Hello, and welcome, once again, to our coverage of Netflix’s Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. After what can only be charitably described as a rocky start, The Sandman finally seemed to find its footing last week in the epilogue cum bridge episode, ‘The Sound Of Her Wings,’ that both introduced us to Dream’s big sister, Death, and followed Dream on a journey of remembering and discovering his personality and purpose. It was a big step forward for the show now that the baggage of trying to adapt the ‘Preludes & Nocturnes’ arc of the comic is out of the way and, this week, we’re following that trend forward as the show enters its latter half and begins adapting the comic’s second arc, ‘The Doll’s House.’
Can the show continue that goodwill and forward momentum gained by last week’s episode or will this be a return to less favourable form? There’s only one way to find out. Join me as we dive headfirst into The Sandman‘s “The Doll’s House.” As always, spoilers are abound below.
1. Games & Schemes, Vortices & Reunions
We’ve seen Rose Walker before, briefly, during the episode ’24/7′ where she was friend of the annoying lesbian, Judy, but here we get to see a bit of her backstory before this arc centres around her, both literally and figuratively. This is a moment largely skipped over in the comic, but I did appreciate the show opening with a zeroing in on the experience of growing up and living in a broken home. Especially heart-wrenching is the emotion of having to abandon your family when that family breaks in an irreparable way. Rose’s quest to be reunited with her brother, Jed, defines her role for much of this arc in the comic, but we never got to see much of what their life together was like before the family separation. What I liked here is the show’s ability to live in, albeit briefly, the last moments Rose has with Jed. It’s these emotions that carry us into Rose’s overall arc going forward and it was a fantastic opportunity for the show to embrace the ability to show off the moments the comic couldn’t; allowing the actors to live emotions that we’re only told about in narration in the comic.
From there, the show pivots into the scene that opens the comic as Desire calls Despair to her realm to her tell her of the discovered vortex, being Rose Walker. It’s a nice double whammy opening as the scene where Rose and Jed are separated hits the real emotional, characterful drama of the narrative while the pivot to Desire’s realm allows the show to explore the heady, fantastical narrative stakes layered over the top of it. This tact reminds the audience that Rose is a person before she is a dream vortex and keeps her emotional stakes front and centre while the story gets caught up in her wake what with her being a dream vortex and all. It’s a pretty solid rendition of the scene between Despair and Desire in the comics and I find myself rather impressed by Mason Alexander Park’s Desire. I’ve heard a lot of praise regarding their performance – because, by the virtue of me doing these write ups weekly, everyone else in the world has already long finished this show – and I can’t say it falls short. I mean, this is the longest we’ve spent with Desire so far and it barely tops out at a couple of minutes, but they definitely live in that role in a way that a lot of the actors we’ve seen so far haven’t been able to. I will say, though, I’m not much fussed by the decision to make Despair just a normal looking girl with some greasy hair and a shabby cardigan.
I’m not someone who can really speak on discussions of fatphobia so I’m going to leave Despair’s weight and body shape aside, but I always found her naked, ash grey and wrinkled form to be particularly evocative amongst the Endless. She forgoes any measure of looking like she could fit in amongst the mortals unlike, say, Destruction who looks like any tall guy you’d find at a Ren Faire or Desire who could fit write in at any kink club across the world. Despair is permanently removed from the expectations of society by her very design which is evoked again when we eventually see that her domain is one the other side of every mirror. She is the haunting, haunted eyes watching our lives from the other side of the glass. I’m sure Donna Preston will probably be able to do something interesting with this character if she’s ever given the space or the material too, but given that this show is already a pretty hard R for violence, I can’t see the decision to clothe Despair as anything other than cowardice.Continued below
2. Back In The Dreaming
It’s pretty incredible to me how this show has been able to turn around on pretty much everything I had to complain about in its initial episodes. I was, seriously, very close to quitting these write ups and letting a less jaded son of a bitch take over after the second episode because the lifeless drudgery of its portrayal of The Dreaming and its inhabitants was just too much for me to take. Taking an episode that is named after Dream’s meeting with Cain and Abel and turning them into the most boring double act in the world to play second fiddle to a Dream who felt like he didn’t even want to be in the show immediately killed off any lasting anticipation I had for the rest of the show. However, this episode has really managed to save a lot of what I love about the comics and has allowed some of these actors to finally have a space to play around in. We see more of Abel, if briefly, but more importantly we finally see more of Lucienne and Dream interacting without the lingering mopeyness of Dream’s quest to find his vestments hanging over the scene. Sturridge still has that spark, that verve that he seemed to find last episode and it’s done the show a world of good to have a main character who feels like they actually want to be here.
For once, The Sandman doesn’t lose all of its narrative momentum whenever it turns its attention back to The Dreaming and, in fact, uses it to elevate and contextualise what’s happening in the waking world. There’s a fun, playful sense of visual storytelling like when the stained glass windows rearranged themselves to display the estranged nightmares and we actually get to see the strange denizens of The Dreaming actually interact with one another. Merv Pumpkinhead was always my favourite character in The Sandman and, if nothing else, I’m glad to see his inclusion here does him justice. The uncanny, almost stop motion-like facial animation is genuinely incredible and the voice of Mark Hamill is maybe the best piece of casting in the show. Add to that Lucienne and Matthew and the show has finally hit the light fantasy, characterful tone of the comics I love and it’s such a shame that I had to slog through some of the worst television I’ve ever seen to get here.
3. Terrible Interruptions
So… this is a big change to this arc and, as yet, I have no idea what they’re going for here. See, in the comic, Rose’s mum isn’t dead. She joins Rose on their journey to visit the mysterious owner of the foundation that has contacted them; the mysterious owner who turns out to be Unity Kincaid, from the first issue, who had a child while under the effects of the sleepy sickness. Unity is Rose’s mother’s mother and, so, is Rose’s grandmother and it’s she who sends Rose out to Florida to go looking for her missing brother. Here, Rose’s mum is dead and her role is replaced with Lyta Hall, a character whose full backstory in the comic is so dense that I simply do not have the time or the space to lay it all out here, which is one of the reason I suspect for making this change. Lyta’s role, and Hector’s, is deeply tied to the comic’s connection to the DC Universe at large and is largely dependent on it. The surgical removal of that connection has left many, many loose ends here and there and this is one that I almost forgot about.
That being said, the middle of the episode is all fairly good. It’s kind of strange to find myself with less to say about the show when it’s good compared to when it’s bad, but, frankly, it was so bad that this, by comparison, is kind of just enjoyable fair. It’s largely inoffensive and it’s all fairly well scripted and acted and, yes, admittedly, the visual design of the show still leaves much to be desire, but it’s at least watchable. It’s a bit of a shame that “watchable” is some of the highest praise I can give this show, but that’s the world we’re living in. These episode’s can’t all hit the heights of the last week’s simply by the virtue of being the first not-shit episode of the season. Plateauing after that isn’t something I’m necessarily going to complain about.Continued below
4. A Marquee Player
Y’know, I would be prepared to be far kinder to this episode’s introduction of the Collector’s Convention, a gathering of serial killers which is attempting to petition The Corinthian to be their keynote speaker, if I hadn’t had to sit through the most shoehorned inclusion of The Corinthian into the first handful of episodes. Way back when I wrote up on those episodes, I made a note of the fact that part of what works about The Corinthian is how infrequently he appears in the comic. This arc is his primary appearance and he mostly goes away until a reappearance towards the end and, even then, his introduction in the comic is connected a distinct sense of dread and mystery. His introduction is shown in brief vignettes that are entirely shown through his perspective, a way of keeping the reveal of his eye mouths from the reader until the key moment that would make the most impression. Here, even though the convention organisers are a ton of fun, when The Corinthian actually made his appearance, I couldn’t help but think oh great, this guy again. Gaiman seemed keenly aware of wanting to avoid a sense of diminishing returns related to the character back when he was writing the comic, but I have to wonder what happened in between then. Whether it was executive meddling or he’s just lost his touch, it’s a shame that when it comes to adapting The Corinthian’s defining storyline, I’m already sick of the sight of him.
That being said, though, the stuff with the convention organisers and their plot to stage a series of copycat killings to get his attention is good. I would have liked, had The Corinthian not been introduced so thoroughly by this point, for the convention organisers to be a bit more… ambiguous, I guess, is the best way to describe it. There’s a brief moment when they’re first introduced in the diner and they’re talking about how The Family Man can’t be their keynote speaker and so they list a number of potential replacements that feels like it could be a trick for the uninitiated to make them think that these guys are planning your average comic con. Maybe they’re talking about which superhero or superhero cosplayer they could get to speak at the con, but, alas, as soon as the name The Corinthian is mentioned, the bit is dropped and the writing has a bit of fun being open about the fact that these seemingly ordinary people are planning a serial killer convention in broad daylight. It’s just a small moment that I hoped the episode could have played with a bit more, but, again, the decision to frontload The Corinthian into the opening of the series pretty much scuppered that.
5. The Odd Family
Y’know, as much as I found the decision to replace Rose’s mother on the trip to London with Lyta rather inoffensive, I do have to call it into question here. When Rose arrives in Cape Kennedy and at the B&B she is staying with, there’s a distinct sense of her being adrift and stranded as she attempts to begin her search to find Jed. Compared to her mother and Unity and the overall stuffiness of the care home in London, Rose definitely stood out as a weird kid with her rainbow dyed hair and constant daydreaming and by the time she gets to the B&B, she seems to be the odd one out. Whether it’s Hal the drag queen or the oddly named Ken and Barbie or the sisters, Zelda and Chantal, who are constantly in mourning dress, Rose seems like Alice falling down the rabbit hole even before she’s begun her search. Here, with Lyta acting as a raft of normalcy to cling to, that sense of uncanny and unease is undercut and narrows the emotional space that Rose’s actress, Kyo Ra, has to play in.
That being said, everything involving the cast of the B&B is sublime. Particularly the drag number that Hal does, which was a real treat. As a connoisseur of the local drag scene in my city, I had fairly high standards for how this would be translated and I’m happy to say that they absolutely nailed. In fact, I’m pretty jealous that some podunk town in Florida has a drag scene with live singing and a live piano accompaniment. Round here, you get a Soundcloud remix and a striptease and you’ll like it. By the time Stephen Fry’s Gilbert showed up, I was happy enough to know that this half of the season genuinely seems to have found its footing and finally seems to know what kind of show it wants to be. It spent so many episode trying half heartedly to emulate the soft horror of the comic’s early issues without fully committing to it that this more fantastical and quirky show hidden in the later episodes is a breath of fresh air. It’s just a shame that Netflix’s insane algorithm is going to prevent them from being able to make more of this show. Alas, til next week, while we still have it!