The Sandman tells the story of Dream of the Endless and his six dysfunctional siblings (Destiny, Death, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, and Despair), all of whom are anthropomorphic personifications of deep-rooted human concepts.
As such, it is also a story about the nature of stories. It delves into how dreams, fantasies, nightmares, tales, lies, archetypes, and wishes all leave a lasting impact on the waking world.
First published in 1989 and serialized throughout the 90s, the comic books written by Neil Gaiman (and illustrated by a cohort of talented artists) languished in development hell for decades before finally being adapted to a fantasy drama series by Netflix in 2022.
True to its source material, Netflix's The Sandman is visually spectacular, elegantly crafted, and incandescently memorable—a deliciously-layered dream that you won't want to wake up from.
The first season of the Netflix series roughly adapts the events of the first two collected volumes of The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House. It begins as notorious occultist Roderick Burgess (an impeccable Charles Dance) performs an arcane ritual and captures Morpheus/Dream inside a pentagram, effectively trapping him for over a century.
But as a semi-immortal being, the Prince of Stories is infinitely patient; he waits, watches, and plots his revenge while his realm stagnates and nightmares run loose. From the moment Tom Sturridge makes his appearance as Dream—naked, weakened, and vulnerable in Burgess’ basement—he commands the audience’s attention with controlled charisma.
This is a straightforward quest narrative as Dream eventually breaks out of prison, goes on a treasure hunt to retrieve his magical tools, and slowly begins the arduous project of restoring his kingdom (the Dreaming) to its former glory.
Meanwhile, the latter half of the show finds Morpheus tediously engaged in the task of unraveling a Dream Vortex—a mysterious phenomenon capable of creating or destroying entire universes—that has manifested in Rose Walker, a 21-year-old frantically searching for Jed, her younger brother in foster care.
Thus, the two threats to reality (Morpheus’ imprisonment and the Vortex) reinforce the idea that dreams, no matter how illusory or fleeting, are necessary for shaping our civilization. Each episode is more-or-less a self-contained story dealing with this central conceit, embedded in an overarching storyline about family intrigue, betrayals, and secrets.
For instance, in the third episode, “Dream a Little Dream of Me," Jenna Coleman makes her striking appearance as exorcist and occult detective Johanna Constantine. Morpheus teams up with Johanna to search for his missing sand pouch.
The trail leads to Rachel, one of Johanna’s exes, who was using the magical sand to grant herself happily-ever-after dreams, thereby temporarily escaping the physical world and memories of her heartbreaks. Her eventual fate acts as a cautionary tale about the dangers of escapist daydreaming.
"Just as Dream is a stickler for rules up to a fault and refuses to budge on certain matters, the screenplay seems similarly unwilling to take any narrative risks."
But in the very next episode, “A Hope in Hell,” Morpheus challenges Lucifer (a beguiling Gwendolyn Christie) in a game of wits to win back his helmet. He nearly loses. But in the very last moment, with some help from his wisecracking raven Matthew (voiced by an endearing Patton Oswalt), he counters Lucifer’s pronouncement of a world constrained by all-consuming darkness. He invokes the idea of “hope” —highlighting that without the power of dreams, those damned to a hellish afterlife could never conceive of heaven.
In the episode “24/7” which takes place in a diner, the disturbed John Dee (portrayed excellently by David Thewlis) uses Morpheus’ ruby to make his dream of creating a world where humans are unable to lie come true. This experiment quickly proves fatal as the characters are driven to murder and suicide until Morpheus intervenes and reminds John that people will turn to depravity if they are robbed of their little dreams and hopes. It is in these quiet moments, when the focus suddenly shifts to common people and their foibles, that the show takes on a sublime quality.
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More than just a commentary on the influence of dreams upon our waking lives, this series is also a meditation on power, honor, and duty. As the ruler of mankind’s dreams, Morpheus is strangely detached from humanity—neither exceedingly cruel nor benevolent—but at the same time, deeply committed to his role. “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is arguably one of the best episodes, offers an interlude from the frame narrative and introduces the viewers to Dream’s sister, Death.
Played by a charming Kirby Howell-Baptiste, she is personified as a young, Black punk-goth girl who is full of empathy for the souls she collects. In many ways, more than Dream, it is Death who exemplifies the Gothic tradition’s search for beauty and art amidst tragedy and darkness—both as an aesthetic and a philosophy.
Death gives Dream a pep talk that makes him reconsider his relationship with humanity, and his obsession with rules and responsibilities. The conversation with Death is brilliantly contrasted with another on immortality, as Dream returns for his appointment with Hob Gadling, a man who is so determined to not die that Death decides to simply leave him be. It also allows Gaiman an excuse to flex his love for history, mythology, and literature, with William Shakespeare making a cameo and striking a mysterious bargain with Morpheus.
In contrast, the show's concluding arc, despite featuring tearful family reunions, exuberant drag performances, and a serial killer convention, feels rather muted. The secondary characters introduced herein (Lyta Hall, Barbie, Ken, and even Jed Walker) are not as developed, and it feels as though the show is holding itself back in a bid to make it palpable for a modern audience who may not be aware of just how blood-splattered and gory the original comics were.
While removing the bits that haven’t aged so well, the screenplay heavily tries to tone down the horror elements. At both the diner and the convention, violence and torture are only hinted at and barely shown on-screen. On the whole, that might have been the more tasteful decision, but as a result, the sparks of conflict never fully ignite and the climax may feel lackluster for some seasoned fans.
In fact, the show struggles to find a balance between setting up an ambitious, multi-season saga for newcomers, and packing in enough coy references and Easter Eggs as a reward for the fans who have waited years for it to get made.
Certain elements, such as Cain’s repeated re-enactment of Abel’s murder; Barbie’s vivid dreams that take place in a Narnia-like realm; Nada’s imprisonment; and even the snide allusions to Destruction’s (‘the Prodigal’) abandonment of his realm might be instantly recognizable to the older generation, but confuse the newcomers as being extraneous or sequel-baiting.
But that’s not necessarily a fault of the show itself; it has more to do with the difficulty of adapting the sprawling storyline of the comics into a screen medium. The comics heavily focus on “Dream” not just as a character—but also as a noun and a verb.
Some short stories in the series can even be read as standalones, where the existence of Morpheus and the machinations of the Endless are only alluded to. In these cases, it is permissible for the secondary characters to be less fleshed out; instead, they can serve to reinforce the plot or a particular theme. But when it comes to a television series, the audience’s long-time investment depends primarily on the emotional depth of the characterization, and this is where the show somewhat flounders.
For instance, the reunion of Jed with Rose is cut short by plot shenanigans featuring the Corinthian and the Vortex. Similarly, Rose’s supportive best friend Lyta Hall is portrayed as a one-dimensional character, defined by her grief for her dead husband. She encounters her husband again in dreams, gets pregnant, and decides to stay on in the dream world until Morpheus cruelly interrupts it—all of which are depicted in a rather rushed manner. As a result, not only is Morpheus sidelined in the latter half of his own show, the secondary characters with their struggles fail to leave a mark on the viewer’s mind.
Of course, a similar complaint can also be leveled against Good Omens (the mini-series adapted from the book Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett). In Good Omens, the hilarious and endearing chemistry between the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley completely overshadows the apocalypse plotline of the show.
But given that it took nearly three decades for Gaiman’s unique vision for The Sandman to be turned into a series, perhaps the showrunners can be forgiven for the issues with cohesiveness. Just as Dream is a stickler for rules up to a fault and refuses to budge on certain matters, the screenplay seems similarly unwilling to take any narrative risks.
Instead, it plays safe by offering a cautious textbook adaptation in the vein of BBC’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (based on the hefty tome by Susanna Clarke) and Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series (based on Robert Jordan’s high fantasy novels). Netflix's The Sandman will introduce a generation of viewers to the rich, intertextual dark fantasy saga that is The Sandman, without alienating those who have grown up with the comics. The result is a little hodge-podge-y in the second half, but it will do.
Like a lot of big-budget shows, The Sandman tries to remedy any script issues with stellar casting, lavish cinematography, and majestic art direction. It succeeds, for the most part.
Tom Sturridge’s role as the lonely, angst-ridden, proud and tortured king of dreams and nightmares is, of course, breath-taking. Vivienne Acheampong delivers an emotionally-charged performance as a librarian and caretaker of the Dreaming who is willing to look past Dream’s flaws. Boyd Holbrook’s Corinthian is deliciously menacing and Stephen Fry’s short appearance as Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green is also memorable.
But the real cherry-on-the-cake goes to Mason Alexander Park’s rendition of Desire, who is unforgettably hot and constantly scheming—a perfect balance of allure and evil, arresting the viewer in every scene they appear in.
Finally, as a work that spans genres, the settings vary from episode to episode—period furnishings, a Gothic castle, pastel-shaded diners, dimly-lit gas stations, rainy cobblestoned streets, a dingy tavern, and so on. Reminiscent of the dark, macabre visuals of Tim Burton films, each locale is richly detailed, drawing upon the styles of the various artists who worked on the comics over the years, and creating a dreamy and immersive world for viewers to get lost in.
As a show ostensibly about metaphors and metafiction, the first season of The Sandman is a good attempt at introducing the enigmatic figure of Morpheus—a dreamed-up character bound by his very nature—and giving him an arc that focuses on his reluctance to change, despite the changing circumstances. It's both escapist and thoughtful, and except for a few forgivable flaws, thoroughly enjoyable. If you have a soft spot for dark fantasy stories headed by a brooding hero and backed with a wry sense of humor, give this one a try and you’re sure to be dazzled.
Who knows, it might just turn out to be the next big thing on television.