Warning: contains major spoilers for the 1899 finale.
Ever tried to pick a piece of eggshell out of a just-cracked egg? It’s right there, but the slippery forces at play keep sliding it out of grasp. That’s our brains trying to make sense of Netflix series 1899. Just when you think you’ve got a grip on the truth behind the Kerberos, the Prometheus, the simulation and why the Creator did what they did, away it slides, back into the goop.
The first big twist came at the end of episode three ‘The Fog’, when we saw the characters of this supposedly 19th century story being watched on multiple TV screens. From there, anachronistic tech kept appearing, from Daniel’s pocket device to his electric torch, to the First Mate’s triangular messaging system. Elliot regenerated in that cabinet, somebody froze time, and, as if remote-controlled, most of the ship’s passengers threw themselves to their deaths. Maura and the Captain discovered secret hatches under their beds that led to their personal memory landscapes. Everything that had happened on the Prometheus started to repeat itself on the Kerberos. And throughout, shiny green beetles were used to open doors.
The finale explained some things. First of all: the 1899 voyage of the Kerberos was a computer simulation taking place on board the spaceship Prometheus in the year 2099, and jointly experienced by either 15 (the number of people plugged into the same simulator pod as Maura) or 1,423 people (the total number of passengers on board). Maura was not a 19th century doctor and the daughter of a tyrannical mental asylum owner/shipping magnate, but a computer scientist who created the Kerberos simulation with her husband Daniel. She had willingly entered the simulation in an attempt to forget the existence of her and Daniel’s son Elliot, for reasons still to be confirmed.
The Kerberos simulation ran in a repeating eight-day loop that had happened countless times before. Every time, the passengers would make the same decisions and as a result, they would die and the ship would be destroyed in a storm before being sucked through to another simulated dimension where all the previous ships were stored. Then it would all start again, exactly as before. Nobody had really ‘died’ because their physical bodies were still alive on board the spaceship. None of the simulation ships had ever reached their destination, though this version got further than any of the others.
Since our first glimpse of Anton Lesser’s character Henry Singleton, father to Maura and her missing brother Ciaran, he seemed sure to be the evil genius behind this whole psychological experiment. Henry was the architect of the mental asylum Maura kept flashing back to, and he was the one communicating with the First Mate from another simulated environment outside of the ship simulation.
However, when Elliot told Maura that he couldn’t speak in the simulation because “they’re listening” and she would have to ask her questions to “the Creator”, he wasn’t talking about his grandfather, who was just as trapped in the simulation as everybody else. The Creator was apparently Maura herself, just the woken-up version of her. She was the one who designed the Kerberos experiment and only she possessed the code that could wake her up from it and bring her consciousness on board the spaceship back to reality. That code (in the form of Maura’s key and the boy’s black pyramid, later her wedding ring and a pyramid toy after Daniel reprogrammed the simulation to swap the roles of its various objects) is what Henry and the First Mate were searching for so they could wake Maura up and end the simulation.
While Maura was locked in the simulation, her missing brother Ciaran (initially suspected to have been a passenger on the Prometheus steamship) appears to have gone rogue. Daniel tells Maura “Your brother, he took over the whole programme whilst you were in here. He’s been controlling everything.” Daniel entered the simulation to try to wake Maura up, he tells her. “This is so much bigger than you think, you have to wake up, you have to stop him or everything will be lost.” All that’s a question for a potential season two to answer. For now, let’s try to get the rest of it straight.
The Green Beetles
These were codes that ‘unlock’ doors. In the simulation, a code can be any object (hence the code-key changing to a code-wedding ring). The door-opening codes on board the Kerberos took the form of little green beetles such as the one Elliot found in real life and wanted to name Alfred and keep in a jar. Maura told Elliot that he had to let the insect go free, because you couldn’t simply trap the things you love (subtext!). Daniel and Elliot used the beetles to take them through doors and between different areas in the simulation.
The Secret Hatches and Tiled Shafts
Under each passenger’s bed was a secret hatch to a shaft leading to a simulation of their traumatic memories. Maura’s led to the asylum, and the Captain’s led to the burnt-out house where his wife had killed herself and their three daughters. When Daniel hacked into the code and altered the simulation, the various characters found themselves passing from the ship simulation to the various memory landscapes through ‘doors’ in the sky. Ying Li’s was the Chinese skiff, Olek’s was the blood-stained snowy landscape with the Statue of Liberty postcard, Tove and Krester’s was the Danish farmland where she fought off her rapist after he shot Krester in the face for having a sexual relationship with his son, and so on.
The Black Crystals
When black crystals started to grow on the ship, that was more code – a virus introduced by Henry and the First Mate to wipe out the simulation so it could be restarted. If Daniel hadn’t hacked into the simulation to stop it from being rebooted, the crystals would have taken over everything. When Virginia Wilson touched one of the crystals, she became ‘infected’ with the virus, but as nobody really dies in the simulation, she’s really still alive and well (and unconscious) on the spaceship.
The Pyramid Symbol
Tattooed on the back of Elliot’s head, on Ying Li’s stolen kimono, in the earrings and hair clip of French honeymooner Clemence, on the wallpaper of the asylum, engraved on the hatches under the beds, on the ship carpet, on the ‘what was lost will be found’ letters, on the back of Moira’s pendant containing the key … the symbol of an inverted triangle with a line struck through it is everywhere in 1899. The fact that it’s so widespread and turns up in such a range of places is a clue that the Kerberos is not a real location but a simulation.
Kerberos and Prometheus in Greek Myth
In Greek myth, Cerberus/Kerberos is the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades to stop the dead from leaving the underworld. Seeing as the Kerberos ship simulation traps the consciousnesses of the space travellers and doesn’t allow them to leave, it’s a fitting name. Prometheus in Greek myth was a Titan who, in various versions of the story, both created humankind and stole fire (leading to science and technology) from the gods to advance human development. He received a gruesome punishment for doing so, and was trapped in an infinite loop of being tied to a rock and having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day, similar to the tragically repeated punishments of the Kerberos passengers.
Why the Year 1899?
All guesses welcome, but one possibility has to do with the book Maura has by her bedside in the simulation – Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s a renowned proto-feminist novel about a woman breaking out of the social and gender roles of wifedom and motherhood and finding her own identity and sexual desire, and 1899 was the year of its publication. We know that Maura created the simulation in order to forget her life, Daniel and Elliot – was this her equivalent of Edna in The Awakening’s social rebellion? (The title seems fitting at least for a drama in which characters hear voices telling them to ‘wake up’.) Or…
…Is Elliot Dead?
In the sci-fi pyramid landscape that Daniel said was his and Maura’s first simulation and “home from home”, Elliot’s underground bedroom is beneath a grave marked by a wooden cross. Macabre detail? Or a clue that Elliot is dead in real life and only ‘alive’ in this simulation? Grief over her son Elliot’s death could explain why Maura would want to enter a simulation and forget about his existence in the first place, but perhaps that’s too simplistic a reading.
Were the Other Characters’ Stories all Fiction?
If Maura was the ‘dreamer’ of this simulation, does that mean the other stories (the Captain’s dead daughters, Tove being attacked, Ramiro having killed and impersonated a priest etc.) were all her invention too? That would explain why they were all so rooted in the social and historical context of 1899 – Lucien and Jerome’s French Foreign Legion tale, and Angel, Ramiro and Krester having to hide their sexuality, Maura not being able to practise medicine… It might also explain why the stories were all so similar, with three instances of people having murdered somebody and taken their place (Ramiro, Lucien and Ying Li).
All of the Kerberos’ surviving passengers – Maura, Mrs Wilson, Eyk Larsen, Tove, Krester and their parents, Olek, Ying Li and her mother, Angel and Ramiro, Clemence and Lucien and Jerome were seen on the spaceship Prometheus hooked up to the simulation machine, but were their roles in the simulation simply computer-generated window dressing?
Why Did Daniel Kill Ada?
The green beetle led him to her, he said he was sorry and then she was found dead. We now know that Daniel will have used his remote control device to simply stop Ada living (just as the First Mate did to the Captain), but why he did that is unclear. Seeing as the Green Beetles open doorways, did he need to use the virtual Ada somehow as a door? Or did he do it to kickstart the mutiny from below decks and move the simulation on? Either way, as none of the deaths on the Kerberos were real, Ada, if she exists on board the spaceship, will still be alive.
Will There Be a Season 2?
Anyone looking for answers will bloody well hope so. More on that news when confirmed.
1899 is available to stream on Netflix now.