Netflix Dark Season 1 Episode 1 Recap: Secrets

The complicated photo board is one of the first images we see. Photo: Netflix 

"Dark" is one of the best Netflix original series to date. To see a description of the show and all of my episode recaps, go here.

Episode 1.1 Secrets

We start the episode with a quote from Albert Einstein: "The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." 

Voice over narration repeats this idea and intones that "Everything is connected." We see various photos connected with string tacked onto a wall. Pan out to see an intricate web of photo portraits fill the screen.

It's now June 21, 2019. A man seals an envelope, stands atop a stool, loops a noose around his neck, and hangs himself. A close up of the envelope the man sealed appears: Do not open before November 4, 10:13 pm. Next to the envelope stands a family photo picturing the man who just ended his life, two women, and a teenage boy with red hair. Soon, the script will reveal that the man is Michael Kahnwald. Other people in the picture are Hannah Kahnwald (wife), Jonas Kahnwald (son with red hair), and Ines Kahnwald (Michael's guardian). 

Jonas wakes with a start in bed. He's been having a nightmare about his father. He swallows a few pills.  

Cut to the opening credits. A brief interlude here. The theme song for the show is "Goodbye" by Apparat. Apparat is a German electronic musician. Goodbye is track 4 from their album The Devil's Walk and has been used on several soundtracks previously. I can't emphasize the perfection of this theme song enough. The title credits show images that seems to be replicated, broken, and fractured. It's difficult to discern what some of the images are, as often the people or objects are moving. At some point in the series, we will recognize these images, but the overall effect mesmerizes. Many theme songs are just placeholders and can be easily skipped. Not this theme song. The "Dark" theme song serves the same purpose as Angelo Badalamenti's "Twin Peaks" theme song. It's a door into another world, an interlude that sets a mood and takes us from the reality into the nightmare that is Winden. 

Once the title credits end, it's now November 4, 2019 (the day the letter is to be opened). Jonas wakes up and goes downstairs to find there is no power and the milk has gone bad. He calls for his mother but gets no response. It turns out the mother, Hannah Kahnwald (Michael's now widowed wife) is in bed with one Ulrich Nielsen. Ulrich wants to know if Hannah will be at the meeting tonight, and Hannah demures that perhaps not because Katharina will be there. As he dresses and sneaks back out the window, Hannah tells Ulrich that she loves him; Ulrich only replies "You're beautiful." That's harsh, Ulrich. Now alone, Hannah glances at the aforementioned Kahnwald family photo, only one person -- Ines, the mother -- has been ripped out of the shot. 

Jonas departs from the house wearing his bright yellow rain jacket, an iconic image of light contrasting with the gloomy town. The camera pans to capture the site of a large nuclear power plant. A sign on a post reveals that a boy has gone missing named Erik Obendorf. Ulrich jogs home and passes a directional sign showing that .6 miles away lies the Winden caves. We see the caves and zoom into the darkness within. Super creepy vibes. Interestingly enough, next to the caves is a discarded yellow easy chair.

Jonas walks with a man that turns out to be his therapist, one Peter Doppler. They seems comfortable with one another, and Jonas reveals that he still sees his father sometimes. Peter wants to know if it's a dream. Jonas wonders if his father is trying to tell him something. Peter asks, "like what?" Jonas snaps. I would, too; this seems like a dumb question. After someone dies, especially a suicide, the big question is always "why." We also learn that Jonas doesn't know about the note because he mentions that his father left no note. What happened to the envelope we saw at the beginning? 

Quickly enough, the question is answered. Ines Kahnwald sits at a table. In front of her is a wooden box with a tree on it. Inside the box is the letter left by Michael. Ines also has her own version of the family photo on her wall. She is obviously anxious to open the letter but decides to follow the instructions. 

Ulrich arrives at his home. We meet Katharina (his wife) and Ulrich's 3 children: Magnus, Martha, and Mikkel. Magnus and Martha are both teens. Magnus wants to know where his black hoodie is, while Martha proclaims she is on a hunger strike and won't eat breakfast. Mikkel is younger and is wearing a skeleton costume that Katharina wants to him to take off before school starts. Mikkel insists it's part of his magician costume. It's his signature look. Ulrich is very late but he complains that there was a long line at the bakery (liar). Ulrich enjoys Mikkel's aspirations and allows Mikkel to show him a magic trick. Mikkel makes a token move from one cup to another. Ulrich asks him how he did it. Mikkel replies, "The question isn't how but when." Remember those words. 

Jonas shows up at school to find everyone staring at him in an unkind way. He is greeted by his friend Bartosz Tiedemann who has lied to everyone and told them Jonas was in France for two months. We deduce that Jonas didn't come to school for awhile after the death of his father. Bartosz felt compelled to make up a lie to cover for him. Or was it as kind as that? 

Ulrich walks into the police station. It turns out he works for the police in Winden. He enters the hall to find his colleague Charlotte Doppler being yelled at by the parents of Erik Obendorf. They don't feel the authorities are doing enough. Erik has been missing for 13 days. Ulrich tries to diffuse the situation by assuring the parents that Erik probably just ran away. But this is less than comforting since, honestly, Ulrich doesn't seem all that concerned. 

Across town, we see a mysterious stranger walk out of the caves wearing a dark raincoat. 

Magnus stands outside the school smoking a joint and is confronted by a girl named Franziska. Turns out the girl is Franziska Doppler, daughter of Charlotte. The two have a strange interaction which seems simultaneously flirtatious and disdainful. I know want to see more of these two together. You can tell there's an interest between them. 

At a school assembly, one of the Nielsen teens, Martha, approaches Jonas, and the two share a meaningful look. They seem very happy to see one another, but she passes him by to sit next to Bartosz and kisses him. It turns out Bartosz and Martha are now a couple, and Jonas doesn't seem too happy. During the assembly, Katharina, who turns out to be principal, asks the kids to let her know if they have any information about Erik Obendorf and to please be careful -- typical adult warnings. 

Back at the police station, Ulrich and Charlotte discuss the Obendorf case. Ulrich is adamant the boy has run away. When Charlotte asks him how he can be sure there's been no foul play, he tells her it's Winden. Nothing ever happens here. She reminds him that hasn't always been the case. He lashes back that this has nothing to do with his brother. Charlotte tells Ulrich his mother has called on the emergency line. As Ulrich leaves, Charlotte looks over to glance at her family's photo containing Peter, Franziska, and another daughter. 

Across town, we come to another location -- Forest Hotel Winden. The phone rings and is answered by Regina Tiedemann, who answers "Hotel Winden." Bill collectors are calling to ask for the loan payments. Regina asks for some time because many have cancelled their reservations due to the missing boy. She is visibly upset and angry that they have no sympathy. 

Back at school, Franziska is giving a report on black holes, and Bartosz tells Jonas they should explore the Winden Caves to find Erik's stash of dope. He plans to find the drugs and sell them for a profit. He makes unkind comments about Franziska. 

Ulrich is now talking to his mother, Jana Nielsen. She's been in the forest and saw a strange man. She also found a discarded Raider candy wrapper. She reminds Ulrich how much his brother Mads loved Raider candy. Fun fact: In numerous countries, including Germany, Twix candy bars were branded Raider until 1991. She intones that what happened to Mads is happening again to Erik, 33 years ago. On the wall is a photo labeled Mother's Day 1986. Two boys are picture, presumably Ulrich and Mads. Ulrich doesn't believe there's a connection. 

In a local nursing home, an older man sits in a chair repeating, "It's going to happen again." 

We finally get a glimpse of Erik. He's in a room with a sealed door. The room is decorated as if a small child slept there, with blue character wallpaper, similarly cartoony bed linens, a panda in a chair, various toys, milk and cookies, and bunk beds. Erik lies on the bed, hugging himself. A small television shows a music video of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round" playing loudly. In the center of the room, we see a strange medieval looking chair. It looks similar to an electric chair and clashes with the room. 

The blue room where Erik Obendorf is imprisoned. Photo: Netflix

Hannah arrives at the Winden power plant and receives a call from Ulrich. Once again, he wants her to come to the meeting and perhaps she can come with him on his out of town trip. At the Nielsen residence Katharina picks up Ulrich's sweatshirt -- still at the kitchen table from this morning -- and finds a mysterious hair. She also notices a strange smell on the sweatshirt. Katharina then looks at her family photo. 

Hannah goes to the power plant because she is a massage therapist for one Aleksander Tiedemann (Regina's husband and Bartosz' father). Aleksander has a scar on his back that Hannah points out. Aleksander reveals that 33 years ago he arrived in town. Hmmm, the number 33 keeps creeping up. 

We come back to Ines, who is still gazing at the letter. She listens to a voicemail message from Hannah who seems angry that the power is out. Is Ines somehow responsible for the power at the family home? 

Hannah goes to school for the meeting, which turns out to be a parent meeting about Erik Obendorf. She is met by Katharina. Oh, this is awkward. Hannah and Katharina are friends. 

Meanwhile Jonas leaves on his bike to meet his friends at the caves. He and Martha are the only two there at first. She tries to talk to him about what happened last summer, but he cuts her off. She feels like there's a moment of deja vu. Jonas replies that it must be a glitch in the Matrix. (I suppose this is a reference to the movie). 

Finally the rest of the group shows up. Mikkel had to come along, too, because the babysitter called in sick. Mikkel adorably gives Jonas an "ultimate fist bump." 

The old man walks the streets repeating, "It's going to happen again." 

At the parent meeting, Katharina attempts to show she is doing something to keep the rest of the kids safe but Regina seems very upset by anything Katharina proposes. Meanwhile, Hannah sits in the back obviously looking for Ulrich. 

The kids walk towards the caves. Mikkel seems especially concerned, asking questions like, "What do you think happened to Erik? Do you think he's locked up somewhere? Or dead? Even if you were dead, wouldn't you want to be found?" 

The old man from the nursing home arrives at the meeting, saying, "It's happening again." Charlotte offers to take the man home. His name is Helge. Ines holds the letter ready to open it. Hannah and Ulrich meet outside and begin kissing. Jonas stops to watch smoke billowing out of the nuclear plant. 

Ines begins to read the letter. The kids come to the caves, and Bartosz remarks that the dope is in the yellow armchair. But it's missing. Franziska reveals that she has the dope as she walks out of the caves and offers to sell it to Bartosz, who pushes her and takes the dope. Why does Bartosz seem to hate Franziska so much? All of a sudden, all lights go out, including flashlights, phones everything. A loud noise comes from the caves. Everyone runs, and Jonas and Mikkel are left behind. Jonas grabs Mikkel's hand, and the two run together. 

At some point, Jonas trips and loses hold of Mikkel. When he stands up, Mikkel is gone. A voice calls the name Jonas. As Jonas turns around, he sees an image of Michael Kahnwald, covered in blood. He runs. When the group comes together, little Mikkel is missing. 

Where is Mikkel? This crew doesn't know. Photo: Netflix

Helge tells Charlotte, "It's too late." Back at the school, the cellphones of Hannah, Ulrich, Katharina, Charlotte, and Regina all alight. Their kids need them. The parents then arrive to embrace their rain-soaked children. Ulrich runs to the caves to see if he can find Mikkel. At her home, Ines finishes reading the letter, folds it up, and puts it back in the box. 

As the day breaks, the site of the caves is being investigated. Charlotte receives a phone call from Peter, who tries to tell her something, only Charlotte cuts him off. Peter begins to pray the Serenity prayer out loud. 

A body has been found in the forest. Ulrich runs to the site, and Charlotte hugs him. The body is buried under the leaves. Ulrich digs tenderly through the leaves and pulls back -- confused. The boy has brown hair, and his eyes have been covered with something black. He has red sneakers. Next to the body, a Walkman lies with a cassette tape spooling. Ulrich tells Charlotte, "That's not Mikkel." 

We end by going back to the room where Erik is being held prisoner. An unseen man straps Erik into the scary-looking chair. On the television, another music video plays: "Irgendwie Irgendwo Irgendwann" by Nena, a 1984 track. Whatever's happening to Erik, it doesn't look fun. 

Burning questions: 
  • What did Michael's letter say?
  • How did Ines get the letter? Does she plan to share it with Jonas? 
  • Where is Magnus' black hoodie? 
  • What does Peter want to tell Charlotte?  
  • What happened between Martha and Jonas last summer? 
  • What did Martha want to say to Jonas? 
  • What happened to Ulrich's brother 33 years ago? 
  • Is there any connection to Aleksander arriving and Mags going missing 33 years ago? 
  • Who is the boy that was found if not Mikkel?
  • What's going on between Franziska and Magnus? 
  • Why does Bartosz seems to hate Franziska so much?
Final takeaway: So much happened in this episode and such a great setup. Little of the story is told. Much is shown by images or clues we find in the pictures. We are left to fill in the gaps ourselves. What's clear is that the story wants us to know a lot about these four families. 

There's a lot of tension. In the Kahnwald family, obviously Ines and Hannah are at odds. And it's been only 5 months since the death of Michael. Hannah's already screwing someone and perhaps isn't paying much attention to Jonas as she should. The family should be processing grief together, but Jonas seems pretty abandoned. His best friend stole his girlfriend, and Mom is distracting herself with sex. 

In the Nielsen house, Ulrich's attentions are divided. I don't know what has happened to make Ulrich turn to Hannah but he is equally distracted at work and with his Mom. He seems checked out of life and like he's running from something. His three children seem pretty normal at this point. Magnus is smoking dope outside, Martha is protesting for a cause and filling her dance card with different boys' names, and Mikkel is a funny and curious boy with his magic tricks.

The Doppler family is more mysterious. Charlotte and Peter perhaps don't talk much and find it difficult to communicate. Franziska is an overachiever but she obviously has a rebellious streak and is drawn to trouble. 

For the Tiedemann family, they are painted, at least initially as the "bad guys." Bartosz seems mean and finds it easy to be cruel to people and push people around who get in his way. Regina Tiedemann is clearly upset by the bad tourist season and also really seems to hate Katharina for some reason. Aleksander is the typical rich man executive who sits in his office and gets massages. At least so far. 

Sic Mundus Creatus Est

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