Dark was one of Netflix’s most original and exciting series, a time-travel puzzle-box epic about grief, loss, and regret. Show creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar don’t stray from that triumph’s template with 1899another head-spinning multi-character affair that piles mystery upon mystery to a bewildering degree.
Clarity is difficult to come by in the German duo’s latest eight-part effort, and that can sometimes be more vexing than exhilarating. Nonetheless, there remains much to savor about this period-piece whirligig, which spins around and around until it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction—if, that is, anything at all in this saga is actually real.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of 1899 (which premieres November 17) is that it seems intent on literally surpassing its predecessor’s darkness. There’s a difference between ominous opacity and indecipherable murkiness, and Friese and bo Odar’s series often succumbs to the latter. It so shrouds its suspenseful drama in pitch-black hues that it’s difficult to make anything out.
It’s a case of atmospheric gloom overload, and it proves all the more frustrating considering that the show’s aesthetics are otherwise effectively spooky. There are corridors and chambers lit by iridescent lamps and candles, waves of fog that envelop and obscure, and glowing contraptions and devices whose purpose is as shadowy as the passageways and portals that its characters come to navigate.
Before anyone starts traversing disparate realms, 1899 sets its scene aboard the Kerberos, a turn-of-the-century European ship bound for America whose passengers are an international (and hence multilingual) lot in search of new beginnings. Chief among them is Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham).
When her character is introduced, she is having a dream in which she screams at her silhouetted father about her missing brother and is strapped to a medical chair. When she awakens, there is a letter from her sibling that reads, “Don’t trust anyone.” Maura is a British doctor with a particular focus on the brain, yet her repetition of her name, hometown and the date suggests that her own noggin isn’t in perfect working order. The strap-marks on her wrists indicate that perhaps her dream was less a fantasy than a recent memory.
Kerberos’ other passengers similarly revisit traumatic—and frequently death-related—recollections while slumbering, including German ship captain Eyk (Dark‘s Andreas Pietschmann), whose family met a horrific fate. Why those reveries always end with hallucinatory visions of a pyramid, a swirling vortex and a hushed command to “Wake up!” is impossible to initially decipher, although things become at least a tad clearer (relatively speaking) thanks to a starting turn of events.
A few days out from their destination, Eyk and his fellow crewmates receive a signal from another company ship, the Prometheus, that went missing four months earlier. More puzzling still, when they locate the Prometheus and search its interior, they discover it in disarray and wholly vacant, save for a young boy (Fflyn Edwards) locked inside a bar cabinet, who refuses to speak and carries with him a small black pyramid .
No one knows what might have happened to the Prometheus, and 1899 only dispenses clues—all of slowly which are accompanied by three additional baffling bombshells that keep things perpetually hazy.
As Eyk and Maura strive to make heads or tails of their predicament, the series introduces a raft of characters whose destinies are sure to become intertwined: Spanish playboy Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau) and his faux-priest boyfriend Ramiro (José Pimentão); Chinese immigrant posing as Japanese geisha Ling Yi (Isabella Wei) and her mother Yuk Je (Gabby Wong); Ling Yi’s American madame Mrs. Wilson (Rosalie Craig); Polish furnace worker Olek (Maciej Musiał); French stowaway Jérôme (Yaan Gael), and newlyweds Lucien (Jonas Bloquet) and Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier); Danish lower-deck inhabitants Tove (Clara Rosager), her brother Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen), and her religious parents Iben (Maria Erwolter) and Anker (Alexandre Willaume); and Eyk’s gruff right-hand man Franz (Isaak Dentler).
All of them have damning and/or disturbing secrets, and their plights hopelessly intertwine once the boy is brought from the Prometheus to the Kerberos and strange occurrences begin to mount.
Following in the footsteps of Friese and bo Odar’s prior series, Dark, there’s also a mystery man aboard the Kerberos named Daniel (Aneurin Barnard), who shares an apparent bond with Maura and uses a tiny scurrying beetle to perform miraculous feats. On top of that, Maura’s father (game of Thrones‘ Anton Lesser) is a thoroughly shady and furtive bigwig, who operates out of a luxurious office that houses a wall of television monitors—a tip-off that, as with Dark, 1899‘s story straddles multiple eras.
Those factors slightly undercut the proceedings’ novelty, as does a dearth of concrete answers. Anyone craving neat-and-tidy resolutions should look elsewhere, as the show works overtime to keep the moment-to-moment action fleet and propulsive while keeping its bigger picture just out of sight.
Dark vets won’t have much trouble attuning themselves to 1899‘s wavelength. Newcomers, on the other hand, may find the deliberate, teasing pace a tad trying. Fortunately, any occasional sluggishness is offset by fine performances—led by the charismatic Beecham and Pietschmann, who share a taut chemistry—as well as by the methodical pile-up of bonkers developments.
Cryptic triangular symbols, mental wards, lemmings-like zombies, mute children, scarred faces, hidden hatches that lead to tiled ducts and futuristic panels controlled by perplexing control boxes are all a part of the insanity, not to mention various other motifs that further imply that memory is central to this tale. Then again, the series could be about perception, identity or any number of other things, since Friese and bo Odar drop a wide variety of hints but keep things perpetually close to the vest, thereby generating the tantalizing intrigue necessary to keep their guessing-game afloat.
“None of this makes any sense,” exclaims Eyk midway through 1899‘s first season, by which point so many inexplicable incidents have taken place that just about any theory regarding the nature of this madness sounds plausible. Like Friese and bo Odar’s previous streaming gem, this supernatural thriller is so knotted up that trying to untangle its mysteries is not simply challenging but borderline headache-inducing—generally, in the best way possible.