Review: The Final Season of Dark Attempts To Untangle the Time-Travel Knot
Dark ended after the conclusion of its third and final season that dropped on Netflix over the weekend. The fascinating time-travel drama set up an elaborately woven knot of timelines that the final season strove to untangle. The final season of Dark arrived on June 27, 2020 – an important date in the canon of the show. So what did the final season of Dark reveal? Who lived, who died, and who ceased to exist altogether? Let’s delve into the final season of Dark on Netflix and try to untangle all of the threads.
Time travel has become such a common trope in science fiction that most people are familiar with its rules by now. Scientific concepts like wormholes, parallel worlds, and the bootstrap paradox are familiar to many genre fans. Dark understands the rules, and how to break them in order to create something entirely new.
Major Spoiler Warning for all three seasons of Dark to follow, including the ending of the series.
Full disclosure: I’m still trying to untangle the knot myself through the process of writing this review.
Image via Netflix
The End Is The Beginning and The Beginning Is The End
A common refrain in the final season of Dark is that “the end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end.” The third season of the show takes us back to the beginning. The final season of Dark spends a lot of time trying to figure out ‘the origin’ of the interconnected timelines (and worlds). Here are a few examples of things that happen in the final season of Dark that somehow are not the origin of the time loop (we will get to that later).
We learn that Hannah (the mother of Jonas) is the origin of both the Nielsen and the Doppler families. She traveled back in time and gave birth to two children (Noah/Hanno and Agnes). These two go on to spawn two of the four major families in Winden. This means that Hannah’s descendents include both her future lover (Ulrich Nielsen) and her future husband (Mikkel Nielsen – who is the father of Jonas).
Image via Netflix
Perpetuating The Time Loop
Another person who perpetuates the family loop is the son of Jonas and Martha – who is never named. He is introduced as a mysterious figure with a cleft lip. He travels between timelines (and worlds) always in the company of his other selves (child, adult, and old man). It is implied that he is the father of Tronte Nielsen (whose mother is Agnes – Hannah’s daughter). So Jonas’s son hooked up with Jonas’s half-sister in the past. And from that line came Martha – who is therefore the mother of her great-great grandfather.
Most importantly, we learn that the apocalypse is directly caused by Jonas’s attempt to stop the apocalypse. Classic time travel paradox. But the journey that leads us to these revelations is what makes Dark such a unique television experience. These major twists are only links in a larger chain, threads in the pattern that weave a tangled knot of time and space.
Multiple Timelines and Parallel Worlds In The Final Season of Dark
Image via Netflix
Dark already had multiple timelines to contend with. The first two seasons of the show jump around primarily between 1953, 1986, and 2019. The show occasionally visits earlier time periods of the 1920’s and 1880’s, as well as the far future of 2052. Each major time period is set exactly 33 years apart. Dark gave viewers two seasons to wrap their heads around the interconnected timelines. And just when you thought you had it figured out, season 3 brings in a parallel world and a mirror of Winden as we know it.
At the end of the second season of Dark, our protagonist Jonas is kneeling over Martha’s body. Martha has just been killed by a character named Adam (a far future version of Jonas who has been horribly scarred). The apocalypse is minutes away. At that moment, an alternate version of Martha appears and whisks Jonas away into her world.
In this parallel world, Jonas does not exist. His father Michael never traveled back in time as the child Mikkel (brother to Martha and Magnus, son of Ulrich and Katharina). Jonas’s mother Hannah is married to Ulrich in this timeline, and pregnant with their first child. Of course Ulrich is still a serial adulterer, and is cheating on Hannah (with the character Charlotte) much like he cheated on Katharina with Hannah (in both worlds). All of the other characters still exist, with some minor variations proving that even without Jonas, time travel still occurs in this world.
A New Protagonist Arises In The Final Season of Dark
Image via Netflix
There are other cosmetic differences between the worlds. But the main thing this world sets up is Martha as the protagonist instead of Jonas. She lives in the same house that Jonas did in his world. And she wears the same yellow raincoat that Jonas wore in his journey in season one. Of course Martha is drawn into the tangled timelines by Jonas, whom she eventually draws into her world in return. The knot just gets more tangled.
Setting up Martha as the protagonist for the final season of Dark is an interesting move. In a way, she is the better protagonist. She is fearful but decisive. She is stubborn, but determined to save Jonas from the fate that she has inflicted upon him. In the same way that Jonas is determined to save her from death at his own hands. One world sees Martha killed by a future Jonas. The alternate world has Jonas killed by a future version of Martha. Their tragic love story is at the core of the final season of Dark. Their fates are entwined for better or worse.
This parallel world also sets up three different versions of Martha, much like the three versions of Jonas that we meet. There is teenage Martha/Jonas who is still convinced that they can save everyone – including each other. There are the adult versions of the two characters, who have become jaded and are rapidly losing hope. Then there is the old versions of them, who are virtually unrecognizable to their younger selves (and to fans). For Jonas becomes ‘Adam’ and Martha becomes ‘Eva’ in the end, the two of them forever at odds as they attempt to either destroy the tangled knot of their worlds, or preserve the knot in order to save themselves.
Visual Aids Help Keep The Multiple Worlds and Timelines Coherent
Martha at the junction of two timelines | Image via Screen Grab/Netflix
The show does an excellent job of portraying the split timelines. They use split screen effectively to show how various moments unfold. This is done in a kaleidoscopic way where images shift and merge into each other. This unique effect adds to the surreal nature of the show, and keeps the split screen from becoming a tired effect. There is also a subtle mirroring of everything between worlds. In her own world, Martha has a cut on her cheek that appears on the right side. In Jonas’s world, the cut appears on the opposite side of her face as if she were literally looking into a mirror. Color palettes also differ from one world or timeline to the next. And the show lingers on wide open shots of Winden that help viewers to situate themselves according to visual cues.
It should also be mentioned that the casting on this show is superb. Every major character is played at various ages by different actors. And the casting department must have worked some kind of magic to find actors who so closely resemble one another. There is also not a weak actor on the show. Every single actor brings depth and nuance to their character in each timeline, and their physical appearance is usually so close to their other selves that it is relatively easy to identify who is who. Visual aids such as scarring, hairstyles, and wardrobe also go a long way to establish the visual identity of each character.
Dark‘s Iconography Helps To Clarify The Knot
Image via Screengrab/Netflix
Time travel can be confusing, and the tangled knot of Dark‘s timelines get messy and convoluted quickly. However there are several helpful visual aids embedded within the show’s iconography that can help viewers wrap their minds around what is happening. The first is the infinity symbol, as described to Martha by the oldest version of herself – Eva.
The way the infinity symbol loops back upon itself helps to explain the two parallel worlds at the heart of the third season. The first loop begins in Jonas’s world, the Winden that viewers became familiar with over the course of two seasons. The second loop is Martha’s world, where Jonas doesn’t exist until she brings him there. The junction of the two worlds is the moment where they meet, when Jonas dies in one world (and Martha dies in the other) and each of them bring the other into the opposite world.
However it is also important to try to visualize this infinity symbol in three dimensions. On the other side of each path is another possibility, another timeline that exists. In one Jonas is whisked away by Martha into the opposite world where he dies. In another, Martha never arrives and he continues living and grows to become the adult and old versions of himself.
The Triquetra Reveals The Secret Of The Show
Image via Netflix
As if the addition of a single parallel world wasn’t enough to confuse you, the final season of Dark also pulls out one last trick. It is revealed late in the season that there is a third alternate world. This is referenced through the symbolism of the triquetra (or the trinity knot) pictured above. The triquetra has been used before in the show to show the interlinking of the timelines (1953, 1986, and 2019). It also appears on the notebook full of spoilers that keeps getting passed around between major characters. The triquetra represents not only the three timelines, but also the three parallel worlds of Dark.
The symbol is similar to the infinity loop, but expanded with three interconnected arcs with closed points, all of them overlapping. Each loop is its own world, and the junctions between them are variable. However they all come down to the moment of the apocalypse in the two main worlds. In that moment ‘time stood still.’ And it is within this moment that Jonas and Martha inevitably find their way to the origin world to stop the incident that spawned their parallel worlds.
H.G. Tannhaus And The Power of The Deus Ex Machina
H.G. Tannhaus | Image via Netflix
In the ‘origin’ world of Dark, it is revealed that a scientific experiment caused the parallel worlds to spawn. This incident is attributed to the clockmaker and scientist H.G. Tannhaus, who was trying to save his own family from a dire fate. In each of the parallel worlds, Tannhaus lost his son, daughter in law, and granddaughter to a car accident. He then raises Charlotte Doppler from infancy, after she is taken through time and dropped off at his workshop. Tannhaus also helps build the original device that both Claudia and Jonas use to travel through time. He builds this device using blueprints that future Claudia drops off with him, furthering the bootstrap paradox.
However in these parallel worlds, Tannhaus describes himself as a ‘pawn’ in the larger game played by the time travelers. His character is tangential to the major characters. So to make him the origin of the incident that spawned the worlds feels a little convenient. It makes a certain amount of sense, given the nature of his work and his involvement with the travelers. However there is little foreshadowing to build up to his scientific experiment. And the final episode of the series finds Martha and Jonas traveling to the origin world, in order to save his family from their deaths.
Dark Should Have Done More Work To Build Up Pivotal Characters
The final episode of the show spends a little too long lingering on Tannhaus’s son Marek, and his wife Sonja who have never appeared on the show before. They seemingly come out of nowhere, to present a conclusion that wraps up a bit too neatly. There was plenty of ways to incorporate these characters into the other worlds and timelines. But Dark made the baffling choice of not doing so. In addition, the character of Tannhaus himself could have been explored more. If the showrunners were always planning to end the show in this way, then they should have done more to establish the importance of his character and his motivations. Instead Tannhaus is mainly treated as important in relation to Charlotte, and other travelers. We do not get his backstory until the final season, when it could have been set up long ago.
Marek and Sonja are also two characters that could have been established early on. They existed in the parallel worlds and apparently died in the same way both times (also weird that we never see this car crash happen). The show could at least have hinted at Marek’s existence by introducing him in the 1953 era when travelers encounter Tannhaus. Instead it feels like his character was invented for the final season of Dark, in order to give us one specific moment that could be changed and simply undo everything. That is a bit too convenient for a show this complicated.
Focusing On Martha and Jonas Left Other Major Characters Out Of The Loop
Claudia at three stages of life | Image via Netflix
The focus on Martha and Jonas means that several other characters are underserved in the final season of Dark. For instance Claudia is a major player, a traveler with her own agenda and motivations. She was born outside of the loop although she has traveled it endlessly, and is unrelated to any of the Martha/Jonas familial line.
It was Claudia who figured out the existence of the origin world, and that Tannhaus caused the birth of the parallel worlds. But Dark does not show us this journey. She simply shows up at the end to deliver exposition to Adam about what the final chance for salvation is. The final season of Dark spent so much time on the tragedy of Jonas and Martha, that it ignored Claudia’s vital journey and the culmination of her character arc.
In The End Martha and Jonas Are The Most Important Characters And Everyone Else Is Superfluous
The mystery of Charlotte Doppler’s origins were revealed last season when she discovered that her own daughter Elisabeth was her mother. Unfortunately Charlotte and Elisabeth have little to do this season, beyond perpetuating the time loop in order to ensure their own existence. There was a missed opportunity here to delve deeper into this relationship, and the ramifications of the paradox.
Magnus and Franziska are another missed opportunity in the final season of Dark. The two of them become Adam’s henchmen. Thus the nuance of their characters and their relationship is unfortunately lost. The same goes for the cleft lip trio that is Jonas and Martha’s son. The show indicates that Martha is preserving the knot in order to save her son. But there is virtually no contact between Martha and her son in the show. It is hard to believe that she is doing everything for him when there is so little love shown.
In the end, Martha and Jonas are the main characters. They are the linchpins of the show, and of the knot itself. Everyone else becomes a minor character in their thrall. While this helps the third season attain a tighter focus, it does so at the expense of characterization. This is unfortunate given how much time the show spent building up the ensemble characters, only to treat them as pawns in the end.
A Tragic Ending And Eternity Looping Upon Itself
In the end, Martha and Jonas travel to the origin world to appear before Marek’s car as it speeds along in a thunderstorm. The car swerves around them before coming to a stop. The show missed an opportunity here to utilize its clever split screen, and show us that in another timeline it was Martha and Jonas who actually caused the accident that kills Tannhaus’s family. The implication is certainly there. That moment has to exist while simultaneously Jonas and Martha convince Marek to turn around and return to his father, thus preventing the original incident that spawned their worlds.
In the nature of the show and all that we have learned about the time loops, this moment should have been presented both ways in order to clarify how the beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning. Truly the fact that Jonas and Martha were there at all demonstrates that the loop is never really broken. They must exist in order for that moment to occur, so in reality the loop is still ongoing in the alternate worlds. It is only in the origin world that the knot is untied. To that end, Martha, Jonas, and the majority of their family members all cease to exist.
There are many beautiful moments in the series finale of Dark. To watch Martha and Jonas fade away from every timeline (often side by side) is a bittersweet ending. And although the show took some questionable steps to get there, it feels like the only way the show could have ended.
The Final Season of Dark Was Bold, Ambitious, and Brilliant
Despite some quibbles over the way the show decided to wrap things up, there is no denying that Dark is one of the best time travel shows on television in recent years. It approached the trope of time travel in such a way that both leaned into and subverted expectations. The deep philosophical questions of the show linger with the viewers long after the screen goes dark. What is the nature of reality? How many worlds exist beyond our own, unseen and unknown? Where do the turning points of our own lives take us? Are any of us on the right path? Is the apocalypse nigh?
In addition to the intelligent way the show handles these questions, it also gave us intimate character studies and meditations on grief, love, loss, betrayal, and shifting identity. How far will a parent go to save their child? What lengths will people go to, to be with their lover? What defines us as individuals? Is our fate sealed, or do we decide our own paths? The final season of Dark certainly answers some of these questions about the characters on the show. For the rest of us though, the answers are unknown. We are left in the dark.
Image via Netflix
What did you think of the final season of Dark? Do you have theories or speculation about the unanswered questions of the show? Join the conversation with Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today and share your thoughts.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.