How the Co-Creators of 'Dark' Pulled off the Mind-Blowing Netflix Series
They needed a computer program to keep everything straight.
Note: This article contains major spoilers up through Dark's Season 2 finale, and some mild spoilers for Season 3. Proceed with caution. If you're ready, you can also read our series finale recap and explainer.
Netflix's Dark, the streaming service's first German-language original series, follows four families in a small town who become engaged, sometimes unwittingly, in a time-traveling battle between seemingly good and evil forces. It's a highly rewarding if not particularly easy viewing experience, being at times hilariously confusing, especially if you're not a German speaker and are busy reading subtitles while new faces appear on screen. Season 1 was tricky enough, but midway through the second season you may find yourself needing to construct a character yarn board on your wall to remember everything that's happened, who the various actors are depicting at various intervals along the timeline, and when any given scene is taking place.
By the end of Season 2, we're dealing with a number of different time periods spanning more than 100 years but we're also introduced, in the last seconds of the finale, to the possibility of an entirely new and potentially identical dimension. So where does the show go in Season 3? We spoke to Dark co-creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese about saying farewell to the series, the spiritual and mythological influences they crammed into the third season's eight episodes, and how in the world they managed to keep everything straight.
Watchers of the show can lean on some helpful online resources while they watch, such as the extensive official companion website that recaps important plot points organized by character, time period, place, and important object. Netflix was even kind enough to share a 10-minute catch-up video in the week ahead of the final season's release. But the people creating the show needed more elaborate tracking methods.
"We started in Season 2 to outsource my brain, so to say," Friese explained in a Zoom interview. "We worked on a database where every scene is broken down under certain circumstances. You can search, for example, for a character, and then you see the character arc, or you can search for a timeline and then you can see everything that's happening in that timeline."
By the end of the second season, the timeline of Dark has become more of a time-web, with certain characters now able to hop back and forth through time without adhering to the 33-years rule, while other characters discover that certain people they meet are actually their own future selves. When we arrive at the start of Season 3, the big twist of Season 1 — that main character Jonas Kahnwald is actually the son of Mikkel, the young boy who mysteriously vanished from 2019 and somehow ended up 33 years in the past — seem quaint by comparison.
"If you don't look at the narrative chronologically, but you pick out single characters and just look at their character arcs, it becomes a lot easier," Friese said. "Because in their arc, the narrative is straightforward. Every step they are doing, they're doing one after the other. It just gets complicated when you try to figure out what comes first."
Season 3 picks up almost immediate with what happened in the last moments of the second season finale, after a character named Adam (who is purportedly a much older version of Jonas) shoots Martha, Jonas' love interest (and, as he learns, also his aunt), and a Martha doppelgänger suddenly arrives, a la Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future, to whisk him away. But where they're going isn't to a different time period; she clicks a device and suggests they're going to a different world. As we learn quickly in Season 3, the worlds are very similar but also slightly different, but time-travel is still in play and the other Martha and her world are still progressing toward the same world-shattering apocalypse that happened in Jonas' world.
The season weaves together not only five or six different time periods, but also a second version of those time periods, and goes back even further in time and more years along the way. It's a lot to keep track of, and a feat of brilliance that Odar and Friese have made it work so seamlessly, especially since the show never shies away from introducing the actual quantum theory behind parallel universes and God particles.
"I think I personally read probably one hundred books or so over the course of the three seasons, and not only on the science stuff behind it, but also philosophical pieces, a lot of spiritual writing," Friese said. "Because there are so many layers of science philosophy and metaphysics and spiritual stuff, and it was quite interesting to see that they are all actually talking about the same thing, just from different angles."
Odar mentioned that it was a children's book on quantum physics that finally made it all make sense to him — sort of. "When I read it, I was like, 'I finally got it!' Ten minutes later, you're like, 'No, shit. No, I didn't,'" he said. "I gave that to a couple of actors and they all had the same experience."
Odar explained that, if you're looking to keep track of everything, follow the symbols. "To create worlds you need to create patterns, and the best way to create patterns is by using symbols," he said. "I think we created a very small world, to be honest, on Dark. We said, this is a determined world, or it's based on determinism. We have the 'triquetra' and stuff like that [a three-pointed knot shape from the Iron Age that was adapted to represent the Christian Trinity]. Thirty-three years, the number [if you flip the first three around] is, combined, an eight. If you turn that around, it's the infinity symbol."
But amid all the symbology and references to religion and philosophical theory, there is one very simple concept that unites it all: the notion of an immutable past that, quite literally, in this case, always catches up to the present, and in so doing, informs the future. "We're always very, very interested in why people do the things they do, and how they came to be the person they are," Friese explained. "We've dedicated our past years to deciphering human behavior and trying to find out why people also do very bad things. It always comes down to some kind of programming they had before them that you cannot choose because you cannot let go of the stuff that happened before you. Your past is always pushing you into the direction you're going, while at the same time the future is pulling you."
It's kind of funny, given that it's basically a quantum theory lesson told entirely in German, that the show has become so popular. "India just picked up that show a couple of months ago, and now it's really huge in India," Odar said. "I would say culturally, there's a lot of difference between German Europe and India. We're way closer to America than we are actually to India. And they love that show!"
"We're really bad at celebrating ourselves," he added. "I don't know if that's a German thing. It's really awkward for us, this huge success, we always question it. And we're just waiting for the moment where someone shows up and says, 'April Fool's! It's just the camera trick. It never happened.'" Friese laughed and added, "'For a short moment in time, you visited a parallel world where you actually had success!'"
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