When viewers sit down to watch “1899,” one of Netflix’s newest series, they probably don’t expect the electrifying thriller that the show reveals itself to be. What begins as a mystery period drama quickly turns into a supernatural saga.
Building on their past success with the 2017 Netflix hit “Dark,” creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar packed “1899” with a suspenseful and philosophical punch that carries the viewer to an ending that leaves them with more questions than answers.
The series begins with English neuroscientist Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham) waking up from a nightmare in which she is restrained and screaming about her brother’s disappearance. Most of the eight-part series then goes on to take place aboard the “Kerberos,” a steamship traveling across the Atlantic Ocean toward New York City in 1899.
The audience is introduced to a diverse array of passengers simultaneously searching for new lives while navigating the class strife of the late 19th century. The show’s central mystery is put in motion when the “Kerberos” comes across the “Prometheus,” a long-lost ship that Maura links to her brother’s mysterious disappearance, which is only partially explained in the show’s final minutes.
From that point on, the show carries viewers through an explosive, fast-paced thriller that pokes holes in the facade of a 19th century passenger ship. The cast of characters all speak in their native languages, including: Danish siblings Tove (Clara Rosager) and Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen); Spanish passengers Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau) and Priest Ramiro (José Pimentão); French newlyweds Lucien (Jonas Bloquet) and Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier); geisha in disguise Ling Yi (Isabella Wei); Polish stoker Olek (Maciej Musial); French stowaway Jérome (Yann Gael); and German captain Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann). Many of these characters are introduced through scenes that depict the traumatic events that supposedly instigated their travels. But the audience is left to wonder whether these are real flashbacks or fictitious nightmares.
It’s difficult to explain the show’s plot in greater detail without revealing key story points. Simultaneously, “1899” could be discussed for hours without giving anyone a sense of what the series is really about. It’s ambiguous — and intentionally so.
While the show’s plot moves forward rapidly, constantly introducing new twists and turns that keep viewers engaged and scrambling to keep up with the mystery, the characters and their backstories can often feel underdeveloped. The characters’ pasts are shrouded in mystery, with brief flashbacks and dreams revealing only some of their backgrounds. While the cast of characters is captivating on a surface level, especially when viewed as a collective, viewers may find it hard to understand who the characters are and why they should be invested in their stories.
It is clear that despite their often shallow depths, no character in the show is entirely who or what they present to be. Many of the characters have secrets and hidden reasons for boarding the “Kerberos,” and knowing this is enough to keep the audience watching.
While tension pervades the initial interactions between the characters — highlighting their different backgrounds and barriers of language, class and gender — these juxtapositions are largely set aside as the plot’s mystery begins to unfold. Disaster strikes early on in the series, forcing the characters to come together in a partially united front.
Some plot twists in the show are predictable, recalling familiar plotlines from modern-day psychological dramas like “Black Mirror.” But there are enough unknowns to keep viewers entertained. “1899” is reminiscent of Netflix classics like “The OA” in its ability to flip audience expectations, leaving viewers questioning what is real and what is not. The already incredible “1899” has the foundation to be truly extraordinary in future seasons if it can better flesh out its large cast of characters.
“1899” is perfect for viewers who like developing theories about what they’re watching — or anyone looking for a dark and suspenseful supernatural thriller that makes them question what’s real. That being said, for viewers looking to watch a show that they can understand in its entirety, “1899” may not be the perfect place to look.