(This whole article is spoilers for the twisty German time travel series “Dark” on Netflix. This is just more than 3,000 words of spoilers. Just a wall of spoilers here, basically.)
I really did not think that “Dark” would get an actually conclusive ending. I thought the German Netflix series was just too complicated, its mountain of paradoxes too large, to break the insane and endless cycle at the heart of this completely insane show. I though “Dark” creators Jantje Friese and Baran Bo Odar would take the story to a logical and thematically appropriate stopping point, and the cycle would continue forever.
But that didn’t turn out to be the case. The duo managed to find a way to break the loop and end the series in a way that actually works. It’s not perfectly airtight — we cannot, with 100 percent certainly, piece together the entirety of this story. Honestly, it probably needed at least a couple more episodes to wrap things up. But I think “Dark” has us so well trained by now that I think we can fairly easily infer enough to fill in any important gaps.
Before we jump into the nuts and bolts of season 3, it’s important to understand that there is really no way to conclude a story like this in a way that would be satisfying in a normal way. The reason for this is because “Dark” is full of bootstrap paradoxes. That’s the term that describes, to cite one example from the show, how Charlotte could be her own grandmother.
There’s no way to resolve this paradox, because it’s a self-contained loop. Charlotte had a daughter named Elisabeth, and then Elisabeth had a daughter named Charlotte, and then baby Charlotte was brought to the past and became the original Charlotte. There’s no beginning or end of this sequence. And if you’ve watched “Dark” all the way through, then you know it’s full of these sorts of loops.
With the time travel logic of the series, everyone is just trapped in this loop, ultimately unable to ever really break free of it from within.
So there was really only two broad scenarios that “Dark” could end on. It could stay within the loop, and continue expanding the scope of the mindbending madness until it gets to some kind of natural thematic stopping point, leaving things open-ended. Or it could introduce variables from outside the loop that could actually bring the story of this crazy world to a proper conclusion.
“Dark” creators Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Friese went with the second option. And in the process they’ve produced a season of television that is somehow more dense than the previous two seasons combined. That’s probably a flaw — the show almost certainly would have benefited from having more time to flesh all this alternate universe stuff out because it’s just a lot to absorb. But I think it works even so. You just have to put the mental effort in.
It’s also important to note that everything here is hypothetical. As in, all that matters for time travel logic in a work of fiction is that it be internally consistent. Time travel isn’t real! And while it may seem like season 3 changes the rules, it really just does so in a way that functions as a change in scope. Like, we thought the rules were like this, but now that we have a better view of the big picture we can see that we were off a little bit with our assumptions.
Before we really get into it, I wanna point everyone to a site Netflix set up to help you keep track of all the characters and their relationships with each other. If you get confused or have forgotten about someone I reference here, you can take a look at that site for help you remember stuff. I used it a lot while I was working on this.
The gist of the ending, as you probably already know from watching, is that all the stories we have seen on “Dark” took place in a series of splinter universes that were accidentally created by HG Tannhaus (Christian Steyer and Arnd Klawitter). In the real, original world, Tannhaus tried to invent some kind of time machine that would allow him to save his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter — all of whom had died in a car accident.
So Jonas (Louis Hoffman) and Martha (Lisa Vicari) go to the site of the original fracture — in the tunnels beneath Helge’s bunker. This transports them to the original universe and allows them to prevent those deaths and thus wipe their own worlds from existence.
The mechanics of all this are not extremely clear. Being present in that specific spot at that specific time sent Louis and Martha into some kind of weird place that would seem to exist outside of space and time. The two accidentally interact with the younger versions of each other while they’re in there. It’s similar to what happens with Matthew McConaughey’s character when he enters a black hole in “Interstellar” and manages to interact with his daughter in the past. It’s probably no coincidence that “Dark” had us listen to Bartosz deliver a spiel about black holes in the season premiere.
But this is one of the numerous things about “Dark” season 3 that we can’t get too into the weeds on. I’m sure we’ll all spend years scouring all the details to try to see the complete picture, but for now we’ll just have to accept that there are gaps we can’t really fill yet. But there’s nothing that happens in season 3 that I would consider to be a plot hole. Scenes don’t contradict each other. We just don’t know 100% how all the pieces fit.
That’s frustrating with the show over now, but that’s just the nature of the thing. If they handed us all the answers on a platter it would probably be pretty annoying. “Dark” is complicated, and its ending is no different.
In my mind, the key to understanding all this starts with Tannhaus’s monologue at the beginning of episode 7. I’m just gonna put all of it here for you, taken from the English subtitles:
What is reality? And is there only one of them? Or do several realities co-exist? To help explain, Erwin Schroedinger devised an extremely interesting thought experiment. Schroedinger’s cat. A cat is locked in a steel chamber with a tiny amount of radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, and a hammer. As soon as a radioactive atom decays inside the steel chamber, the Geiger counter releases the hammer, which smashes the vial of poison. The cat is dead.
However, due to the wave characteristics in the quantum world, the atom has both decayed and not decayed, until our own observation forces it into a definitive state. Until the instant we look and see, we don’t know if the cat is dead or alive. It exists in two superimposed states. The properties “dead” and “alive” therefore exist simultaneously in the microcosm.
But what if the simultaneous existence of life and death also applied to the macrocosmic world? Could two different realities potentially exist side by side? Could we manage to split time and allow it to run in two opposing directions? And by doing so, allow the cat to simultaneously exist in both states, dead and alive? And if so, how many different realities could exist side by side?
One of the other things we don’t have the full info on is the machine Tannhaus built. We know he wanted to use it to bring his loved ones back to life, but we didn’t know what his plan was. It may not even have been a time machine. It could have instead been some kind of quantum machine that would conjure a universe in which they didn’t die.
Based on that monologue, I think that’s exactly what he was trying to do. He wanted to “split time” and switch to the universe where they were still a live.
If that’s the case, it would appear his experiment was actually successful on some level. He did create some new universes, and in those universes he had a new daughter that he named Charlotte. Named so after his dead granddaughter, who died on the same night that this new Charlotte was brought to him. It reads like a monkey’s paw situation to me. His wish was fulfilled, but in a weird, distorted way that was bad for everyone involved.
And the ramifications in the worlds he spawned were immense, because this time, ah, fracture that Tannhaus created has a presence in these other worlds. The fracture spreads out through time in both directions in Winden, and it manifests in the form of the apocalypse scenario that crushes the town in 2019/2020. Remember, the mechanics of that apocalypse remain ambiguous, and it’s never made clear why it’s seemingly devastating the world. But Claudia, the final Claudia, gave us a big clue in the finale as she explains to Adam what he did wrong, and how this universe he lives in really works.
Claudia: “I’d have liked to spare you all of that. But your path had to remain unchanged. Every step had to be taken exactly as before. Up until this moment.”
Adam: “This… Has it happened before?”
Claudia: “You trying to destroy the origin, that has happened an infinite number of times. But this here, you and I, is happening for the first time. It’s time you understand how everything is really connected. Everything you have done, everything Eva has done, has upheld the knot for eternity in both worlds. You create yourself forever anew. And so does she.”
Claudia would refer to this cycle, which we have watched play out of the three seasons of “Dark,” as an “infinite chain of cause and effect.” And here’s the big part:
“Time. During the apocalypse, it stood still for a fraction of a second. And that threw everything out of balance. But when time stands still, the chain of cause and effect is also momentarily broken,” Claudia continued. “Eva knows this. She uses the loophole in your world to send her younger self off in one direction of another, in order to preserve the cycle. And I used it to send myself in another direction, too. To be here today.”
How I read that is that this brief disruption of time — which I believe is what Taunhaus did with his machine — sort of just broke the physical world, and the apocalypse is how that plays out. It’s a tough concept to articulate, and that’s why “Dark” is so vague about it. It’s just, like, the world is decaying.
But in terms of the big picture, those comments from Claudia have even bigger ramifications for the world of “Dark.” It’s a pretty significant recontextualization of the first two seasons. When I mentioned earlier that it appears like the time travel rules changed, this is what I’m referring to. This bit: “You trying to destroy the origin, that has happened an infinite number of times. But this here, you and I, is happening for the first time.”
I think Adam’s description to Noah might make it easier to understand: “Everything in life happens in cycles. Sunset is followed by sunrise, over and over. But this time it will be the last cycle.”
During seasons 1 and 2 of “Dark” I had viewed this series as taking place inside a self-contained loop. Like there was one circle of time. But I think now it’s more like a coil. Like a big Time Slinky. Everything is happening over and over again, but in a sense time is always moving forward. This is a tough things to describe, but here’s how I think of it.
The younger version of an old character is actually a new iteration of that character. So when Adam meets the young Jonas for the first time, he is not actually meeting his past self. He is meeting a new, distinct individual who is identical to his past self. So Adam is grooming Jonas to, essentially, be his replacement.
It’s like if you cloned yourself. There would be another one of you out there, and it would be identical to you and have all the same genes and all that. But it’s not you. It would have its own soul, or mind, or essence, or whatever you wanna call it. This is not far off from a theory I have about the “Terminator” franchise.
But in “Dark,” the new versions of these characters are doomed to repeat their predecessors’ actions because they live in a world that forces them down those paths. But some things must change on each loop. We see numerous examples of this in season 3 — most notably, when the young Jonas is killed at the end of episode 5.
And in the Claudia quote above, she straight up says she’s altered her own path over the course of these cycles as she tried to figure out how all this stuff works. And with the disruption of time, Eva has managed to break free of the loop any number of times, but the irony is that she’s only done it to preserve the loop. Which in turn means that breaking the loop is another facet of the loop itself. The mysterious man who appears in threes — you know, the guy with a cleft lip who roams around with both a younger and older version of himself — is another example of this.
It’s not clear how he came to be, exactly. He’s Martha’s son with Jonas, and I assume that his unique state is the result of Adam dropping the weird time blob on her. But we don’t really know much more than that. but we do know that Eva was using him as a sort of enforcer to maintain the loop by any means. He’s responsible for so many of the bad things that happened. And he may actually be some kind of exception to the laws of these universes in some way, but, again, there’s not much to go on with them that we’ve parsed yet.
I’ve read other theories that state that the pregnant Martha that Adam put inside the time blob really did die, and her baby died with her, and that this mysterious man was actually born of an alternate Martha who wasn’t put in the time blob. That’s also plausible, but I think that either way it’s beyond the realm of what we can track with certainty because we don’t really know what his deal is.
We know he works for Eva, and we know what he’s done to maintain the loop, but we really know nothing else for sure.
We could talk about that stuff all day but, again, it would be madness to delve too deep while we’re still absorbing what we just saw. Eventually we’d start trying to figure out what was going on at the beginning of the time coil and I’m not sure yet if we have enough information about all that. There would be a lot of mind-bending hypotheticals down that path.
But one thing we can certainly infer is that when Claudia talks about formulating her plan to end the two universes, she’s describing a process that took multiple loops to bring to fruition. And along the way, she had to to what she could to maintain the loop and keep the variables from changing. Each iteration of Claudia learned more and more until we reached the ending that we saw in season 3.
Of course, it’s not quite a clean ending. This is “Dark,” so of course they introduced one last paradox on the way out the door. See, Jonas and Martha save Tannhaus’s son and his family from dying, but but Jonas and Martha only exist because they died. If they didn’t die, and Tannhaus never built his machine, then Martha and Jonas could not have saved them. It’s one last bootstrap paradox on the way out the door.
The very last scene, the dinner party that closes the entire series, does give us a brain-twister to consider as well. In this scene we feel the ramifications of the end of those broken universes, as we realize that so many of the major characters on “Dark” no longer exist. In the scene, which takes place in the present day, we see Regina (Deborah Kaufmann), Hannah (Maja Schone), Katharina (Jordis Triebel), Peter (Stephan Kampwirth), Bernadette (Anton Rubtsov) and Woller (Leopold Hornung), as well as a picture from the 80s of young Regina with Claudia and Bernd Doppler. Peter is with Bernadette, and Hannah is with Woller. Regina and Hannah are pregnant.
What’s most notable here, of course, is who’s missing. What’s happened is that anyone who only existed due to time travel shenanigans no longer exists. So Charlotte is out, since she was her own grandmother, and she would take her daughters Elisabeth and Franziska with. Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) is gone because Bartosz (Paul Lux) was his great-grandfather, and like with Charlotte this eliminates his kids, Magnus, Martha and Mikkel.
Regina survived because her real father was Bernd Doppler, the guy who ran the nuclear power plant before Claudia took over. And she never got cancer because the nuclear power plant was never built. And she’s on her own here because she likely never met her husband Aleksander (Peter Benedict) — you may recall that their first meeting was because Ulrich was bullying her. Without Ulrich, Aleksander never intercedes. So Aleksander is probably still around somewhere, just not where we would normally expect him to be. And Bartosz wouldn’t exist at all.
Beyond the people who are immediately relevant to this final scene, there are other folks we can safely assume don’t exist. Noah (Mark Waschke) and Agnes (Antje Traue), of course. Silja. Ulrich’s father Tronte. Probably numerous others i’m forgetting.
It’s important to keep in mind that what I’ve written here is certainly not the end-all of discussions about the meaning of the final season of “Dark.” A lot of this is open to interpretation, and our understanding of it will no doubt change over time. This discussion is an evolving one, but I know it’s a discussion that all fans of this insane and wonderful Netflix series will relish.
I have read one particular lengthy post on reddit that I find very interesting — it’s basically somebody else’s version of this article you’re reading now, breaking down the end of “Dark.” Though I don’t agree with all of its conclusions, it certainly provides some food for thought, particularly in the part about the final paradox with Jonas and Martha and Tannhaus’s family. You can read that here.