The Creators of Netflix’s Dark on Why Writing Time-Travel Stories Is Like Playing Jazz

Photo: Netflix

Time travel seems to be popping up everywhere in the culture these days — this year alone, both the Avengers and the crew from Star Trek: Discovery have dabbled in temporal displacement — but if there’s one show that can lay claim to taking a really deep and philosophical dive into an idea that has been around since Mark Twain sent a Yankee to King Arthur’s Court, it’s Dark. Netflix’s first-ever German-language original series started out in 2017 as a small-town supernatural murder mystery, featuring moody teenagers, a bunch of missing kids, police officers struggling with domestic problems, and lots of drone footage of foggy forests. Then the show’s hero, 16-year-old emo kid Jonas, discovered that in his hometown of Winden someone is experimenting with a time machine, and things got really complicated.

Now Dark is back with a second season that weaves together stories from the present, the 1980s, the 1950s, the 1920s, and even the future. In the eight new episodes, head writer Jantje Friese and her partner, director Baran Bo Odar, provide answers to first-season questions both metaphysical and mundane — and then raise even more. So on a hot Berlin summer day, Vulture sat down with both of them at the city’s Soho House to talk about how writing time-travel stories is like playing jazz, and why free will is nothing but an illusion.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dark has become this multidimensional, nonlinear narrative, with lots of paradoxical situations and story loops. While writing the second season, how often did you get confused with all this mind-bending time travel and multiple versions of Jonas?

Jantje Friese: It’s more confusing with the props than with the characters. Because once you set up a character, once you know their history, where they come from and what they long for, then they basically just move through the world by themselves. But props? Oh my god …

Baran Bo Odar: It’s the little things that cause confusion, like the time machine, the apparatus they use: Which version of the machine is with which character at what point in time? The thing is, it’s only one machine, it just comes with different patina levels. Sometimes it’s older or younger or broken, but it’s only one machine. And that’s where people get confused. I remember many, many discussions with actors that were like, “But no, aren’t there like three machines?” No, it’s the same machine! But it got easier, we basically created a code with season one, a kind of language so it’s way easier to talk about the storyline and different timelines now.

Once you realize that we are telling a story in a world where the timeline isn’t linear, once you keep that in your head, then you understand that there is only one time machine, just a different version. It’s almost like jazz: Once you know that this is not a typical pop song where you have chorus, verse, chorus, verse, but that’s it’s more like this jam session thing, then a jazz player doesn’t find it complex anymore. It’s just another language.

So it’s more of an intuitive process? I would have imagined you sitting in your office with a lot of Post-Its all over the wall and a timeline of all the different connections.

Jantje Friese: We actually found out, and this was new to me: The more stuff you hang up on the wall, the less people look at it. And the less they understand. In season one, we had a lot of stuff hanging there, but then we took it down and tried to concentrate on the basic plot points. We get this question a lot, people imagining we have Post-Its everywhere. But that doesn’t help, we tried. The more complex you get in the show, the easier you have to get in the writer’s room.

I remember when Rian Johnson made Looper, he used to discuss every single alleged plot hole on Twitter, like it was a matter of honor to defend the consistency of his story. Do you find yourself engaging with fans who think they found plot holes?

Jantje Friese: We very strongly feel that art should not be explained. As long as we understand and know the logic behind it and we don’t fool ourselves, we’re fine. And maybe it will take time for some people to understand why something isn’t a plot hole after all. I think discussing such things takes the mystery away, and it’s supposed to be an adventure. You are supposed to wrap your head around it and try to figure out how this works. And if you need secondary literature — great!

Baran Bo Odar: We read a lot of comments, of course. And some comments we just don’t understand, and then I do wish to write a reply. There’s this question we get a lot: Why is Noah not aging? There was this theory that he was the devil, something supernatural. And I am always like: We are doing a time-travel show! He might time travel and be in different timelines, so why should he age?

Jantje Friese: It’s like I said: We need to know what’s happening.

Baran Bo Odar: But of course there are plot holes.

Jantje Friese: Which ones, please?

Baran Bo Odar: There will be. One day we’ll find one.

Jantje Friese: So far I think we’re doing okay.

Are you saying there always have to be some kind of plot holes because otherwise such a show couldn’t work as a piece of art? Or are you just worried that you missed something?

Baran Bo Odar: The second thing. There will be something we have missed. There must be.

Jantje Friese: I think we will manage to avoid that. We’ll find a way.

As a viewer, at some point you feel overwhelmed by all those logic puzzles and timelines. And that’s exactly the moment, two thirds into the second season, when you stop jumping from timeline to timeline and you have this nice, warm episode that takes us back to the start. For the length of an episode, the show is about teenagers and their families again. Was that a deliberate decision to give viewers a pause from the complex narrative?

Jantje Friese: I always think that every season should be like a musical piece, and you should have a bridge part before you get to the climax, and episode six is this bridge. I just like the rhythm of that.

Baran Bo Odar: Though the episode still answers and raises a lot of big questions!

Absolutely, the last ten minutes are quite central to the time-travel story. There’s this anecdote that in the final season of Breaking Bad, the writers started with this flash-forward where you see Walter White with this big machine gun and then they just said to themselves, as a challenge —

Jantje Friese: “How do we get there?”

Yes. “Let’s see how we get the story to this point.” I thought about that when I was watching your show. You always know where your character ends up, because we’ve already met their future selves. Isn’t that a whole different way of storytelling?

Jantje Friese: People always think that writing is like architecture, that you build blocks and in the end you have a house. They way I approach writing is that it’s like archeology: The house is there, under the sand, you just have to uncover it. First of all, that makes it psychologically much easier, because you don’t have to do anything except dusting off sand, and that’s easy to do! And then it’s exactly what you have said: Something is already there and you just have to find a way for it to emerge. It actually gets quite easy if you already have seen the end of a character. You may have to dust off a little more here, and a little more there, and then you already see emerging the character’s end point that you already know about.

I find it almost paradoxical how much narrative energy you can draw from a premise that seems to prevent any kind of real suspense. Was that surprising to you? 

Jantje Friese: It’s because human behavior is just such a strange thing. We could put a big sign before the show saying, “It’s a deterministic world! Nothing’s going to change!” And still you would root for all the characters and you would want them to somehow get out of this mess. Because we all want to believe that we have free will. And that’s just such a big, big, big energy driver. You just want it to happen. That’s why you still root for them, and you still wait for this world to change. And you know what? Maybe it will. We don’t know yet.

Baran Bo Odar: I don’t think so. It’s a deterministic world.

Jantje Friese: We’ll see.

Some of the time travelers certainly dream of “ending the cycle,” as they phrase it, of finding a loophole that gets them out of the time loop where everything keeps happening the way as it has always happened. Is this some irrational hope they stick to? Or is there a real possibility that they can prevent some of the horrible things that went down in Winden?

Jantje Friese: They think they know how this works but they don’t. They are still human. They will never be able to overcome their inner longings, their ego. They would need to completely crash their ego structure to get a grasp of it. We keep it ambivalent. And it can go both ways. But I won’t tell you whether there’s hope or a silver lining in the end.

Why do you think time travel is such a big thing in storytelling right now? 

Jantje Friese: I think it’s two things. One thing is that people who make content now grew up with Back to the Future. And the other thing is that we live in uncertain times, we fear what is coming in the future and we have a nostalgic thing about the past, about going back to how it used to be before we had social media and internet, to better times. And time-travel stories somehow connect us in the present with our longing for the past and this fear for the future.

Baran Bo Odar: It’s really an interesting question. Why is time travel such a thing now? When Matrix came out, there were a lot of stories that questioned reality. “Is this real or not?” That’s now less of a question. Now time travel is more of a thing in pop culture. What does it stand for? Is it because we hope to change things we already have messed up, like climate change? I really don’t know.

Dark’s Creators on Why Time-Travel Stories Are Like Jazz