In The Sandman episode 4, the viewer finds themselves hovering over Morpheus and Matthew on their journey to Lucifer’s throne room in Hell, and huddling in the back seat of an old station wagon during a very tense road trip. Read on for our in-depth discussion of The Sandman episode 4, “A Hope in Hell.”
This is the fourth instalment of Subjectify Media’s The Sandman in conversation series, in which writers Natalie and Brittany deny the reality of Netflix’s full-season Sandman drop and discuss a single episode of The Sandman at length each week, like it’s, God forbid, 2012 network television or something. (Or rather, with the same approach they perfected covering Starz’s American Gods, another Neil Gaiman property, on a former outlet.) Bonus: This conversation review comes complete with a few relevant quotes from Gwendoline Christie herself, taken from our Sandman interviews at San Diego Comic-Con!
Caveat: Please stream all available episodes of The Sandman as soon as possible. You could either smash through them and then go back to the beginning and take it slow, or if you cheat a little and leave the show running on your TV or tablet while you’re asleep or out of the house and then come back and actually watch it at a more measured pace later. The speed of completion is an important metric for Netflix in order to decide on a season 2 renewal, so if you know you’re going to watch eventually, make sure your account has viewed them as soon as possible. Our coverage of The Sandman as week-to-week here is not an endorsement of letting the episodes sit unplayed.
Read our previous episode reviews:
‘The Sandman’ episode 1 in conversation: ‘Sleep of the Just’
‘The Sandman’ episode 2 in conversation: ‘Imperfect Hosts’
‘The Sandman’ episode 3 in conversation: ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’
The Sandman episode 4 “A Hope in Hell” is the first episode of Netflix’s adaptation to condense two of Neil Gaiman’s comic issues — #4, the titular “A Hope in Hell,” following Lord Morpheus as he pays a royal visit to Hell and is forced to remember an old wrong he once committed against a lover as he makes his way towards Lucifer’s throne room in order to reclaim his helm, and #5, “Passengers,” in which an escaped John Dee, looking to take back possession of Dream’s ruby, is offered a ride to its location from a kind woman called Rosemary who soon finds out she’s in deeply over her head.
“A Hope in Hell” features Tom Sturridge as Dream, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Patton Oswalt as Matthew, Deborah Oyelade as Nada, Ernest Kingsley Junior as Nada’s Morpheus, Cassie Clare as Mazikeen, Martyn Ford as Squatterbloat, Munya Chawawa as Choronzon, Sarah Niles as Rosemary, and David Thewlis as John Dee.
‘The Sandman’ episode 4 review in conversation
Natalie: So The Sandman episode 4 is the first one of the series to fold two issues of the comic into one episode, which will remain the same from here on out basically. Obviously episodes 1 to 3 included plenty of new content and cut back and forth between the Dream arc and the extended John Dee arc, but this put two very separate and different comic issues, about events happening concurrently, into one episode. I was wondering what you thought about that, the way the time was spent, and the execution.
Brittany: For the two selections in episode 4, it was a perfect pairing. There’s this uneasiness to the journeys in both realms. In particular the eeriness of how the more heightened gruesomeness of being in Hell was at times less uneasy than sitting in a car with two humans and a Rottweiler. Cutting away from both also helped to build that tension. I loved it. You?
Natalie: I didn’t adore the cutting. I might have preferred it go one after the other. That being said, I might have still needed to cut away from the “Passengers” tension.
Brittany: Really! Interesting. Was it because you wanted all of the Dream arc in one go?
Natalie: Yeah, cutting away from Hell didn’t work for me, it took some of the power out of it. That issue is so special, and it was executed well here, but I might prefer a supercut where the scenes are put in order, LOL.
Brittany: I wouldn’t be disinterested in a supercut.
Natalie: But I think you’re right, actually, about the comparative stakes. Like the “ease” of Hell vs the tension of the car. It’s an interesting way to juxtapose it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to cut away from Hell, because Passengers felt “worse”? Not sure, but the observation that moments in literal Hell felt less uneasy than the interior of Rosemary’s station wagon is correct. Whether that worked for viewers or not, it’s objectively true, and I have to assume it was intentional. A way of saying “Everything can be The Most Fraught on Every Level.” Stories with very different stakes can invoke the same or worse sense of impending doom. I get why you liked that device.
Brittany: That’s definitely what I was taking away from it. The John Dee arc is so quietly terrible and uneasy and shot (and drawn) in such a way that you only have the dialogue to make that point. Hell is just as bad and I absolutely loved, LOVED the visual depictions to add to the otherwise very cold but calm madness of the realm.
Natalie: However, for the sake of this chat, we won’t cut back and forth to discuss. We will be looking at Hell, then the station wagon, for ease of discussion. Just to start off being totally shallow — or maybe not — what did you think of Dream’s image on his trip to Hell? We left him in the waking world in his very normal and handsome coat, but a duel with the ruler of Hell needs more formal, mystical attire so he’s got his dress robes and his leather battle corset later. How are you responding to the way they’re making Dream look, in various circumstances?
Brittany: It’s a bit of the currently circulating meme: let me put away my summer black clothes and take out my winter black clothes. Joking aside, I was looking forward to all of our different Dream ensembles in the series. This one in particular was great, loved the corset. The costume design across the board has been great but now we’re getting into some of the more elaborate, even if, subtle changes in the pieces.
Natalie: My favorite look for Dream is generally just a short sleeved tee and jeans, but this is definitely an experiment in how much variety can they give all black everything? Dream has a more empowered, regal energy for starters and whether that’s because he’s wearing the mantle of a king and not just like, a guy, or whether it’s because he has one if his tools back… he’s giving off a very different energy than in episode 3, which, as you’ll recall, started with Mad Hettie babying him and being like “Don’t let Mean Jo Constantine push you around, sweetie,” and ended with Jo being like “Look after him, Matthew, He’s Baby.” No one is trying to cuddle the cat this episode.
Brittany: Absolutely not. He presents that air of being the master of his realm even if inside he isn’t exactly feeling all that regal.
Natalie: In the comic, he makes this journey alone. In the show, he has a raven who clearly isn’t familiar with Dante because Matthew’s surprised to learn Hell is cold. Ideas from religious mythology developed in literature are a big part of Sandman, and I guess this is the first time the show really digs into it — exploring classical ideas about the Judeo-Christian Hell, angels and devils. This is probably the issue of Sandman that really, truly got me paying attention, for that reason, the tying in of that stuff to the new mythology of the Endless.
But yes. In the book, this is a seriously internal monologue moment as Dream starts making his way to Hell and thinking about Lucifer’s fall and all. It’s first person narration. We have established that we may not have loved that being a constant thing in the show, but I think the trade-off is that you lose a bit of the beautiful philosophical way of expressing himself that Dream has when he is speaking in his own head. He doesn’t exactly share that much when delivering information to other people, but in his own head… I guess one result of changing it so he has to explain things to Matthew is a Dream who is more willing to share, and express himself. Which is fine. But he still wouldn’t say to Matthew “Here on the nightward shores of dream, loneliness washes over me in waves, lapping and pulling at my spirit,” you know?
Related: ‘The Sandman’ at SDCC EPs Neil Gaiman and Allan Heinberg explain Matthew’s early entrance as one of the show’s ‘very emotional’ new ways to get to know Morpheus
That’s the biggest issue of adaptation in general, for me, the loss of knowing the internal thoughts, or the memories that a moment dredges up, for a character not speaking. Them expressing it to another being changes the nature of the moment. So that is always going to be an unavoidable sacrifice of going to the screen. But then I don’t think the narration would have played well either, in reality. It’s different inside your head. All in all I’m cool with him bringing Matthew aside from one certain moment down the line, but Matthew being able to “Oh my God, what the fuck?” at things in Hell is pretty great.
Brittany: When I was rereading some of the pages before we chatted I noted that as well. I thought a lot more of it would’ve transferred onto Matthew as they are walking but it was more expository than anything. I didn’t mind that per say, but you’re right, there is a whole other element to this journey. Go read it!
Natalie: I feel pretty strongly that him telling Matthew how he was feeling would be a character development change and maybe not a good one. Even if I do like him being softer and more open. And there are moments that he does need to say stuff aloud, and maybe I wouldn’t have thought Dream would share that way, but it’s to a degree that makes me go “Awww, good boy” not like “He would never do this.” A lot of what we miss, not being in his head, is just stuff he would not say to a friendly raven. And that’s okay. We just have to depend on Tom Sturridge’s constantly weepy eyes to get the feeling across.
Brittany: Luckily he is good at that.
Natalie: Now, I am probably the only person I know who gets all hot and bothered when they hear the word “protocol.” I live for ritual and formality and archaic rules. I mean, not in my personal life. But as a story element, I love it so much, seeing the push and pull of it, in this case I guess a courtly diplomatic procedure, but bound up in some probably deadly fabric of the universe stuff.
All of this stuff is, shall I say, a small hint of how much these kinds of rules matter in the world of Sandman. We saw kind of a similar thing with the Three Fates. Dream and the Endless and all sorts of other cosmic beings are bound by rules and laws and protocols. They can’t just do what they want, in the waking world or moving through the various realms. And there’s this beautiful, honorable poetry of it, to me, both the concept in general, and the actual interactions about it — the first being Dream making himself known at the gates of Hell. Things have to be done a certain way.
Brittany: I too love putting together how the rules of a given realm or in this case interactions of the different realms work. It’s not just a case where we can pop in under disguise and confront Zeus on a very public diplomatic stage. It calls back to what we were talking about with calling upon the other Endless. It’s a bit of pride but also this commitment to protocols and respect for the roles of the rulers across the duties. Here, of course, Lucifer is not one of the Endless, but this is a palace where Dream is not above or below her in stature.
Brittany: Love you, Taika, but… Yeah, that whole first interaction at the gate, using the gong to announce his desire to seek an audience with Lucifer and not, as Matthew suggests, just sneaking in. Very different.
Natalie: I’m a stickler, and so yeah, I know which table I’m sitting at. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, SO important that people viewing this story internalize how much the various rules that bind these beings truly matter. That’s kind of crucial to the long game stakes, and watching the show is making it jump out to me, just how much Neil telegraphed all that from the start. There’s actually a LOT in the first two volumes, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, the arcs that The Sandman season 1 covers, that makes me want to pick his brain in terms of whether he always knew the ending, or whether the ending grew from what he’d built along the way.
Like, was it a situation where he went in with blueprints for a house and then intentionally built a house, laying a foundation carefully? Or did he start sticking together all these odds and ends and vintage doors and reclaimed floorboards and then some way towards the end said “Huh. That’s a house. It’s all come together and I can see what it’s meant to be. I better cap it off with a roof so everyone else understands how all these random materials have fallen into place!” Both methods are very valid for long game storytelling, in my opinion — a long term plan with intentional foreshadowing, or using found objects to create an ending that does justice to the various things you’ve collected.
Brittany: I would like to know that as well. Because it does feel like a manual was written and referenced throughout. “Turn to page 48 for Requests to Enter Hell” But yeah, super important throughout and I think it important to note how we see Dream change not just physical appearance wise but mannerisms wise.
Natalie: Yeah, he’s still in his London coat when they get to the gates but the manner is all formal. And just a tonal shift.
Brittany: I kind of want to talk about the first impression of Hell visually, through Matthew’s point of view in particular. Before we get to the gate.
Natalie: Go ahead!
Brittany: I know there were a lot of practical sets built for the show, but this first impression is just a barren wasteland which Matthew points out is cold. Then we pan down to that line of individuals carrying fire through the gates as they enter damnation. Granted it wasn’t much to look at but I LOVED it. Tonally, just bowled over. This tracks through the entire time we are in Hell. The set design and feeling of each scene just hit me just right. The first gate in particular with the details of the bodies in the walls. Chills.
Natalie: For the look of Hell, I liked the organic color palette, and the horror at the damned carrying their own hellfire is a reminder that this Hell is a self made punishment. The people who are there… it’s generally less about being damned by another power and more about if you believe yourself that you should be there. With a few exceptions obviously. The highlighting of this aspect of Dream is a pretty powerful one too — when he gets there and introduces himself to Squatterbloat as ruler of the Nightmare Realm. I mean, I GUESS. A reminder that Dream represents a broad swathe of the condition of the sentient mind. He deals in torment himself, sometimes. Still, this isn’t exactly his favourite part of the job. But he is no stranger to it.
Brittany: True also another lesson in adapting yourself to the environment. I would not roll up to the gates of hell and announce I have a guy with a kickass library in my realm. I would lead with the Nightmare part of the job.
Natalie: Extremely valid point. Highlight the skills most relevant to the position you are applying for. Dream is playing a pretty dangerous game, though. He is arming himself with all the officialism and dignity of his office, his ego and superiority and regal presence, when dealing with Squatterbloat and journeying through Hell. It’s very much a bluff, because although he is all those things, he is a little fish in a big pond today.
He outright bluffs about having the ruby, but in general, as he talks to Matthew he lets us know (via some dialogue lifted from Sandman #22, the start of Season of Mists) that Lucifer is way, way more powerful than he himself is, in terms of having come from the Creator. The way the Endless and their parents fit into the universe compared to Lucifer and the Creator of Existence is a bit of a puzzle. But nevertheless, Dream sees Lucifer as far more powerful than he is.
Brittany: Fake it till you make it, Dream.
Natalie: He’s pretty convincing. A tiny thing I have to note is that the show has combined Squatterbloat’s role with Etrigan, the next demon he meets in the comic and who is a wider DC guy. Etrigan speaks in rhyme. And Squatterbloat speaks rather poetically anyway, but they’ve given some of the rhyming to him here. And it is only when Dream answers him in rhyme, that Squatterbloat opens the gate. You have to play the game, the delicate, courtly, deadly game, when dealing with these beings.
Brittany: Yeah I was thinking there are several rounds of challenges before he can get to Lucifer, the rhyming, recognizing that Squatterbloat has his own agenda for taking them off course, etc. There are hoops to jump through.
Natalie: Matthew noping out of the Suicide Forest is a mood.
Brittany: Poor Matthew.
Natalie: I was genuinely curious about whether they were going to do the Nada thing in this episode or save the whole element of her story for a later thing. My hunch was that it’s too important to skip, and the execution was EXACTLY as I predicted in the back of my mind — another actor slipping into the role of Dream, so that from her point of view she sees him as the manifestation she would have once known.
This is a great reminder or moment to explain that this is true of all Endless. Dream looking like Tom Sturridge is just kind of a visual device, it may be how he looks to himself at the moment, or in his own realm, and him carrying that appearance through to the waking world… But he might look like any number of things to any number of beings or people. They may not all see the same thing looking at him at the same time, and that’s even truer of Death, his sister. We as viewers need to stick with one actor, or one image, mostly, to track through the story knowing who is who, but it is merely representative. It is not literally how they look. And they’re showing that early here by swapping out Tom for Ernest Kingsley Junior when he meets Nada.
Brittany: I loved that they got this in now not only to plant that seed but also to show this other element of the Endless that you mentioned. Though I quite imagine Dream would be Tom should I meet him on the street.
Natalie: I think he probably likes looking like Tom, and that if he can pass as Tom he will. Death has more reason to change for each person, I think? But as a premise, they certainly aren’t fixed. I must admit that I have no idea what new fans might think about Dream when they discover that a) he put this woman in Hell due to defying him 10,000 years ago, but b) still is in full-on romantic love with her.
It’s a pretty horrible detail to learn about your new fave, and I can’t not apply the future of it, the wider context, to this meeting. But I can’t remember how I felt reading the “A Hope in Hell” issue the first time, and I have NO idea how people would respond to seeing our cuddlier TV Dream be revealed as doing such a harsh, nasty, personal thing. Well, Jo did ask if he had any ex-girlfriends.
Related: Tom Sturridge on Dream’s trajectory in ‘The Sandman’ season 1: ‘The most important thing within the story we’re telling this season is the birth of empathy inside of him’
Brittany: I think the way we get there is important. Dream is led astray by Squatterbloat and while he knew something was up it’s not exactly on his agenda to pay Nada a visit and catch up. It’s manipulative and Dream appears to soften a bit at first. But he takes the confrontation in stride and after 10000 years stands by her fate. It shows that capacity for how long he’s been at this and how many lives he has touched in that time. They may not all be Nadas but… yeah. Harsh.
Natalie: Matthew being there, too – having to explain or admit to a new “friend” what happened… is kind of different to mulling it over in your head, right?
Brittany: Not as easy to just sweep under the rug and carry on. Saying things aloud gives them a bit of power. We do eventually make it to the second set of gates that made me just sit in awe at sheer size and detail (similar to the Dreaming). Only with more, ummm, blood this time around. But we’re about to go into, for lack of a better descriptor, the boardroom of Hell to discuss the return of his helmet. First though. Lucifer. Walk me through your thoughts on Gwendoline Christie — casting through the first time you saw her here. And please, speak about your conversation with her which was an absolute delight to read and listen to.
Natalie: So I thought the casting was great, from the second it came out. I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is inspired.” I mean, it’s impossible to replicate the comic which is literally a sketch of David Bowie in the late 60s. I don’t want to massively get into the whole Tom Ellis discourse, except to say that when Tom Ellis was cast for the Lucifer tv show, I was like, “What? No!” about HIS image. Though it is a good show in its own self-contained right.
People are also going on about a gender swap, which it is not, Lucifer has no gender or human sex organs, so that’s not a worry to me at all. But I thought it was a really fun choice, and seeing Gwendoline act as Lucifer here was interesting because it was so gentle and fluffy and delicate, until it wasn’t. Really leaning into the whole, the most powerful people, the most threatening, the most evil, can act as light as a feather in pleasant company and it is all the more menacing because you know it’s somewhat of an act, or if not an act, a freedom they have, to do so. They can be as gentle as they like, because they know that if something doesn’t go their way they can shuck that off and be terrible. Is that your impression?
Brittany: Absolutely. Lucifer is cordial to a point and when Dream admits he doesn’t know which demon has his helmet, Lucifer summons them all barely lifting a finger. All this power, ready to be unleashed without breaking a sweat. It’s just under the surface waiting to be revealed.
Natalie: There’s this little exchange of smiles, that killed me. When Lucifer is like “How is your family? Destiny, Death, Despair… and the others?” Just this like, “Oh silly me,” polite pleasantries. And Tom, Dream, gives this bitchy smile and headshake, and it is everything. There are a lot of complicated smiles in this episode from Dream and I am here to love on every one of them.
One of the things Gwendoline spoke to me about at the San Diego Comic-Con press table was the shift to allow Lucifer rather than Choronzon stand in battle against Dream, the imagination battle. She said — with this many verys — “Very, very, very, very excited.” We will get to that in just a moment, as I think it makes some interesting impacts aside from of course giving Gwendoline more to do.
But before then, Lucifer asks if Dream has (finally) come to ally the Dreaming to Hell, to join forces — with Lucifer still in charge, of course. To me, this says something pretty huge about Dream’s comment that Lucifer is far more powerful than he. Maybe so. Maybe Lucifer is, objectively. But the concept of the Dreaming, and, of course the outcome of the battle, tell a different story about just how valuable the power Dream wields actually is, even to Lucifer. Dream represents a power that Lucifer and Hell can’t quite reach.
And this is the most interesting thing, I think, that I discussed with Gwendoline about the role. Because Lucifer rules Hell as a punishment, right? This classical take on Lucifer does. So they can have all this huge and terrible power and be the ruler and monarch of the most massive kingdom, but the role is still a punishment, not an ambition. So when Lucifer is talking about allying with the Dreaming, I’m thinking, what does Lucifer really feel about Dream and his power? And I asked this. I asked, does she think Lucifer is jealous of Dream? Is there resentment and jealousy among the superiority?
She said that “I think that Lucifer is simultaneously laissez faire about every single person, every single creature, every single entity, and simultaneously is consumed with jealousy and shame. Consumed with it. Because going from being God’s chosen one, God’s favorite angel, to live a life entirely of punishment, you have very little.”
So perhaps the power is rather meaningless. Which is something that is a pretty important factor for another Lucifer plot down the line, not one in Sandman season 1, but the story arc in Season of Mists that gets us to the Tom Ellis version. And so I think… Thinking about that, thinking about what Dream represents to Lucifer personally, adds notes to the imagination battle, which here the show allows Lucifer to do, rather than sit on the sidelines and observe. How about you?
Brittany: This is going to be a running theme here, but with the exception of Tom, who I knew straight out of the gate was Dream, that for any individual cast in a role in this series I was open to whatever. It’s such a blank slate for me, and another trend that continued is that it took exactly .02 seconds on screen before I felt “There is no one else I can see in this role.” Lucifer is, as you mentioned, this well-told story. Not just in the namesake series obviously. In our culture. And so that backstory does add to that coloring of the character we meet.
Lucifer is not exactly living the posh life in Hell as a ruler. It’s a title without all the perks. There is power, but not Endless power. There are realms that the Endless built, that they rule and preside over where the essence of their being is infused in it. There is no personality in Hell. So I love that answer about this jealousy and shame in the role. Even with Dream’s little mishap with the humans, at least he had something to come back and fight for, something that was his own. Even if Lucifer does come off a bit snarky saying that he lost his things…
Natalie: Yeah, there’s definitely this kind of obvious reluctance from Dream to admit he’s a bit weak, so why wouldn’t Lucifer take that opening? It’s all about who holds the power in any given moment. And like we said, it’s sometimes very much a matter of how much you can muster when trying to act the part. Dream’s smile when Lucifer repeats back the exact line he said to Matthew… Rules, protocols that must be followed… I could really write an ode to that pissed-off stress-grimace smile.
But we are once again reminded that these people aren’t just egomaniacs on the loose, there are these wider boundaries they must comply to and the way to get ahead is to try and find loopholes or bend the rules in your favor.
Brittany: Which Dream definitely does, in finding the exact demon who has his helm. Lucifer tries to make it seem impossible though.
Natalie: Lucifer’s point about relying on the tools is not invalid, it does make it sound a bit like dumbo’s magic feather though. But the “Shall we interview them one by one, or…” was great.
Brittany: Choronzon does make an appearance though! Which was nice even if he doesn’t get to partake in the activities.
Natalie: He does — he just nominates Lucifer as his champion to represent him in the battle. Which is a good save, but I was so curious about this. I think that the fact that it’s Lucifer, Dream ultimately defeating and shaming Lucifer, not just some random demon, is more of a slight on Lucifer themselves. More humiliating, to see Lucifer themself admit defeat and order the helm given back.
We will get into the actual battle in a second, but the impact of it actually being Lucifer who fails means even more of a grudge to hold. Though it isn’t out of line or a change in direction, because in the book, even though it’s Choronzon who loses and Lucifer plays the polite host, it still ends with Lucifer looking out at Dream and promising to destroy him. He’s still secretly very, very angry and offended. So it all still tracks perfectly, just with the added weight of personal failure.
Brittany: Really raises the stakes not just for the battle, but as you say. for the subsequent loss. Before we move into the battle, I just want to call out the battle clothes. Because wooooo I love them.
Natalie: Indeed, it’s corset time. So smoothly done with just the turn of a shoulder. The battle is something that they call The Oldest Game, and it is an idea that has existed long before Sandman. It’s a metaphysical battle of imagination and tactics, creativity, really, to fight each other. The stakes here are very high though. If Dream loses, he has to be a prisoner of Hell for all eternity. This is not a massively fair trade off but… What can you do?
Brittany: Matthew is the grimace face emoji right now. Did not sign up for this.
Natalie: I was torn when he tried to send Matthew away. On the one hand, Dream is right, and Matthew should have gone and told Lucienne what happened. The urgency of his request in the ringside pep talk was pretty valid. On the other, it does Dream good when people don’t take him seriously. It’s healthy for him, LOL, and a long ongoing trait of Matthew’s, right to the end of the comic, is that he won’t do as Dream orders, and rather does what he thinks is best for Dream. I feel like maybe in this circumstance he should have gone when requested though, if only because I’m not the biggest fan of the new role he plays in the battle. We will get to that.
They shot the Oldest Game in a more tangible way than it is laid out in the comics. There are physical marks, wounds, to each player. It isn’t merely a battle of logic now, just standing on stage saying things with their full brain capacity and unweakened. Here. if a player’s move hurts the other, they are incapacitated by the move in a certain way, so have more of a struggle to re-strike. Injuries appear, illnesses manifest in reality on the player.
Brittany: Visually I loved the battle, it was an opportunity to go HUGE and they did.
Natalie: I’ve got another quote from Gwendoline Christie about that part — “They’ve done a phenomenal job of making that come to life and I loved playing the relationship with Tom, I really did, the relationship between the two of them. There was also a lighting state that Jamie Charles the director used, which seemed to put us into a hallucinogenic state, which was exciting.” I totally know what she means, just watching it, the surreality. Was there any particular “move” you liked the effect of best, or were grossed out by?
Brittany: There wasn’t one in particular but rather the contrast of them, the expanse, how you could go from agony to standing in a field to space. The scope of it as a package was what I liked most.
Natalie: True, though I loved the transition to the field from the throne room. There are a couple of comic things I missed — in the book there’s also a part where the challenged chooses the battlefield and chooses “reality,” and that moment leads to some nice Dream inner thoughts about the nature of reality and the history of the game. But I think they got the general idea across. He does tell us that there are many ways to lose the game — failure of nerve, hesitation, lack of imagination to shift into a defensive shape. It would have been interesting to see Dream’s internal assessment of the challenger’s tactics. But given that the impact of the attacks is taking a toll on Dream physically, his mind is maybe not quite as clear.
However, we get to the point where Lucifer casts anti-life, the end of everything, and Dream is very, very incapacitated, dying on the floor, before he manages to cast a final, winning idea — “I am hope.” And this goes down very, very differently to in the comics. In the comic, he comes up with this on his own, and it’s a confident “mic-drop” moment, and it is one of the most important single lines in all of Sandman. I don’t know if the arms-crossed mic-drop would have worked here, but I don’t love that he didn’t come to it entirely independently.
Look, I really didn’t love the Matthew assist here. If there was a point to it that I am missing, I apologize — I can see the vague shape of one maybe, a reminder of his duty, the thing that pushes him onwards being related to the story’s wider theme of Dream’s reluctant connections to others. But this is maybe my one big nose wrinkle about anything in the show that they changed. I didn’t care for it. I don’t think Matthew knows him well enough to make those comments at this moment, and I found it cheesy. I wouldn’t think Dream should need a reminder, in this moment, of the scope of his power. But then, the level that he is broken down by the physical impact of the battle, which does not happen in the comics, maybe he does?
I don’t know. I didn’t like it, and I’m kind of upset at myself that I don’t like it. Did you feel any sort of way about that moment?
Brittany: Your feelings are valid. It was almost eye-roll worthy having Matthew deliver this somewhat Disney-movie style pep talk. I don’t know if that’s reductive, but it was definitely not what I wanted the voice piece to be for this final moment. It cheapened the win.
Natalie: There were so many moments so far where I’ve loved the expanded relationship with the creatures and the way it’s helped make Dream more dear early on, but here I’m like… “Maybe they should have just made Matthew go back to the Dreaming with Dream asked five minutes ago.” It felt like it was coming from a different place than I wanted it to. Matthew refusing to leave is pretty in character for him, so then he’s around, and then what? They didn’t have to make saving Matthew Dream’s motivation at this very moment.
It really hit oddly for me, but there you go. I guess it’s a matter of accepting that he’s in a different, less firing-on-all-cylinders place. Also, if Matthew had gone when Dream said, that would have set a precedent for Matthew doing what Dream tells him, which he, as a personality trait, does not tend do. But it felt too early. All of it felt too early for this dynamic between them, it currently is weighing on me because certain Matthew moments I know will come in the future might mean less to me because this has taken the wind out of their sails a bit.
For me, this took something away from Dream in that moment, and I feel a bit horrible saying that because I am sure Neil and the other writers think the total opposite, as they elected to do it, but it did. Even though the whole battle is taking a different toll on Dream than the comics — that I am okay with! It would have meant more to me, about who Dream is, who he really is, for him to be dying on the floor and have come up with that line without external pushing.
And even if Matthew stayed, I don’t know if there was a need to then focus on, well if Dream is about to lose, what about Matthew? Even if they’d wanted to, afterwards, have Matthew be like, “Gee boss, I thought you were a goner,” and Dream be like, “It’s good that you stayed. Dream of the Endless would not leave his raven alone in hell with Lucifer.” That would have worked better for me. Only much less clunkily that I wrote it, LOL. I would have been okay with Dream having that internal fear, but I did not like the Matthew pep talk. There. I said it. That was my least favourite moment of the entire series. Anyway, as he comes up off the floor saying I am hope, he’s never looked more like the comic, the gaunt shadowing on his cheekbones and sunken eyes and all. So that was good, the imagery.
Brittany: A win looks good on Dream.
Natalie: They’re really serving everything here — I enjoy that he looks like he’s about to cry all the time, and we get a bit of that, and then some totally smug superiority at the end which is well earned. In the middle of those two moments though is something even better, nobility. Dream has played the game and won, and he acts with grace and respect when Mazikeen gets the helmet for him. He thanks her and Lucifer, and seems, quite earnestly, to think that he is done here, that Lucifer has played the part in the battle and then acted with honor and no hard feelings, off we go. Again, Dream obeying the rules of the universe, the things that hold him and all others to task. But Lucifer has a moment of thinking about breaking those rules. And this, this is Dream’s real mic drop moment. Lucifer’s like “Hey! that’s the thing I’m sensitive about!”
Brittany: I want to say poor Lucifer but like… Fair is fair, let’s not get upset here. But Lucifer’s face breaking here is… oooffff. But Dream with that swagger walking out of the gates is incredible.
Natalie: Very, very satisfying. It’s the sarcastic bow for me. What an icon.
Brittany: Matthew asking if he can even see in the helmet also made me chuckle.
Natalie: That actually did make me question it! What is it for, what does it do? But it apparently can show him rubies, which is convenient.
Brittany: Maybe it helps him navigate the waters of dreams a bit better? I’m not entirely sure either! The ruby tracking device is clutch though.
Natalie: I think it’s that a lot of his own power is just in those things as symbols, maybe. But he gets right to the ruby, nice job, except it doesn’t work thanks to John Dee’s usage of it. Foiled again!
Brittany: He was so excited, too. But it was far too easy.
Natalie: Yeah, I was enjoying seeing him get more and more invigorated. But sadly, John Dee provides one final hurdle and when the ruby knocks Dream out, John is able to come in, in his slippers and PJs, and claim it again. Thanks to a ride from a friend.
Brittany: That friend is Rosemary with whom we get a bit of a different introduction than in the comic issue “Passengers” which tells the story of their car ride to the ruby. When John escapes Arkham in the comic it becomes a bit of a situation, so much so that he leaps a fence and, similar to here, is almost hit by Rosemary’s car. He takes a gun he nipped off a guard and holds Rosemary hostage demanding a ride. Over the course of the drive he settles into more of the version of John we get right off the bat here — a bit timid, childish yet proper. The shell of someone who has been locked away for 30 years.
But in The Sandman episode 4, John is helped by Rosemary as a kindness. He loses his slipper and once recovered and not run over by quick reacting Rosemary, they settle in for a ride out of Buffalo. I loved this change in energy. It’s more of a level playing field where Rosemary has her Rottweiler guard dog — though I suspect she is a softy — is in control of the driving, not under duress, and is genuinely kind and open in her initial set of questions. Soon of course she’ll realize that she’s in over her head, but what did you think of setting them off in this way?
Natalie: Well, first of all, this was the first bit of surprise casting for me personally. I this was announced before I got the screener, I missed it, but I actually don’t think it was. Everyone else significantly recognisable up to this moment. I knew who to expect. So my first reaction was an extremely meme-like SARAH NILES???
Sarah Niles, for those unfamiliar, is a very well regarded British stage actor with also a lot of roles in BBC shows I happen to have watched, but she’s reached a new level of recognition as Dr Sharon Fieldstone on Ted Lasso and is currently an Emmy nominee for that role. I was really startled, and then immediately very concerned, because Niles is a pretty incredible dramatic actor, so I was like, “Oh, if they’re going THIS HARD for this role, the claustrophobic tension of this whole interaction is going to be exhausting.” This wasn’t going to be a passing moment, a comic issue kind of tucked away or skimmed through as a transition from A to B. This was going to be a two-hander play that really had some intense meat to it. The fact that it was a kindness and not a threat maybe surprised me less, given John so far, than the sheer fact that we went this deep into focusing on it at all.
Brittany: That’s fair. I guess I just liked that it built rather than started off so heightened.
Natalie: I definitely think the build was more sinister, less heavy-handed. Yet still also a kinder, more empathetic and philosophical conversation despite the circumstances. All of it’s really just John being less of a cackling villain really.
Brittany: Cackling villain definitely not how I would have described him, but yeah I can see it in some ways, I guess — just never my read on him. But in the episode he certainly isn’t that way and we get this drive that takes us through seeing what — pardon the pun — drives John.
Natalie: When I say that, I’m mainly thinking about the difference in his declaration about what he wants to do with the ruby at the end. End the world vs save it, a very different delusion. That’s why I would class him that way, and the general supervillain status of Doctor Destiny. This isn’t that guy.
Brittany: From here we start to get, I guess, shades of that character, but not the the extreme of Doctor Destiny as the conversation moves from getting to know you questions — simple things like why are you in my car going my way — to outright confessions of murder, arson, general mayhem. The pacing of this conversation is my favorite bit of their interaction. Everything after this gets a bit crazy in terms of escalation, and I feel bad for Rosemary from here on out. The opening of their conversation begins with a discussion of their mothers, where he begins by explaining that his mother was a thief and she admits that hers watches cable news and does nothing else. Which, LOL. Probably the same level of madness at times.
However, when it becomes time to explore that motherhood a bit more, with Rosemary’s follow-up question of: What did she steal? That’s when John’s honesty gets control of the situation. If there is one thing that I’ll say about John, he delivers such honest, revealing truths, so matter of fact, that I cannot fathom anyone but Thewlis having that effect. How did you take not only John’s explanation of his past but how he tied all of that back to Rosemary’s life? For me, it felt a bit like early echoes of the diner, where even without the ruby, he has this way of walking people into a web without them realizing he already has them trapped before they are in danger.
Natalie: Well, my absolute favorite part of it was that sort of commiseration element that then grew into more of a trap, exactly. A delivery that really stuck with me was after saying he’d lost his mother and that exchange, Rosemary enquiring about her and John saying she was a rather successful thief. Her response, the “Wait, seriously?” nature of it and then him chuckling ruefully, being like “I’m afraid so.” To me, that confession was the ultimate false sense of security. She believes him, but the circumstances lead to this curious sort of sympathy, that he was a victim of circumstance.
And then in the same conversational tone, he shares about why he’s been locked up. Mom is suddenly no longer sounding like the bad guy here. We’ve got Rosemary absolutely thinking she was, upon hearing John had been “unfairly” put away, until he uses the same honesty to share his crimes, which he doesn’t seem to be fully taking responsibility for — still talking like they’re incidental things that happened to him. It’s a slow terrorisation and one I am a little unsure just how witting he is of it. It’s a moment where I have no idea if he is consciously wielding manipulation and threat, or if he thinks they’re just having an honest chat about the nature of lying. Not sure how far gone he is.
Brittany: I agree! It is confusing because we know what power he can wield, which we will unpack a bit later on in episode 5, but here he doesn’t have that. He has a person who is not a doctor going to psychoanalyze him, who is not his mother who is going to lie to him. It’s a blank slate to get a read on human nature, like a barometer check. If it were anyone other than Rosemary, this would not have gone as well. She is a rare case that he discovers for himself as he continues their ride. But for now he is just John without the ruby and his line of questioning — Do you lie? — begins his hope for a confession.
She does not say outright that she does, though. Rosemary mentions that her daughters’ father was the liar of their family (had a wife and kid on the side, tough break) but she does mention that perhaps John’s mother thought that she was protecting him through her lies. It’s all very circumstantial, that there is a time and place for a lie. But that is not a world John wants to live in. He wants honesty at all times. No gray areas. I think it’s a bit extreme, this vision board of his. At the center of which is the tool that will make it all happen — the ruby. He reveals that the murder was a result of people trying to take it from him, bad people in his opinion, but that does little to settle Rosemary’s nerves.
I think the bit about asking why people lie is really telling of what informs John’s future actions here that are far different from the comic. He asks Rosemary why people lie and her response is that they are scared and people will say anything to keep from being hurt. There is a little switch that goes off in his head as he replies that she is a good person. Where John experiences people as selfish, she sees them as afraid. It kind of eases off that tension a bit, this shifting of how he weighs her inherent goodness I guess.
Natalie: The conversation on the nature of lying juxtaposed against showing us Rosemary’s series of lies, that they need gas, that the pump is the kind you pay inside for, is such a brilliant bit of writing.
Brittany: She gives him the rationale for her next actions before performing them. It’s the perfect play. Until he decides to see all the flavors of seltzer and soda that have come out in the past 30 years.
Natalie: It can’t be overstated how kind and good Rosemary is, from the moment she meets John. She obviously thinks he’s not well, mentally – running around the city in PJs and slippers, doesn’t know where he is – she knows something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t condescend and she treats him like a full person, and this continues even when she’s doing it as a defense mechanism, which is interesting to me. This is jumping ahead a bit, but that behavior ultimately gives John a new reason to believe in people’s nature even if they lie, a reason to accept that not all lies are created equal. But there are a LOT of sodas to choose from. A great distraction.
Brittany: Diet Coke, Coke Zero, what is the difference? One of the great mysteries for John to figure out but not now when someone is pointing a gun at him. Which kind of foils Rosemary’s plan as now things are a bit out of control as the amulet of protection leaves a bit of wall art for the cops to find when they arrive. BUT STILL Rosemary, though afraid, doesn’t quite back off wanting to continue to help John in the end. Right now, of course she is going to finish driving him to their end destination. She is terrified. But they get back on the road when they get to the storage unit where the ruby is, she stays put. Maybe it’s still fear, but she seems calm when he emerges again. Even offers the man A RIDE with the caveat, “I am going to regret asking this.”
Brittany: There is a shift here after he has the ruby, he no longer needs Rosemary and she stays anyway, offering him help. He asks her one thing, “Is that what you really want? No lies.” And she tells him that she wants to go home. He appears as though he is going to kill her, as he does in the comic, but instead he tells hers that good people rarely survive in the world — he wants her to survive. I think he likes that vision of someone being changed by him without the ruby. And so he offers her the amulet under the condition that she will never lie again. If she has that protection, there is no need to have fear, so really, what other purpose would she have to lie.
Natalie: I’m surprised John took it in stride so well, the attempt to call the cops. I mean, amulet’s gonna amulet, but he doesn’t blame Rosemary too hard. However the threat level intensifies and the circumstances are certainly under duress in the journey from the gas station to Mayhew. But I think Rosemary’s final offer really speaks back to the first part of the conversation where John is talking about the trick to having compassion for people and understanding their behavior is to understand that they’re fundamentally selfish and that this is key to having compassion for their acts.
Natalie: Rosemary’s final offer is absolute proof that this isn’t true. And John seems grateful for the new perspective.
Brittany: Yeah, it’s that conditional approach to lying that he sees play out in real time. An example of how and why a response to fear works in the real world. It’s like telling someone that angels exist but they won’t believe you until they see one with wings right in front of them. John now has that little bit of proof, but realizes that it is a rare case and would still very much prefer if lying was off the table entirely. I think we’ve been pretty positive in the way that this issue played out on screen. But how did you feel about leaving this version of John walking toward the diner? Because we know what comes next. Did you anticipate that it would color how that issue would be adapted for the series?
Natalie: Like I said earlier, the kinder, softer John, who wanted to protect Rosemary (and Susie) who seems to think all his ideas are pretty rational and who admires goodness… That feels like a shift away from the sadism we know is coming. Saving the world though… I can see how that works. Forcing people to stop lying does tend to expose things, and that’s kind of what’s most needed for the next step. It’s just the reframing of ambition that felt a bit different to me.
Brittany: I didn’t think anything would play out differently, but yeah, exactly what you said, that reframing was how I wondered what would stay and what would go. So I was certainly intrigued to see if I would take away something new from the coming issue. I hope Rosemary is off living her best life. Wishing her all the best.
Natalie: We stan an alive icon.
‘The Sandman’ season 1 is out now on Netflix
Read our other episode reviews so far: