If “Dark” wasn’t convoluted and mind-bending enough for you, Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar returned to their area of expertise with “1899.” “Dark” was Netflix’s first German-language original, making waves as it explored time travel, parallel universes and a host of twists and turns so confusing that Netflix created a website to assist viewers along the journey. As I began to trudge my way through the pair’s newest creation, I brought a sharp mind and my notebook. “1899” follows the passengers and crew of the Kerberos, an immigrant steamship on its way to America, when the captain gets a signal from another ship, the Prometheus, after it had been reported missing for four months. Upon finding the ship, those aboard the Kerberos are thrown into a puzzle of mind-bending proportions as they experience unexplainable phenomena that question the nature of their reality.
In the first few minutes, we meet our protagonist, Dr. Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham, “Cruella”), as she awakens in her cabin after what seems to be either a dream or a flashback. Astute viewers familiar with Friese and bo Odar’s style may have picked up on certain recurring symbols. We see an inverted triangle with a line through it and the numbers 1011 crop up in many of the opening scenes — a sign that some things are not what they seem. This pattern continues as viewers are introduced to some of the characters present in the first-class dining room with Maura. There’s the rich and mysterious Englishwoman Virginia (Rosalie Craig, “London Road”), the brooding honeymooning French couple Lucien (Jonas Bloquet, “The Nun”) and Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier, “Overlord”), suspicious-looking Spanish brothers Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau, “Elite”) and Ramiro (José Pimentão, “Al Berto”) and the unhappy geisha Ling Yi (Isabella Wei, “Our 4℃ – Able World”). The sullen-looking captain of this doomed ship, Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann, “Dark”), also joins Maura in navigating the disasters ahead. Everyone seems to call a different place home, yet they’re all on the Kerberos for the same reason — they’re running away from something in their past in hopes of a better future. The aforementioned weird signs appear again in this dining room, as we hear unnaturally long diatribes on the size and capacity of the human brain, watch every passenger in the room sip their tea and return their cups to their saucers at the exact same tempo and listen to the score warble and readjust itself like a radio out of tune.
The second-most outstanding part of these eight episodes (second only to the mind-bending sci-fi involved in the plot) are the characters and their relationships to each other. While the protagonists of the show converse mainly in English, every other character maintains their native tongues, which include German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Spanish, French, Cantonese and Portuguese. We watch these characters break through language and class barriers as the first-class passengers meet and befriend the middle-class passengers over the course of the show. It doesn’t matter if the Spanish man can’t understand the Danish man, or if the Chinese woman doesn’t understand the Polish man — in the catastrophic situations these passengers face, language is a trivial thing. Caring for one another and making sacrifices for each other — those are universal. “1899” tries to strip humanity all the way down, parsing through what exactly makes us tick the way we do. This show proves that no matter which reality we think we’re living in, our love for our fellow human is the most consistent thing we have.
And now we reach the monster in the room — the plot. I appreciate a good slow burn. I love having to hold certain details in the back of my mind and retrieve them later to put together a puzzle. However, I think “1899” pushes the slow burn premise a little bit over the edge. The season took far too long to get to the point — or at least what I think was the point. The worlds that Friese and bo Odar create are meant to be confusing, but I still didn’t quite know what was going on as I was starting episode seven. The upside to this incredibly slow pace was that we had more time to get to know some of our main characters. Each episode began with a flashback into a particular character’s life and Maura’s voice telling them to “wake up,” jolting the character awake in the present. These flashbacks did go a long way in providing background and further explanation to certain characters’ actions, though the plot development seemed to suffer because of it. It seemed as though the first six episodes served to stoke the flames of conspiracy theories, which ultimately left more questions than answers. Some of the questions still remaining in my notes are:
“What is lost will be found” — What’s lost? Where are we finding it?
What do the telegraph messages with the triangles mean?
Why are the compasses spinning?
What does Maura’s letter mean?
Did this girl just stop a bullet?
“May your coffee kick in before reality does” — I wish this for myself too
Are these people even real?
An extremely commendable aspect of Friese and bo Odar’s creations is their explanations of scientific theories. Though convoluted, “Dark” somehow managed to kind of solve the grandfather paradox, and the average viewer was able to grasp the overall explanations of time travel and parallel universes. At its base level, “1899” revolves around Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and opens an effective discourse around the nature of reality and the human mind. Is reality just a bunch of neurons firing in our brains, or is it more? Does reality involve who we interact with and how we give meaning to experiences in our lives? More importantly, what is “real?” By exploring this area of sci-fi, “1899” risks rehashing the plots of “The Matrix” or “Inception” — although it has been only eight episodes.
Though “1899” is a bit slow to get off of the ground, the eighth episode left me feeling the same way I did after season one of “Dark” — wanting more. Though it’s still too early to tell whether the show will be getting a season two, the season finale suggests a plot that’s ready to expand further. The hope is that Friese and bo Odar will continue to churn out content that pushes the boundaries of what we know to be true. Until then, I’ll be waiting with my notebook.
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.