“Die Frage ist nicht wo, sondern wann.” The question is not where, rather when.

On June 27, 2020, the final cycle began. I’m referring, of course, to the third and final season of the eerie but wildly popular German-language sci-fi series “Dark,” seen on Netflix. The “final cycle” refers both to the final season of the series and to the final cycle of time itself.

The series debuted on Netflix on December 1, 2017, with the second season streaming last June 21, 2019. These dates all have significance in the series itself.

“Dark” is an eerie time-travel thriller that follows the intertwined lives of four stressed-out German families – the Kahnwalds, Nielsons, Dopplers and Tiedemanns – living in the small fictional German town of Winden.

The events involving these families unfold in different periods in Winden’s history – primarily in our own time (2019-2020) and the year 1986 but also, to a lesser extent, in 1921, 1953 and 2053.

And there is a twist.

The town of Winden is set on the edge of a dark forest and next-door to one of Europe’s first nuclear power plants, a major employer for the town’s citizens. Deep in the forest lies a cave, a popular hangout for the town’s teenagers, that leads to tunnels to the nuclear plant but also to a tunnel back in time. Access to the time tunnel is through a small metal door upon which are engraved the Latin words, Sic mundus creatus est (“Thus the world was created”).

Some of the main characters discover the time tunnel in the cave and move back and forth between the present and the other time periods, interacting with earlier versions of family members, friends and even themselves. For this reason, many watchers of “Dark” must resort to complex timelines and diagrams of the various family members – to keep track who is the parent or spouse of whom and in which time period.

The central character of the entire series is a young man named Jonas Kahnwald (played in the present by actor Louis Hofmann), whose father, Michael Kahnwald (Sebastian Rudolph), an artist, mysteriously hangs himself on June 21, 2019. Before he dies, however, Michael leaves a note for his son to read but not before November 4. However, Michael’s mother, Ines, discovers the note and hides it before it can be read.

We later learn that the note reveals that Michael is really Mikkel Nielson (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), an 11-year-old boy who will soon vanish in the forest under mysterious circumstances. Mikkel is actually taken by a future Jonas known as the Stranger (Andreas Pietschmann) back to the year 1986 where he eventually becomes the father of Jonas.

Mikkel’s disappearance is investigated by his father, Ulrich Nielson (Oliver Masucci), a detective on the Winden police force, whose own brother Mads also disappeared 33 years earlier, in 1986, under similar circumstances.  

Lost yet?

Adding to the intrigue is the existence of a kind of secret Masonic-like society of time travelers, Sic Mundus, which built the time portal back in 1921. The members, who meet in church-like buildings filled with burning candles and religious paintings, have biblical-sounding names like Adam and Noah. 

The organization members appear to be divided between those who seek to save the world – and those who view the cycle of birth and death, indeed of time itself, as inherently evil.

These “anti-reality activists,” if you will, have hatched some sort of doomsday plot. By combining the power of Winden’s soon-to-be-decommissioned nuclear power plant with the time portal, the anti-reality figures seek to trigger a universe-destroying event involving the God Particle – an apocalypse that will occur on June 27, 2020.

Needless to say, this brief introduction only scratches the surface. The plot is incredibly complex, involving older and younger versions of the various characters and multiple storylines in different time periods. It is also brimming with bizarre quasi-Hermetic reflections on the nature of time and eternity and the interconnectedness of all things.

For people who like to contemplate such thorny issues as free will versus fate, the series is like a philosophy class on steroids – or rather, with popcorn. Nietzsche, and his theory of the Eternal Recurrence, looms in the background.

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Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar are as intensely philosophical as you might imagine.

“Dark” is the brain child of the German screenwriter Jantje Friese, who wrote every episode, and her partner and director Baran bo Odar, who met while both were students at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film in Munich.

In an interview, Friese herself admits that her story became so complex she had to resort to a database program to keep all of the characters and time periods straight. She also reveals that the philosophical paradoxes and puzzles are no accident but stem from her own compulsive reading about the nature of time and how the “irrevocable past” shapes the present and the future.

For its many fans all over the world, “Dark” is a marvelous distraction from the unsettling era many of us are living in, an era of global pandemics, burning cities, political anarchy, widespread media censorship, election meddling by tech elites, and more.

Yet “Dark” is also one of those rare entries in popular culture:  a TV series that is both philosophically challenging but also eminently watchable.

It’s a treat that is well worth the very considerable effort, available in both dubbed English and German versions with subtitles. I strongly recommend the original German and starting with season 1.

“Dark” is wildly popular with both critics and ordinary viewers alike, rated 93% fresh by Rotten Tomatoes and receiving a 95% favorable rating by viewers. The critical consensus is that the show is “both tense and terrifying, culminating in a creepy, cinematic triumph of sci-fi noir.”

Robert Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson is the author of many works of popular history, including, most recently, What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination (2020). https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1621578860