The Sandman is a Dream Come True

The new Netflix series, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “unfilmable” comic by the same name, is 30 years in the making — and well worth the wait.

An ocean poured from pure sleep. A living nightmare with teeth for eyes conspiring with WWI mages to imprison Death herself. A baby gargoyle named Goldie and a library that goes on forever. Mark Hamill as a giant talking pumpkin. Old gods, new gods, and everything in between. 

These are just a few of the wonders — and terrors — that inhabit The Sandman, Netflix’s adaptation of a beloved DC comic penned by the visionary Neil Gaiman. For more than thirty years, Gaiman’s tale of Morpheus, god of dreams, and his travels through our world and others have captivated readers drawn to everything from the series’ distinctive aesthetic —I’m looking at you, Morpheus-I-only-work-in-black-and-sometimes-very-very-dark-grey — to its signature family of godly oddballs, to its unique mythology and stunning world.

And what a world it is. 

Morpheus, otherwise known as Dream, is one of the seven Endless: immortal, universal beings who incarnate the fundamental forces of creation. Alongside him and his big sister Death, who are closest in the series, both in age and in friendship, the other oddly alliterated Endless siblings include Destiny, Destruction, Delirium, and the twins Desire and Despair. Together they make up a strange pantheon, or perhaps over-pantheon, of gods among gods — truly universal beings whose stories intertwine with those of other characters from ancient tales, including the biblical brothers Cain and Abel, Lucifer, Odin, Loki, and the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, to name a few.

Yet even for all his power, Dream is not invulnerable. In the show’s opening scenes the world is engulfed by the violence of the first world war, and the grief of two men — cult leader Roderick Burgess and Royal Museum Curator Dr. John Hathaway — drives them to undertake a dangerous ritual to summon and imprison Death herself, with the intention of forcing her to return their loved ones. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the ritual goes awry, and Burgess’ cult succeeds only in trapping Death’s beloved little brother, Morpheus Lord of Dreams.

Dream’s subsequent imprisonment, which takes up most of The Sandman’s first episode, lasts for 100 years. When he finally escapes in the early 2000s, his world, like ours, is utterly changed. And it’s in that final scene of the premiere, when Dream sees the devastation wrought by his absence, the very color leached from the fabric of his world as it falls into decay, that the thrill of the show becomes clear. The past is dead, dreams and nightmare creatures have escaped into the waking world to terrorize the living, and the increasingly uncertain god who created them has been weakened to the point that he may not be able to stop them. The stakes, it’s clear, have never been higher.

Yet, while Dream’s subsequent five episode quest to regain his lost tools of office and track down old friends and foes is certainly entertaining, it’s episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings”, that makes The Sandman worth watching. Despite being a chaotic grab bag of plots that manages to stuff Dream’s midlife crisis, the introduction of two other Endless into the show, a crash course in Gaiman-brand metaphysics, and my personal favorite Sandman story — Dream’s creation of, and subsequent 700 year friendship with, the human immortal Hob Gadling — into a single episode, “Sound of Her Wings” nevertheless feels more vibrant than rushed.

If for nothing else, episode 6 is a standout purely for Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s excellent performance as Death: a character she plays, perhaps contrary to expectations, with almost enough bright eyed exuberance and bubbly sibling affection to match Dream’s monochromatic fashion sense and insistence on constant brooding.

While the character (sadly) only appears in a single episode this season, her relationship with her little bro Dream feels genuine and sweet in a way that reminds me of the best episodes of The Umbrella Academy, another Netflix original.

And therein lies The Sandman’s true appeal. Many reviewers, including Graeme McMillan at WIRED, have argued that Dream and his Endless family are so well liked because “The very concept of the Endless is one that quietly reassures [us] that everything isn’t entirely random, or worse, entirely malicious, but that there’s some grander scheme and order at work, even if no one really understands it.” I respectfully disagree, for the simple reason that Dream, alongside his friends Hob and Death, seem so very human. 

It’s telling, I think, that one of Dream’s final lines on screen this season is “I was wrong.” It’s not something I would normally expect to hear from a leading protagonist in Hollywood high fantasy, especially not from a man, and especially not from a god. Yet we hear it from Morpheus, I think, because the Lord of Dreams is, in his own strange way, the “every man” — a misfit, still coming to terms with his own identity and his place in the world, still making mistakes and trying to be better than he was the day before.

That’s why it’s so easy to love The Sandman. That’s why Neil Gaiman has, by his own admission, spent decades trying to ensure that this adaptation was done right. It’s not compelling because it reassures us that life makes sense, it’s compelling because it tells us that it’s okay to feel like even the gods are making it up as they go along, because, just like us, they are. 

The Sandman Season 1 is now streaming all episodes on Netflix.

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