Finding the Greek Tragedy in Netflix’s ‘Dark’

The German-language, science fiction drama derives from a number of Greek myths and pays homage through various narrative and character signifiers.

Final Dark Unit
Stefan Erhard / Netflix

A show egregiously under-discussed in the Netflix Rolodex of content is the streaming giant’s first German-language series and science fiction thrill ride, DARK. Encompassing incremental time spans set apart by 33 years, the small town of Winden carries with it the power to influence the trajectory of the world. Within the town are four families — Tiedemann, Nielsen, Doppler, and Kahnwald — all whose lives intersect, some by bloodlines. Their intertwining affects the past, present, and future. But the ethos behind the ensemble drama derives from a type of Greek tragedy playbook. Taking cues from, and paying homage to, the myths and interconnecting characters, DARK’s greatest narrative accomplishment is becoming the contemporary Greek tragedy audiences didn’t know they needed.

Note: Spoilers Ahead for DARK Seasons 1 & 2

DARK begins as an intergenerational drama, in which the conflicts of parents are passed down to their children inciting further tremors throughout Winden. It’s revealed in the first season that Hannah Kahnwald, Ulrich Nielsen, and Katharina Nielsen endured a love triangle with the drama of Greek-like proportions. Taking any variation of the Zeus, Hera, and Europa – or any other woman of Greek mythology the god pursued – Ulrich, Katharina, and Hannah’s drama extends from adolescence. Hannah, who had always pined for Ulrich, lies to police saying she saw Ulrich assault Katharina, when in reality their courtship and the subsequent relationship were consensual. The vindictiveness of Hannah and her pining for Ulrich extends so far as to be revealed as a connection that will never leave her.

By Season 2, fans of DARK learn that Hannah not only marries the son of Ulrich, Mikkel (lost to time in Season 1) but gives birth to Ulrich’s own grandson. It’s the warped relationship of seduction, settling, and then the living personification of her desire for Ulrich in the form of her own son, Jonas. In the twisted family tree of Greek mythology, Ulrich, Hannah, Mikkel, and Jonas would fit right in. But it’s also the malicious attitudes of both Katharina, the victim, and Hannah, the selfish conspirator and adulterer, that makes the circumstances all the more like Greek theater.

As with Zeus’s prominence in the world of Greek mythology, Ulrich’s lineage, too, continues to be troubled beyond his line. As the pieces of the first season come together, there’s also the revelation that Jonas is Mikkel’s son, making him the nephew of Martha Nielsen, Ulrich and Katharina’s daughter. The Martha and Jonas pine for one another, even though Jonas withholds the secret of his parentage from Martha. But the first season also pays homage to a Greek play that reveals further thematic and narrative elements explored more in Season 2.

In Season 1, Martha performs the role of Ariadne in a play the school is putting on. Occurring in Episode 6 of the freshman season, Martha is overcome by the rift in her relationship with Jonas, not knowing all along that she is his aunt. The performance, however, isn’t the only turning point where the toll of the narrative begins to creep into the lives of each character. The story Martha performs, based in Greek mythology, parallels the narrative fans have been watching and theorizing over, giving way to more clues as to the series’ ultimate end.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete. She is given the responsibility of protecting the labyrinth on Crete where ritual sacrifices are performed and which houses a Minotaur in its center. Theseus, who would come to kill the Minotaur, was the son of Aegeus and Aethra but was given the dual life of mortal and divine. Upon meeting Theseus, Ariadne falls in love with him and decides to aide him in navigating through the maze by giving him a token, a small clump of thread. But once out of the labyrinth, Theseus leaves heartbroken Ariadne. During the monologue in which Martha is overcome with emotion, Ariadne alludes to the end, the apocalypse, and how all of our bonds are tied together.

Within the play are also allusions to time, fate, and cycles – that nothing changes over time. The parallels between the myth and the narrative of DARK encompasses the wayward journey through the tunnels that Jonas must endure in order to end the cycle – thereby defeating either the forces of Noah or, as the second season reveals in time, an older version of himself called Adam. The Greek myth is laden with dread of the mistakes consistently made over and over, and that Jonas might, as Theseus was, be the answer to stopping it, even at the cost of losing Martha forever.

To call DARK a deeply complicated series would be more a platitude than acknowledging what the series really espouses. Taking direction from science and science fiction and Greek mythology, the series only has a handful of characters, but it feels like a massive ensemble undertaking the roles of gods and goddesses toying with fate and time. It’s the combination of these bloodlines and the theatrics of these interconnecting narratives that make DARK the Greek tragedy audiences have been beseeching the gods to send them. And, much like a scorching bolt of lightning, they’ve delivered.

An entertainment writer, with work featured in multiple places. Loves movies and television almost as much as her cat.