The Sandman is a deeply meditative and reflective piece of art. If the scope of a story depends upon the extent to which it delves into various themes and emotions, then the canvas upon which The Sandman delightfully paints is one of the grandest to be put on screen.
Almost every episode follows a theme: sacrifice, humanity, lies, death, immortality, being consumed by wishes, and being trapped in the past. The show is laced with philosophical discourse, to an almost obsessive extent, and that could be overbearing for some.
The immensity of the world of dreams and its influence on people and their lives are laid bare from the very first scene, through the eyes of the lord of dreams, Morpheus himself. Tom Sturridge, who plays Morpheus/Dream in the show, is brilliant in the way he uses his voice and micro-reactions. His dreamy (pun intended) performance teeters right on the edge between subtlety and indifference, so much so that if he had done it even slightly wrong, it could have looked bland.
How do you make a relatable protagonist out of someone eternal, all-knowing, and lords over the destinies of all things that sleep and dream? You don’t. Morpheus is introduced to us as someone who holds in high regard his responsibilities and yet fails to understand the emotions of the subjects who populate his realm. And that is where his arc begins, we see him question human emotions, their base desires, and fears throughout the series.
Towards the middle, we even see him break down under an existential crisis. This leads to an interesting episode where his sister, Death(Kirby Howell-Baptiste), visits him and helps him clear his mind through a therapeutic conversation laced with sisterly love and care. We often see Death represented as a terrifying hooded figure holding a scythe, and this decision to show Death as a warm and caring sister is a refreshing one.
We are introduced to two antagonistic figures in the beginning. One is Corinthian, a rogue nightmare and another is John Dee, the son of the man who kept Morpheus in captivity for over a century. While the Corinthian haunts the series like a recurring nightmare, punctuating his presence in the story through acts of shocking violence, it is John Dee’s ideological clash with the lord of dreams that becomes, well... the stuff of dreams.
John Dee (David Thewlis), is the exact opposite of everything that defines who Morpheus is. Every act of violence he metes out is borne directly out of his cold, hard, adherence to his black-and-white approach to morality. There is a brilliant bottle episode in which we see John unleash absolute carnage by sitting at the corner of a diner and using his powers to make people talk unfiltered.
Dream/Morpheus is said to have siblings, Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. We are introduced to Death, Despair, and Desire through brief moments that are laden with so much subtext. Dream relates to Death the most, and Desire and their twin Despair constantly scheme to destroy Dream.
Despite the expansive, mythical quality that pervades the show, it fails to weave a coherent narrative, but that hardly stops you from enjoying the show. Quirky characters like Merv the Pumpkinhead (Mark Hamill), Cain & Abel, and even (the mostly enjoyable) Matthew the Raven (Patton Oswalt) do not seem to affect the overarching story to a satisfactory extent. They merely exist to give us a peek into the possibilities for further seasons.
The show loses its steam halfway, both visually and storywise. The sequence set in hell is a perfect example of what went missing from the second half of the show. The jaw-dropping visuals of hell (ripped straight out of the graphic novel) and the battle of wits between Lucifer and Morpheus were truly sublime and the show could have used more of that.
Some episodes are like a dream, and much like a dream, the experience is immersive and deeply engaging while you’re in it, but the moment you step away, you’re left wondering what it was all about. But the episodes and the moments that do work end up making all of this worth it. Take, for instance, the episode in which Morpheus meets a young, hapless writer in an old English tavern in the 16th century. Morpheus overhears the man pining to his friend about his wish to “make men dream” through his writing.
A captivated Morpheus is then shown taking the man away for a chat. We are not shown what happens during the conversation until years later when it is revealed that the young writer was William Shakespeare. The show is peppered with interesting moments like these that might not necessarily work in the overall narrative, but that’s okay. Not all stories need a tightly packed narrative.
With the aforementioned sequence with the bard, we are shown how the lord of dreams is also the lord of wishes and stories. In many of these moments in the series, there are layers and layers of subtexts. It is up to us to decide how deep we want to go. There are pacing issues, quirky characters that don’t really amount to much, and jarring tonal shifts... but if the world of dreams and the exhaustive yet rewarding experience of ruminating on the layers of subtext and philosophy sounds engaging, then you need only summon The Sandman... for Season 2.
Series: The Sandman Season 1
Streaming on: Netflix
Creators: Neil Gaiman, David S Goyer, and Allan Heinberg
Cast: Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, David Thewlis, Kirby Howell-Baptiste