Well, well, well. Here we are again. After last week’s turn, I have to say that I came away still feeling pretty down on this show. The body of the episode was fantastic, mind you, but that last ten or so minutes once Dream reappeared just sucked all of the wind out of my sails and I thought… why am I still doing this? Why am I still bothering with this show that is so very clearly not for me? Well. Let’s just say I might have turned around on this whole thing after this week’s episode.
Join me as we dive into The Sandman‘s strangest episode so far and one that proves that you can actually have fun with this material after all in “The Sound Of Her Wings.” Oh, as always, spoilers abound below.
1. Feeding Pigeons
Before we get into the meat of this episode’s opening, I want to touch on something that’s been bugging me about this show that really stood out here. While I’ve finally come around on Sturridge’s Dream (more on that as we go) and as much as I do love Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s turn as Death, the choice of the show to present these characters as just ordinary looking people does leave me wanting. The comics seem to posit that, for the ordinary mortal, the eye sort of slips off of the Endless and we see them as weirdos and outcasts who are at once against the crowd and also invisible within it. It’s only the elevated beings of demons and angels and whatnot that seem to peer beyond the glamour and see, truly, what these beings contain within them. Tom Sturridge is doing an admirably job here and this episode finally allows him to truly shine, but I’ll never really get past how empty it feels to see just some goth lad in a peacoat and Docs sitting on a park bench compared to the alabaster form of comics Dream dressing down in plain clothes for a change of pace while he goes and mopes.
That being said, the episode does nail the dynamic between Death and Dream and I commend the decision to so quickly get into the meat of the story from the very first scene. They don’t mess about and complicate the narrative much here and, thankfully, don’t do too much to stretch out the material they’re adapting from ‘The Sound Of Her Wings.’ They dive right into things and allow the writing (most of which is lifted directly from the comic) to speak for itself and it finally gives Sturridge a chance to live in this character. He’s been trying to prop up this attempt at turning the first arc of “The Sandman” into this epic, fantastic quest and has been really struggling to find the charisma and the charm of the character under all that weight. Here, though, being able to just have a quiet dialogue scene about how he’s feeling now that that quest is over and being able to bounce off of Howell-Baptiste’s Death does wonders to cement his performance at the heart of the episode. Last week, I was almost glad to be rid of Dream for most of the episode and by the time he reappeared, it marked a turn in the episode that sucked all of the energy out of the story and ended the first half of the season in such a deflated manner. Things couldn’t be more different here as Sturridge finds the heart of Dream for the first time and speaks not from the affectation of distance he clothes himself in, but from the tragically lonely heart of the character. He finally has a chance to reach out his hand to another and talk about something that isn’t exposition of what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. He gets to just talk.
And that’s the beauty of “The Sandman.” It’s not the epic vistas of dreamscapes and Hell itself. It’s not the mythology or its ties to the DC universe. It’s the people. Specifically, the family at the heart of it all. “The Sandman” is a family drama about a family made of these universal constants and the personalities they’ve created for themselves as they interact as personified, corporeal beings with the world and the people they serve. Getting to hear Dream and Death talk about their stations and their function as siblings and really dial into the emotional connection at the heart of it all has been something this show has been sorely missing. While I may still have my quibbles with the general quality of adapting this comic to live action, this episode has genuinely turned me around on the value of having real people embody these characters and speak these words and give the material life beyond the page.Continued below
2. A Walk, A Violin, A Swim, A Crib
I was surprised, I tell you, by how quickly this episode seemed to speed through the material of “The Sandman” #7. It’s not a particularly dense issue, mind you, so I was half wondering how they would manage to spin a whole hour of television out of it and I think the decision to just let the material breath and take up only as much space as it needs was the right touch. It has a sort of rhythm as Dream and Death have a heart to heart while they walk to Death’s next appointment only to be interrupted by her work. Then, after her work is done, they resume walking and largely pick up where they left off. It’s rather wonderfully done and it feels almost like we, as the viewer, are simply tagging along with them and listening in on these private musings between siblings. Here, Dream takes a bit of a backseat and lets Death shine and Sturridge does a remarkable job at quietly conveying how much just watching Death work affects him. Howell-Baptiste’s Death is something of a far cry from the quirky, manic pixie dream girl Death of the comics as she grounds her optimism in a sense of serene compassion. She treats her work seriously and, as she says, all she really needs to be is a friendly face at the end.
Gaiman has talked about how Death Of The Endless is a conjuration of the kind of Death he hopes to see in the end and it’s in Kirby Howell-Baptiste that I think I finally get that. As I’ve been re-reading the comics, there have been times when the pixie-ness of Death has somewhat undercut the gravity of the scenes she’s in. They don’t laden Howell-Baptiste with the peachy keens and instead let her kindness and compassion shine through. She doesn’t have to try so hard to counter Dream’s moping because you can feel genuine care she has for her brother who she hasn’t seen in a century. As the episode progresses we see the layers of the character strip away as Dream comes to understand the toll this work must take on her. The tone of the episode doesn’t make light of death or the grief caused by the absence of life, but offers a counter in knowing that there will be someone there, on the other side, to take your hand and guide you to what comes after.
The deaths that Dream shadows are all done incredibly well and it was a genuinely nice surprise to see the show treat its material with this kind of reverence. It slows the pace down, allows the writing and actors bringing those words to life to shine, and doesn’t needlessly undercut the drama. Even though I knew it was coming, the baby’s death still caught me in my chest because the show doesn’t shy away from the scope of death or the tragedy of it. It’s through Howell-Baptiste’s genuinely affecting performance that this episode isn’t a tragedy and is, in fact, a comfort in the face of the inevitable. Because we’ll all get there, eventually, one way or another. I hope, too, that this is the kind of Death that greets me on the other side.
3. Back In Time
And then the episode takes a massive left turn by filling the remaining half hour with a shockingly well done adaptation of “The Sandman” #13 as it introduces us to Hob Gadling. I actually commend the decision to bring this story forward (as it played towards the end of the ‘Doll’s House’ arc in the comic) and to join it with the material from ‘The Sound Of Her Wings.’ Largely because the episode becomes about digging into Dream’s personality and the emotions he hides behind his disaffected demeanour, but also because it allows us to see a bit more of what Dream and Death’s relationship used to be. There’s finally a wit to Sturridge’s Dream as he barbs with Death over the pointlessness of surrounding themselves with pitiless mortals. There’s a smirk hidden in the corner of his lips, a dark twinkle in his eye that finally feels like he’s found the character behind all the iconography and between the lines. It suddenly feels less like he’s simply reciting what he’s been told to say and is actually embodying a real, fleshed out character.Continued below
I never really liked the Hob Gadling stuff much in the comic, I’ll be honest. It was an issue I’d largely skim through as, to be honest with you, I’m not super interested in Gaiman’s fascination with England of the past or how the times changed this little island. However, I found myself rather invested this time around. There’s something to be said for the chemistry between Ferdinand Kingsley’s Hob and Sturridge. They bring a cheekiness to the material that evolves over the years. From Hob’s initial cocksure braggadocio about simply not dying just because it’s what everyone else to his quiet yet intense inquisitiveness into what exactly he’s gotten himself into after the first century, there’s a push and pull between himself and Dream. And at the heart of it all, what this episode is really about, is his passion for life. To see what’s around the next bend. He’s not a man with some grand plan for himself, he simply revels in the fact that he’ll always get another roll of the dice. He’ll always have another hand to play. There’s something magnetic about how excited Hob is about something as simple as a chimney or a handkerchief when he’s sat across from the King of Dreams himself that finally feels like this show has understood the appeal of the material it’s been adapting this whole time.
4. A Mug’s Game
As the show moves through the different meetings between Hob and Dream, the underpinning of it all starts to reveal itself. Dream’s found a friend. This is something I always found a little trite in the comic because Dream in the comic didn’t feel quite as closed of as Sturridge’s. We see him spend more time with Cain and Abel and Lucien in the first arc and the story with Hob comes after ‘The Doll’s House’ where we see him having picked himself up just a little after his talk with Death. Bringing the story forward and having it play out as a direct result of his walk with Death allows that blossoming friendship to be the thing holding the entire hour together. There’s a friendliness to Dream here. The camaraderie that’s forged between himself and Hob is a far cry from how, frankly, insufferably boring he’s been up til now. Hell, even Jenna Coleman seems to be having more fun here affecting the arch period drama style of 1600s Johanna instead of trying to fill the shoes of a far more interesting character.
By the time the episode winds its way back around to the present day and we get to see Dream and Hob reunite in The New Inn, I was genuinely happy for Dream as a character. We get to see him, perhaps for the very first time, truly enjoy simply existing in the world. Not finding himself burdened by his function or his need to toil away at quests in his spare time to fill up the vast expanse of infinity with Purpose and Meaning, he gets to just… have a pint down the pub with a friend. The whole purpose of this first arc of the comic was to explore how captivity changes Dream into a being with far more capacity for emotion compared to the arch, duty-bound being he was before and how, as times passes, those two extremes become increasingly entwined and incompatible. I finally find myself wanting to see this show go the distance after this, which…
5. A Show, Finding Itself
I don’t know if this show will get a second season. As of writing, nothing about its future has been confirmed. It’s one of the more expensive shows to hit our screens in some time and, with the way Netflix’s algorithm worked, unless you and everyone you know sat yourselves in front of your telly and watched the whole season straight through without pausing, a second season lives and dies on the demand for it. If you were to ask me last week if I wanted a second season, I probably would have scoffed. They’d almost got me with ’24/7.’ Right up until the last moment, Thewlis and the rest of the diner cast had me genuinely enthralled in a bloody great bit of telly. It was in remembering that this is, in fact, the Sandman show that I felt deflated because as soon as I saw Tom Sturridge’s mug on screen, I wanted to tear my hair out. So much of this show has been done almost right. Fantastic actors reading lines they barely seem to comprehend. Incredible narratives chopped and screwed for the sake of making it all more palatable for the general audience. Stunning visual effects rendered flat and lifeless because none of the players in the scene seem to have any link to what I’m seeing behind them.
So many almosts, I thought: is this really the show Neil Gaiman spent thirty years trying to get perfect? Well, they finally got me. This is the show I wanted this to be from the beginning and it’s the bloody Hob Gadling episode that did it. I have no idea if the show can keep this up for the rest of its run and, knowing how much Corinthian material there is left to squeeze in here, I’m sure I’ll have no shortage of stuff to continue complaining, but… they really nailed this one. If The Sandman is naught but a footnote at the end of our dying world’s history, the hour I spent with this episode will still stand out to me. That’s what makes “The Sandman” special.