Netflix’s opening moments the sandman are heartbreaking. We see a beautiful raven flying from the waking world of man to the realm of the titular Sandman (Tom Sturridge). Corners bend impossible, light from unknown sources blinds the terrain, creatures of nightmares and fevers mingle, an eternal library folds on itself. Yet this is also our world, which we enter when we close our eyes. In his voice-over, de Zandman mocks people’s assumption that dreams remain innocent: are we not influenced by our dreams, by what we long for and what we fear?
the sandman is a dark fantasy horror comic franchise primarily written by Neil Gaiman, who also served as an executive producer and writer on the Netflix adaptation. It tells the story of a powerful being who controls all dreams and nightmares and its interactions with the human world. We witness his journeys through history, influencing great events, as well as his journeys to realms like hell (a realm that only exists because of human fears). In this first season, Netflix has adapted the first two of Gaiman The sandman books: Preludes & Nocturnes and The dollhouse.
But “adaptation” is almost an insult to what the creators have achieved. The series is arguably the best film adaptation of major concept fantasy literature since Peter Jackson’s Under the spell of the Ring trilogy. Beat for beat, iconic frames, lines of dialogue, makeup and wardrobe of the artists – everything followed the books, except for a few changes.
I don’t want to spoil the episodes and so will be a little vague on certain plot points and episodes.
In 1916, England, a power-hungry playboy, cult leader and selfish buffoon called the Magus (Charles Dance), longs to control death. He casts a spell to capture the embodiment of Death, the Sandman’s sister. However, instead of capturing Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the Magus and his cult capture Dream, also known as the Sandman, along with some of Dream’s powerful tools. With Death’s imprisonment, millions are suddenly struck by a strange sleeping sickness: either unable to sleep or, in fact, in a coma.
Locked and naked in a stunningly designed glass cocoon, Dream refuses to reveal anything to the mortals around him. For more than a century, Dream has never said a word and refused to give details to his captors – whose lives are extended due to their proximity to his powerful tools. (There is an escape attempt by Dream’s closest ally, but my heart is too aching to describe what happens.)
On his final escape, during the present day, Dream returns to his realm to find it desolate, desolate and broken. To restore the world of Dreams, he must regain the tools that his human captors took from him. Thus begins the first arc and its adventures involving everyone from a worker exorcist to a male child wielding the powers of the gods. In often brutal and gory scenes, battles between demonic and divine forces leave a lot of blood behind. Dream often picks up the pieces and tries to restore the order that he has caused – by his absence.
The second major arc describes Dream’s attempt to find an entity called a vortex – a human named Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai), who draws all dreams to himself, collapsing the waking and dream world, thus ending the universe. Here you can expect childhood trauma, a serial killer convention (yes), and a healthy and diverse group of roommates, including lesbian spider collectors, a Ken and Barbie couple, and a drag queen.
Rose is on a mission to find her missing brother, who is currently being held by a cartoonish evil foster father. At the same time, she discovers her powers as the vortex.
Dream, meanwhile, must face the fact that restoring what is broken doesn’t just mean restoring the world as it was before. Sometimes it means changing and adjusting so that breakage no longer occurs. Even his own world calls for change, as his subjects found reason to give up their central purpose rather than wait for their master to return. His anger at their abandonment ultimately arouses sympathy, as it was his shortsightedness as a leader that made them leave.
Dream’s somewhat divine perspective on humanity allows us to reflect on human idiosyncrasies and sensitivities: why are we afraid of death; why do we cling to obviously superficial dreams; why do we give up so much for love and friendship; why do we want immortality when so much of life is pain? While these questions are never properly answered, Dream’s growing curiosity about what drives people makes for captivating texts and conversations.
This is all mixed up with things like managing Rose Walker turning into a vortex, a battle of wits with Lucifer, coping with nightmares and preventing the inevitable demise of the universe.
One of the reasons I loved the book franchise was that it is primarily a psychological horror story, but it is one painted on a canvas of the cosmic with a fragile brush made of hope. Intimate stories take up as much, if not more, space than stories about beings more powerful than gods. For example, Rose Walker tries to find her missing brother, confronts serial killers and talking ravens, but is also on the verge of destroying the universe.
This is nowhere better portrayed than in episode six, “The Sound of Her Wings”, our first encounter with Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death, the second oldest of these ancient incarnations. It will be Death, as she says, stacking the chairs and turning out the lights when the last living thing takes its last breath in this universe. In this episode, the Sandman is moping and thinking about his goal. Death demands his company as she “does her job”: here we witness the existence of people in its last moments, with the full weight of their lives collapsing in the realization of its sudden end. Like its comedic counterpart, Howell-Baptiste’s Death is a gentle, welcoming face, the kind you’d want to carry into the next life. It’s a dark, beautiful episode, as Death ponders her purpose and how it took her so long to figure out how not to be the ultimate terror. Just as life begins, it ends. But that doesn’t mean it no longer has meaning or impact. It doesn’t mean life is over. She just wants to turn that point into an ellipse.
It’s an episode focused on the blank canvas of ultimate non-existence, but the episode punctuates it with bright stars of individual lives, illuminating a path through the darkness with vignettes of very human stories. This is what Sandman is all about as a franchise, and the TV series captures it.
Of course, the series makes several welcome changes to the comics that longtime readers might find interesting.
- John Dee (David Thewlis) is more childlike and less menacing and violent than his comic book counterpart. Older readers can rejoice, however, that the famous bottle release at the restaurant (“24 Hours”) is recreated almost perfectly in episode five (“24/7”), with its gore and horror and craziness.
- Unlike the books, Hell is only ruled by Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) at this stage.
- Instead of John Constantine – my favorite DC character – Dream enlists the services of Johanna Constantine (that’s Gaiman’s own creation). Though not a smoker, she is a snappy, misanthropic bisexual like John, who sees exorcisms as annoyances rather than earth-shattering events.
Speaking of casting, I won’t dwell on gender-reversed characters, as the book character’s genders were largely irrelevant to their stories. But in terms of casting, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of black women who were cast, not just as backing characters but recurring on-screen roles: Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai), her mother (Andi Osho), and her grandmother (Sandra James- Young) are central to the story; The librarian of Dream and the caretaker of the dream world Lucienne is played by Vivienne Acheampong; Death, as I noted, is played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste; Ann Ogbomo plays a nightmare that makes Death change his mind about the target.
Not to mention the casting of non-binary artist Mason Alexander Park as Dream’s non-binary sibling Desire. Moreover, sexuality was constantly portrayed as a spectrum, never assuming heterosexuality and never commenting on queer relationships or moments.
In the end, the sandman was not only better than I had hoped, but also better than me… well, dreamed. There is much sadness, horror and melancholy, but I have never felt drowned in these emotions. Backed by trust, benevolence and acceptance, it is a series that simultaneously depicts the horrors of humanity and our place in an unknowable and terrifying existence, but it also shows us how our humanity unites us to face the failures of the world and our fear of everything else. It is watching the flame of hope in a black-painted glass jar.
the sandman streaming on Netflix now.