A Dream Journal, As It Were: Too Many Thoughts on “The Sandman” Season 1

Tom Sturridge IS the Sandman!

Remember, kids: don’t dream angry!

I was in high school when The Sandman #1 hit comic shop shelves in the fall of 1988. Springing forth from the mind of Neil Gaiman, whom I chiefly knew from Miracleman and Black Orchid, it was unlike anything I’d read before in comics or other media, and was a must-buy over the next seven years — through its transition to DC Comics’ subsequently inaugurated Vertigo line, in its rise to alt-culture superstardom, and even during some of the least favorite parts of my life. The Sandman lasted longer in my life than I lasted in college. I still have all 75 issues, the special with Orpheus’ story, the two Death miniseries, the lovely hardcover edition of my favorite arc (Season of Mists), and some (not all) of the other ensuing spinoffs. (Of most recent vintage, I loved the Gaiman-approved two-issue crossover with Locke and Key, which may have meant more to fans of the latter but contained key prequel scenes to the world of Dream, including front row seats to the fall of Lucifer.)

I rarely allow myself high expectations for anything anymore, but The Sandman left a deep enough mark on my psyche that I insisted the all-new Netflix adaptation — closely supervised by Gaiman — simply had to be The Greatest Netflix Show of All Time. Nothing less would do. The jury’s out on that for now, but after having watched all ten episodes within a 21-hour span (with wasteful intermissions for sleep and life, not necessarily in that order), I can enthusiastically say for now it’ll do. It’ll very much do.

Unlike my normal casual viewing, I had fun taking notes throughout most of the ten-episode season to catch my impressions as I went. Time was, I’d live-tweet that sort of thing, but (a) live-tweeting never made sense to me with non-live, time-shifted TV viewing, and (b) judging by my daily timeline, live-tweeting is dead. So instead I kept a handwritten live-journal to expand upon those thoughts here in the blog where they can’t harm, spoil, confuse or disappoint strangers.

Confessional preface here: I’ve read a lot over the decades, but I don’t reread much nowadays. I can clearly recall some Sandman arcs and moments without effort. I’ve forgotten many others, especially in the later issues. I could’ve gone into my longboxes, dug out all those comics, and reread from start to finish before watching. But then:

  1. I’d have to put off watching the show that much longer.
  2. I had zero interest in spending the entire binge mentally assigning demerits to the show for getting things “wrong”, a phrase some fanboys use when they mean “different” but think that’s the same thing. The world has thousands of clickbait sites standing by to (or already done with) collating nitpicky annotation listicles in lieu of chronicling their emotional or contemplative reactions to what they just watched.
  3. I correctly thought it’d be far more delightful to plunge into the series as-is, with no study hall in advance to influence my brain’s current standings, partial memories and all. Whatever I’d forgotten, I had the joy of experiencing again anew, or feeling some of those past immersions resurfacing as I went.

This isn’t a ten-episode blow-by-blow recap, not to perfection. This isn’t a basic review. It’s a collection of one aging Sandman fan’s impressions as I went, thirty years after reading, without benefit of lifting all those longboxes to get to my back issues for self-fact-checking. I kept a notebook while watching nine of the ten episodes, began transcribing them here, then gave in to my usual impulse for writing far, far more than anyone outside my own head will want to read. But I gotta be me. If anyone makes it from beginning to end without skimming or exiting the window partway down to move on to shorter tasks, then hey, bonus.

Courtesy spoiler warning in advance — not just for these episodes, but in a few cases for future story arcs I still recall, should Netflix allow the series to live on and if those hypothetical seasons continue to follow the same track under Gaiman, co-developer David S. Goyer (a mainstay of Hollywood comics adaptations) and showrunner Allan Heinberg (Young Avengers, The O.C.). I won’t be surprised or egregiously whiny if Dream’s tale diverges more and more from the source material as the writers dive into it and follow the threads to alternative conclusions. Rarely do our newer dreams go through the same motions as older ones.

Onward!

Episode 1: “Sleep of the Just”. Past the titular Elvis Costello reference, we’re hitched to an imaginary camera drone that flies through an expensive, gorgeous rendering of the realm of Dream in its prime. We aren’t out in the open for long as we and Our Hero (Tom Sturridge) are spirited into the 1910s mansion basement of The Crown‘s Charles Dance, grieving his lost WWI veteran son and willing to do anything to get him back, even tampering with the very Endless themselves who embody various aspects of the human experience. I suck at noticing film or TV scores on a single run-through, but I was struck immediately by the spookiness wrought by composer David Buckley (who also scores Paramount+’s Evil), especially in that chilling moment when Dance casually calls out “Dream of the Endless”, to which his seemingly insensate captive opens one eye toward us in surprise and rage.

The show apparently has the same quirky closed-captioners as Stranger Things did; in the scene where Lucienne discovers Dream upon his return to the Dreaming, the caption reads “[enthralling music playing]”. If the captioners do say so themselves.

Sturridge’s voice is less of a raspy whisper and half an octave lower than I’d imagined for Dream (my head’s interpretation of Todd Klein’s lettering designs that TV can’t replicate unless someone invents embellishable omni-font captioning), but he captures Morpheus’ demeanor of modulated haughtiness that feels nearly approachable when he’s in neutral mode, but can switch gears to pull rank on you and your mortal foolishness in half a heartbeat.

It was a smart idea to introduce The Corinthian up front as a season-long Big Bad rather than save him for a late-inning short-timer. The fan favorite for longtime readers is all but certain to allure a new audience, and I’m not just saying that because of my recent Boyd Holbrook experience. With his fugitive kill-spree now predating Dream’s capture, he’s aptly set up as more of a proactive manipulator with motive and means to extend his ex-boss’ tribulations for as long as possible. He comes off all the more cunning for those value-added machinations, and Holbrook leans into that killer smile, the trap of acting behind sunglasses, and the faint southern lilt that slicks up his veneer and surely cons folks into further underestimating him at their peril.

The show snagged me at episode one and never let go. The expansive canvas of a streaming-media episode length makes us really feel the time passage of its century-long span of events more than a 22-page comic ever could’ve. Or however long DC titles were as of 1989. That length varied over the years until they settled on the current, impoverishing 20-page max.

There aren’t any scenes after The Sandman end credits, but we’re treated to ten different end-credits visual designs, each masterminded by Dave McKean, the series’ original cover artist for all 75 issues, the special, and many spinoffs. I kinda wish they weren’t mostly Windows Media Player fractals, but I’ll take whatever McKean art I can get. Curiously, the DC logo appears at the tail end of each episode rather than in frame one, where Warner Brothers has mandated its name above the title. The proud Vertigo label that decorated a few past page-to-screen projects is nowhere in sight, presumably defunct for every last intent and purpose. Shame about that.

Episode 2: “Imperfect Hosts”. The shortest episode offers the longest visit with Cain and Abel — “The first murderer. The first victim.” Dream confirms their existence predates his realm, going back to their roles in Scripture, which ended with Genesis 4:16’s mention of Cain living out the rest of his days in “the Land of Nod”. They’re in the Dreaming but not of the Dreaming. They’re still caretakers of the House of Secrets and the House of Mystery, the roosts from which they hosted the ’70s horror anthologies of the same names. Abel’s first onscreen death is morbidly funny if you already know their shtick — the two of them “playing the hits”, so to speak. (Abel is played by Asim Chaudhry, the gaming company boss from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. He’s far more benevolent and forgiving here.)

The short tale of Gregory the Gargoyle is among the season’s saddest moments even though we barely knew him, establishing that Dream has absolute power over all his subjects, yet he can sincerely mourn when he makes the toughest calls for the good of the kingdom and all its subjects. Not that he’ll feel quite so merciful or saddened later on when other subjects bite the dust at his hand (so to speak). But what he taketh, he can also giveth back, as we see later once his power levels are restored to minimal functionality and he can reward his humble servant with a most peculiar egg.

While Dream has been AWOL for the past century and pursues his power-MacGuffin collection, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong, who I trust will be cast in all the things after this) does what she can to preside over what’s left of the Dreaming. In her own way Lucienne is Dream’s Alfred Pennyworth. She’s a librarian, not a butler, but like Alfred she also goes light years above and beyond mere caretaker services in performing necessary duties for the Greater Good. She does so because someone must (if not her, who? Cain? Abel?) and because she has faith in her employer. “I never felt abandoned. I knew you would return,” she tells him, with a pragmatic optimism that’s the good-mirror-universe opposite of Alfred’s weary pessimism. Sticklers who fetishize comics-adaptation faithfulness were hopefully tickled to add an approving tally mark to their scorecards upon noticing Lucienne’s pointed ears.

Two other first appearances of note. One: antihero Clara Oswald, a.k.a. Jenna Coleman as the modern-era Johanna ConstanTINE — per Alan Moore’s conception, later confirmed in-story by his Swamp Thing successor Rick Veitch. Older fans remember it was the Keanu Reeves film that sided with “ConstanTEEN” for the sake of Americans who bristle at hoity-toity vowel usage, which was then irksomely carried over to the Matt Ryan version. Two: the Fates, who’ll absolutely be important in the distant future (as they surely well know). They swap places like a haunted shell game and vibrate on a differently eerie frequency from other Fates out there in pop culture, from Clash of the Titans to Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Episode 3: “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. The titles can’t all be hipster music references. I knew Constantine would take the spotlight, but I wasn’t expecting a full-fledged backdoor pilot for a Hellblazer series. We have repertory players from that series, starting with the internet-kewl abbess of the Episcopalian Church of England (and neighbors might’ve heard my brief but fannishly loud “yay!” at the mere name-checking of Chas); the reuse of Astra’s tale as a critical backstory juncture (completely unrelated to the Legends of Tomorrow version, who evolved from little girl lost to Hell’s ruler to time-traveling wacky hero sorceress, quite the whiplash journey); a routine gonzo exorcism that hearkens back the NBC series everyone’s since forgotten; and those unamused by Constantine’s cocky shenanigans, who rightfully call out the “selfish, ruthless coward” for who s/he is. As Johanna but not John, Jenna Coleman works hard to distance herself from Clara Oswald, not just with superfluous F-bombs but also…is it my imagination or did she not light a single cigarette? Regardless, now I’m used to her and expecting further adventures.

Meanwhile, flapping around the periphery is Patton Oswalt as a pitch-perfect Matthew the Raven. It figures the show would jettison his entire complicated setup, his pre-bird life as Matthew Cable the abusive drunkard ex-husband of Swamp Thing’s longtime partner Abigail Arcane. Instead his Netflix counterpart merely died in his sleep, end of origin, he’s a mouthy raven. It’s so severely reductionist, it’s almost as if the goal was to tick off someone’s real-life abusive drunkard ex-husband named Matthew Cable who was eagerly looking forward to having a famous namesake he could brag about in future bar crawls. It’s okay, Matthew the town sot, wherever you are — it could’ve been worse: you could’ve been the milquetoast Officer Matthew Cable from DC’s swiftly euthanized Swamp Thing streaming series. Much as I’d love to analyze all these Matthew Cables of the multiverse, I only saw the first two episodes of that boggy misfire, and even then, I saw not the DCU originals but the censored versions that aired on The CW as pandemic prime-time filler with muted profanities and deleted bloodletting. So the runaway winner of the Crisis on Infinite Matthew Cables is Patton Oswalt.

We pause to pay respects to Ethel Cripps, as played by Joely Richardson, whom I’ve seen in several things yet struggle to recall beyond Event Horizon. Ethel’s role is noticeably upgraded so she’s no mere custodian of her son John’s superpowered dream-gemstone that just so happens to be Dream’s precious ruby, nor is she a mere pocket for the protection amulet that matters for exactly one (1) episode. She’s a woman scorned whose hellish fury has since faded, a master art thief little realizing she’s in the twilight of her career (probably one Leverage episode away from a comeuppance), and an elderly mom stuck with an adult kid who’s pushing 60 and still can’t get his act together. Naturally her efforts to rectify the latter make everything worse.

More endearingly, there’s Mad Hettie herself! As played by Clare Higgins from the first two Hellraiser films! I look forward to seeing her wandering into other Netflix series at random and yelling at their leads. She’s gotta show up for Locke and Key season 3, right?

From the Department of Foreboding, we get a brief exchange in which Johanna, a little irked at how all roads lead back to her dating history, snaps at Dream, “Do you have any ex-girlfriends?” Something’s stirring within Dream as he silently pleads the Fifth and hopes the editor will cut away aaaany second now and save him.

Episode 4: “A Hope in Hell”. The showdown readers have been waiting for! In this corner, the fallen angel, the ruler of Hell, the devil who didn’t star in a Fox series I never watched anyway, Lucifer Morningstar! And in the other corner, a pasty monk with a bag of magic sand! Maybe he should’ve traded it for some magic beans instead! In Lucifer’s corner, billions of demons and devils spoiling for bloodshed! And in Dream’s corner, he, uh, he brought a snarky bird that the director can cut to for reaction shots! Their standoff decides the fate of his weird elephant-trunk helmet that was retconned to have inspired Wesley Dodds’ Golden Age Sandman gas mask.

It’s Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie, who is six-foot-three and armored and borne upon mightily threatening wings, versus Tom Sturridge, who is none of those. Their metaphysical poetry slam is Dream’s most visceral fight scene this entire season, and among the most thrilling scenes for lovers of Gaiman’s poetic prose and/or TV writers copy/pasting directly from the comics, though with dazzling, quick-cut visualizations of each escalated evocation. I’m not complaining. Far from it, since I won’t watch Game of Thrones, this was my first personal opportunity to realize on my own cognizance how those Star Wars sequels so utterly squandered Christie’s talents. As open-mic night ends, Lucifer towers over the enemy, anguished and enraged, yet powerless to refute the optimists’ axiom that in this universe, there is always, always hope. What is hopelessness, Hell’s driving engine, if not hope perpetually yanked out of reach?

Wondrous little flourishes are all around. The rhymer doorman Squatterbloat, who’s the Demon Etrigan’s nonunion equivalent with bulky zombie makeup in lieu of flexed Jack Kirby muscles. A small but dutiful role for Lucifer’s aide Mazikeen, still half-scarred but minus the comics’ speech impediment. Choronzon feebly grousing, still a lanky and purple-ish jerk, though with a single mouth. Matthew gazing upon the lines of sinners carrying flames toward the killing grounds and remarking, “They make you bring your own fire to Hell?”

Briefly from the Department of Foreboding: a fleeting introduction to Nada, the unmentioned ex-girlfriend sentenced to Hell. It’s through her eyes that for the first time we see Dream’s code-switching facade shift before another beholder. We’ll see this aspect of him time and again, especially in the done-in-one vignettes if they’re adapted. We’ll also see Nada again, though not as soon as she might wish.

Meanwhile in the B-story, a greater focus is brought to David Thewlis as John Dee, who on another Earth was the dream-powered Justice League villain called Doctor Destiny. Here he’s denied a costume, cape, and vendetta against the Super-Friends, yet remains broken and evil, though not melodramatically so. He’s the season’s most willowy and low-key mass murderer. Still in pajamas and not drenched in the blood of his latest victims, he snags a ride after escaping his 30-year mental hospital incarceration and nearly makes a friend in a happy helper lady named Rosemary (Ted Lasso‘s Sarah Niles) until he answers her innocent questions too honestly and unknowingly terrifies her from the back seat. Beyond a short incident involving a gas station clerk (Sam Strike, star of the 2017 Leatherface prequel, the only Texas Chainsaw flick I’ve ever watched all the way through), Mr. Dee shows one last act of mercy, which he’s reserved for his free driver because, unlike the mom who died for him, Rosemary was generally honest with him. Honesty is the best policy, he claims as he lies to himself about being the victim in all this.

Bookkeeping note: four episodes in, five of the seven Endless have been named: Dream, Death, Desire, Despair, and Destiny. Among them, Destiny will be played by Sir Not Appearing in Season One.

Episode 5: “24/7”. The only one for which I put down my notebook and dared not split my concentration, for I knew it might be the most brutal and horrifying chapter of them all, as it was on the page. It’s the bottle episode where John Dee walks into a diner and turns an ordinary mealtime for several customers into their worst and final nightmare. Ordinary humans are lab rats to him, which he uses to test his hypothesis about how awesome society would be if everyone had all veneers, manners, learned socialization skills, and coping mechanisms stripped away from them, were reduced to their basest instincts without filters or an entire lifetime of developed analytical tools, locked in a dogfight cage with each other, then left with no other interaction options except to survive on animal behaviors alone. Thus does Doctor Destiny label the end results of his captive abattoir “truth”.

Those three decades in the mental institution were clearly a waste of taxpayer money. Our Hero, in the meantime, is conked out in the diner’s storeroom. Once he deigns to arise, once again he steps into the optimist’s pulpit with the counterargument that it’s a person’s hopes and dreams that define Who They Are. Take all those away, as he has from his victims, and what’s left isn’t Who They Are, but the fleshly shell’s primal reflex responses to hormonal turn-ons and/or physical threats. That isn’t “truth” by any intellectually worthy definition. (Taken to too far an extreme, this line of reasoning could be used to excuse indefensible sins. That’s much farther than Dream needs it to go in this specific moment. He’ll bring a rejoinder to his own assertion in the finale, in which he confronts an entire misbegotten subset of those who routinely excuse their own indefensible sins.)

Among the diner experiment subjects are Steven Brand (the Big Bad from The Scorpion King) and Laurie Davidson (Cats‘ Mr. Mistoffelees). The horrors perpetrated upon and by them are nowhere near as harsh as they were in the original story — comparatively subtler in which wounds are thrust or left lingering in our faces, but nonetheless brutal. The comics page remains static before us, where our gaze can be trapped within the panel borders for long seconds or minutes if we’re too stunned to turn away, but the screened portrayal hurriedly carries them away, a charitable act that lets us regain our composure (if we can) and move on. So the comic is scarier, but the show isn’t going for the same sort of shock that a much younger Gaiman and the artists did. All while that’s happening, John Dee grabs some ice cream and a better seat at the TV. Like Hannibal Lecter, his pulse never gets above 85.

It all comes down to one final battle, not nearly as evenly matched as Dee might delude himself into thinking, though Dream admits after the fact his master plan was, like, to fight and then, like, win an’ stuff. It begins not unlike so:

JOHN DEE: Oh mighty Endless of lofty esteem / Might I inquire to ask, eh…what’s up, Dream?
DREAM: I’m going to get my ruby!
JOHN DEE: O mighty Endless, ’twill be quite a task / How will you do it, might I inquire to ask?
DREAM: I will do it with my sand and magic helmet.
JOHN DEE: Your sand and magic helmet?
DREAM: Sand and magic helmet.
JOHN DEE: Magic helmet?
DREAM: Magic helmet!
JOHN DEE: Pfft. Magic helmet.
DREAM: Yes, magic helmet, and I’ll give you a sample!

…and then they fight and fight and fight. The battlefield shifts to the Dreaming and anything goes, but it’s human versus Endless. Dream finally gets what the Fates meant when one warned, “Tools can be a trap,” as he wins only because his precious trap-tool explodes.

Lurking behind the scenes is sibling Desire, as played by Mason Alexander Park (Cowboy Bebop), all but muttering “Curses! Foiled again!” Though the master plan was thwarted this time around, Desire will, of course, try, try again in the future.

JH Williams III Sandman!

Art by Sandman: Overture illustrator J.H. Williams III, recently used as the back cover of a Den of Geek promotional magazine funded by Netflix.

Episode 6: “The Sound of Her Wings”. Remember how some TV anthology series used to do multiple stories per episode? There was Night Gallery, the ’80s Twilight Zone, technically Fantasy Island (always interwoven, rarely intersecting), or even Love, American Style. The Sandman uses that toolbox option here, which some viewers seem to have declared a blasphemy outside sketch comedy shows. I’ve read a few pro reviews castigating the producers for making them experience Death’s big debut and Hob Gadling’s tale back-to-back. Perhaps separate title cards for each segment would’ve ameliorated the dearth of formalist imagination in their dismissals.

Death’s observance of Take Your Brother to Work Day earns even more tears from me than the original story did, thanks to the three-dimensional empathy of Kirby Howell-Baptiste (a highlight of both Cruella and Veronica Mars season 4). She magnifies Death’s overall bright disposition as well as her work ethic — uncompromising about The Rules yet gentle with those she serves in that ultimate transitional moment. She and Dream are truly loving siblings regardless of their differences in temperament or their clashing views of whether humanity is a tiresome burden or the entire point of their Endless existence. Bonus points: we learn Death somehow makes time to watch old mortal movies.

The backup tale starring Hob Gadling nails the beats of Dream’s big experiment to see whether a puny human could cope with true immortality or yearn for Death’s embrace. We meet Hob (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben, last seen briefly in Mank) in 1389 in a Skyrim pub where Chaucer and Edmund Spenser are quibbling, while the show’s prop masters raid British antique stores and then dress the sets with them in chronological order. Hob’s appointments with Dream fly by in 100-year increments, from 1589’s interlude with William Sheakespeare (as the Department of Foreboding sets up at least two future Sandman tales) to 1689, when Hob hits rock bottom and Dream thinks he’s won the experiment. Job might have been flailing and shrieking by this point, but when Dream asks a starving and mud-crusted Hob if he concedes, Hob responds with hardly a pause, “Death is a mug’s game! I’ve got so much to live for!” (“What, and give up show business?”)

1789 brings talk of revolutions, but also slavery as a pragmatic career track (400 years weren’t enough time for Hob to get woke, but 500 are?). A logically motivated obligatory fight scene is orchestrated by a prequelized Lady Johanna Constantine, even more selfish than her spiritual descendant. By 1889 Hob’s back in the saddle, seemingly leaving behind the sins and mistakes of his past, but now it’s Dream who’s blindered by unchecked haughtiness. “I don’t need you! I don’t need ANYONE!” Dream more or less whines as he storms out at the utterance of that loaded F-word, “Friend”. 1989 of course brings yuppies after their class has jumped the shark, Fine Young Cannibals at the height of their 15 minutes, and an extra bittersweet wrap-up — the choice to extend Dream’s captivity beyond 1989 up to 2021, while keeping the Hob experiment at fixed points in time, means Dream is over thirty years late to their appointment, through no fault of his own, and has to pause for silent commentary on gentrification. But Hob understands. Friends are cool like that, even mortal ones.

So our unifying themes between the two shorts are: (a) Death affects us all, whether we’re agreeable to dying or not; (b) everyone needs someone they can talk to, and someone they can listen to; and (c) A Midsummer Night’s Dream has endured longer than “Shattered Dreams” ever will. On a non-thematic note, notice the bartender played by veteran character actor Ian McNeice, who’s done Winston Churchill for Doctor Who and was the guy who hired Ace Ventura in When Nature Calls, which was otherwise not his fault.

Episode 7: “The Doll’s House”. The second trade begins! Desire relishes their longest screen time yet, while Despair (Donna Preston, heretofore unknown to me) mopes through her single scene of the season, makes the most of her icky sigil, has been given a comfy sweater so Gaiman doesn’t have to mute and block Twitter body-shaming tantrums, and faintly reminds younger viewers of Sadness from Inside Out. This episode also introduces youngsters to new terms such as “vavasor” and “annulet”. Rarely since the era of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network are The Kids These Days having their vocabulary expanded by movies and TV shows as Gaiman and the writing staff are doing here, with thunderous applause from librarians worldwide.

Suddenly there are other new characters! Some of the old Doll’s House supporting cast get short shrift, but extra attention is afforded to John Cameron Mitchell, star of the cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Peacock’s less classic Joe Exotic biopic miniseries, as possibly the greatest drag queen some Netflix viewers will ever see. Mitchell’s B&B-owner Hal jazzes up the energy level of every single scene he’s in and nearly makes me wish he had been the Dream Vortex whose existence unwittingly threatens to tear apart the very fabric of reality. Alas, he isn’t that sort of show-stopper. His paired tenants — Ken and Barbie, Zelda and Chantal — hint at intriguing subplots but are used sparingly, which is just as well because, I mean, just look at Ken’s man-bun. I can’t.

Gen-X DC superhero fans get to share a Rick-Dalton-pointing-meme moment as we greet Lyta and Hector Hall, once known as the costumed legacy heroes Fury and the Silver Scarab, charter members of Infinity Inc. and children of the Justice Society of America. The couple will likely never make the cross-dimensional leap to meet their old teammates in The CW’s Stargirl, and not just because Hector is dead. As a welcome in-jokey callback to Fury’s original pre-Crisis origin, if you film Lyta (Razane Jammal) from a certain angle and squint just so, you can imagine a bit of Lynda Carter in her lineage.

Though the core of this episode is supposed to be Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai, a.k.a. Kyo Ra), this episode is more about putting the pieces on the game board than about moving them around or taking out opponents. Many faces gather ’round and meaningful details abound. Most of my note-taking obsessed on the latter. To wit:

  • “Collectors” gets a new prelude, as its organizers scramble to replace the Guest of Honor who canceled on them, apropos of the comic-con scene it’ll later lampoon.
  • Speaking of which: The Corinthian gets lucky! I’m sure his superfans’ heads exploded.
  • From the Department of Math, we confirm eight months have passed between episode 1 and Unity Kincaid’s awakening; and the Corinthian was on the lam from the Dreaming for some thirty years prior to episode 1.
  • The Fates pop in again, courtesy of the Department of Foreboding, and nod toward the distant, harrowing future of The Kindly Ones.
  • Mark Hamill IS Mervyn Pumpkinhead! The Brooklyn Joker accent works for the Dreaming’s cantankerous janitor. Is it my imagination or did the animators give him fake tiny stop-motion jitters? Brilliant if true.
  • Stephen Fry thoroughly, wondrously IS the mysterious fifth tenant Gilbert, a.k.a. Fiddler’s Green, based on G.K. Chesterton, whom my wife read up on not so long ago.
  • “What’s a Gault?” I asked myself as Dream names a third runaway subject I didn’t recognize. Later research proved she’s a new addition, not a key player I’d forgotten. Later her addition makes sense and earns a small, value-added arc.

Episode 8: “Playing House”. The most boring episode title belies the series’ most blatant DC superhero usage, and its most old-fashioned one at that. Jed Walker, lost brother of Rose, dreams every night that he’s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Sandman! And he fights DC villains! The name-checking and face-checking includes but isn’t limited to Psycho-Pirate, Johnny Sorrow, Captain Cold, Dr. Death, and especially the Pied Piper. And lucky Gault (Ann Ogbomo, f/k/a recurring Amazon Phillippus from DC’s Snyderverse) guides him as the Sandman’s Lady in the Chair. This is a fantastic realignment from the books, where the ghost of Hector Hall became this specific Sandman and fought dream-crime under the supervision of petty thug nightmares Brute and Glob. Minus that bizarre setup, it means Netflix sadly gets no Brute or Glob, but honestly, Jed wears the suit better.

Rose navigates her newly lengthened family tree and searches for Jed in the waking world (never call it “the real world” in front of that snobby Dream), where he’s at the mercy of evil foster parenting. Their one-dimensional threat feels like a retro TV-movie ordeal, but it’s not as though society has actually discovered the cure for evil foster parenting. The road to “Collectors” continues as show pre-planning proceeds apace, The Corinthian has a meet-cute with Hal and rescues Jed, like he’s begging for us to call him an antihero. As Lucienne puts it, “Even a Nightmare can dream, my Lord.”

As part of his antihero audition process, much of his worst violence is largely offscreen, leaving the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps in the worst way we’ll allow. One indelible image rendered not-exactly-Hitchcockian: as he reads Jed’s case file, blood drips all over the papers from the morsels that his eyes are snacking on.

Meanwhile, Lyta gets dream-pregnant, which is way more magical than getting phantom-pregnant. When asked for comment, the Department of Foreboding raised their flag to threat level purple and slammed their door in our faces. Her arc is not a quickie Lifetime Movie fantasy riff; it’s an underplayed key plot point whose enormous repercussions will be deferred all the way to the series’ grand finale.

Episode 9: “Collectors”. Scores of comic-con satires and spoofs have come and gone in the 32 years since Sandman #14, but their habits and cliches persist. The geek convention industry has expanded exponentially nationwide since then, so this should resonate just as sharply for a much larger audience. At a fictional Atlanta hotel that resembles none of Dragon Con’s hosts (okay, maybe a faint echo of the Sheraton), over a hundred serial killers — most of them white guys — flock for a secret symposium among their own kind. Panels cover subjects relevant to various subsets — how to profit off murdering; the role of religion in murder-theme selection; and, naturally, a panel called “Women’s Work”, which should be subtitled “What Is It Like Being a Woman in Serial Killing”.

Some faces seem new; some are carried over from the issue. Besides the Corinthian himself, the most memorable holdover is far and away Fun Land, the murderous, cartoon-loving pedophile man-child stationed at the front tables, who’s like the “Year One” version of Gordon Jump’s bike-store owner from that infamous Diff’rent Strokes episode. If he had his way, Jed would be his Dudley. Fortunately he doesn’t, thanks to the Corinthian, edging ever nearer that precious “antihero” label.

Other killers named hither and yon include the showrunners Nimrod and the Good Doctor, as well as Grass Widow, Carrion, Serpent Hand, the Creature, Dutch Uncle, the Babysitter, Choirboy, Hello Little Girl, the Crooner, Myth America, the Waterboy, the Connoisseur, Adonai, the Hammer of God, the Shredder, the Boogieman, and more more more. Because the easiest first step to creating your own identity and worldview is to rename yourself something “cooler”. When use of your new name outnumbers usages of your original, it’s empowering, even when others might wish it weren’t. It certainly doesn’t work for the super fanboy who’s borrowed someone else’s name to infiltrate the “in” crowd, to his eternal regret.

For those who need relief from this gathering of Hell’s future lake-of-fire fodder, we can watch Rose going walkabout in the dreams of others, tripping into the Dreaming’s castle and demonstrating that she, like Dream, also has the power to decide when a dream is done. Later in the waking world, she goes road-tripping with Gilbert, like a couple after the Goldens’ own hearts. As Gilbert explains his decision to tag along with Rose on her errand to retrieve Jed, an errand in which he has no personal stakes except to get out more: “The object of travel is not to set foot in a foreign land, but at last to set foot in your own country as a foreign land.” Listening for the subtext, we can understand why the goodly Fiddler’s Green abandoned the Dreaming during Dream’s century away — far from any nefarious intent, Mr. Green simply wanted to get out more.

Episode 10: “Lost Hearts”. “Dreams do come true!” Nimrod yells as he introduces the rock star among slayers, the butcher’s butcher, their Guest of Honor. The Corinthian delivers the keynote address with all the gusto of that one time on The Office when Dwight Schrute was tricked into reading old Mussolini speeches to an undiscerning crowd. But here The Corinthian is at his most sincere when he refers to his followers as soldiers, gladiators, truth-seekers, swashbucklers, and his “masterpiece”. Their egos are fed and stuffed by his validation of how their misdeeds are “infecting others with your joy of death.” He’s so very proud.

I feel creepy and dirty upon realizing I scribbled more notes concerning his scenes than I did about Rose’s calamitous escalation of the whole Dream Vortex threat thing. But theirs was showier and more quotable, and didn’t remind me of A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a side effect of “Collectors” being reworked from a standalone tale to the setting for much of the Doll’s House climax rather than Hal’s place, thus further sidelining those good folks. But just as the bout between Dream and Lucifer was mostly them standing on a stage while an audience of The Worst watched with gaping jaws (setting aside the accompanying otherworldly visuals), so does Dream settle matters with what was once his favorite nightmare. The charismatic, nasty, selfish Big Bad stalls as much as he can, but he’s just a nightmare. “I created you poorly,” confesses his maker as he ends the match, dust-to-dust.

Since he’s in town anyway, Dream then turns upon the con-goers and delivers unto them a most stately rendition of Shatner’s classic SNL “Get a life!” screed. But rather than trying to snap them out of their tunnel-visioned existence through the power of exasperated lecture, Dream pulls rank and revokes all their daydreams, those delusions of grandeur in which they imagine themselves simultaneously the heroes and the victims of their own stories. He bestows upon them the acute self-awareness they’ve lacked all through their kill-sprees, forced to accept their “flawed and petty” natures and understand Who They Really Are — all of them “craven and monstrous and selfish”. Thus the convention ends early with freebies: handouts of conscience and remorse. None emerge unscathed; some don’t let themselves leave the parking lot alive.

(One wonders if it occurs to Dream that this very speech is what he should’ve said to John Dee in the first place.)

Elsewhere in the Dreaming, winds are howling and Kid Zelda keeps repeating the same sentence with which she’s in love: “It was a dark and stormy night and the skipper said to the mate, ‘Mate, tell me a story,’ and this is the story he told.” I’m sure it’s an allusion to more than Snoopy, so I’ve copied it down just in case.

That solves nothing, though, till Unity pops in to help Rose eliminate the whole pesky Dream Vortex disaster dilemma through magical role transference, bolstered by the powers of dreaming and family and love and so forth. “You’re dreaming, darling. Anything is possible,” Unity assures Rose, blessing the deus ex machina. The compromise and sacrifice are heartbreaking in the moment, but aren’t replaying so well in my memories after the fact. Again, I blame A Wrinkle in Time.

And then they all lived happily ever after. The season is technically closed out with an old-fashioned wacky dance party, starring dueling Hals. Gilbert does him one better by returning to the Dreaming and reminding all immortals and otherworldly beings out there in his most earnest G.K. Chesterton tones: “The miracle of humanity itself should be more vivid to us than any marvels of power.” It could be construed as an intentional slam against any particular competition, but it’s an actual Chesterton quote — albeit truncated, just like Linus’ sermon in A Charlie Brown Christmas was a pointedly truncated take on Luke 2. Then he returns to his natural state as the setting Fiddler’s Green, a living location who’s more than ready for a future crossover with Doom Patrol‘s Danny the Street.

A round of epilogues are served on the house. Desire writhes and schemes anew in the lair made of Leviathan-sized 1960s red plastic furniture seamlessly hot-glued together. The sixth of the seven Endless, Delirium, is named in passing to add to our tally. Dream returns to his Dreaming to-do list and sets about creating new nightmares…and one new dream: Gault, previously uncreated for fleeing the Dreaming and rebelling against her nightmare nature. Now she’ll be a real live dream, complete with pretty wings. Sometimes it’s awesome to escape what other people insist you must be and become who you want to be…though the fact that Dream is in charge of that reassignment skews the analogy in an odd direction.

Shortly before the end credits, we return one last time to Hell, where Lucifer is mad as same, and not gonna take it anymore. One last comics character intrudes upon her rage — the demon Azazel (voice of Roger Allam), practically photostatted from the printed page as a floating crack in reality filled with sinister eyes and mouths. He has ideas, but Lucifer has an even better one that shall flummox Dream and God Himself…an idea we’ll only see brought to life if Netflix renews the show and lets us have Season of Mists. If I can just have that, and maybe some Goldie the Gargoyle merch, I’ll be all set.

As of the season finale, we confirm there’s still no scene after any of the Sandman’s season-1 end credits — just more Dave McKean designs and ten episodes’ worth of Special Thanks to the various comics writers and artists who created or significantly contributed to all the aforementioned proceedings. Besides Gaiman and his co-creators Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, the roster includes early-’90s Vertigo Comics all-stars alongside some whose careers were largely confined to DC’s ’70s and early-’80s horror anthologies such as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Secrets of Haunted House, and The Witching Hour. Many are living; many more didn’t live to see their names writ large on Netflix.

The complete list, if I did my part right: Ross Andru, Chris Bachalo, Steve Bissette, Chris Brunner**, Mike Carey, Jamie Delano, Bill Draut, Garth Ennis, Michael Fleisher, Gardner Fox, Mark Hanerfeld**, Bob Haney, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Kelley Jones, Malcolm Jones III, Jack Kirby, Paul Levitz, Jack Oleck, Jerry Ordway, Joe Orlando, Steve Parkhouse, Richard Piers Rayner, Nestor Redondo, John Ridgway, Mike Sekowsky, Joe Simon, Jack Sparling, Roy and Dann Thomas, Alex Toth, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Charles Vess, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Berni Wrightson, and Michael Zulli.

(Asterisks denote the only two names with whom I was 100% unfamiliar. Brunner was a one-time Hellblazer guest artist; Donerfeld was a writer/editor before my time.)

Fingers crossed Netflix lets Gaiman and his allies add to that roster with subsequent seasons. We can dream.

Season of Mists Hardcover!

My 1992 Sandman: Season of Mists hardcover. This was much easier to reach than the longbox with the 75 issues in it.

[POSTSCRIPT UPDATE 8/23/2022: Yes, I’ve seen the bonus 12th episode that was released after this entry on August 19th, which adapted “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “Calliope” (thankfully minus the rape scene). I was considering writing a separate entry as a companion to this one, but considering the silence that greeted my first 7,000 words on the subject, for now I’ll pass unless someone asks.]

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