Dragging The Dead On Leashes: Generational Sin in Netflix’s “Dark”

A guest review by Kevin McGuire

“To a world without Winden”

“Winden won’t give up that easily”

-Ulrich and Hannah, 1986 (Season 1, Episode 3)

Dark’s opening scene takes place thirty-three years after this exchange, where the small town of Winden is as rotten as ever. Jonas Kahnwald has just returned to school following his father’s suicide. The nuclear plant, long a source of civic pride and economic stability, is set to be decommissioned. Half the residents seem to be involved in extramarital affairs. The police department is investigating several cases of missing children. Entire flocks of birds drop dead from the skies with no apparent explanation. Created in 2017 by director Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, this German Netflix series centers on a handful of local families, and the dark secrets in the town’s past responsible for the current problems. Time travel quickly comes into play, and as various characters attempt to change the past to fix the present, it becomes apparent how deeply the roots of their modern pain lie in their actions and those of their ancestors.

In case you haven’t picked up by now, this is not a happy show. The New York Times described it as “the show for people who thought Stranger Things was just a little too much fun”. Dark is simultaneously a technical and narrative masterpiece and a difficult show to watch. In preparation for writing, Friese read over 100 books on quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology – and it shows. Direct references are made to numerous scientific concepts by name, everyone in-universe is capable of directly quoting both Freud and the book of Psalms, and quotes from a range of continental philosophers provide prologue to many episodes. It is an incredibly dense show, unwilling to leave any scientific or relational worldbuilding unexplored.

Odar’s background as a painter infuses each scene with strikingly intentional composition. The camera is unblinking as the show moves at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, whether capturing sordid affairs, brutal murders, or exposition over the physics of black holes. Indebted to the grand myth building of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, Dark takes lessons from their oft-criticized lack of payoff. A consistent atmosphere is maintained by a steady drip of the dreadful truth replacing each piece of the central mystery, with the endgame always in sight. The solution to the puzzle is revealed early on, but the journey to that point – and what it can reveal about the human experience – remains the greater story.

A Brand New, Broken World

Dark is, at its core, as much about philosophical conflict as it is time-travel and soapy drama. While questions of time, fate, and causality form the grand theater that the show plays in, the heart of the narrative is much more human. Ultimately, Dark is about the experience of navigating generational sin, how the misdeeds of the past can bring pain and suffering through lasting scars and continuing patterns of destruction. The town of Winden is the entire universe of the show, and the most enduring monument to the crimes committed by generations of inhabitants. Beneath the nuclear plant, a system of caves acts as both the catalyst for time travel and a physical manifestation of the town’s dark underbelly. Occasionally we meet characters who have just moved to Winden, but no one escapes. Midway through season one, Katarina, mother of one of the missing children calls into a radio show, her oracle against Winden playing over scenes of small-town life now seen through a newly darkened lens:

“I want people to completely understand what’s going on here. We’re all so blind about this. There’s a murderer here among us. No one actually dares to say it. But it’s the truth. We’re all clinging to the hope that it won’t happen to us. We all know one another. And we think we know those around us. But do we really? We live right next door to people we know nothing about, and behind one of those doors is my son. It could be anyone’s door. The man behind the cash register. Someone we invite for coffee and cake on Sundays, who plays with our children. But I don’t want to look away anymore. And you shouldn’t want to either. This whole town is sick. Winden is like a festering wound, and all of us are a part of it.”  

The sins of the past directly affect every aspect of life in Winden. Fractured relationships within families echo the abuse and addictions that have haunted them for generations, while externally individuals betray the children of those their parents betrayed. Nothing changes, in pattern or substance, even as one generation replaces the next. Institutions, whether educational, political, or clerical, provide no solace for the residents as they continue to be harnessed for selfish motive just as they have throughout Winden’s history. The thin veneer of camaraderie that unites the town decays on screen as the secrets of the past emerge from whispered rumor into the light, setting neighbor against neighbor, daughter against mother, and father against son. 

Dark illustrates two types of this generational sin, the show proudly wearing its existential heritage on its sleeve. Characters moving through time fall into one of two camps. The first, represented by those like Ulrich, travel to the past in attempts to prevent present tragedies. Upon arrival, they face the realization that generations of misdeeds, both theirs and their ancestors, cannot be erased and inevitably haunt their families’ emotional and physical security. Confronted with this absurd and transcendent reality, they shrink into impotence or madness.

The second is represented by the cult-like secret societies of Sic Mundus and Erit Lux that carry out a war waged beyond time. Their founders began on the same path as the others, but answered the absurd directly. Instead of heroic courage, their actions prove to be the inciting incidents behind much of the horror plaguing their modern world. Generational sin is now cast through the lens of eternal recurrence – essentially the concept that all events in history occur repeatedly, in the same sequence, through a never-ending series of cycles. Dark makes this literal, as all of the travelers find themselves fighting the same tragedies not just at different points of time, but failing again and again to change the past and seeing their family and friends torn apart repeatedly by their actions. Trapped in this unending knot, each character operating outside of their native timeline is faced with the disharmony that arises from the apparent meaninglessness of their existence and the futility of their actions, and together represent three unique philosophical responses.

Heroes of the Absurd

As leader of Sic Mundus (which is short for Sic Mundus creatus est, which means “Thus the world was created” in Latin), Adam represents a war against God and time, viewing both as ultimately non-existent concepts which must be dethroned from the human mind. He adopts the view of eternal recurrence advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche – that only through amor fati (love of fate) can the “horrifying and paralyzing” reality of what will happen be embraced, allowing escape through the “creation of novelty”. Corrupted both physically and spiritually by countless attempts to restore order through time travel (his scars serving to conveniently obscure his identity until late in season two), Adam is the embodiment of the Nietzschean “will to power”. In his eyes, only he is strong enough to bend the universe to his will. Winden is sick, and can only be cured through destruction. In the center of the Sic Mundus lodge hangs Peter Paul Ruben’s The Fall of the Damned, Adam viewing himself as the archangel Michael, casting the damned of Winden into the abyss they deserve. For any innocents in the town, non-existence is a more merciful fate than continuing to live in such a world. Judgement and salvation, carried out in the same motion.

Eva, the leader of the Erit Lux (“There will be light” in Latin), is chiefly opposed to Adam, and seeks a different path. Her encounter with the absurd leads her instead to embrace it. There is a radical value to mere existence, any harm from generational sin largely ignored. Chief among the artifacts adorning Erit Lux’s comparatively barren lodge is a detailed mapping carved into the floor of every individual’s role which must be sustained for the cycle to continue. Eva embraces the absurdism articulated by Albert Camus, presupposing a world in which God is already dead and nothing beyond the immanent matters. To Erit Lux, both history and hope represent false idols doomed to disappoint. In this weary world, nothing is promised beyond today, and even the freedom that comes from everyone’s self-determined path to destruction is preferable to the fantasy of salvation. 

There’s an interesting contrast between the absurdism of Camus and the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (bear with me for a second). In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proclaims about the character that “he too concludes all is well”. This is a bitter statement acknowledging that the world has no master, and that Sisyphus must make his own meaning out of the boulder he eternally pushes. ‘All is well’ because nothing can be any different from how it currently stands. These words are a strange echo of Julian of Norwich’s famous recounting of her 13th vision:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

For Julian, all is not well. But it will be. She doesn’t know how or when or why, but Christ will make all things right, and that is enough for faith. Likewise in Dark, Claudia, the last of three travelers who is outside time, accepts that there might be hope outside the knot in which Winden is stuck. She only arrives at this point through desperation, unwilling to perpetuate the cycle of parents and children wronging one another. The same mechanism which brings suffering into the world is the only way to escape it. 

In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard writes that anxiety is the amoral tension between all possible actions that predates even the knowledge of good and evil in human consciousness. Anxiety made possible Adam and Eva’s leap into their original sins, yet anxiety also makes Claudia’s leap into a faith in a better world possible. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard saw the tyranny of fate on human consciousness as a blight to be overcome. However, his solution lay in the ability of anxiety to prepare the human mind for faith “because the anxiety within him has already fashioned fate and has taken away from him absolutely all that any fate could take away”. Claudia’s recognition, that nothing she imagines can be worse than the present cycle imprisoning Winden, provides the catalyst for hope that unhitching from the origin can lead to a better world.

Out of the Caves

Three seasons of wallowing in suffering is draining. There’s a purpose to this pain though, as only in the absence of hope can the vastness of its joy be seen. In a recent interview, artist Elijah Tamu spoke about darkness as being a key to realizing spiritual transcendence, “white light is beautiful, but a world of only white light without differentiation would be no different from a world of darkness… Sometimes darkness is what makes it possible to appreciate and contemplate certain subtleties of light”. For example, the traditional candlelit tenebras service of Good Friday situates the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice alongside both spiritual and physical darkness, making a conscious attempt to draw the modern mundane into viewing a more sacred fullness. Unilluminated by the divine, the inherited suffering of this world can either lead to holding tight to past wrongs and perpetuating injustice on personal and systemic levels, or to redemptive release. 

While Dark cloyingly refuses to acknowledge whether any of the characters truly manage to outwit fate, Odar and Friese make clear that healing of even the deepest hurts begins with the extension of personal grace. Forgiveness of self and others, coupled with sacrifice, literally wipes away any trace of the show’s central sins. The generational patterns are coming undone. The final episode concludes with a dinner party, prior suspicion replaced by true community. As the guests eat by candlelight in a town without power, their final exchange illustrates a place still amid gloom, but no longer hopeless:

Regina: “If the world were to end today, and you only had one wish, what would you wish for?”

Katarina: “A world without Winden. Let’s drink to that.”

All: “A world without Winden.”

[The lights turn back on]

Peter: “Looks like Winden doesn’t want to just disappear.”

Woller: “Maybe it’s for the best.”

~

* “Dragging the Dead on Leashes” is the title of a song by Being As An Ocean

Kevin McGuire is currently a PhD student in the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. In his free time, he enjoys both watching and playing basketball, spending too much time on Twitter, and continuing his quest to find the strangest music on the planet.

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