The Sandman has arrived on Netflix at long last. All episodes of Neil Gaiman’s epic tale of dreams became available today, but, much like the corresponding comic issues, every instalment is an individual masterpiece. So what else is there to do but give each one the attention it deserves? Read on for our discussion of The Sandman episode 1, “Sleep of the Just”
The Sandman, the highly anticipated live-action TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s much-lauded comic series, debuted on Netflix on August 5. In short, it is an utter triumph.
Running from November 1988 to February 1996 and published by DC and later Vertigo, The Sandman is a 75-issue genre-bending comic book that first propelled Gaiman into the public eye and helped to make his name as a master storyteller. It’s a sprawling modern epic steeped in elements of fantasy, mythology, legends, horror and classic literature, all surrounding the impact of the Endless, seven siblings who make up a totally original sort of pantheon, as manifestations of concepts crucial to sentient existence. Concepts like Destiny, Desire, and Death — the kindest and most comforting version of Death that you could ever hope to meet. But The Sandman’s central character is Dream, Lord Morpheus. The ruler of all that is not in reality. Literal dreams, yes, but also imagination, and hope. And stories.
Sandman, it’s often said, is really a story about stories. About the importance of stories, about why the idea of creation through imagination matters. Why it is maybe the most precious and fundamental tool for human empathy that we have.
In The Sandman, Neil Gaiman is telling a story, but he’s telling a story about the impact of a storyteller — the ultimate storyteller, really, and about the consequences, good and bad, of that impact. The Sandman is about the power of the concept of story itself.
Given over 30 years to brew in the collective consciousness, the stories, themes, and imagery from The Sandman have become iconic, beloved. People are extremely protective about what Sandman means to them, and none more so than Neil Gaiman. Talks of adapting The Sandman have been going on since the early 1990s, with Gaiman able to block every attempt so far, ranging from terrible to “okay,” along the way.
But in 2019, with proof to point at in the successful showrunning his own adaptation of another deeply beloved work, Good Omens, Gaiman felt confident enough in his ability to adapt his own work to look at The Sandman again and decide to put his foot down about the fact that had been growing apparent for a while — that the only way Sandman was ever going to work was as big-budget streaming show, rather than a feature-length movie.
Gaiman, along with David S. Goyer, attached to the potential development of some version of Sandman, for almost a decade, recruited lifelong Sandman fan Allan Heinberg to co-showrun the TV version, pitched their vision via DC parent Warner Bros, and sold the show to Netflix. Production of the first season was delayed during the pandemic, and after a thrilling first look at San Diego Comic Con last month and a black carpet premiere in London, here we are.
For a variety of reasons, my relationship to this series is an incredibly personal one. As a fan, my investment level is through the roof, and, slightly comparably to the decision to make the sprawling story of Sandman into a series rather than cramming it into a two hour movie, I did not feel it was within my power to talk about The Sandman the way I wanted to in the scope of one full-season review. While many beautiful and frankly moving articles have been written, pieces which do effectively encapsulate the reviewer’s response to The Sandman season 1 as a whole, harnessing the power of brevity is not a skill I have ever claimed to possess as a writer. Something short, to the point, and still containing the full breadth of feeling was simply not going to be an option for me here at Subjectify. It’s too much.
I refuse to see this as a personal failing, though. Frankly, the show deserves as many deep dives as possible. It deserves to have every moment lingered over, inspected and processed. This is maybe the greatest comic book adaptation of all time, of the greatest comic book of all time, and one of the greatest assets of the comic book is the ability to sit in silence, to linger on the impact of a panel, some visual piece of storytelling, before being given any more input. Before you’re swept along to the next moment.
Both prose and film lack this specific element, the stopping and sitting, at your own pace, entirely within your control, without your eyes or ears being drawn on to the next part of the story. I mean, you can, of course you can. You can hit pause, stop reading. But it’s not inherent to the medium, the presentation of the story, the way it is with comics.
While it is impossible to replicate that sensation for television, The Sandman gives it a pretty good go. That’s what I mean when I say it’s the greatest comic adaptation ever — it’s the best attempt at capturing not just of the story of a particular comic book, but, I think, the spirit of what it is to read a comic book, as a medium. And so, with ten full-length episodes covering the first two collected editions of the comic — Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House — and absolutely no filler, the work that was done here deserves a chance to be processed at a comic book pace. Each moment, each “panel,” each tucked away detail, is as important as the last. An impossible prospect to explore in terms of a single, definitive, season review.
So even though The Sandman was released as a full season drop — Netflix being unfortunately dedicated to their binge model — we’re presenting our response to each episode of The Sandman as an individual piece, a conversation between friends that breaks down the journey of each instalment, both the story on the screen and what watching it sparked within us.
At a prior outlet, myself and Brittany Lovely used this format to cover all three seasons of American Gods, the Starz adaptation of Gaiman’s 2001 novel, and it was a joy to reunite on Subjectify and approach an even more faithful, groundbreaking and meaningful Neil Gaiman TV property in the same way. Read on for our response to The Sandman episode 1, “Sleep of the Just.”
Caveat: If you are keen to enjoy The Sandman at a more measured pace, please do actually stream it soon as possible! Whether you binge it and then re-watch more slowly, or simply leave it to play through on your device while you’re not in the room, so you can watch back later at your own pace, get those episodes “viewed” as soon as possible. Netflix will count the speed of completion rate in order to decide on a renewal. Our treatment of The Sandman as week-to-week viewing here is not an endorsement of letting the episodes sit on your account unplayed. Please let all the episodes stream through on Netflix as soon as possible, even if you don’t actually watch it while it plays!
‘The Sandman’ episode 1 review in conversation
Natalie: So, somewhat unbelievably, The Sandman on Netflix is actually here. In the waking world. It exists.
Brittany: To think that a couple of years ago, I thought my biggest Dream was coming true in the form of listening to the Audible production. And yet, and YET, here we are watching Dream live, in color! Well as close to color as we can get Dream. Not one with a flare for a wide palate of color, that one.
Natalie: I feel like it’s snuck up really quickly in these last couple of months, after feeling like it was all happening very, very, very slowly. Now it’s like a speeding train and MOVE, GET OUT OF THE WAY, and the prospect of the amount of attention it’s going to get… it’s a lot. This is going to be like, a really big deal.
Brittany: Hall H. Doesn’t get much bigger than that!
Natalie: And a London red carpet premiere… Well, black carpet… I know this is becoming more and more of a thing for TV shows but still, it isn’t every TV show, and seeing the pictures of that was mad. And just the general public consciousness. Tom Sturridge is already a Tumblr blorbo. I mean, I’ve been trying to tell people, and now I’m like, give him back. No, kidding. I just don’t think I had processed the scope of how big this was going to be outside of like, my reception to it.
Brittany: It does seem as though something so insular that has passed around between very few people in my life, you included, has always sprung some very intense brief conversations. But now it is going to be a part of a bigger conversation. One that, at times, may feel… uncomfortable? I have this with every property I have a deep connection with entering the public sphere. You think that I would be used to it by now. Alas, I am not. The Sandman, however, at least from my standpoint has the added connotation of: will people get it? Because for so long, the comics were not something I would readily recommend to the casual encounter looking for recommendations.
Natalie: I think it is somewhat a part of human nature to have protective knee jerks like that, but this story is so much of a… well, a legend, really, like its own mythology and the way it folds in other mythologies and literature… The spirit and the messaging of it, the journey of it, the things that it makes you kind of examine and come to terms with… I truly believe this is one of the greatest stories ever told in human history.
Whether people will get it… well, people have been getting it for thirty years, but yeah, it’s a niche. A very, very big niche, it changed the face of comics and massively altered the readership demographics — it helped a lot of people, myself included, understand that comics aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. Comic book storytelling doesn’t mean superheroes (even though I like superheroes now, but I didn’t then.) It means a story told in words and illustrations much like a storyboard. Comics are the most cinematic medium after actual film, and they hold a few tricks of their own that film can’t do, too.
So yeah, Sandman is obviously massively popular, for the world of comics. And beyond it — sometimes it is the only comic people have ever read, because there are a lot of draws to it. It’s about an urban fantasy, about lore and mythology and classics and pantheons and humanity. It’s super diverse, and it’s self-contained – there’s a start and an end and it’s ten books and it’s the whole story. (Kind of.) As opposed to trying to follow another arc of some DC comic, say a Batman run, that might be really beautiful and profound but still is sort of coming in right in the middle of a really long history or continuity that you’ll never catch up with. I can’t overstate how much of a draw that self-contained nature is. I would not have given the medium of comics a chance without that promise for Sandman. I am comfortable jumping into random superhero runs, but I wasn’t then. And of course many great self-contained stories of all sorts of genres have been told in comics, especially since Sandman, but there’s no denying it changed everything.
So. In short. Sandman was super popular to those who read comics in some way. But a lot of the world does not. And a lot of the world who do not read comics will find the show on Netflix. Will they get it? Plot wise, I think yes. Streaming shows, HBO, and even the MCU, I think, have encouraged people in the last… decade or so… people who might have never been into any sort of “geek” genres like anything at all fantastical… to start engaging with these stories. Genre is getting more credibility with the mainstream, for whatever that’s worth, and people who’ve never engaged with a fantasy story or a sci fi story or anything about magic or gods… are doing so more and more every year thanks to an increase in big budget TV adaptations, or original properties like Stranger Things, of course.
The rise in esteem of TV itself helps. The trust in the storytelling and characterisation, the long game. TV is easily surpassing film as the best medium for writing and character work — or like, it always has for me, but you can see it even in how big A celebrities are taking TV regular roles rather than movies. And with The Sandman, part of the hold up in adapting it has always been that… say for the past 25 years, it was always, let’s make a Sandman movie. A two hour Sandman movie. It obviously wasn’t going to work, it wasn’t going to capture the story in the way that the story matters. And Neil killed all of them, basically. But finally, with this rise in streaming, it became apparent that yeah, a TV show, a big budget TV show with hour-long episodes, was a viable option. That could work. And that’s thanks to all I just said, the rise of TV, the growing general audience reception to fantasy and horror… Side note, sometimes I’m like, if Hannibal was released now, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal… it would kill.
Brittany: It would be unstoppable.
Natalie: So. Will people get Sandman? I think they’ll click on it to watch, I think they’ll follow the plot, I don’t think the premise will be unattractive. I think it will get a whole lot more views than just the niche yet massive group of comics readers. However, when you said will people get Sandman, I think you meant a bit more than that.
The thing for me, the really important thing, is like, will people get what this story actually is. Not the plot. Not the premise or the world building. Will they get what it IS. What it’s meant to be saying, and why it’s done the way it is. Which is, above all, and this is a refrain often repeated by me — and by Neil, by anyone who really soapboxes about this book — the fact that it is a story about stories. A story about the power of stories, about why the idea of story, of creation through imagination, matters. Why it is maybe the most precious and fundamental element of human existence.
Related: ‘The Sandman’ star Tom Sturridge at SDCC 2022: ‘What’s really important is for large groups of people to bear witness to the same stories’
In The Sandman, Neil is telling a story, but he’s telling a story about the impact of a storyteller, the ultimate storyteller, really, and about the consequences, good and bad, of that impact. It is about the power of the concept of story. That? That I don’t know if “people” will “get.” I mean, I’m sure some will, I hope most do. But it isn’t like the comics actually spell that out. They show all of that, but they don’t sit you down and say, now, listen here, this is what it’s actually about. It’s obvious, it is inherent, it is the overwhelming theme and takeaway, but some casual viewers of television really need to be hit over the head with a fish in order to know that they’re in the middle of the ocean.
So. I hope and dream that people will get from the show the same element that makes the comics so important, and I hope that wider exposure to that very concept will make more people connect more deeply and more empathetically with the role of story, in general, in our lives. I hope the story gets that into their brains, whether they consciously unpack the themes or not. Does that answer your question?
Brittany: Sure does. I have zero concerns now.
Natalie: I am so sorry about who I am as a person.
Brittany: Eh, we can conduct these as platforms for you to get all your feelings out. I’ll be off screen with a clipboard nodding.
Natalie: Funny story, someone on Twitter was like… tell me you’re going to do a Sandman podcast. I’m like… girl, I don’t have time for that! But this is definitely just like podcasting in writing. Let’s address that, actually — what we’re going to do here. Because… hi! *waves * We’re doing conversation reviews of another Neil Gaiman show!
Brittany: Another you say? First at Subjectify!
Natalie: First at Subjectify. But, unlike American Gods, The Sandman is being released all at once on Netflix, all ten episodes. I reject this reality and substitute my own, in which it was coming out week to week.I’m not a fan of the binge model for big, meaty shows, and I love that most streamers are like… nah.. and have reverted to week-to-week. Prime, especially, and fingers crossed that Good Omens season 2 will have that, but it concerns me more with Sandman than that. I really would have preferred week to week, for any number of reasons. I feel like it obviously gives people more time to process each episode, it extends conversation… Perhaps network TV was onto something.
Brittany: I do agree. With shows like American Gods, His Dark Materials, even half hour comedies like What We Do in the Shadows, the shows sit better when they are released week-to-week. More time to think on it, and a personal favorite, rewatch it. Rewatching a binge is not ideal for me.
Natalie: I mean, even half hour shows like Ted Lasso, Only Murders, if they’re as good as TV currently is… it’s a lot more fun and I think it gives every episode the attention it truly deserves. Not to mention time to theorize! The Disney Plus shows, that’s like Appointment Television, the Twitter generation. But anyway. I hoped and prayed that somehow Netflix would break its fairly rigid model and do weekly Sandmans. I mean, the comic issues were monthly, so the stories were designed to be paced pretty slowly.. but alas. No. It’s ten all at once. But we’re ignoring that, and doing single episode recaps like it’s 2012 or something!
Brittany: Which is, ironically, the year I read this for the first time!
Natalie: Hopefully people will come back to these at their own pace… but for us, I think we want to give each episode the attention it deserves. It isn’t like a show like The Sandman has any filler, and, as many people have said… Every episode, as it should be, per the comics, is a totally different story, a different “movie,” a different tone. They’re not standalones, it is a cohesive story, but it wouldn’t be Sandman if it didn’t run the gamut in terms of like, what it even is, with dramatic leaps in tone, style, even genre. Up to and including the side-stories that show context or history of the Endless universe up until now. So. Each episode, as it comes.
Brittany: Our part to pay homage to how we want it to exist. Plus, if you do binge it in one very long fever dream of a weekend, you can return to these long after to see what actually happened when. Or mostly read about Natalie’s feelings. Which is what I am here for.
Natalie: You get to have feelings too!
Brittany: Which I do, so shall we begin?
Natalie: Without further ado: The Sandman, episode 1. Sleep of the Just. I was very pleased with the show’s episode titles, mostly exactly in line with the comics issues, with a few clever twists where more than one issue was fit into one episode. Sleep of the Just is an Elvis Costello song. Anywho. First of all, any general sweeping thoughts about the episode or the premise going in, or anything like that?
Brittany: The biggest question I had pre-release and one that I want to know your answer to after, is would having a storyboard be a hindrance or a bonus? For actors, of course, having that source material right there visually in front of them is a gift. For the Audible recording, directed by Dirk Maggs, it was also an incredible resource as I walked many, many miles listening to the brilliant voice cast. Sticking to episode 1 to start, because of how necessary it was to stay with Dream’s captivity for nearly an hour, I guess, I was curious how the pacing would work. There were certain moments I was excited to see of course, but others that I couldn’t imagine knowing how they would pull off and balance over 10 episodes.
Natalie: The Audible adaptation is meant to be blow by blow exact adaptation, a read-along experience even, and I know Neil felt a sense of freedom to make needed changes to the TV show in part because he could point at Audible and be like, “We’ve acted it out already once! There you go!” That being said, there were some moments that I know, from comments on the recent press tour, where they tried to make really clever changes and then were like… “No, it was better in the comics,” and reverted back to it. Then there were other moments initially planned to be comic-exact, that they wrote and shot and were like… “No, it has to change” once it came together in editing. There’s one in this episode that I read about on Twitter, I’ll explain when we get to it. All in all, I think that the question of when to change and when to stay the same is at the front of every move the showrunners made, and Neil was a part of all those decisions as co-showrunner.
I think the matter of help or hindrance is more… Does it work for you? Or for me? Because I think the approach to making it was “stick to the spirit of the law, not the letter” but sometimes it also just literally is the letter, when needed. If it fits the format it stays, if it doesn’t, there wasn’t a worry about changing it. That seems to be the approach of the creators. It’ll be interesting to see if people agree with that — even for myself, the moments where a change might either excite or disappoint me.
Brittany: Of course we have two other Gaiman properties to compare it to — Good Omens and American Gods — but both of those I didn’t have something set down on the page saying, “This is how I look!” A new experience here, but in general, I don’t have any qualms in episode 1. I thought for sure the summoning of Dream, which is a failed attempt at getting Death, was done very, very well. The bit of time we got to spend with Alex was also a nice addition. What were your general impressions having finished the episode the first time and seeing that it was A Thing?
Natalie: Well, it was the middle of the night, like maybe 2am or 3am, in a hotel at SDCC because I had only just found out that I’d had screeners issued. I had not gotten an email and was not aware that they were there. I got a tip-off that I should probably go and check… and lo and behold. So in between trying to facilitate everyone’s PR stuff for SDCC and handling the other things I was covering, I was trying to binge Sandman in this fever dream before the panel. So my general impression after the first time was like… “Aurgh.” “That sure does exist.”
Brittany: I watched while coming down from a fever, so truly the first, first impression was the same! Definitely not as stressful though all things considered.
Natalie: Upon actually processing it properly, mainly my first impression was just… Tom, really, as I hope it is for most people, even though he doesn’t see a ton of action in episode 1 for obvious reasons. I’m such a huge fan of him and felt a deep sense of rightness when he was cast, but here, I was just like… I’m so glad it was him. I can’t imagine someone better. So an immense fondness, for him, and for knowing Neil was so satisfied and excited about putting it all together. And a huge sense of fondness for Dream, who is a character that matters a LOT to me, but who, in the comics, starts out pretty cold. He is incredibly endearing, eventually, in a sort of.. well, you’ll know what I mean, and sorry for sullying the majesty of Sandman with Whedonverse, but like, Dream eventually becomes endearing in a similar way to Angel. As this takes himself too seriously, straight-man kind of dope. It becomes funny. I mean, Dream and Angel are not comparable, but do you know what I mean?
Brittany: I do and I agree, the introduction to Dream in the comics makes him seem off-putting but it’s the people who he is surrounded with who have cast him in this powerless state and are put off by him. However, once we get him out, that life slowly starts to return a bit.
Natalie: And it isn’t as if Sandman episode 1 makes Dream straight-man funny, but he’s immediately softer than he is, I think, in the first few issues of the comic. I mean, bringing future knowledge to the comic re-read does colour that too, when you reread, knowing who he is, but in terms of a first read, Dream is cold, proud, harsh. And Tom as Dream in episode 1, he is all of those things, too, in moments, but he is also SO soft. That was apparently intentional, and there are some narrative changes made to help highlight that see my interview with Neil and Allan Heinberg from Comic Con.
And I think it was a really, really good choice. I wasn’t expecting it, and I found it very moving. Tom Sturridge is obviously a young man, and Dream in the comics appears as a young human man too, but it is different, seeing it in the flesh. The pain and vulnerability and really, the inner loveliness of him, was more tangible. Even without some of the changes they made to do this intentionally. I loved him faster in the show than I did in the comics. New viewers need to know what’s there to love in the hero, even if he starts in a dark place, and this was a great choice for TV, but as someone who already loves this character a lot… I actually wasn’t expecting it. A new level, or a new facet. So that was my biggest takeaway.
Brittany: I think the moments where he is reaching against the glass and those last moments looking at what has become of his home were two times for me that really drove home what you are saying here. Because there is something about seeing Tom in this role that, well I guess literally, adds another dimension to Dream.
Natalie: He is an actor who can do a lot with very, very minute facial movements. Like, barely there. This is something I’ll talk about a lot, these moments where I’ll be like… “Did he even draw back his head in indignation, or is his gaze just making me feel like he physically moved?” So, so, so grateful it was him. There’s been a wave of people this week, people who haven’t kept up to date with Sandman production I guess, who are surprised/disappointed and asking/complaining about his physical appearance, the fact that visually he is just a man. Not painted paper white, not with black contacts. I don’t know about you, but I was never expecting them to go in that direction and if I’d suspected they might I would have also prayed they didn’t.
Using the black star effect on his eyes at big, cosmic moments of power is fine, but I would not have handled a literally white Dream actor who wasn’t able to use expressive eyes. The way they’ve done it is pretty much exactly how I always transmuted it in my head. I never pictured him walking around London or New York looking literally fake white. He has to look, you know, passable as human, especially when humans see him, but I never took that whiteness as literal. Just a visual device in the comics. And I never thought his eyes were the black hole stars all the time. In close ups, yes, but on wide shots in the comic where the detail isn’t there, I just pictured a human looking person’s eyes, and a few issues of the comics play with this, again, for the element of expression, normal pupils and stuff.
Brittany: When Tom was cast, my initial reaction was nothing more than, “That’s him officer.” To be honest, it did not even cross my mind that they would try to do anything to make him more Dream-like. It wasn’t until the stories out of Comic Con interviews about how they tried several different looks that it reverted right back to Tom.
Natalie: Yeah! I was actually really shocked to learn that they tried the costume! I wonder if it was like, we need to try it so that we know for sure it’s going to be insane and not work outside of like, as a cosplay.
Brittany: There is enough in this story that is so far out and wild to even conceive that they would try, that Tom being Dream almost as Tom just made perfect sense to me on the outset. Because, I agree with what you mentioned about there being moments where you could lean into elements such as his eyes, but for the everyday person walking past Dream and Death in a park, they wouldn’t bat an eye at them being there.
Natalie: Yeah, and that’s extremely crucial to the role of the Endless. Again, it never even occurred to me that they might try the fake white look in a live action series with real actors. Grateful they went right back to just letting it be Tom. That being said, we’ve seen Tom on stage, and I’ve seen him in many films and I’ve met him, and I mean, his demeanor and look is so not the same. It is still a hugely focused feat of acting.
Brittany: I must say having seen Tom on stage with you in Sea Wall/A Life was what immediately set me at ease about this role. I don’t have a huge backlog to fall back on with him so I am grateful that my point of reference is live theater.
Natalie: So in terms of breaking down the actual beats of the episode, it’s very similar to the comic, except with parts that are stretched out. Neil Gaiman wrote the script for episode 1, so it’s interesting to note some of the changes, because he has mentioned that in this show, some of the plot inclusions are things he had imagined in his head long ago but couldn’t portray on the page due to the page limits per issue of comics. One, a future one from The Doll’s House, involved the Corinthian and Jed. In the comic he had to lock Jed in the trunk of the car, but that was literally in order to move the pages along. In the episode, they’re telling the version that Neil would have done if he wasn’t limited by the issue size. So every time the show changes something, I’m like, “Was this a new change, or an old idea finally coming to life?” Just something I’m kind of curious about. So Sleep of the Just is both incredibly faithful and also has some of those changes that I’m curious about.
That being said, the first huge change is that in the comics, it is a cold open – “Wake up sir, we’re here.” In this, we start with a sort of virtual tour of the Dreaming and some narration from Dream about what all of this is, the premise of his existence. That bit kind of startled me actually, I was definitely expecting the same cold open, but then we actually see that sleeping character, Hathaway, in the Dreaming, and come to the story through his head, awoken from a dream, with that same opener from the comics.
We also get a little touch of the Corinthian, which I wasn’t expecting either, but soon realized they were actually showing us a little of the lead up to Dream’s capture —the story that is found in The Sandman: Overture, the prequel Neil wrote in 2013. When Dream is hunting the Corinthian, he then gets called away. The events that happen next weaken him, and that’s why he’s drawn into the trap on his way home. That’s kind of set up here. But mostly, it’s a lot of Burgesses.
What did you think as we started to get into that whole Magus ritual, summoning moment — and also what about this version of Alex? He seemed slightly less fearful of his father than the way it’s set up in the comics, though definitely still traumatized. And then his role as the episode goes on is quite complicated. But Roderick and his mission to summon Death and hold the Reaper hostage, get eternal life, bring back dead children… When oh when will people stop thinking that they, at long last, will be the one person who can make messing with life and death work for them?
Brittany: The Magus ceremony was almost beat for beat exactly how I thought it would play out. It is one of those scenes where it could go one of two ways: super creepy and chilling, or a bunch of people standing around wearing matching robes trying to sell you on their rung of the pyramid scheme. Because the comic jumps right into the middle of this, moments before the summoning begins. You need to execute fast and convincingly. Having that opening bit of being with Hathaway tangentially in the Dreaming at least gave us this person who sees some form of peace in sleep just before everything is about to go terribly for the rest of the dreamers of the world.
I quite enjoyed the extended scenes with Alex and the shaping of what humanity has going on upstairs, ignoring the consequences of what is locked out of sight and out of mind. Only it’s truly never out of mind for Alex. A constant reminder of the failure of a father to bring back his son. I too was a bit surprised at seeing the Corinthian this early, but definitely thought that it was necessary to set up how the series will play out and give some of the tool collection quest a bit of added urgency. I do love a scavenger hunt for pretty things just for the sake of it, though.
Natalie: Yeah, the episode had about 100 times more Corinthian than I was expecting. It was kind of interesting, because in the book I never really questioned the idea that Burgess knew that information from research and lore, like that he had it on his own. I wasn’t exactly mad at the Corinthian showing up to give us an explainer, I think the show wants him to be like, a really big character and he is a huge fan favorite. But it was a moment where I was like, “Oh okay, we are really going to spell this all out?” And it’s possible that again, this is a moment that Neil imagined, like how Roderick got that intel. Maybe it was always him.
I think the best thing about the Corinthian being here now is it sets up early this whole idea of the nightmares and also the kind of idea of Dream coming to terms with, or being confronted with this concept of “I am what you made me, what are you going to do about it.” It told us early that this mattered, and that maybe Dream has been a neglectful king lately. Which will prove to be true — he’s got caught up in his own head, including some love stories, and he’s become like this island-of-one sack of misery, and he hasn’t been serving his realm well or accepting help from others. Again, Overture stuff. This clue is here in episode 1, that Dream maybe needs to take a look at his life and choices, and, ultimately, he gets a good 100+ years to do that in his bubble.
Brittany: This framing throughout the episode was not exactly what I had in mind, but I wasn’t put off by it. I think setting up the Corinthian here makes that final shot with him a great way to thread the needle and close out before the next episode begins to load. It wasn’t overkill. To go back to Dream in the bubble, there were several moments where watching the stillness of Tom was just as captivating as listening to him speak or seeing him crashing the guard’s beach holiday. That potential of power trapped in the bubble was chilling, even though we know he was in a weakened state.
Natalie: The Corinthian also lets us know about Jessamy, the former raven of Dream, who is definitely not in issue 1 of The Sandman (she is mentioned in the series as a past raven) and that, I think, was maybe the most important change in the episode, at least to me. It added a LOT. This is the thing I mentioned that softens Dream beyond what I thought possible — seeing him react to seeing Jessamy after ten years, and then seeing him react to her death. This is something I spoke to Neil and Allan about in the press room at SDCC, because it hit me very hard. It achieves a lot of things. It totally changes the emotion behind the way Dream rejects Matthew, in a few episodes time, which we will get to, but here in this episode, just the love and hope and grief… It was a moment I really wasn’t expecting, and it was a lot.
Related: ‘The Sandman’ at SDCC: Neil Gaiman and Allan Heinberg explain Matthew’s entrance and the show’s ‘very emotional’ new ways to get to know Morpheus
Brittany: It does a lot to color Alex in addition to Dream which was a layer I wasn’t anticipating. Dream is hurting in his bubble, but he is doing it silently and introspectively. Dream doesn’t behave like a caged animal, Dream simply exists. That’s boring for any captor. But there is that breaking moment where he gets that full emotional reveal with Jessamy that affects us probably the same way it affects Alex, who is our window to seeing Dream until he escapes.
Natalie: I’ll direct people to my interview with Neil and Allan to talk more about the Jessamy thing, because it was something quite beautifully discussed, but I will say that yes, seeing Dream’s sense of wonder for seeing her, then the silent tears, the slow way of looking down. I mean, yeah. This made him so sweet and dear, right off the bat. Watching him grieve an animal, I mean there aren’t many more sure-fire ways to make me root for someone and feel love for them. Murdering Jessamy gave us a pretty concrete reason why Dream isn’t going to forgive Alex, who is such a complicated character as he ages through the years. You’re meant to see him waver, and maybe have some vague sympathy, but he chooses his father’s way every time. He goes against what you can tell, in his gut, he feels is the right thing to do. Over and over.
Brittany: Even for one of the longer episodes of the season, the building of this introduction had a lot of great moments that were demonstrated as panels with time stamps in the comic. The consequences that were not apparent to most of the individuals directly involved with the capture. Those who would not wake, those who were trapped sleepwalking, those vignettes and the way that we saw the passage of time were also some stylistic nods to the original that were nice to see.
Natalie: I really liked the feeling of Ethel Cripps, in the episode. It would have been easy for her to feel solely manipulative, and grasping, but there is also a kindness, and the stuff with her and Alex before she flees was really interesting to me. It’s good that she’s so likable, because she’s got more coming in the show down the line. But the general progress of Alex was just as frustrating to me as it ever was. In the comics, there is this great series of panels that shows us how he is in the thrall of his father, even after he dies. Something like, he is writing a memoir about his father’s life, he writes letters to newspapers defending his father’s work, one time he attacked his father’s portrait with a knife. It told a lot, in terms of that hatred and love and obsession and lionization. The show doesn’t do it quite the same, but it definitely takes us to the same place, because when Burgess dies, there’s that moment you mentioned, of Dream trying to reach out to Alex – despite the murder of Jessamy! – and connect with him, and Alex turns away when the guard is like “What would your father think?” Why would you turn down that chance!
Brittany: It is so frustrating! And Paul looking back at Dream that last time. Gutting. This whole time Alex is trying to get there and can’t. Dream just has to watch that happen: this human who is awake never be able to get what he would dream of. Just trapped in that nightmare.
Natalie: Did you have any particular thoughts about the fact that Roderick Burgess died violently in front of Dream, that Alex accidentally killed him, rather than the heart attack in the book? That’s a change that impacts character a LOT. For Alex, at least, who doesn’t exactly make it out of the episode, so it’s a single episode arc.
Brittany: For Alex, initially I thought it would be freeing, finally getting out from Burgess’ dissatisfaction that he was the spare of the family. I think what this does is make Dream take up that role of the captor Alex is living under even if, quite literally, Alex is the one in control of the hostage situation here. It’s the whole Rochester’s wife in the attic thing. No matter how much he wants to move on with his life, there is that draw of the shame, guilt, and entrapment living in that basement taunting him endlessly by doing… nothing. Summoning Dream was a mistake his father made that Alex, I think, feels the need to carry the consequences of since he was a boy. Not just the secret, but all the emotional fallout that came with that his father never had. Pile on another death on top of it, and sheesh. On the other hand, in the immediate aftermath he does find a way to channel his initial shock into romance with his soon-to-be life partner rather quickly, so good for him. Paul has put up with a lot over the years. And Paul also sets them both free in the end.
Natalie: I totally agree re: the captor thing, the circumstance of holding Dream hostage is holding him hostage too, and I think it’s like –- he tries to make a deal: “We’ll let you out if you promise not to hurt us.” The attempt at the upper hand, at control and power. Not being able to just say “My father was wrong, I’m letting you out now” without making it a threat or bargain… Dream would not have harmed Alex, in the 1920s or 30s I think, if he had just let him out no questions, no bargains. But Alex buys into it all, and it obviously makes him miserable, but he can’t bring himself to do the just thing, despite being afraid of the consequences. And so 80 more years pass of just being stuck like this, and that’s an unforgivable amount of time, and so Dream does take his revenge. Which by that point is warranted. You can feel sorry for Alex at the start, but he really has very little moral fiber.
Brittany: I do think we have a lot to discuss on a death that does affect Dream, Jessamy, as we alluded to earlier. But I think that is best pinned for a future episode.
Natalie: Yeah, there’s more to say about the impact of that, but the beautiful reaction in the episode, just seeing him grieve and care and cry, was an important way of making us know that this being has a heart, a big one. That he is full of emotion despite the almost alien stillness and stoicism.
Brittany: Given what is left to come in the volumes of pages left in the story, episode 1 only gives us only a few brief scenes where we get to see the edges of what Dream is. Arguably, the moment he sees the wreckage of the Dreaming and the death of Jessamy are two of the most powerful. So, not a lot for Tom in terms of what Dream is going to be as the story plays out. And YET. AND YET. I don’t think we’ll be off of talking about Tom in any of these recaps, but it just begs to be said again. AND YET. Lovely to watch.
Natalie: You start to see what he’s capable of when he escapes, of course. Dream, as a being. Dream’s eventual escape really felt like the images had peeled off the page and come to life in a way I’m not sure I have ever seen, this was a moment that literally following the storyboard visually laid out by the comic really worked. Loved seeing the cat!Dream.
Brittany: One of those panels that you don’t want to see changed and it was not. Absolute perfection.
Natalie: There was one change made to the sequence, and it’s the thing I mentioned earlier — it’s worth laying it out just in terms of awareness about how this show was made and the approach. The escape is SO close to the book until Dream curses Alex with the gift of eternal sleep, not eternal waking. I was kind of like “Oh?” I didn’t mind, but I was like maybe they needed to be more literal the first time he uses his Sandman powers? Putting someone to sleep? But apparently a lot of people asked this after seeing the preview of episode 1 that came early, and Neil was ready with an answer. They did originally go line by line. They shot it. And shot Alex going through his living nightmares.
And then in editing it didn’t feel right to keep following him. You wanted to keep following Dream and stay with him instead. And that’s why they changed the line, I assume in ADR. Which I think is so cool and so interesting, and is an early example of like, the faithfulness of the adaptation but also an inside look at why some of the choices were made when it deviates. Basically: no one should ever doubt that the showrunners did anything less than pore over each moment and each line and unpick exactly how to bring it to the screen. There’s a deeply considered reason for all of it. And Neil will probably continue to be really open about discussing things like that, bless him.
Brittany: Good to note.
Natalie: Shout out to the “Think it’s one of them Draculas” security guard. Neil has said that when he went to the art department and saw the physical copy of the Sun newspaper with Tug of Love Baby Eaten By Cows, he was like oh, this is real, this is actually happening, because of that level of detail. He’s also said that everyone working on Sandman, in every department, is there because they love Sandman, like it was an OH MY GOD I NEED TO GET ON THIS SHOW thing for a LOT of people. The collective dedication is massive.
Brittany: *pesters you to just keep telling these details because I admittedly know nothing but what you tell me*
Natalie: We’ve spent a lot of time in the waking world here, but we haven’t really touched on the Dreaming, which is showcased at the start of the episode obviously, but also, in a much more broken form, at the end. Neither you or I admittedly was really into the exposition opening of that scene, like “I’m Dream, and this is my home” –- I personally don’t really like explainers like that, and I had been thinking a lot lately about how much I actually love the opener of The Sandman — the cold open, “Wake up, sir. we’re here.” And the fact that we don’t know who Dream is and what’s going on until it all unfolds from the human perspective. You don’t know what he is when he’s pulled down or anything, and I find the way it all unfolds incredibly well told. So for me, I did not need this tour of the Dreaming as the first thing in the show.
THAT BEING SAID, a) I get why they did it, I think, in terms of setting up the premise of the mythology for new viewers and b) it was a really exciting way for old fans to get a glimpse of how things are going to look and the scope of the visuals in this show, the iconic imagery of the Dreaming. I enjoyed seeing it all a lot, it just wasn’t how I would have wanted to open the show I guess.
Brittany: When Dream’s voice began narrating, I definitely said, “Oh no.” But I agree, in retrospect it wasn’t awful and on rewatch I did try to pay more attention to what we were shown during it. Ultimately, could have done without it; however, it does set up that juxtaposition to see the ruin of what Dream comes back to, especially because Dream is a moody, dark being from what we see of him in captivity. Perhaps the Dreaming was not quite too far from what he returns to, and he thrives in that gothic run down cathedral aesthetic. I appreciated in that regard more so upon a second viewing, as it made the close of this episode and that 100+ year span really sink in. Plus it adds another thread to what was taken from Dream and the beauty of the world he was responsible for maintaining when we see him in captivity and then return to after his release. Pulls the rug right out from under him.
Natalie: That is a fucking great point that I didn’t even think of – about giving us a contrast of what he comes back to. Of course that’s it. That is absolutely a crucial element for visuals. I guess they could just tell us that what he comes back to is obviously fucked because of his reaction. But no, that’s a hugely important part of it, the stark visual contrast. Regarding the narration, that must have been such a tough call to make in general, because so much of what we learn about Morpheus in the comics is from him as a narrator, his thought bubbles. It’s difficult to translate that unless you commit to like, full narration the whole show, and I don’t think anyone would have really vibed with them. Narrated TV is incredibly hard to make not annoying, and I usually only like it in comedies. (Shout out to best use ever in Never Have I Ever.)
Brittany: I don’t necessarily hate the idea of doubling down on narration here because of exactly what you said — the panels have a heavy narration element from Dream. However, I was happy it was limited in use here. I don’t know how I would have felt if it was actually more widely used.
Natalie: Like I said when we started, I liked that we got glimpses of residents of the Dreaming we will come to know more later, like Martin Tenbones on the boat and the guardians on the gate of the palace, and obviously Merv Pumpkinhead and the library. Putting aside my kneejerk distaste for the structure choice of starting the episode like this, actually looking at the Dreaming was a really emotional experience. Before we get to Lucienne, the most crucial of them all, do you have any favorite dream creatures or visuals here?
Brittany: In the Dreaming landscape shots, obviously Gregory was thrilling to see, plenty more to come there, but truly, it was the gates for me. That entry point of anticipation into the Dreaming was enough that everything else was what I assumed Neil had in his head. Because as you’ve mentioned before, there is that level of trust at all levels of this production that nothing on the screen got there because someone was just trying to fill a frame. That said, I’d sell my sleep to Dream to be in that library.
Natalie: I think the gates are something that have messed a lot of people up and made it feel really real. Sandman is, for a lot of people, a really spiritual thing. Like the level of fictional world knowledge that people feel about… well, Tom keeps saying it, like Middle Earth or Hogwarts. A place that feels so real in the mind to the fans of that thing and that it is a place they can go mentally but then to see it for the first time in reality as a filmed thing… It’s a lot. But The Sandman, and the Endless, as, for lack of a better word, a pantheon, though they’re bigger than gods — that’s, for some people, a mythology that has actually really affected their lives, changed their perspective, inspired them, comforted them.
Sandman‘s Death is almost a religious comfort to some people, if not literally believing she exists, then more like coming to terms with the concept. She’s a touchstone for dealing with grief, her approach bringing a new, calm, comfort to how we think of something we are scared of. And Dream, too, is a totemic presence, in terms of representing the core place that story, and fiction, come from. So it matters in a way I’d warrant to say is more existential than just wanting to see some place like Rivendell looking perfect. (Though shout out to Peter Jackson — it did.)
The Dreaming doesn’t just represent a static location from a story, it represents a deeper, I don’t know, theme or meaning than that. It is more than visual, is all I can say. It’s trying to capture an idea or concept or facet of our condition as sentient beings. As is the nature of the Endless. So yeah, it was pretty good. The library always got to me and I hope we see more. The concept of every book that has ever been imagined – the stories that people have thought or dreamed about writing. I mean I know some authors who would like to rob it. Their manifested unwritten classics tucked away.
Brittany: And I bet others would like to burn a few of the ideas that end up there as well. Two sides to every coin.
Natalie: True, I didn’t think of that. This is Lucienne’s domain obviously, and she had a really great introduction here as Dream goes off on his pre-Overture quest.
Brittany: Given having her intro in here, if there is anyone who earned an “I told you so” moment, it is Lucienne.
Natalie: She was one of my first favorites of the casting and she really has a good chemistry with Tom, more in the next episode but in general, there is so much more warmth in every interaction than I was expecting, in terms of Dream and most people he’s around. Of course the more meaningful stuff is at the end. And yeah, I mean I don’t think she would take any pleasure in the “I told you so.” But indeed.
Brittany: She would never. And I agree, I think Lucienne is the perfect first face Dream to come into contact with here because in the comics, that is not the case. That softness and pure dedication is exactly what he needs upon his return. She doesn’t sugar coat anything either.
Natalie: I feel like it’s worth admitting at this point that — despite all of the relationships being profoundly important on their own merit in wider and weirder ways — I want Dream to kiss a lot of people in this show. He is very romantically driven by nature, but the comics don’t exactly give him a current love interest, just past ones who come back into the story, and I don’t want the show to manifest a new love interest here either. But Lucienne is the first unexpected character that I was like “Oh. I might want them to kiss” about. There will be more, don’t worry about it. At least three more people I will say this about. And I don’t mean any of them, not truly. But still.
Brittany: That’s really interesting. I don’t feel that at all. With any character.
Natalie: I mean for this one, with these two, there’s just a lot of tenderness I think, that got me. More open emotion.
Brittany: I’m interested to see who else pops up for you as these play out though.
Natalie: She’s not number one on the kissing list but I’m as surprised as you are that she’s on it at all. That being said, obviously I don’t mean it and it’s a massive oversimplification of like, profound love and loyalty and nobility of service. But I was surprised at how much chemistry I felt with Dream and many people for such, again, a still and quiet presence. And it doesn’t have to be romantic chemistry, but Dream is pretty prone to falling into deep, obsessive love and then deep wallowing after it inevitably fucks up. He isn’t an asexual or aromantic character by any means. However, I wasn’t expecting to feel that energy with certain characters here, and it surprised me that I felt it at all. But the ending of the episode is obviously just that shocking rug yank misery and I think more than just a shock at the sight Dream sees. There’s a profound level of distress and shock at the revelation that the Dreaming residents thought Dream had abandoned them. That they thought him capable of it. Like “Oh, shit, is this how I look to other people?”
Yes, part of it is the hint that one of the Endless has done this before, so not about HIM. But it is not just about the prodigal. It’s also about the fact, I think, that before he went chasing the Corinthian, Dream had been letting things go. He wasn’t being a good king. He wasn’t serving them. He wasn’t letting people in. Or being all that he could be. And probably wasn’t aware of it too much, but there’s talks about it in Overture, that he’s been stuck in a rut to say the least. So he comes home and is like… How could they think I don’t care about them? And the answer is like “because of your behavior.” And those feelings really seem to swamp and horrify him. He’s still sharp and regal and stern and proud though. What did you think about him once he was back in the Dreaming, back to being a king in a place where his word and thought is law?
Brittany: Dream has also definitely cycled through all of these thoughts during his time in the bubble. To hear them confirmed aloud and not be greeted with some sort of proof beyond Lucienne that could ease the load of the guilt he carried the weight of during captivity is quite a lot. But he doesn’t want to be the Endless who walks away for good. That intent to rebuild and prove the subjects of his realm wrong is enough for him right now. Despite his weakened state he is not going to wallow in the halls of his palace. He’s had years of waiting and now he wants to grip that drive alive inside him for probably the first time in a long time.
Natalie: It’s funny, it’s only really with the show coming outside that I’ve been really examining the idea that Dream is… well, on a new start, and even that he doesn’t know anything from the past century… aside what is in people’s minds and dreams. He can see how people feel. I wonder if the bubble stopped that power happening, or if he could feel anything at all other than himself. If he was alone in his head.the whole time. I assume he was. Or he would have been able to reach someone and just… didn’t? And the fact that he rarely leaves the Dreaming… all these adventures he’s about to go on. The element of newness, change, even the way he interacts socially. It’s definitely a character on the start of a life-change journey. He is driven, but reluctantly so. And I think seeing him constantly being surprised, shaken out of his head… is going to be something I don’t get tired of. In the bubble, I imagine he did worry that he would look like the prodigal, but honestly his ego is big enough that I wonder if he was like “surely not.” He’s so shocked when he gets back – I think he didn’t expect this kind of thing to have happened, and he would have been just like, everyone just waited and trusted and went about their business. Either way, he’s bowled over and there’s another level of grief. But no time to rest and recover!
Brittany: Even the palace staff, the gall.
Natalie: He does Offended Cat very well. Which is what we need for Dream.
Brittany: Indeed. He’s about to get a lot more offended, annoyed, and affectionate. That big old soft heart on display.
Natalie: I mean what is The Sandman if not a bunch of people grabbing an angry cat and being like “LET ME LOVE YOU” and the cat being like “NO….. okay.”
Brittany: No better description.
Natalie: One final question: Is it as good as you were expecting, better than you’d hoped? Not as good?
Brittany: Keeping this to the one-episode scope here I would give the episode overall a Meets Expectations. It was definitely a bit better than I hoped in some areas and did introduce enough elements of surprise that we discussed — Jessamy, the Corinthian — but as I watched it, I think I became more excited for what was to come if that makes sense. It set a bar that I felt the rest of the episodes could then rise above.
Natalie: Yeah. Neil keeps saying episode 1 and 2 are the ride to the top of the rollercoaster. It’s funny, my reaction, and again, it was at a mad time in the middle of Comic Con at 3am, was very, like, “Yep. That’s Sandman.” Like it felt familiar to me, to the point that I didn’t feel like I’d experienced some huge and shocking thing. Like as if it had always existed, in some ways. Not as a criticism. Aside from the Jessamy thing. That was a new emotional stake that was as effective to me as an old fan as it will be to new viewers.
Brittany: I definitely agree with that feeling of, “Yup, this is The Sandman,” but not in a dead dove in a bag way.
Natalie: But I cannot stress what an achievement it is for them, for me to just watch it and be like “Yep, that’s it.” That is like, insane, and something so many people didn’t believe possible.
‘The Sandman’ season 1 is out now on Netflix
Read our episode reviews so far:
‘The Sandman’ episode 2 in conversation: ‘Imperfect Hosts’
‘The Sandman’ episode 3 in conversation: ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’
‘The Sandman’ episode 4 in conversation: ‘A Hope in Hell’