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“The brain is wider than the sky,” Maura (Emma Beecham) says by way of Emily Dickinson in the opening voiceover. That’s our first clue that things may not be what they seem. This seems to be the story of the immigrant steamer Kerebos on its way to New York, its passengers and crew. Given that 1899 (exclusively on Netflix) is from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (the minds behind another Netflix series, Dark), we anticipate many clues. 

Nor are the characters who they say or think they are. Maura thinks she’s a neurologist but might actually be insane. The geisha and her mother (Isabella Wei and Gabby Wong) aren’t actually Japanese. The young Spanish man (Miguel Bernardeau) and his priest brother (José Pimentão) are actually lovers on the run. The French lovers (Mathilde Ollivier and Jonas Bloquet)? They’re as cold as yesterday’s fish. We also spend time with the crew and those passengers locked up in steerage. The German captain himself (Andreas Pietschmann) is less a leader and more a lost soul. Really, they all are.

With everyone speaking in their native languages, after a certain point I wasn’t sure I even understood English anymore and turned on all the subtitles. 

Despite the company’s sister ship Prometheus going missing a few months earlier, this voyage starts out on course. But when they receive a distress call from the Prometheus and detour to find her empty but for a creepy child (Fflyn Edwards) locked in a cupboard, everything gets weird. Soon people are dropping dead, the compass isn’t working, alien crystals are growing in the hallways, and sci-fi tech is pulled from hiding.

Children die. There’s a very disturbing mass suicide. With one exception, sex is ugly if not violent assault. The language is harsh. And religious people (especially the Dutch Reformed) are revealed to be shams or mentally unbalanced. We as the audience are as tossed around as the ship in a storm. If something like The Gray Man is an amusement park ride, 1899 is a haunted house, on a boat, in a nightmare.

By the end of the first season we learn that the entire premise is built on a theological conundrum that isn’t as clever or subversive as it thinks it is. 

There comes a point where we have to consider if finishing the puzzle is worth the frustration. Once it becomes apparent the final image won’t just be ugly but also offensive, our appreciation for the craftsmanship has to be weighed against the beauty absent in the final product.

We live in murky times, no doubt. Seeing characters confront far worse situations could be cathartic. If it leads to truth. And I don’t know that 1899 holds much. Instead, I find myself turning to 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (Rated TV-MA, Netflix. Intended to be viewed by 18+, mature audiences only for strong language, sexual violence, and graphic violence.)


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