Absent Center: Netflix's "Dark" and Time Travel as White Privilege

By Namrata VergheseSeptember 7, 2020

Absent Center: Netflix's "Dark" and Time Travel as White Privilege
Major spoilers for Dark and See You Yesterday ahead.

EARLY IN THE FIRST EPISODE of Netflix’s popular German original series Dark, the camera pans over a school assembly. A face stood out to me: a lone Black girl, striking against her beige background. She’s a flash, nothing more. She doesn't show up again, and, throughout the rest of the three-season show, we never see another person of color who wouldn’t pass the paper bag test

“Why can’t she be the main character?” I asked my sister during a rewatch in anticipation of Dark's recently-released third and final season. 

My sister looked at me, eyebrows raised. “She can’t be. She’d die.” 

I startled. She was right, of course; I just hadn’t seen it. Whiteness sneaks up on you like that. Although it structures our world, we don’t see it. We’re not supposed to. The most sinister thing about whiteness is precisely its invisibility, its inscrutability. It is, as postcolonial theorist Sara Ahmed puts forth, the “absent center against which others appear only as deviants, or points of deviation.” White literature is literature. White TV is TV. Whiteness secures its hegemonic domination precisely by not being marked as white — not being marked as anything at all, really. “White is all colors, it is everything. White is no color,” posits film scholar Richard Dyer. Against this blank backdrop, everything non-white is stamped as Other, relegated to the periphery, to the realm of “niche” and “diverse" checkboxes. 

In this instance, however, the question of who got to be the main character of Dark wasn’t merely one of representational politics. It was a question of life and death. 

Dark, a science fiction thriller, hinges on the premise of time travel. Anchored in contemporary Germany, its characters slip in and out of eras, from the 1880s to the 2050s. They do so fluidly, almost nonchalantly. When Jonas, the protagonist, shows up in post-World War I Germany unexpectedly, another character merely comments that his yellow rubber raincoat constitutes “strange” attire. That anonymous Black girl, however, might have had a very different experience. 

As its title suggests, Dark is bleak in both aesthetics and content. Set amidst the gray fog of Winden, a fictional small town in Germany, the show opens with the disappearance of a young boy, Mikkel. Seeking answers, Jonas stumbles upon what we eventually learn to be a wormhole tucked away in a cave, connecting his world to Winden, circa 1986. Over the course of three seasons, Jonas unravels the tangle that connects Mikkel’s disappearance to his own existence as well as a vast network of events, from the ordinary to the cataclysmic. 

To be clear, I’m a fan of Dark. It injects new life into the time travel trope, and I enjoy its weirdness: it’s messy, cavernous, and expansive. I came to it as a science fiction fan, and stayed for the pleasure of unraveling its intricate, intersecting story lines. There’s a particular adrenaline rush that accompanies the discovery of how one character is linked to another, or the moment that the question morphs from where we are to when we are. Dark holds the same brooding appeal of Twin Peaks. In fact, the two shows have a number of parallels: Dark makes effective use of a similar premise, a tragedy that ripples through an isolated town. It’s also aesthetically and texturally similar to Twin Peaks in its moody, washed-out color palette, its unnerving visuals, and the lingering ambient anxiety that coats the entire town of Winden. Plus, its theme song — Apparat’s eerie “Goodbye,” paired with surreal kaleidoscopic images — is a banger. 

Once my sister pointed out Dark’s whiteness, however, it became impossible to consume the show in the same way. Racial privilege is baked into its very premise. Whiteness is its most present absence. Marking it opens a Pandora’s box of sorts: once you see the show’s default whiteness, it’s impossible to unsee. 

The invisibility cloak of whiteness props up Dark’s narrative feasibility. Many of the show’s signature mind-bending twists rely on surprise reveals: the villain is simply the future version of our protagonist. A corpse found in 2019 belongs to a child who lived in 1986. The missing boy who kicked off the series is not lost; he is, in fact, our protagonist’s father. We could make a great drinking game out of taking a shot every time the words “who are you?” are spoken on the show. 

These twists work exceedingly well, and we’re usually too mesmerized by the episode’s next sleight-of-hand to get bogged down in why they work. But the secret ingredient is always whiteness. Imagine, for instance, that the Black girl we saw in that early episode was in fact one of the show’s main ensemble characters. We wouldn’t be stunned to realize that another Black character was simply a future version of her; in fact, we’d have anticipated it. Even putting aside the fact that a more racially diverse cast would force the show to engage the material violence non-white time travelers would risk, the show’s narrative trickery is almost entirely enabled by its absolute whiteness. Because everyone looks the same, anybody could conceivably be anybody. Dark is a show built around the slow tracing of a series of interconnected, labyrinthine genealogies that move forward and backward in time, looping in unsettling ways. If even a single non-white character were inserted into any of those lineages, it would trigger a butterfly effect that would dramatically change the complexion of the entire series. As it almost always is, the choice to have an all-white cast isn’t really a choice at all.  In the world of Dark, a discernibly non-white character could not jump in and out of eras inconspicuously. They could not disguise themselves and shock the audience by taking off a wig. Race is visible. It's visceral. 

I think often about a particular scene in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro: a countess and her maid, Susanna, swap dresses. In an instant, Susanna has access to a literal embarrassment of riches. Even the countess’s husband fails to see through her farce. The difference between poverty and nobility, then, comes down to a matter of wardrobe. But we can never access whiteness simply by buying new clothes. Perhaps the closest racial parallel to Susanna’s ascent in class privilege is a tongue-in-cheek parody: the stunt the protagonists of Keenen Ivory Wayans’s 2004 film White Chicks pull off, with their powder-caked faces, blonde wigs, and off-pitch Valley girl accents. 

The puzzle-box thrills of Dark thus necessitate the effacement of people of color. When we buy into the premise of the show, we buy into whiteness as hegemony. 

Unpacking the insidious ubiquity of whiteness exposes what has always been deemed off-limits for people of color. It isn’t time travel alone. In his comedy special, Afraid of the Dark, Trevor Noah cleverly nails why casting Idris Elba as James Bond, while aspirational, would raise more than a few problems. “It would be particularly difficult to be a spy,” Noah observes wryly, “when you are the only Black person in town. Your very existence defies your purpose.” An “undercover” spy needs to be unmarked. His efficacy is predicated on his ability to blend in. Casting Idris Elba would require radically reimagining the world of the Bond series and constructing, from scratch, an onscreen universe in which a Black man could go unnoticed in crowds as easily as a white man, gain access to confidential information as easily as a white man, don a disguise and vanish into a congested street as easily as a white man. It’s possible, of course, to renovate filmic worlds in this way, but it’s a task filmmakers have historically been loath to do. As John Boyega recently pointed out, even when a Black actor is cast in Star Wars, it isn’t a given that the imaginative universe of the series expands and reshapes as a result. In Noah's words: “I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying that would be the toughest James Bond movie that was ever made.”

The restrictions on raced bodies stretch far beyond epic narratives of time travel and espionage. Even small, unremarkable stories are often out of our reach. Historical fiction, one of my favorite genres, is the realm of whiteness alone. In the rare moments when people of color show up, they’re usually fulfilling some sort of stereotypical role: maid, field worker, pirate. And while actors of color cast in traditionally white roles can provide leverage for historical films or period adaptations to think about race in new ways, often these casting decisions smack of the kind of “plastic representation” Kristen Warner talks about: visible diversity that does not reflect deep imaginative work reckoning with what such diversity might mean.

Fundamentally, then, representational politics doesn’t end with casting a Black James Bond, or a person of color on a hypothetical revival of Dark. It can’t. It must reckon with the conditions that render this casting choice fraught. It must address whiteness as default, and the ways in which bodies that deviate from this norm are materially disciplined. True representational politics demands tearing down and rebuilding our world. 

To take this thought experiment beyond theory, it becomes useful to place Dark in conversation with another Netflix feature: the 2019 science fiction film See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol and produced by Spike Lee. See You Yesterday plays with time travel as a mechanism to interrogate broader themes of race and police brutality. Where Dark invisibilizes racial privilege, See You Yesterday foregrounds it. Its two young Black protagonists, C.J. and Sebastian, are science prodigies, tinkering with a time machine to win a contest and scholarships to college. In a brutal twist, a police officer kills Calvin, C.J.’s brother, throwing the characters into a desperate mission to rewrite his fate, and theirs. 

In the world of Dark, answers lie in the past. As Jonas’s world teeters on the brink of annihilation, his solution is to turn back time, aiming to reverse a global apocalypse by finding its catalyst. See You Yesterday, however, enacts a sort of reversal of Dark’s basic hypothesis: the past holds no answers, no salvation. For C.J. and Sebastian, the past invokes nothing but carnage. Through their attempt to undo Calvin’s murder, they unwittingly cause another, equally heartbreaking one. They cannot escape death; the systems of power that shape the American landscape will never allow them to do so. 

Unlike Jonas, C.J. and Sebastian don’t time jump to solve epic puzzles of the universe; they have no grand ambitions of changing the world, or going on the space-hopping adventures that populate time travel lore. They want to prevent just one death. It’s the simplest and most futile of quests: to rewind one day, avert one bullet. When they go back in time, they aren’t facing the racism of a colonial past, but the violence of today (or, more aptly, yesterday). Because of who they are, because of their markedness, C.J. and Sebastian are never safe, no matter where they are. No matter when they are. 

Thinking through the logistics of time travel therefore necessarily dredges up a stark truth about our world: there has never been a safe time or place to inhabit a raced body. Towards the end of See You Yesterday, Calvin says the eponymous line to C.J. just before she embarks on yet another ill-fated mission to the past. The future, the film thus advances, is not guaranteed. It's a privilege that C.J., Sebastian, Calvin, and so many others can't access. Our society differentially assigns us humanity based on our proximity to white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal norms. This hierarchical assignation of value works to strip the characters of See You Yesterday of their humanity, their futurity. 

Despite this dire commentary, See You Yesterday does not entirely reject the liberatory potential of the science fiction genre. Tucked in the interstices of the film is a small emblem of hope: during one of the opening sequences, C.J. and Sebastian’s teacher reads Kindred, Octavia Butler’s renowned novel. Another time travel story centering a Black character, Kindred, is no light romp, but, in the author’s words, “kind of a grim fantasy.” Butler turned to science fiction in part because she felt suffocated by the constraints of the real world, of the limitations imposed on her as a Black author. “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so open,” she once mused in a note to herself. “I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

A science fiction tale in which Black people thrive cannot be set in this world, Butler contends. Or, at least, not the world as we know it. Black futurity, as See You Yesterday lays bare, cannot be secured by a quick jaunt to the past. To write a story that sanctions Black life, not Black death, the world must be uprooted, turned on its head. In an epigram to an unpublished novel, Butler wrote, “There is nothing new / under the sun / but there are new suns.” Perhaps producing narratives that truly decenter the hegemonic white subject, then, first requires the destruction of the world we know. For a Black time traveler to not be doomed, they must inhabit a fundamentally different world. Butler’s words ripple into today, animating Afrofuturistic Black creative work from Janelle Monáe’s music to Ryan Coogler’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther

Butler and the legacy of Afrofuturism gesture towards a hefty, abolitionist goal. Like See You Yesterday reveals, there is no salvation in the past — nothing to recuperate, nothing to redeem. Unlike Dark, the answers here lie not in the past, but in the future. There is no reforming a world that is predicated on your death. As Hope Wabuke articulates, Black Speculative Literature (an umbrella term that encompasses Afrofuturism, as well as other modes of Black cultural production that destabilize the white gaze), “looks not to the past and its violent oppression of Blackness, but rather to the future, to imagine alternate possibilities of Blackness that can be lived in safety, creativity, and freedom.” Although abolitionism is seeing unprecedented traction in the current moment, it’s far more than a trending hashtag, and bears clear charged resonances for our discussion on racialized time travel and the proscribed role non-white characters play in it. Abolition calls for the destruction of the carceral state, and all the systems of violence that enable it. In this aim, abolition is an imaginative project of futurity. The work of abolition is the work of possibility — of carving out alternative worlds, alternative futures. The possibility of tomorrow, not just yesterday. 

So, yes, Black and non-Black people of color may never travel back in time with Jonas's casual entitlement. But we can travel forward: write our own stories, and, in doing so, build our own futures.

Surprisingly, towards the end of its run, Dark seems to conform to its own form of abolitionist logic. “Time travel doesn't bring salvation,” Jonas says in the show's last season. “Only damnation.” In its farewell arc, Dark cracks open its universe, throwing out the guiding principle of the first two preceding seasons: you can travel either backwards or forwards in time, but not space. This last season sees the introduction of a parallel universe: other versions of the same characters, other futures, other fates. The end is the beginning; the beginning is the end, the characters on Dark chant like a mantra. As the series comes to an end, the knot of the past only comes undone through the annihilation of two universes, through the imagining of new ones. In tearing up its own rule book, in destroying its earth to save it, Dark points to the possibility of worlds unrestricted by the laws that govern ours. While the narrative economy of the series itself never poses a challenge to whiteness, perhaps we can imagine that, somewhere in one of Dark’s sprawling cosmos, there exists a world in which that Black girl in the school assembly makes her own way through time and space as the show’s main character. 


LARB Contributor

Namrata Verghese is a JD/PhD student at Stanford. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CatapultTin HouseHobartWorld Literature Today, and elsewhere. Her first collection of stories was published by Speaking Tiger Books in 2019. 


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