The theodicy of Dark

Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky: Evil exists because of the lies of Man, and all the suffering of innocents is preventable, but at the end “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts”.

How much unjustifiable cruelty is the world’s salvation worth? This is the question that Ivan Karamazov poses to his monastic brother Alexei in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. If God plans for the salvation of mankind, then how can innocents like children be tortured and tormented? How can a good God allow for unjustifiable suffering? What theodicy—what reason for the suffering—could we possibly give?

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? (p.245)[1]

The Brothers Karamazov understands that this is not a question that is answerable in a rational way. One can either accept the whole wretched injustice of the world, or one can (as Ivan does) “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket” (p.245).

Adam, the arch-villain of Dark, who wants to “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket”

This acceptance of being unable to rationally answer this question is mirrored by Netflix’s time-travel drama Dark (huge spoilers to follow). Through seasons one and two, it is revealed that the ostensible hero Jonas in fact will inevitably become the arch-villain Adam. Having discovered that his soulmate Martha is in fact his aunt, having realised that he inadvertently triggers his father’s suicide by going back in time to save him, having watched his aunt-soulmate Martha be killed by his older self, and having at every turn been thwarted by his attempts to set the world right, Jonas—as do Ivan and contemporary thinkers like David Benetar[2]—eventually concludes that the wretched mess of the world would be better off never having existed. Accordingly, Adam does unforgivable things to bring about his ultimately compassionate goal of euthanising the world.

One parallel universe over, Jonas never existed, and Martha assumes the hero role that had been held in Jonas’s universe by Jonas. Eventually, Martha too falls from innocence—she conceives a child with Jonas, and after being forced by her older self to kill Jonas, her heart hardens and she becomes “Eve”. Unlike Jonas/Adam, Martha/Eve answers the unanswerable question in the affirmative: existence—in the form of her child—is worth it, so she will do unspeakable things not for the compassionate goal of ending existence, but for the compassionate goal of preserving it.

Martha/Eve as a teen, adult, and old woman.

In this way, Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve represent the two options that seem available to us (and to Ivan) in the face of the ineradicable and inexcusable misery of the world. We can sell our soul by admitting Evil as part of God’s plan, or we can sell our soul by rejecting God’s creation. Both options are borne of compassion, and both options end in apocalypse.

The beginning of the apocalypse.

Of course, in our world, in The Brothers Karamazov, and in Dark, Evil is simultaneously a cosmic force and a conscious choice that we freely make. Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve certainly conspire to ensure that the free choices of individuals lead to their ruinous ends, but they often rely on individuals’ cowardice and deceit to do so. In neither world would the apocalypse have taken place if not for Alexander’s succumbing to Hannah’s blackmailing, or the four families’ refusal to convey information to one another during the earlier seasons, or Ulrich’s (many) affairs. As Katherina notes, the entire city is “like an ulcer, and we are all a part of it”; as Franziska notes, “that’s exactly what’s ruined everything—all your fucking secrets”. The causal chain runs inexorably back and forth through time to ensure that precisely the miseries that have happened will happen again, but the causal chain is only inexorable because nobody chooses to stop it by telling the truth.

Franziska confronts her parents over their repeated deceit.

In this sense, too, Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it really is so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (p.320)

But Dark does not end with an admonition towards responsibility. In Dark’s finale, it is revealed that the entire wretched knot of causal connections that has caused such unjustifiable and heinous suffering all stems from father’s grief over a car accident that killed his son (Marek), daughter-in-law (Sonja), and granddaughter in the “overworld”. Hubristically trying to reverse time and bring his family back, the father accidentally split the overworld reality in two and created the two ulcerous worlds that cause such misery both for themselves and for one another. A not-yet-fallen Martha and Jonas venture to the overworld and impede the son’s passage, thereby preventing the car accident. But in their interaction, Martha and Jonas see their souls reflected in Marek and Sonja respectively[3]. There are reflections of the ulcer in the overworld, but the reflections are not yet distorted and twisted. We see the world before the unjustifiable suffering has ever occurred.

Martha and Jonas (left) save Sonja and Marek (right).

Indeed, the salvation of Marek and his family in the overworld fulfils all the empty vacuous promises in the ulcerous worlds. The henchman Noah becomes correct when he promises that God has a plan for each of them, Adam becomes correct when he promises deliverance into paradise, and Jonas is finally vindicated in his belief that he and Martha are soulmates. In one of the most touching scenes of the series, Adam reveals to Eve that they can both finally lay down their swords. He reveals that Jonas and Martha have been sent to the overworld and ulcer will finally be lanced: he will win, in that their worlds will be no more, and she will win, in that a world will remain. They have fought the good fight, they have finished the race, and they have kept the faith.

Adam and Eve reconcile before they cease to be.

Following her and Jonas’s saving of Marek and his family but before the ulcer ceases to exist, Martha hauntingly asks “will anything of us remain?”. But this is perhaps asks the wrong question. Had she asked instead whether anything of the misery and suffering of their worlds could be justified, she could have answered as Ivan had wanted to:

… I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed: it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but to justify all that has happened with men.  (p.235–236)

“Wir passen perfekt zusammen. Glaub nie etwas anderes.”

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”


[1] All page numbers cited are in reference to: Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1992. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Random House.

[2] See, for instance, his book Better Never to Have Been (Wikipedia page here).

[3] For more on this specific plot interpretation, see here or archived version here.

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