserved somehow? The Christian hope affirms the latter in both cases. Dark suspends itself between either possibility.