PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Not Where But When: Past and Future in Netflix's 'Dark'

Dark: S2, "The Travelers" (IMDB)

The German-language sci-fi thriller Dark perfectly captures the unsettling experience of being trapped by history.

Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese




According to IMDB, Dark, the first original German-language programme on Netflix, was briefly the most popular show in the world this month. Popularity is not, of course, a direct indicator of quality—yet, with its intelligent and emotional treatment of some familiar sci-fi tropes, Dark's second season more than warrants its current esteem.

Set entirely in the fictional German town of Winden, the first season of Dark released last year offered a tense and slow-burning sci-fi thriller. Over the course of ten episodes, co-creators Jantje Frise and Baran bo Odar slowly unfolded a complex story replete with sudden disappearances, enigmatic strangers, and (eventually) time travel, with the action shifting between 2019 and a number of other richly realised time periods. Not withstanding its beautiful production, Dark's first season proved a demanding watch, in part due to the vast number of characters (many of whom appear, played by different actors, in multiple timelines) and the at-times frustratingly slow and sombre pacing.

The second season, however, more than rewards this patience. Dropping from ten to a punchier eight episodes, and free from the burden of world-building that weighed down its first outing, Dark's second season offers an intricate and highly original work of storytelling. Picking up six months into the future, the story follows the families of Winden as they struggle to comprehend the events that have rocked their small community. As more and more characters discover the secret of time travel—often, in the process, making some truly mind-boggling discoveries about their own family histories—the action ticks down to a final climactic event that, depending on whose side you are on, may prove either the death or the salvation of human civilisation.

Louis Hoffman in Dark: S2, "Beginnings and Endings"


Of course, a story about mysterious events rocking the inhabitants of a small town sounds rather like another popular Netflix series that just dropped its third season. Indeed, although Dark differs dramatically from Stranger Things in its sober tone, it nevertheless shares a number of interesting thematic similarities. Like Stranger Things, Dark is deeply concerned with questions of authority: the authority of parents over their children, of earlier generations over later ones, of humans over the natural forces around them (and vice versa), and of ambiguous global and corporate forces over the intimate and intricate realities of small-town life.

Where Stranger Things is concerned with re-establishing the importance of traditional forms of authority—parents, teachers, police—Dark is more interested in its total disintegration. Parents, police officers, psychiatrists, teachers: all prove helpless when confronted by the machinations of time and history. By the time of the climactic season finalé, it is clear that none of the characters have managed to grasp the profound events slowly unfolding around them. Even the motivations of the two warring antagonists—despite their tendencies towards rather ponderous soliloquies—remain largely inscrutable.

In this, Dark feels very much like a product of an historical moment in which an increasing amount of political and social power is being transferred away from graspable authority figures towards largely inscrutable global and corporate forces, and in which the notion of an empirical "reality" is, in the age of fake news and social media, becoming an ever-more tenuous concept. Even Winden itself could be taken as a product of a fractious postmodernity: an abstraction more than an actually-existing place. The entire action of the series moves between a number of discrete settings within the town, yet the actual nature of Winden—its size, its geography, its history—remains ambiguous.

Dark: S2, "Ghosts"


The characters, too, despite the central focus on time travel, are curiously lacking in history. Individuals consistently fail to recognise their own and others' future selves, and much of the action of the series revolves around characters trying either to prevent their own futures or erase their own pasts.

That they prove consistently unable to do either seems to reflect something about our own historical context: the re-animation, in recent years, of some of the worst excesses of 20th-century politics, coupled with the seeming inability to steer the world away from impending environmental collapse, all paint a picture of a humanity trapped helplessly between its past and future selves. The prescience of these concerns—the desire to both break away from history and prevent a seemingly inevitable future, coupled with the seeming impossibility of doing so—is part of what makes Dark such a compelling, and at times frightening, watch.

If the show has one glaring weakness, it is the bizarrely offhand depiction of its sole transgender character. Given the extent to which the show emphasises the interconnectivity of all its characters, it is disappointing to see this character being quite literally marginalised. Bernadette Wöller (Anton Rubtsov) is shown to be living as a sex worker at a truck rest stop, and her primary—and fleeting—role within season one is as a deviant home-wrecker who destroys the marriage of two of the central characters. Although portrayed in a slightly more sympathetic light in season two, Bernadette remains by far the most underdeveloped recurring character, and her depiction is an unaccountable dip within the otherwise careful construction of the show.

This issue notwithstanding, Dark is a compelling and innovative watch that touches on some timely (no pun intended) themes. If you can get through the more laborious episodes that open season one, you'll be more than rewarded with a gripping second season.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.