In its first season, Netflix's thrilling German sci-fi series Dark was compared, rather unfairly, to Stranger Things, another highly bingeable, popular Netflix series about a young boy who goes missing under mysterious circumstances. But while Stranger Things was an homage to the beloved Steven Spielberg films of the '80s, Dark's moody, mind-bending, and emotionally resonant narrative often feels like it's pulling inspiration from something closer to David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
In Season 2, which debuts Friday, the series more fully embraces its wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey nature — to borrow from another beloved time-travel series — as it continues to bounce between different timelines and generally make its viewers' brains feel like jelly. Posing complex questions about determinism and free will, coupled with its overt religious undertones, Dark has lofty narrative ambitions, and it continues to nail them at every twist and turn. Through the four episodes screened for critics, Dark barrels through its ever-complicating story, picking up steam as more and more layers are uncovered, creating even more questions as others are finally being answered. But the reason it all works and never feels too wild or like it's happening too fast is because the story is grounded in the emotions of the characters.
The despair that hung over the small German town of Winden following the disappearance of Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) in 2019 not only persists, it's deepened considerably by the time the show picks up in the summer of 2020. There are now six people missing, including Jonas (Louis Hofmann), who we know to be in 2053, and Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), who's still stuck in the 1950s after attempting to kill Helge (Tom Philipp) as a young boy as a last-ditch effort to prevent the events of the series from ever happening. But as more time passes in the present without any answers, many in town are slipping further and further into a state of helplessness. Katharina (Jördis Triebel) is neglecting Magnus (Moritz Jahn) and Martha (Lisa Vicari) to spend her days in the caves, attempting to figure out what happened to her husband and youngest son. Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn) continues her own investigation into what happened even as a federal investigator comes to town to work the case. And Hannah (Maja Schöne) is so lost after losing her son so soon after losing her husband (Sebastian Rudolph) that she's more desperate than ever.
Netflix's rampant spoilerphobia prevents me from going into much detail about what actually occurs in Dark Season 2, but that same spoilerphobia also ensures that the mystery at the heart of Dark — Why is all of this happening? Who is behind it all? What does it all mean? — remains a mystery for everyone in the lead-up to the new season. That's a big selling point for a series with as many twisty turns and shocking secrets as Dark has buried in its story, and there are certainly more surprising revelations in Season 2 as Jonas attempts to understand what's going on and how to stop it. But this also makes it difficult to discuss what makes Dark such an enthralling, addictive show in the first place.
To put it simply, and without pissing off the Netflix gods, everything viewers loved about the German series in Season 1 is still there in Season 2, only now the narrative is also underscored by the looming threat of the apocalypse. Even if most of the characters are unaware of the fate that awaits them in the near future, we the viewers know, and that knowledge hangs over nearly every scene set in the present day like a cloud of toxic energy. It also adds a sense of urgency to the story too, as there is now a ticking clock on the proceedings.
For every minute that Jonas is in the post-apocalyptic future we first glimpsed at the end of Season 1, it's a minute he's not in the present potentially preventing the apocalypse. The longer the interconnected members of the Winden community go without uncovering the truth about the wormhole in the caves, the less time they have to figure out the truth. The good news is, more people do join the inner circle and make progress in the investigation into what's really happening in town. Whether or not anyone believes what they see is another story.
One of the reasons Dark is such a compelling drama isn't just because it presents time travel as something that is possible or because it grounds its story in the emotional narratives of its characters, but because it couches its sci-fi themes in conversations about free will and destiny. While the nonlinear nature of time can make the show quite confusing at times, one of the great joys of the series is trying to untangle the interconnected relationships and ongoing narrative threads in order to understand how we got here and where we're going. Dark excels at building a compelling mystery, and the fact that it never loses the plot itself is a testament to the writing of the series.
We know there will be one final season after this one: three cycles, three seasons, as a recent Netflix trailer for Season 2 revealed. And that signifies, at least to me, that the show's creators, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, likely have a plan. They likely know how this all ends (if a show like Dark can ever actually have an ending, that is), even if they might not necessarily have it all mapped out yet. And that makes me optimistic about where we're headed after a particular twist midway through the season threatens to change everything we thought we knew about what was going on in Winden. In true Dark fashion, there's always another complex layer to the story, and even if I don't know what it means yet, I still can't wait to see what happens next.
Dark Season 2 premieres Friday, June 21 on Netflix.