Somehow he knows this

My good friend Japa Fett introduced me to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, for which I’m forever grateful. This was back in the early nineties when I think only a couple of the master’s films had been translated. JF provided informal Benshi translations of TOTORRO and others. These were not super-detailed, but then the plotting in the films is fairly loose.

“Why does Kiki lose the power of flight?”

“Is not really explained.”

When it came to THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, there’s a bit where Lupin III, our intrepid hero, discovers a treasure and suddenly expounds a bunch of phony history to explain it.

“Somehow he knows this,” said JF.

That’s a good phrase to keep in mind whenever you get an info-dump of exposition from a character who couldn’t possibly know it, or is inferring it from insufficient evidence. It’s a good phrase to keep in mind while watching season 3 of Dark.

Spoilers will be avoided as far as possible, but if you’re still to watch all of the last season you should save this for later.

Dark was a very enjoyable show, even if you did need to have some kind of checklist of characters by your side while watching. not only are there several interlinked families plus a bunch of outsiders, but nearly everyone is played by three actors, since they exist as kids, grown-ups and oldsters in the series’ multiple time periods. Season three adds to the potential confusion by introducing multiverse theory, so that you can have radically different versions of the same character at the same age. Fortunately for the viewer, they’re adept at applying different disfiguring injuries to their cast so you can tell them apart.

The show is almost entirely without humour — the only joke I can recall in twenty-eight episodes is a running gag about one particular injury, whose explanation is continually forestalled. The phrase “all fun and games until someone loses an eye” can be reversed, here: the eye loss is the traumatic event which lets comedy in, for an instant.

Now, my hero Ken Campbell always said to distrust anything that lacks humour, and he’s largely right, with some exceptions. In fact, Dark is absorbing and insanely watchable, and the high quality of every element, acting, writing, direction, photography and music, is sustained to the end. Critical responses so far have, accordingly. been very favourable. But it didn’t really satisfy me.

For a show so clearly influenced by Twin Peaks, the degree of closure supplied is quite high. There are a few things that weren’t clear to me, but I expect they’ll get covered by astute rewatchers. The big finish makes a lot of the smaller questions sort of irrelevant anyway — the gigantic Gordian knot of tangled plotlines are cut clean through in a way which is, essentially, consistent with story logic.

But Dark is a mystery, and the kind which promises a solution: the Lynchian ideal of a HANGING ROCK style non-explanatory denouement is not the goal. The show unquestionably gets to a solution, but does it do so fairly?

I’d identify three kinds of flaws with the conclusion.

  1. Is it fair to introduce the material required for a solution so late in the story? The second universe is introduced at the very end of season 2, but that just complicates the complications. The wrap-up is enabled by information supplied in the very last episode, without the benefit of real clues beforehand. Now, Dark may be a mystery but we’re far from Agatha Christie territory: I don’t think we can ask for total authorial fair-play here. I believe it was Asimov who suggested that science fiction and the whodunnit make uncomfortable bedfellows: the locked room mystery that can be solved by an s-f solution isn’t wholly satisfactory. So this isn’t a dealbreaker.
  2. But not only does the show hold back crucial information until it’s too late for us to guess ANYTHING, it executes a kind of genre-switch at the last minute. Writer Jantje Friese (think anti-freeze) drags in predestination and makes it the ultimate narrative problem the characters must solve. If flaw 1 is a kind of deus ex machina solution, hauled from the author’s ass with a flourish at the climactic moment, flaw 2 is the opposite, a deus ex machina PROBLEM. But maybe this is unfair of me: all through the series, the most active characters have been wrestling, across decades, with the fact that all their attempts to fix things go wrong. Friese, arguably, has just restated this problem in metaphysical terms. Still, it upsets me a little, the way that other time-travel show, Quantum Leap, explained itself quite early on with the idea that God was using its protagonist as an instrument. Having both divine intervention and time travel in a story struck me as a bad case of Double Voodoo.*
  3. And finally, we get to the “somehow he knows this” part. At the end of the penultimate episode, a character turns up to explain what’s been going wrong all this time. But she has deduced this solution from inadequate information. Somehow she knows this. Friese has to give her a monologue explaining how she arrived at her solution, but it’s transparently bullshit. A subdivision of this problem is the fact that the antagonistic forces in operation through the show, the Mabuseian manipulator figures, have ALSO based their ideas on bullshit with inadequate evidence to support it, though since they’ve got it wrong I guess that’s a justifiable narrative device.

I don’t have any suggestions as to what should have been done differently. Other than, I suppose, dripping the information in more gradually. The character with the ultimate answer should probably have been behaving more consistently all along, also, like someone working towards that answer.

It also feels like a nasty case of “the ends justify the means,” a moral approach that I would like to see avoided, like, forever.

But, you know, by the standards of most TV finales, it’s moderately satisfying. Which is another way of saying, TV has gotten really good but they don’t seem to have figured out endings.


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