Hello and welcome to Previously On, a weekly column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week Liz Baessler takes a look at the third and final season of Dark on Netflix. This entry does include spoilers for Dark season 3.
In 2017, Netflix launched Dark, a German-language time-travel series. This deadly-serious mind-bending drama scratches the itch of anyone looking for devastating self-fulfilling prophecies, labyrinthine family trees, and inescapable suffering. It also has a killer soundtrack, with a veritable music video of a loose-end-tying montage near the end of each episode.
It’s delicious fun of the absolute bleakest kind.
The first two seasons of Dark follow teenager Jonas and an ever-expanding cast of characters bound up inextricably in a tightly wound, inescapable web of time loops in the supremely messed up sleepy German town of Winden. With each episode, the interconnecting ties get more convoluted and intense, and the stakes grow higher, even as they get more opaque.
At the end of the second season, this already confusing timeline is made all the more incomprehensible with the addition of a second, fully-formed parallel universe.
That’s where we pick up with the third and final season. Fair warning: I’m going to play fast and loose with spoilers because, frankly, it’s hard to discuss something that leans so heavily on the unraveling of mysteries without getting into the plot.
With its new season, Dark introduces a parallel Winden, one still plagued by time loop craziness, but in which Jonas, our hero, does not exist. (In this universe, Mikkel never traveled back in time to grow up into Jonas’ father.)
But Jonas is just one kid, the only exception to the literal doubling of an already hefty cast of characters. (The show has some mercy on us, at least: in this new universe, everyone’s alternate self has found a reason to dye their hair, wear glasses, get some tattoos, etc., so we can tell them apart.)
The waters are muddied even further by the fact that Jonas and Martha (satisfyingly elevated from her role of dead girlfriend in our universe to co-protagonist in this new one) are themselves split into two different iterations when the key moment of their meeting is forced to go two different ways.
Does this sound confusing? Good. Because it is.
But even as Dark raises its stakes, and its cast, to nearly untenable new heights, it promises a way out, a satisfying and final conclusion to this tangled knot that’s been tying itself up for all eternity.
And, against all odds, it actually does it.
If you’d asked me a week ago if I thought Dark would have a satisfying, explainable ending, I would not have had an optimistic answer. Time travel is messy, and usually best explained away with some philosophical, timey-wimey hand waving. And Dark is no stranger to the philosophical or the timey-wimey, so it would have made perfect sense for it to have an ambiguous, open-ended finale. It might not have been satisfying, but it sure would have fit.
If you’d asked me a week ago if I thought Dark would have a happy ending, I probably would have laughed in your face.
Dark is all about the inescapable crush of the wheel of inevitability. Its characters suffer eternally, and in their attempts to escape it, they often make themselves the original source of that suffering. Both for themselves, and for their children. Who half the time are also their parents. It’s a rough show.
But by god, the final episode of Dark takes those two supposedly essential elements of itself, and it throws them out the window. And it’s great.
Throughout all of Dark, there’s been talk of a “source,” an initial moment that began the current infinity of time loops. While it’s treated with a lot of weight, at its core it’s an almost laughable idea, the desperate last hope of someone stuck in a cycle they know is endless.
And yet the final season — in fact, the final episode — reveals that the source is, indeed, real.
As it happens, both universes in Dark were born out of a third, “origin” universe. In that universe, the old scientist and clockmaker Tannhaus lost his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter in a car crash. Wracked by grief and obsessed with quantum physics, he tried to invent a time machine. Instead, he gave birth to two new universes where time travel is possible and the results are not pretty.
In the final episode, Jonas and Martha travel to this new universe on the night of the car crash, and they avert it. They do what every character has been trying and failing to do for the past three seasons: they go back in time to stop a tragedy before it happens.
And it goddamn works.
It’s almost funny. And, on a first viewing, a little anticlimactic. As Martha and Jonas convince Tannhaus’ family (very cryptically and badly) to turn back and not drive across the bridge they’re destined to die on, it’s impossible not to wait for the other shoe to drop.
And yet it doesn’t. Tannhaus never loses his family, so he never builds his machine, and the universes we’ve spent three years getting to know… simply never came into being. Martha and Jonas — teenaged, middle-aged, and old — dissolve into golden dust, and with them, their worlds.
The show ends on a dinner party in 2020 in this original, now singular universe. The dinner party has six guests (without the absolute labyrinth of a time travel-influenced family tree, none of the other named characters ever existed). And the guests are, of all things, happy.
Of course, it’s not the happiest of happy endings. Nearly every character we’ve known and suffered with has just… ceased to be. In a final monologue, Hannah describes the dream she had the night before, in which everything ended in oblivion. But, she insists, it was a good kind of oblivion. And frankly, that’s the best Dark could possibly hope for. A good oblivion. And a hopeful one. This other, “original” Hannah is pregnant and, at the end of her monologue, musing that Jonas is a beautiful name.
Does Dark end with every loose end tied up? God, no. Any story of this magnitude and willful obliqueness is going to leave you with some questions. But that’s okay. The final dinner party even acknowledges this by addressing one reigning mystery: Wöller’s missing eye. He is about to explain what happened to it but is cut off, never getting the chance. As far as I can tell, this is Dark’s sole joke.
But while Dark doesn’t clarify everything, it comes damn close to it. And it gives a wholly satisfying, closed ending, something very few time-travel stories can say for themselves. This monster of a show did not end how I expected it to, but I can’t imagine wanting it to end any other way.
All three seasons of Dark are currently available for streaming on Netflix.