Okay, kids, shall we recap Netflix’s first German-language show, the mysterious Dark? It was released more than a year ago, but there’s still no definite release date for season 2. (Rumors suggest it’ll be in June, 2019.) So, if you haven’t watched, or rewatched, Dark yet, there’s still time.
This is the show that says the question isn’t, where? Instead it’s, when? To which I would add, who???? This show has a giant cast, spending time with the same characters in two or three different time periods as its complex mystery unfolds. The same characters are played by different actors in each time period, so it takes a while to remember who and when everyone is, but the extra work is worth it.
Once you start to get a sense of the characters, setting and time periods, the show gets into your head. It can’t help but be layered, with all of those facets to the characters, some of whom we see in three time periods. We get to know the village of Winden, including three generations of each one of the four main families.
Wiki has a Cast and Characters chart that explains how everyone is related to everyone else, but don’t look too closely yet! There are spoilers there! TV Guide has a useful diagram and description of how everyone is connected. It also contains spoilers, so proceed slowly. Underneath the recap, I’ve taken the photos from the opening of this episode and added brief descriptions of the characters’ identities and relationships. I tried to leave out major spoilers, for now.
The village of Winden is the site of a nuclear power plant which provides employment for most of the town, and a cave system that hides a wormhole which facilitates time travel. The story begins in 2019 and expands to include events in 1986 and 1953. The town has been plagued by the disappearances of children. The investigation into what’s really going on is so far-reaching that it affects all of the families and time periods.
While the series touches on many characters, the main characters are Jonas Kahnwald, a teenager coping with his father’s death; Ulrich Nielsen, a volatile police officer whose younger brother disappeared 33 years ago, in 1986, when both were teens; and Charlotte Doppler, the level-headed police chief, who’s coping with her own personal issues and complicated family.
Let’s go solve some mysteries!
The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. -Albert Einstein
We trust that time is linear. That it proceeds eternally and uniformly into infinity. But the distinction between past, present and future is nothing but an illusion. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are not consecutive. They are connected in a never-ending circle. Everything is connected. -The Clockmaker (TBD)
During the voiceover, the camera moves across an organizational board made up of photos of the town’s important residents. The photos are attached to the wall and connected by strings, most according to their familial relationships. I’ve screencapped and labelled the photos at the bottom of the post. Each character is shown in all of the time periods in which they will appear over the course of the season. Since many are played by a different actor in each time period, this is a good reference to check back to.
The organizational board is in an old storm cellar or bomb shelter somewhere in Winden. We aren’t given any other indication of who it belongs to.
The opening words give us the show’s theory of time travel. Time is static, with all times existing at once and eternally, as if on a timeline or loop. If one knows how, one can jump from one part of the timeline to another, like chess pieces hopping across a game board.
Generally, static time theories consider time and events to be unchangeable, because concepts like “future” and “past” are human constructions which describe the way we experience time, but they don’t reflect the reality that all times exist at once, have always existed, and will always exist. It’s not clear yet whether Dark believes this or not.
June 21, 2019
Michael Kahnwald, an artist, seals a letter in an envelope and places it on his work counter where it can easily be found. Then he climbs up on a stool placed underneath a rafter, where he already has a rope waiting that’s tied into a noose. Without hesitation, he takes his own life.
On the front of the envelope is written: Do not open before November 4, 10:13 PM.
The camera lingers on a family photo of Michael, his wife, Hannah, mother, Ines, and teenage son, Jonas.
Jonas wakes up in bed as if from a nightmare, and takes some medication.
November 4, 2019
Jonas comes downstairs in the morning and discovers that the power is out again and the food in the fridge is spoiled. He calls upstairs to his mother to tell her.
His mother, Hannah, is having sex with Ulrich Nielsen, a married police officer. They finish, and he asks her if she’s coming to the meeting at the school that night. She’s hesitant, because his wife, Katharina, is the school principal and will lead the meeting. Ulrich encourages Hannah to attend, since he’ll be there.
Hannah says, “I love you,” to Ulrich, while he says, “You’re beautiful,” back to her. Then he climbs out her 2nd story bedroom window, down the trellis, and continues his morning jog.
Jonas rides his bike down long, wooded roads, past the nuclear power plant which employs most of the town. He sees a “missing child” poster on a light pole for Erik Obendorf, a red-haired teenage boy.
Ulrich jogs through the woods, within .6 km of Winden Caves, which look and sound forbidding.
Jonas meets with his therapist, Peter Doppler, for a walk in the woods. From the questions Peter asks, we can tell that Jonas has been away at a mental health facility for the last two months, engaging in intense therapy. Peter says that he’s seen the notes from the facility, and it sounds like Jonas did well there, especially in the group sessions. He checks to make sure Jonas has continued taking his medication.
Jonas is haunted by his father’s death, and says that he still sees Michael in his dreams. He thinks that Michael wants to tell him something, but it could be that he just wants Michael to send a message to him. Peter asks what he thinks Michael is trying to tell Jonas. Jonas gets angry, because what he wants to hear from his father should be obvious.
He wants to know why his father abandoned him so suddenly, and without a word of explanation. Why he chose suicide, why he did everything he did and didn’t do.
Jonas is lost and adrift without his father, and he needs to understand, since he didn’t see this coming while his father was alive. Given what we’ve seen of Hannah, I’m going to guess that Michael was the more attentive parent.
Jonas doesn’t know about the envelope that Michael left.
Ines, Michael’s mother and Jonas’ grandmother, has the letter, kept safe for the last 4.5 months in a small wooden box. Tonight is the night that Michael said it could be opened.
Ines turns on the radio:
“The Winden Nuclear Power Plant has a long history dating back over 50 years. Plans to erect the nuclear power plant go back as far as 1953. Construction was first authorized in 1960 after the Atomic Energy Act was passed. Now, as part of the government’s staggered plan to phase out nuclear energy, the Winden Power Plant will be decommissioned and taken off the grid in 2020. This facility has the longest record of failure-free operation in all of Germany.”
When Ulrich gets home from his “jog”, his wife, Katharina, is wrangling their three kids, Magnus, Martha and Mikkel. Mikkel, the youngest, is a magician who wants to wear his skeleton costume to the first day of school. Martha, a high schooler, is on a hunger strike until global child starvation is ended. Magnus can’t find his hoodie, and is sure Mikkel took it. He whacks Mikkel in the head every few seconds in retaliation.
Ulrich claims that his jog took a long time because the line was long at the bakery, where he stopped to get pastries. Katharina gets Magnus and Martha settled, while Ulrich lets Mikkel do a magic trick for him before school. Mikkel mysteriously moves a pawn from underneath one cup to underneath a second cup. When Ulrich asks how Mikkel did it, Mikkel says that the question isn’t how he did it, the question is when.
After therapy, Jonas goes to school, where he feels like everyone is staring at him and laughing. His best friend, Bartosz, yells at the other kids to stop staring. He explains to Jonas that he’s been telling everyone that Jonas was on a two month exchange program in France. Bartosz passed around the story that Jonas was playing “hide the baguette” while he was there.
Now that he knows his cover story, Jonas asks what’s been going on in Winden. Bartosz says that he didn’t miss much, other than Erik’s disappearance.
When Ulrich arrives at the police station for work, Erik Obendorf’s parents are there, loudly complaining to Charlotte Doppler, the police chief and Ulrich’s police partner. They want answers about Erik’s disappearance, and the police haven’t found anything. Charlotte calmly explains that they’ve been working hard on Erik’ case, but no evidence has turned up, so they have no leads to follow. They’ve done 172 interviews; searched the forest, houses and basements; posted flyers; alerted everyone; and had all 23 officers, plus 50 volunteers, searching for days, with no luck.
Ulrich jumps in and suggests that Erik might have run away, since he’s done it before. Mrs Obendorf says that in the past, he’s never been gone more than 2 days. It’s now been 13 days. She collapses in tears. Ulrich hugs her and promises they’ll find Erik.
A mysterious man, who’s wearing a coat with the hood up, exits the cave. We don’t see his face.
Magnus, the son of the principal, and Franziska, daughter of Charlotte Doppler, the police chief, share a joint outside the school. Franziska tells Magnus that his weed isn’t up to her normal standards. Magnus, impressed and in love, watches her walk away.
The entire high school gathers for an assembly before classes start. Martha finds Bartosz and Jonas and sits with them. Jonas lights up when he sees her, until she sits with Bartosz and kisses him. Bartosz says that there is one other thing Jonas missed. Jonas tries to hide how upset he is. Martha asks Jonas how France was. Bartosz answers for him, saying it was French.
Katharina begins the assembly, saying she felt they need to discuss Erik Obendorf before classes start. She wants the students to know that they can talk to the staff about Erik and any issues they have. And they can also report to the staff if they have any information about Erik’s disappearance or whereabouts.
Jonas and Martha steal glances back and forth at each other while Katharina makes her speech. Jonas continues to look sick.
Ulrich and Charlotte puzzle over Erik’s case, since, after all of their investigations, there really aren’t any leads. It’s like Erik vanished into thin air. He left his phone and a wad of cash in his bedroom, so it’s doubtful that he ran away. Ulrich still argues that it’s the most likely explanation, figuring that bad things don’t happen in Winden. He reasons that sometimes you just have to get away, whether you’ve got everything you’d ideally want to take with you or not.
Charlotte reminds him that bad things have happened in Winden in the past, things very similar to Erik’s disappearance. Ulrich turns stony and tells her that Erik’s disappearance has nothing to do with what happened to his brother. Nothing. He walks away from her.
As Ulrich is leaving her office, Charlotte tells him that his mother, Jana, called the police emergency line again this morning. She suggests that it’s time he paid his mother a visit. Ulrich notes that somewhere along the way, he took a wrong turn and his life became the exact opposite of what he wanted it to be.
At the Forest Hotel, which is a converted mansion, Regina Tiedemann answers a phone call from her bank, which is pressuring her for her overdue payments. Regina blames the hotel’s lack of business and her financial issues on Erik’s disappearance, but it sounds like the problems have been going on for longer than 2 weeks. She becomes irate with the bank representative for not giving her a break, and slams the phone down. During the conversation, she mentions that she and her husband have been customers of the bank for twenty years, and that she built the hotel business by herself, without help.
In science class, Franziska does a presentation on black holes, while Bartosz make crude jokes about her to Jonas. Then Bartosz explains his latest scheme. Erik was a drug dealer who worked out of Winden cave. Bartosz thinks someone murdered him over a drug deal. If Erik’s drug stash is still in the cave, they can find it and sell the drugs themselves, becoming his replacements.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Bartosz that what happened to Erik could happen to him.
Ulrich visits his mother, Jana Nielsen, at the apartment she shares with his father, Tronte Nielson. Ulrich and Jana don’t get along very well, which explains why he doesn’t visit often. But Jana has some important insights to share:
“I saw something in the woods again. This time I saw it very clearly. A dark figure with a gigantic looking head. You don’t believe me. There are some things out there that our little minds can’t understand. Things we can’t comprehend. And this. I found this in the forest. [Shows him a Raider candy wrapper.] Mads loved those. You know this whole business with that missing kid, Erik? It’s like your brother, back then. Everything’s repeating itself. Everything’s like it was 33 years ago.”
Ulrich looks sad, but it seems like he thinks she’s crazy rather than onto something.
At the Winden Rest Home, Helge Doppler, an old man who is the father of Peter and father-in-law of Charlotte, repeats, “It’s going to happen again,” over and over.
Erik Obendorf is still alive, and he’s laying in bed, in a windowless room, decorated in a hodgepodge of styles from the last 100 years. An old TV is playing the music video from the 1984 song You Spin Me Right Round. In the center of the room is a large, heavy wooden chair with restraints. It looks like a torture device.
In between classes, the kids talk more about going to Winden cave to search for Erik’s lost drug stash. Martha and Magnus are brought in on the plan. Rumors of 5 legged squirrels, created by excess radiation from the nuclear power plant, and other elaborate conspiracy theories, are floated about the cave, to set an appropriate mood for the expedition.
Ulrich calls Hannah from his patrol car as she’s on her way into the nuclear power plant. He tries again to convince her to come to tonight’s school meeting. Hannah still isn’t sure, since people will stare at her because of her husband’s suicide.
He also wants her to meet him in Frankfort next week, while he’s away for a training seminar and will be staying in a hotel. Hannah flirts with him a little and gives him an answer of “maybe” on that question as well.
Katharina cleans up the dining room. When she picks up and folds the hoodie Ulrich was wearing that morning, she notices a long brown hair on it. This must not be his first affair, because their daughter Martha has long brown hair, but the strand makes Katharina suspicious enough to smell the hoodie. She get a sour look on her face. The camera focuses on a family photo of Katharina surrounded by her kids, Mikkel, Martha, and Magnus. Ulrich is peeking out from behind them all, as if he’s a guest or a ghost.
Hannah, a massage therapist, wheels her massage table into the administrative offices of the power plant. She has an appointment with the director of the plant, Aleksander Tiedemann, who is Bartosz’s father and Regina, the hotel owner’s, husband.
Alexander is troubled because the power plant will be shut down in a year. He came to the town almost exactly 33 years ago and never thought his time at the plant would end this way. He offers Hannah his condolences for Michael and asks how she and Jonas are doing.
Ines listens to a phone message from Hannah, letting her know that the power went out at their house again, and telling Ines that she should just tell them directly if she wants them out of the house. Hannah also questions why Ines hasn’t visited her grandson, Jonas, in three months, saying that isn’t what Michael would have wanted.
Ines takes Michael’s suicide note out of the wooden box she’s kept it in, and looks at it again. It’s the reason she’s kept her distance. The current time is 6:14 PM. She has to wait until 10:13 PM to open it. 4 more hours to go.
Hannah goes to the school for the meeting. The first person she sees is Katharina, the wife of the man she’s cheating with. Katharina greets her warmly, with a hug, says that it’s nice to see her, and asks how Hannah’s doing. She actually pays attention to the answer. Hannah says she’s okay. Katharina squeezes Hannah’s shoulders and sends her into the meeting, promising to be there soon. She clearly thinks they’re good friends, who are both busy working mothers.
Jonas lies on his bed, staring into space. When it’s time, he rides his bike to the edge of the woods, near the cave. Martha is already there, waiting by herself. She says that everyone else is late, as usual.
Martha wants to explain how she ended up with Bartosz, but Jonas stops her. She tells him that she wrote him text after text last summer, but never sent any of them. Something just felt wrong. As they’re talking, she has déjà vu. They joke that it’s a glitch in the Matrix or a message from the other side.
Bartosz, Magnus and Mikkel arrive. Magnus is babysitting Mikkel, because the usual babysitter is sick. They follow abandoned railroad tracks toward the cave.
Charlotte’s father in law, Helge Doppler, walks quickly down the center of the road, chanting, “It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen again.”
At the school meeting, Charlotte Doppler, the police chief, goes over the most recent facts in Erik’s case. He’s been missing for 14 days, and there’s no new evidence or leads. He may have run away. She asks the parents to let the police know if any of the children disclose any knowledge about Erik’s movements or whereabouts.
Katharina takes over the meeting, in order to go over new security measures that have been put in place at the school. Regina, the hotel owner whose business has been damaged by the missing child case, doesn’t think they need to make a big deal of the case. She rolls her eyes at Katharina for overreacting, when they don’t even know if anything happened.
Katharina tries to explain why she’s still putting these policies in place, but Regina argues that Winden has one of the lowest crime rates in the region, asking Charlotte to side with her. Charlotte says that statistics don’t tell the whole story. Katharina tries to regain control of the meeting. Regina simply wants Winden to appear to be back to normal, so her business will improve. Katharina doesn’t want to do nothing, then, when a body is found, discover that there’s been danger all along.
Hannah gets a text from Ulrich, telling her to meet him outside in 5 minutes. She sneaks out the back door during the argument.
Mikkel asks what the older kids thinks happened to Erik. He tells them that the other kids in his class think that he was kidnapped, and now he’s locked in a basement somewhere. He could be trapped, and unable to get out. Mikkel wants to know why someone would lock someone else up?
It’s spooky, how close to correct those rumors are. Magnus says that Erik ran away, and Mikkel should ignore the rumors. Bartosz says that someone like the witch in Hansel and Gretel has locked him up. When the witch gets hungry, she’ll eat Erik. Martha explains that there are some terrible people in the world. Jonas says that his dad used to say that good and evil are a matter of perspective.
Everyone gets quiet. Jonas asks if his dead dad is a bad subject? They don’t answer. Mikkel keeps talking, wondering if Erik is lying dead somewhere, and will never be found. He thinks that even if you were dead, you’d want to be found. Martha assures him that no one will die and no one won’t be found, then insists they change the subject.
Back at the school meeting, things have gotten out of control. Regina has gotten mean and stooped to personal attacks, while insisting she’s not worried about her hotel. Helge walks in on the meeting, telling them that it’s going to happen again. He asks Katharina if it’s already too late. She doesn’t respond, because she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Charlotte, Helge’s daughter in law, takes him out of the meeting.
Once Mikkel can’t hypothesize about dark subjects anymore, he gets bored and wants to turn back. The older boys tell him that they’re almost to the cave. Jonas stops to look at the power plant’s cooling towers.
Hannah smokes a cigarette outside, in the alcove where Magnus smoked a joint earlier. Ulrich, with his hood covering his face, finds her, and they make out like they are teenagers.
Ines has been watching the clock all night. When it finally reaches 10:13 she opens the letter. As she reads it, she’s stunned.
The kids reach the cave entrance and Bartosz looks for Erik’s drug stash in the seat of an old armchair, where he knows Erik kept it. It’s not there, but then Franziska comes out of the cave with the drugs in hand. She offers to sell them to Bartosz for less than half of what they’re worth. He shoves her to the ground and takes the drugs instead.
Bartosz lied to Martha about what Jonas was doing while he was away, so that she’d drop Jonas and date Bartosz instead. Now, he thinks the drugs are his because he decided he wants them, and he’s willing to hurt someone to get them. That tells you everything you need to know about Bartosz.
The others are shocked that Bartosz would push Franziska, but don’t say anything. A loud noise and flashing lights come from inside the cave. Everyone’s flashlights go dark at the same time. They all turn and run away. Magnus and Martha don’t think about Mikkel at all.
Mikkel has been sticking close to Jonas since they got close to the cave. Now, Jonas grabs Mikkel’s hand and runs. They are the last to leave the front of the cave. Jonas trips and falls down. His flashlight comes back on. When he stands back up, Mikkel is gone.
Jonas calls and looks for Mikkel, while standing in place, but can’t see him. He does hear someone say his name twice, then sees his father standing nearby, with blood dripping from his head and all over his face. Jonas runs away.
The kids reach the street and realize Mikkel isn’t with any of them. They run back to the woods to search for him. It’s started pouring rain, suggesting that the noise and light was thunder and lightning.
As Charlotte and Helge leave the school, he turns his face up into the rain, and says, “It’s too late. We’re too late to stop it.” Suddenly, the parents of all of the kids in the woods gets text alerts. The kids are letting them know that Mikkel has gone missing.
Ines has been reading the letter while the events in the woods have been happening, alternating between horror and tears. Now, she puts the letter back in the box, folds herself down over it, and cries.
The police and the parents meet the kids in the street next to the woods. All of the kids move forward to meet their parents, except Jonas. He’s just experienced his second major loss within a few months, and his mother has coped with her grief by turning away from him and the idea of them as a family. He stands there, numb, probably not even sure she’ll show up.
Hannah puts on a good show, running over and throwing her arms around him. After a minute, he slowly embraces her, but he continues to stare straight ahead.
Ulrich runs into the woods, searching for Mikkel. He searches the cave, but Mikkel isn’t there.
The next morning, no one has slept. The police are still investigating the mouth of the cave, but haven’t found any evidence. Ulrich sits in his car, out on the street.
Charlotte is supervising the investigation on site. She gets a call from her husband, Peter (the therapist), who seems nervous. He tries to tells her something, but she’s impatient and hangs up on him before he can get himself together enough to get it out. Once he’s off the phone, Peter repeats the Serenity Prayer (used by members of 12 step groups) to himself a few times as he tries to get his emotions under control.
The police have formed a line and are combing the woods with rakes to make sure they don’t miss any evidence. They discover a child’s body some distance away from the cave, half covered in dirt and leaves. Charlotte assumes it’s Mikkel, but waits before touching him to let Ulrich identify his son.
Ulrich notices immediately that the boy is wearing brightly colored sneakers and jeans, while Mikkel was wearing the skeleton costume he’d been wearing all day. When he brushes off some of the debris, it becomes clear that it’s not Mikkel. The boy’s eyes and his face around his eyes are badly burned.
Who is it?
Eric Obendorf is strapped into the torture chair that sits in the middle of the room he’s been held in. There’s a gag in his mouth and a metal piece snaps in front of his eyes.
Throughout the episode, Ulrich, Katharina, Jonas and Mikkel are willing to face things head on, in the moment. Ulrich loses the thread at times and wanders off with Hannah, resorting to dishonesty. Given the way he shut down his mother when she tried to talk to him, he’s probably been wandering away from difficult situations when he got tired of them for his entire life.
Katharina, Jonas and Mikkel, on the other hand, are honest, don’t back down, and don’t hide from difficult emotions or situations. But sometimes, they do get overwhelmed and need a break or to give up, despite their massive strength.
Charlotte is also honest and strong, but she has serious issues with her husband, given the way she shut him down on the phone. She’s becomes impatient with people and jumps to conclusions.
Hannah, Aleksander, Regina and Bartosz are all selfish and self-serving to the point of narcissism and ruthlessness. They don’t care who gets hurt, as long as they get what they want. They prefer to have a veneer of respectability and likability, because it keeps people on their side, but getting what they want is more important than anything else. Hannah uses love as her main justification for acting as she does, while the Tiedemann’s use business and money. Bartosz turned to violence with Franziska alarmingly quickly, while Regina was verbally abusive with Katharina. Both acted solely in their own self-interest, and didn’t care who got hurt, as long as they got what they wanted.
The electromagnetic process within the cave that causes the disappearance of the boys also causes the thunderstorm that follows. Helge knew it was too late to stop the disappearance because it had started to rain. He and Jana both sensed that a cycle of disappearances that had started in the past was coming around again. Jana’s son/ Ulrich’s brother, Mads, disappeared in 1986, 33 years prior to the show’s present day.
Jana was basing her conclusions on the similarities between Mads disappearance and Erik’s, which Ulrich has refused to see. But Helge knew, almost to the second, that another child would disappear, and then that they were gone. He knew that another child would go missing long before a weather disturbance was predicted. How? What else does he know?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Cast from the murder board:
Charlotte Doppler in 1986 and 2019. Married to Peter, mother to Franziska and Elisabeth, daughter-in-law to Helge. Police Chief.
Hannah Kahnwald, in 2019 and 1986. Mother to Jonas, widow of Michael, daughter-in-law of Ines, having an affair with Ulrich. Massage therapist.
Helge Doppler, in 2019, 1986, and 1953. Son of Bernd and Greta, father of Peter, father-in-law to Charlotte. Nuclear power plant guard.
Ines Kahnwald, in 2019, 1986 and 1953. Daughter to Daniel, adoptive mother to Michael, mother-in-law to Hannah, grandmother to Jonas. Hospital nurse.
Jana Nielsen, in 1953, 1986 and 2019. Tronte’s wife, mother of Ulrich and Mads.
Jonas Kahnwald in 2019. Son of Hannah and Michael, grandson of Ines. High school student.
Katharina Nielsen in 1986 and 2019. Wife to Ulrich, mother of Magnus, Martha and Mikkel. High school principal.
Mads Nielson, 1986, age 12. Missing since then. Ulrich Nielsen, 1986 and 2019. Son of Tronte and Jana, husband of Katharina, father of Martha, Magnus and Mikkel, lover to Hannah. Police officer.
Michael Kahnwald, 2019, husband to Hannah, father to Jonas, adoptive son to Ines. Deceased artist.
Regina Tiedemann, 1986 and 2019. Wife to Alexander, mother to Bartosz, daughter of Claudia, granddaughter of Egon. Hotelier.
Magnus and Martha Nielson, 2019, children of Ulrich and Katharina, siblings of Mikkel. High school students. Franziska Doppler, 2019, daughter of Peter and Charlotte. High school student. Aleksander Tiedemann, 1986 and 2019, husband of Regina, father of Bartosz, son-in-law of Claudia. Director of Nuclear Power Plant in 2019. Bartosz Tiedemann, 2019. Son of Regina and Aleksander. High school student, aspiring drug dealer.
Tronte Nielson in 1953, 1986 and 2019. Son to Agnes, husband to Jana, father to Ulrich and Mads.
Images courtesy of Netflix.