Decoding Netflix’ Dark: A Late Antique Apocalyptic Tale Wrapped up in Time Travel

This is not a spoiler-free post. And it is a longer post because the show is masterfully complex and deserves serious attention. Now that you’ve been properly forewarned,

Sic Mundus Creatus Est. Thus the world was created.

This is the secret society, the cryptic lines written on the door of time hidden in a passage in a cave, and the answer to all your burning questions that was, in actuality, staring at you right in the face all along throughout all three seasons of Netflix’ brilliant German series Dark.

Yup. Pretty much all the travails our hero Jonas endures (and all our suffering as we tried desperately to keep track of who is who and when–I am not ashamed to admit that I personally had to use Wikipedia as my cheat sheet) boils down to the “simple” fact that not one but two additional worlds were created when a mad scientist father loses his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter to a fatal car accident after a terrible fight between them. Determined to bring them back from the dead (something his great great great grandfather tries unsuccessfully to do when his beloved wife passes away over a century ago), instead of channeling Dr. Frankenstein, our mad-scientist father, who specializes in theoretical physics and owns a clock repair shop, channels his inner “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future but to a much darker outcome.

The show drops references like it rains in Winden. Apart from its favorite, the Matrix, it references Back to the Future repeatedly in multiple ways (including taking place partly in the mid-eighties, a son ensuring his father meets his mother to give birth to him, a mad scientist looking like Doc Brown with the shock-top gray hair, though its more muted as his personality is). Visually, it also references Frankenstein as an older Jonas stuck in the late 1800s uses electricity and lighting, financed by our mad scientists’ forefather, to try to bring Martha and all the residents of Winden back from the dead. The premise of repeating time to save a love interest from an older mobster-type is that of Run Lola Run, the darker German version of Ground Hog Day.

At first the show seemed like any other Nordic noir series from Netflix. The first season starts off with the mysterious disappearance of a child near some caves in the small German town, Winden, which comes complete with its own nuclear power plant; a disappearance which strongly echoes his own uncle’s disappearance near the same caves a generation ago. As the season slowly reveals all the rot that lies beneath the surface of the town–in the relationships between several families, whose members are all suspects at one point or other and who seem destined to play out their infidelities and carelessness across generations–we are treated to the literal manifestation of the town’s many sins: the nuclear run-off waste hidden in barrels in the caves. The nuclear power plant has its (literally) dirty secret too.

It seems Netflix has a running joke: anyone else see the Netflix Nordic noir supernatural show Ragnarok? They too have got similar dirty relationship secrets, nuclear waste-hidden-in-caves, and teenagers who try to save the world in small-town Norway.

Much of the town’s dirty secrets is revealed to us through our hero Jonas whose growth–loss of naivety, loss of innocence, loss of life (this is how Jonas’ elderly self breaks down life’s trajectory for him)–is documented visually through his yellow rain coat (a sweet symbol of childhood that Stephen King’s IT uses too) which is switched later for a dark green one which is eventually replaced by a grey trench coat (in a nod to the film noir of decades past?). It is no coincidence, then, that in season three Martha, Jonah’s love-interest and aunt as it turns out (GoT fans anyone?), showcases the same outerwear since she is the protagonist in the other created world. As our two heroes change coats and grow up, we are treated to an exquisite and uniquely satisfying take on generational trauma, the emotional and psychological toll of family secrets on children, how we define ourselves within and against the issues that precede our entrance into the world but which bear incredible weight on our development, and how we confront ourselves when we become the adults we swore we would, could never be. The question, “Who are you?”, asked repeatedly throughout the three seasons is a haunted one.

Dark is also about progress and stagnation (as a friend smartly pointed out in a What’s App post-season 3 discussion). Our mad-scientist is stuck in the past, trying to figure out time-travel as his father and forefathers all were, but his son wants no part of the family’s obsession as his inheritance. Worse, in the two worlds our mad-scientist father creates, he never gets his son back. Instead, the people of Winden are destined to live tragic lives and experience the same excruciating pain in an endless time loop no matter how hard Jonas and Martha and their allies try to change things for the better: there is so much suffering, including an impending apocalypse. In fact, just as all the town’s dirty little secrets are being revealed, boom! goes the nuclear power plant, the ultimate (now negative) symbol of modern progress (the show is filled with 1950s nuclear energy propaganda too). The environmentalist in me understands this as connected, the trauma we inflict on ourselves is the trauma we inflict on our communities and the only home we truly have, our planet.

But it’s the nerd in me that is most satisfied by this show. Jonas, in his yellow rain coat in stormy Winden running around trying to warn his family and friends of the secrets and the impending apocalypse, is the modern counterpart of Jonah the prophet sent by God to warn the residents of Nineveh that He is displeased with their sinning and that if they do not repent He will end their days. When Jonah resists, God sends a storm his way. Likewise, when Jonas resists, often it storms mightily in Winden. But when he is on mission, it is a sunnier Winden we are treated to. Then, when Jonah finally realizes if he does nothing, his companions will drown in the storm (for he decides to travel by sea for a bit), he throws himself overboard and is swallowed by a fish in whose belly he remains for three days until he acquiesces. Jonas, meanwhile, over the course of three seasons is stuck in an endless time loop until he finally stops resisting and fully throws himself into his mission even though it means his own destruction and that of his friends too. But it is not God necessarily that directs Jonas in Dark. It is Adam, the moniker his elderly self takes. And it is an Adam after the Fall, the one who took the proverbial bite of the apple and is filled with knowledge both good and bad (read past and future). It is also an Adam who becomes a version of Cain when he slays a young Martha. Of course, Adam has to have his counterpart. In the other world, it is Eva, the moniker Martha’s elderly self takes for herself since she also has taken a bite of the same forbidden fruit. They have taken these names too presumably because they figure they are the origin of the knot that ties the two worlds’ tragic fates together. Or, rather they believe their son is the knot. Eva for love of her child wants to keep the worlds spinning endlessly so that her son may live. Adam, our first protagonist decides somewhere along the way that he is a nihilist (it is a German show after all). He wants the infinite suffering to end and tries to bring that about through the apocalypse and has his son aborted in-utero by killing a young Martha (again).

The philosophical and Biblical references are laid on thick in Dark. In terms of the Biblical, there are many references to the trinity, too many to count; then there is Jonas’ friend who is given the moniker Noah (another stormy apocalyptic reference with ancient Mesopotamian roots) whose abiding love of another Winden resident helps keep humanity afloat for awhile even though he does many wicked things in the name of Adam’s mission; there is also Jonas’ other friend and eventual brother-in-law, Bartosz, who is named by his parents after the apostle Bartholomew. He fathers the children who will eventually become Noah and the grandmother and great-grandmother of our main characters (time-travel is a doozy in this show, remember I used crib notes).

While I’ll get to ancient Greek philosophy in a bit, it bears mentioning that Martha, at the start of the show, is in a school production of the ancient Greek play Ariadne. Ariadne is a princess who helps her beloved Theseus, an Athenian, defeat a Minotaur and escape from a labyrinth but who later on either slays her or leaves her to die (can we say foreshadowing, as we have a play within a play?). Circling back around to philosophy, Dark uses a circular labyrinth to conceptualize the multiple sub-passages of time eliding into one another endlessly thus also tying the show to ancient Greek philosophy which understands time as a circle, as an ouroboros (the tail-eating snake which features in the show too).

But what really kicks my nerdy spidey senses into gleeful overspin, is the way in which Adam and Eva are depicted as opposing forces, Light and Dark or shadow. While in English we tend to depict this as a Manichaean struggle, the way it is represented in the show is Zoroastrian–an ancient Iranian religion which survives to the present day.

In Zoroastrianism, humans are created to directly fight, on the side of good, in the cosmological struggle between good/light and bad/dark. When children come of age, they are asked to declare their intention to fight for good; a fight whose weapons are thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds. In Dark, allies of Adam and Eva find themselves pointedly being asked as children and as adults to declare their intention to fight on the side of either the light or the shadow and are given directives accordingly. As Eva lines up her allies and declares what specific actions they will take to ensure life and so light and the good, it certainly resembles the casting of lots among the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian gods who divided up various aspects of life, as in Hermes is the god of war and Artemis is the goddess of childbirth, equally among equals. However, since each of these allies of light have their direct counterparts on Adam’s team we turn back to Zoroastrianism. For every act of good creation by the all-knowing Lord of Wisdom, Ohrmazd, there is an act of mis-creation by the arch-demon of dark and backward knowledge, Ahrimen. The deities* who assist Ohrmazd, then, have their exact functional demonic counterparts (deity of truth is opposed by the demoness of lies). And so for every person acting to maintain creation on Eva’s side there is someone else acting towards annihilation on Adam’s side.

However, Eva and Adam are not the true equivalent of Ohrmazd much less Ahrimen because the worlds they are out to save, even if by different means (life versus annihilation) are the wrong ones and Adam thinks salvation comes when everyone is finally free of all the endless suffering. In Zoroastrianism, the apocalypse brings about the final world where everyone (those good and bad) is resurrected and lives on in a final state of the triumph of good. So Eva and Adam might be like Zoroastrian savior figures, the Sayoshants, though the mad scientist’s son thinks of them as his angels. Thus, Ohrmazd, the all-knowing who knows that good will triumph, is actually embodied by Claudia, the brilliant mathematician and physicist who becomes the first female president of a nuclear power plant only to abandon that distinction to save the world. She goes out on the quest for absolute knowledge, for the true origin point, the knot that ties both worlds. It is not the child Jonas and Martha create as the two of them suspect. Rather, after all her time traveling (and snooping in on people), Claudia finally discovers that the two wrong worlds came about as an act of mis-creation by our mad-scientist, out of misdirected pain and anger (represented by the demon Aeshma in Zoroastrianism). And worse, he has no clue that he did so (thus Ahrimen but only to an extent since he is a good man). So that her daughter, Regina, might live and pain free at that, Claudia brings about the ends of the two mis-created worlds by getting Jonas and Martha to prevent the deaths of the mad-scientist’s son and his family. In doing so, Claudia brings about the apocalypse of the two mis-created worlds and the resurrection of the true world.

If the Iranian eschatology and cosmology angle in a story filled with specific Greek and Biblical references seems far-fetched (they may even be since I have not, but would love to ask the co-creators of the show), all that is required is for us to go way back into the past, to antiquity and late antiquity to be exact, to see just how much these three traditions interacted with one another adding shades and nuances to stories and beliefs and practices over time. We would see that Jewish and Christian philosophers such as Philo and Origen in ancient Alexandria tried to convince pagan philosophers that Judaism and Christianity were the ultimate philosophy-religions respectively and that Moses and Jesus were the best philosopher-rulers by using the language and argumentation of philosophy. We would also see that Zoroastrian rituals and notions are found in abundance in the Babylonian Talmud and that by the 6th century the Sasanian empire was home to the largest number of Christians in late antiquity (beating out the Roman/Byzantine empire) and where Zoroastrian ideas about the system of reward and punishment, the apocalypse and resurrection, demonology and angeology filtered into Christianity and the writing of universal histories filtered into the Iranian/Zoroastrian writerly landscape. So maybe the show is Manichaean since Manichaeism is an amalgamation of the Judeo-Christian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist traditions with a smattering of neo-Platonism.

And if that is not enough to convince you, I leave you with our last impression of Jonas and Martha who travel through light to get to the origin/final world and who dissipate into nothingness as points of light. This hearkens to the idea, prevalent in ancient Greek philosophy (neo-Platonism specifically) and Christian and Islamic mysticism that our souls are like little points of light that seek to return to the ultimate source of light and when finally enlightened do so. In Sufi parlance, this is akin to a drop of rain falling into the ocean, or as our mad-scientist puts it and Jonas quotes back to the latter’s son in a poignant scene, “what we know is a drop, what we don’t is an ocean.”

*Fun nerd fact: deity, which comes from deus/theus (divine) in most Indo-European languages means a good divine being, in Zoroastrianism the related word dev means demon. Dev used to mean divine but was turned around as series of divine beings were demonized.

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