If you’ve seen all ten episodes of Dark, the German mystery–time-travel show on Netflix, you almost certainly have a few questions after that mindbender of a season finale. And unless you happen to find a copy of H.G. Tannhaus’s Eine Reise durch die Zeit on Amazon, you’ll have to wait for Dark’s second season to get some definite answers. Since that won’t happen for quite a while, let’s try to figure out what’s happening to Jonas, Noah, Claudia, and the other Winden residents who are caught in a time loop that is as infinite as confusing. While we’re at it, let’s also philosophize about the nature of time travel too. That’s half the fun of watching a show like Dark, right?
Why so many missing kids?
Forget about that time travel mumbo jumbo for a second. Won’t somebody please think of the children? This is also a show about missing kids and grieving parents, and Winden’s children have been the victims of horrible crimes. So let’s treat Dark as a classic murder mystery and ask: Who has done it? There are five kids who are missing or have been abducted. Let’s go through them one by one.
The first missing kid is 15-year-old redhead Erik Obendorf, who disappears in 2019. We know now that he dies in 1986, in the time-travel bunker. Who kills him? We do not see his killer’s face, but later we see Helge wearing the same hooded cape as the killer. We also learn that Helge and Noah operate the kid-killing time machine, so probably it’s them — though a second season could reveal that somebody else was electrocuting innocent children as part of a time-travel war. But that’s rather unlikely.
Erik’s body then shows up in 1953, on the nuclear power plant’s construction site, next to the body of Yasin Friese, the deaf boy who winds up being another of Noah’s victims. Here’s what we don’t know by the end of the first season: Why do their bodies resurface in 1953? Was it some kind of accident, a failed experiment? Or did Noah want those bodies to travel back in time so they couldn’t be traced? Assuming that they would materialize in the same bunker room, who moved them from the bunker to the construction site? The coal lobby?
In 1986, 12-year-old Mads Nielsen disappears. We see him getting electrified in that horrifying chair, and then his body slips through a wormhole into 2019. Under Claudia’s instructions, Helge’s son Peter carries the body into the woods for police officers to find. Why does Peter do that? He should know that this surely will make him a prime suspect in a child murder case. One possible explanation: Long-haired future time-travel warrior Claudia seems to have a strong influence on him. Perhaps a second season will reveal more about their connection and what they are up to. Also, maybe we’ll get an explanation for the time machine’s travel schedule: Why does Mad’s body travel to 2019 while Erik’s and Yasin’s bodies travels to 1953?
Of course, there’s also the case of missing Houdini superfan Mikkel Nielsen, who disappears in 2019 and resurfaces in 1986. We don’t get to see how exactly he traveled through time, but it’s quite possible that it was just an accident. So actually, Mikkel may be the only boy who isn’t the victim of a crime — leaving aside his older brother’s cruel negligence when it comes to babysitting.
How will Helge escape the 1986 timeline?
Wait, there is one more missing child: young Helge Doppler. The boy’s got some really bad luck. He first meets future Ulrich, who tries to kill him like he’s baby Hitler, then wakes up in that bunker just as a wormhole pulls him into 1986, where he’s dropped into the most unsafe bunker of the three timelines. What will happen to little Helge?
We shouldn’t be too worried about him. We do know that he’ll grow up to become middle-aged henchman Helge, so he can’t die as a kid in the 1986 bunker. To keep the timelines consistent, he’ll have to return to 1953 somehow. Alas, neither Dark’s detailed website nor the newspaper clips we see in one of the episodes tell us anything about how long the boy was missing. (If you take a closer look, you’ll see that the newspaper articles are just Franz Kafka short stories, so no help there.) But even if Helge can’t die in that room, Noah is likely to make sure Helge will become his obedient underling before he’s allowed to return to his childhood timeline. How will he do that? Maybe that’s something we’ll get to see in season two. Poor Helge.
What will happen to Ulrich in 1953?
As the credits roll on the season finale, another character is left alive but stuck in the wrong year: Ulrich Nielsen. Given that he’s in prison and almost beat a child to death, things don’t look great for the Winden cop. Might he be killed by the policemen or the inmates? If he does somehow survive prison, it’d be a nice twist for a second season to see him eventually become one of the older men we met in 1986.
Who is Noah?
That’s the big question. “He’s our Joker,” Dark co-creator Baran bo Odar said in a Netflix aftershow interview, and much like Batman’s archenemy, Noah does morally questionable things while voicing the kind of cynical, misanthropic thoughts that viewers might share. In this case, Noah believes that mankind is doomed and people are inherently evil. So, what else is special about our Bible-quoting villain with a medieval back tattoo? He’s the only character who does not age, looking exactly alike in 1953, 1986, and 2019. Is he some kind of demonic antichrist? Is he from a future that cured the ravages of time? Or maybe he’s just an ordinary, middle-aged white guy who jumps through time, but never stays very long in any of the time lines?
The truth is, we know next to nothing about Noah. Is he Ulrich’s grandfather, as hinted when Ulrich’s grandmother describes her former husband as a bad man who was a priest but did not believe in God? It’s possible, but it feels a little too on the nose for this show. Maybe Noah isn’t Ulrich’s grandfather, but he knew the old Nielsen? In the aftershow, Baran bo Odar mentioned that Noah might not even be a real priest. Remember how Noah tells Helge about a man who, years ago, lived with him in the same house, a broken man that had recently come home from a war? Maybe this man is Ulrich’s grandfather, the priest, returning from World War II — and Noah decided to assume his identity.
Also, there seem to be some uncanny vibes between Noah and spoiled little Bartosz. Don’t they look alike? If they’re the same person, this wouldn’t be the first time-travel story that has someone recruiting himself — it wouldn’t even be the first time it happened in Dark, given Jonas Kahnwald’s relationship with his future self.
One thing seems to be clear: Only Noah and Claudia know what is really happening in Winden. And they do seem to be enemies in an “eternal war between good and evil.” Unless, of course, this is just another of Noah’s chess moves. “You should not be too sure who is on whose side,” Dark co-creator Jantje Friese said in the aftershow.
Who is Aleksander, a.k.a. Boris?
If someone shows up in the forest with a gun and a gunshot wound, you might assume he’s one of those time travelers everybody is talking about nowadays. Did Boris Niewald come from the future and assume the identity of a man named Aleksander Köhler as a cover to hide in 1986? Niewald’s passport was issued in 1986, so there’s no trace back to the future there. But maybe Boris Niewald isn’t his real name, either?
Whoever Aleksander is, he might play a very important role in the second season. In 1986, Claudia hired him to seal a door that seems to lead from the atomic-waste depot to the wormhole. We don’t know why Claudia had it sealed and what exactly happened to the toxic waste that reappears in a truck when Aleksander is in charge of the Atomkraftwerk in 2019. But here we have a hyper energy wormhole, a radioactive waste site, and a really irresponsibly acting management — so it’s just a matter of time until Winden suffers a real nuclear catastrophe. We see a little bit of that in the last scene of the first season, when Jonas stumbles on that pack of teenage marauders in 2052, and certainly we’ll see more of that in the second season.
How does all of this time travel work?
Okay, let’s come back to the time-travel mumbo jumbo. There’s a wormhole in the Winden caves, next to a nuclear power plant, which allows people to jump forward and backward in time. There’s a time-travel machine that was built by a skilled watchmaker. There’s also a prototype time machine in the bunker, and it keeps killing those missing kids. But how do they all work? That’s something we’ll hopefully learn more about in season two. Here’s what we know so far: Neither the watchmaker’s steampunk device nor the nuclear power plant alone could cause the wormhole by itself. Both had to be present in 1986 when the Future Jonas created what he actually wanted to destroy.
What about the bunker? Future Jonas tells his younger self that the room he’s trapped in is a time machine (“not a DeLorean”), and that Noah wants to harness energy from the wormhole beneath the bunker — and he’s trying to do so through experiments that killed those children. You may be wondering: Why does Noah need a bunker time machine if he just could use the wormhole? Because he seems to believe that the bunker machine, when fully operational, would allow for more exact control of time travel, rather than just jumping 33 years back and forth.
Here’s where it gets twisted, though: What if Noah already knows that he will build such a machine and that’s why he is building it? What if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy? He seems to suggest something along these lines when talking to Bartosz: As long as they are in a loop, they have to make sure that everything they know will happen really does happen, “no matter how inhuman it seems to us.”
Can the past be changed?
From what we’ve seen, absolutely not. Every character on Dark fails in their attempts to alter the run of events: Ulrich can’t kill young Helge, old Helge can’t kill middle-aged Helge, and Future Jonas can’t destroy the wormhole because he inadvertently creates it. During the aftershow, Jantje Friese says that there are two camps when it comes to time travel stories: The Back to the Future type, and kind that resemble paradoxical loops. The Dark creators belong to the second camp. “We are supporters of causal determinism,” says Friese. In other words, the second season won’t suddenly subscribe to a different philosophy of time travel. On Dark, characters can’t change the past. Actually, they can’t even change the future. It’s a concept known as a “block universe” or “eternalism,” and if you want to know more about it, you should read “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” by the famous philosopher David Lewis, who, unlike H.G. Tannhaus, is actually real.