1899: What the %@*! is Going On?!

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| January 18, 2023

Wait, what? What’s going on? What just happened? How? Who are they and how did they get here? WHAT THE %@*! is going on?!?!

All these questions and more could be heard coming from my mouth while watching the show 1899, and they weren’t without merit.

1899 is the newest show created by Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, who previously penned Dark, a German science fiction mystery lasting three seasons. 1899 is a multilingual German-made period mystery and science fiction television series that follows an ensemble of passengers and crewmates traveling from Southampton, England, to New York City on the steam liner Kerberos in the year 1899 (shock). All is not as it seems when they receive a signal from the Prometheus, a sister vessel lost at sea over four months earlier. And then wackiness ensues.

Potential spoiler-like hints from this point forward (although I’ll try to refrain from giving anything essential away).

So, what makes 1899 a good watch despite its bamboozling plot?

Well, there’s no “despite” about it! The show is an epic mystery, so having an unclear and perplexing story is a strength. I’m sick and tired of movies where the killer is so obvious that you can pick them out as soon as the murder happens. It takes you out of the experience when you’re sure of the outcome within seconds. There is absolutely no chance of that happening with 1899. Hell, after finishing watching the first season, I’m not positive that I’m any further forward in unraveling this puzzle.

Each episode hints at the overarching narrative through its interactions with the groups of characters. Perhaps the most baffling yet enlightening interactions are seen via what seem to be our two main protagonists, Dr. Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham) and Captain of the Kerberos, Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), with each of them receiving letters that lead them to this specific vessel. Although there’s a whole host of interesting characters on the ship, Maura and Eyk are the most curious and drive forward the investigations.

Well, I assume they were driving forward the investigations. As soon as we get a clue as to what’s going on, a twist diverts the story in a totally different direction. You expect it to zig, and it ends up zagging multiple times. The end of episode 3, “The Fog,” is one such episode where the climax destroys your worldview. The rug was pulled from beneath me just as I thought I had an inkling. I love that feeling!

Kerberos steam liner from 1899 sailing on the ocean
Kerberos steam liner from 1899 sailing on the ocean

The very nature of the setting, being a migrant steam liner bound for the new world, set up an opportunity for all of the souls on board the Kerberos to be deep and interesting. Our cast could be striving for a better life, running from a dark past, or possibly even chasing somebody else on board! More details are revealed about our multicultural ensemble as you progress through the series and spend more time with them.

Authentically for the setting, the show is multilingual, and oh boy, is it. A total of eight (yes, eight!) languages are spoken by the main cast. And it’s not just a gimmick to say, “look at us! Aren’t we clever?”. Not at all. The very nature of utilizing many different languages adds a lot to the story, the mystery, and the character’s confusion. Not only does it feel accurate to the setting of a steam liner ferrying immigrants to America, but the very fact that some of these people have no idea what their crewmates and fellow passengers are saying allows the viewer to feel like they are closer to the conclusion than the characters (until that is, inevitably, proven incorrect!).

The main cast of the Kerberos from 1899 in a promotional picture
The main cast of the Kerberos from 1899 in a promotional picture

One character, a Portuguese priest named Ramiro, can only understand one other person on the ship, so he relies on body language and tonal cues to try to comprehend the situation. His helplessness is not only befitting his character but also an effective story device, showing total reliance on his companion. I recommend viewing the show subtitled rather than dubbed. The art of communication in the show is skilfully presented throughout, and you will miss some of the greatest nuances if everyone is speaking in the same tongue.

But I do have some criticisms of the show. The first two episodes could have been better paced, although I do understand why these episodes were designed in this way. Because there is a large array of characters to introduce, the story crawls along slowly instead of hitting you with intrigue with a bang from the start. There is enough to keep you invested, but it can feel like you’re awaiting the next beat to persevere with the actual story.

I can see how some people could also be annoyed at the dialogue and lack of interactions between some of the passengers’ beyond-confused looks and “what-just-happened?” types of conversation. It can be frustrating that they can’t collaborate on solving the mystery, but I find it realistic. There would be a lack of ability to communicate effectively on this type of vessel! All of the elements of the show combine excellently to make this show addictively watchable.

Promotional images from 1899 and Dark side by side
1899 and Dark are both created by Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar

I was always going to watch this show. Freise and bo Odar’s previous creation, Dark, is placed nicely in my top five television shows of all time. I realize that is a massive statement but let me tell you why.

Dark is a mind-bendy mystery science fiction thriller that is smart and deliberate from the start of the series to the climax. In a world of milking franchises for all their worth and cash-grab twelfth seasons of shows that had a perfect opportunity to end well within five, a show like this was not only welcome but satisfying. It knew where it was going, and it knew how to get there, unlike some other shows we know *cough* Game of Thrones *cough* Lost *cough cough*.

1899 seems like it’s been built the same way. The creators have said that they have ideas for two more seasons and a clear vision of where the story and character arcs are going. Even if those journeys are head-scratchingly befuddling. Luckily, I have not yet had to break out a pen and paper to determine the connectivity of the souls on the Kerberos like I eventually had to do with Dark, but I can see a future where that may have been necessary for later seasons if the show was renewed.

Captain Eyk Larsen looks shocked and confused
Captain Eyk Larsen looks shocked and confused

But, alas, a fickle world we live in where smart shows are confined to the trash can and tripe is regurgitated over and over again. Netflix canceled the show after one season, and yet again, I am devastated.

I wanted to know what happened to Maura and Eyk. I wanted to know what happened to the Kerberos and Prometheus. I wanted to know all about the dark pasts of our ensemble and what they were seeking or running from. I would like to know what is going on!

Because unfortunately, I still don’t know what’s happening.

But I sure as hell want to. And isn’t that the primary aim of any mystery show?

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