You know, I never thought we’d be here. I’ve talked about it, on and off, over the years, but let me give you the full history lesson between “The Sandman” and myself before we begin. I first read it at fourteen, firmly in my high school years of awkward adolescence, evolving neurodiversity and burgeoning queerness that I wouldn’t truly understand for many years to come, and it changed things for me forever. “The Sandman” was the first story I ever read that took the raw material of stories and storytelling and wrapped all of its mythologising and worldbuilding and characters and themes around that primal, ineffable substance. As I write this, today, fifteen years later, the Endless adorn my arm in ink. I carry them with my everywhere, literally on my sleeve.
So now that I’m actually sitting down to talk about Netflix’s The Sandman, suffice it to say that I’m more than a little taken aback that this is actually happening. This show is real, they finally managed to film “The Sandman” in live action, which they’ve been trying to accomplish since before I ever even heard of it! Now, the question of the hour is: does it work? Did they manage the herculean task of wrangling this incredible, meandering, wondrous and fantastical story into a straightforward television narrative? Let’s find out.
As always, spoilers for the entirety of the first episode of The Sandman below this.
1. We Begin In The Waking World
This episode’s opening is one of those things that makes me wish I still had a soul. I wish I could tell you I was overcome with chills as Tom Sturridge’s brooding, gravelly voice dripped through my headphones, telling me all about the Dreaming and the Waking World as a raven’s flight seamlessly takes us from a sleepy carriage ride to soaring over the gates and walls and bridges and, finally, the castle of Dream’s domain, but alas. I’m not the bright eyed idealist I might once have been and, honestly, this intro didn’t do much for me. This is the beginning of a throughline that will haunt this episode: severe storytelling hand-holding. While the visual effects and the production design and hair and makeup and costuming are all stellar examples of how to turn Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg’s macabre, gothic and dreamlike artwork into a better than average, but still ultimately quite flat and generic looking Netflix show, it’s in the writing and, specifically, how this episode introduces us to the world of “The Sandman” that I find the most fault.
See, one of the things that makes the first issue of “The Sandman” so arresting is that it takes us into the world through the eyes of increasingly unhinged men as they stumble into a world beyond their wildest imaginings. We see Dr. Hathaway arrive at the manor of the Magus, Roderick Burgess, only to then follow Burgess deeper into the darker dwellings underneath as he attempts to wrestle with the cosmological forces of the world and render Death into his service. The turning point is, then, when Death’s little brother, Dream, is summoned and imprisoned in her stead. It’s a masterclass of a story hook that bids the reader venture further and further into this dark, demented world and the minds that inhabit it.
Here, though, this first episode doesn’t really allow Hathaway or Burgess or even Burgess’ son, Alex, to guide the audience into this world because it frontloads the whole deal with a glimpse and an explanation of The Dreaming and Dream’s powers and domain from Dream himself. We see him converse with Lucienne, we see him leave The Dreaming and we see him go off in search of the wayward Corinthian. Instead of allowing these elements to flow into the story naturally, over time, as the comics did, the first two minutes of the show manage to strip the rest of what mystery and tension is inherent to this story of wilful, blind men grasping at powers far beyond their control because they cannot face their own fears of the natural world. This opening smacks of someone, somewhere behind the scenes not believing in the material or the audience enough to let the story speak for itself and it throws the rest of the episode askew.Continued below
2. Here In The Darkness
As much as I resent the show’s need to include a frontloaded introduction to Dream and his charge to find the rogue Corinthian, once things got going, I found myself falling into the rhythm of the show a bit more. I particularly liked the fact that the show doesn’t immediately dispense with Hathaway in the same way that the comic does. Instead, it allows the audience to move down into that nightmarish space of cultist rituals and summonings through the eyes of a man falling down the rabbit hole of grief. The dad from Fleabag is fantastic here as we see this flight of fancy, that they might actually capture and imprison Death and, in turn, demand the return of their sons lost to war, slowly escalate and becoming, increasingly, far too real. By the time the cultists were all chanting and Charles Dance, who is having the time of his life, is speaking the words of the ritual verbatim to how it was written in the issue, I was actually finding myself reliving the thrill of the comic’s opening all over again.
Until the show pumps the brakes and cuts away from the cool ritual to show us that the moment in which Dream is captured, he had just managed to track down the Corinthian. I’m going to dig deeper into the Corinthian’s appearance in this episode and how he’s been placed, seemingly, as this first season’s primary antagonist more in the next thought, but for right now, this was a jarring and unnecessary cut that follows on directly from how unnecessary the episode’s introduction to the Dreaming is. This isn’t just a case of me being unhappy that they changed plot beats from how it was in the comic, but it utterly rips so much of the tension from the episode. We do not see Dream in the comic until he falls to the floor in front of Roderick Burgess. For a moment, we don’t know if he even succeeded or not. Is this Death? If not, who? It’s this mystical intrigue that drives the narrative of the comic further and further as we see the effects of Dream’s absence from the Dreaming as they play out across the world and, slowly, start to piece things together before his eventual escape. Here, the episode shoots its incredible rendition of Dream’s capture in the foot by not letting the tension of that mystery and intrigue play out for the audience.
We, as the audience, knowing who that figure is and where he was prior to being summoned and imprisoned puts out of sync with the men in that room who summoned him in the first place. We then spend the rest of the episode either waiting for them to catch up with us or for them to figure out what to do next. And it’s a real shame.
3. A Nightmare Cometh
Oh boy. Listen. I like the Corinthian. He’s a great character in the comics and is effectively and sparingly used. And Boyd Holbrook is doing a great job of embodying a living nightmare so far! He certainly looks like the part and the juxtaposition of his jaunty little hat with the menace dripping in every word makes for a great early impression of what will sure to be a hell of a villainous run as the series develops. The thing is: he did not need to be in this episode. For one, we did not need to see Dream prior to his capture so we definitely didn’t need to see him immediately find and start to unmake the Corinthian before he is whisked away. And, later, we certainly did not need for him to show up in Roderick’s gaff to explain who Dream is, what the Endless are and what Roderick must do to keep Dream imprisoned. Do you know why he doesn’t need to show up to explain that? Because Roderick already knew all of that in the comic anyway!
The guy’s holding candlelit vigils and rituals in his basement and managed to successfully trap and then identify one of the Endless all by himself anyway so why neuter him like this just to give Holbrook another scene? Having the Corinthian appear to over-explain all of the decisions that Roderick himself made in the comic out of fear of retribution and a need to remain in a position of power only serves to strip him of his agency to react to his own actions. Dance’s Roderick is a man who managed to stumble into imprisoning one of this world’s mightiest beings and, I guess, if some lad in a wee hat hadn’t showed up to tell him he’s captured Dream of the Endless and to put him in a big glass bubble then he’d have just been clueless as to what to do next?Continued below
Again, this isn’t me simply saying “They changed this thing so now it’s bad,” but trying to get across why I feel like injecting the Corinthian into the narrative in this way robs Burgess of his standing as a character. By being so clueless as to what he’s captured and having someone show up to briefly exposit about who the Endless are and how to keep one imprisoned, it only serves to undercut the tension for the rest of the episode.
4. A Century Is A Long Time
Which brings to the middle of the episode where, despite doing everything they can to undercut Roderick and Alex Burgess’s potential as interesting viewpoints through which we could introduce the audience to this world, we spend the next twenty minutes or so drudging through their discount Downton Abbey schtick. This part of the comic’s narrative takes up a grand total of ten pages in which we cover the better part of the 20th century as we see the conspiracies and in fighting surrounding Burgess as well as the dreadful sleepy sickness that has descended over the world. It’s a dramatic painting of the aftereffects of Dream’s capture as it throws the entire balance of the world out of order. It’s hard not to see that as time goes on, Dream’s disconnect from his realm and his charge fundamentally alters the world for the worst and the thing standing in the way of putting things right is simply Burgess’s staunch refusal to admit fault or relent on his position of power. It’s something that drives away his right hand, Mr. Sykes, with Dream’s vestments and Burgess’s mistress in tow. It’s a slow decline into desperation and defeat which eventually ends with his mortal frailty giving up long before his resolve would.
Looking to the show, however, we spend most of the middle of this episode just kind of fannying about. Alex, Burgess’s other son, becomes far more of a primary player in the adaptation, but his conflict with his father coming to the fore is rather drowned out by the fact that, as I’ve said, storytelling decisions made in earlier in the episode neutered the audience’s connection to the Burgesses. The two things I want to touch on here are Ethel and Roderick’s demise. Ethel, who is little more than a passing mention in the comic, is introduced in a bit of bigger role, but given even less to do. Instead of eloping with Sykes with Dream’s vestments in tow and eventually walking out on Sykes with Dream’s gear, Ethel is instead revealed to be pregnant with Roderick’s child and, after Roderick demands she abort the fetus, absconds with the vestments of her own accord. It’s not a dreadful change and it introduces her child, which could be interesting going further, but the abortion stuff just rang hollow to me. Ethel’s barely involved in her scenes prior to that reveal so it just comes out of nowhere and the show is nowhere near equipped to handle the gravity of what it’s introducing in passing.
Next comes Roderick’s death which, as I mentioned, was a heart attack in the comic. After decades of keeping Dream imprisoned, Roderick is succumbing to old age and, in a fit of rage at the unfairness of watching Dream sit in stasis for decades while he only got older, the last of his life just gives up the ghost before Dream’s cell. We see it from Dream’s perspective, trapped within his bubble, and how he notes that watching his captor grow old and die brings him no satisfaction. Here, following Ethel’s escape with Dream’s vestments, we see the show give Charles Dance some vaguely thinning hair as he tries to tempt Dream to go after Ethel and get his stuff back, but only if he gives Roderick what he’s asked for. Cue Alex trying to calm him down which escalates into Alex confessing his hate for his father before he… bonks his head on the glass and dies. I don’t know, man, I don’t really know what they were going for here. They certainly try to make Alex far more sympathetic to the audience, being strung along by a father who barely regards him as a son, but this Roderick’s death is nowhere near as pathetic as it was in the comics nor does it offer the catharsis for Alex that the new scene demands. He just talks back for the first time in his life and it kills his dad stone dead on the spot. Again, as Dream notes, there is not satisfaction to be found.Continued below
Speaking of Alex, and I might as well address this here, this episode does do a far better job of integrating Paul, Alex’s lover, and making their romance more explicit. That’s nice! I really liked their brief moments of contact in the wake of Roderick’s death, but it’s rather spoiled by the decision to cut straight to the present day. The episode spent so long fannying about in Roderick and Alex’s dysfunctional Downton Abbey schtick and yet seems to have no curiosity for anything that happened afterwards. We’re just, all of a sudden, in the present day and the imprisonment of Dream has become an industry. We’ve got uniformed guards and the space has been done up like a brutalist office space and I just… don’t care?
Seeing Alex and Paul in their elderly years all of a sudden simply rings hollow because of every misstep in the lead up to this moment, this final crucial moment of the episode where Dream escapes. And, I’ll admit, I really liked the touch that Paul, seemingly, knowingly breaks the circle surrounding Dream and I especially loved the show’s rendition of Dream slipping into the dreams of one of the security guards. It’s, to use a phrase I detest, ripped straight from the pages of the comic book. Until, of course, it ends with the guard pulling a Glock and shooting the glass bubble until it shatters which, to be courteous, is the absolute nadir of the episode. I don’t know what it is, but something about that change, of going from Dream manipulating the dreams of the guards to make them unlock the bubble to some guy pulling a piece and shooting it, that screams to me of some American Netflix executive peering over Gaiman’s shoulder and urging him to make the whole thing more palatable for the American layaudience. It’s just so… not Sandman.
But, finally, we come to the actual star of the show… Tom Sturridge’s five minutes of actual acting tacked on to the end of the first episode. Certainly Dream’s revenge against Alex is played out well enough and I love the brooding, horrific figure he casts of Dream, but there’s a wry humour that’s missing for me. Dream is so emotionally detached in all of his dealings that his aloof purposefulness works its way around to being genuinely funny. Here, they try to toe the horror line a bit more and bring some of that righteous vengeance out of him, but with how weak the story surrounding his imprisonment was, that moment of catharsis still falls flat despite Sturridge and the production design’s best efforts.
I don’t know, gang, this was not the best foot forward for this show. It really felt to me like this episode was seen as one the crew had to get past in order to get into the meat of the story, but it does a real disservice both as an introduction to the world for the viewer and to the characters in the story. If the show doesn’t care enough about Roderick or Alex to give them the depth that adapting a 22 page comic from the early 90s into an hour long prestige drama rather demands, then why should I care enough to plumb what depths there are? I desperately hope this show can turn things around and find in “The Sandman” exactly what has made it such an enduring drama, but this was a case of pouring its iconography and loose mythology into the prestige television drama mould without the prestige or the drama.