Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix
It’s finally here! Someone finally adapted Sandman, and Morpheus has a pouty li’l mouth to boot. I’m your recapper, Bethy, and I’m a Morpheus head from way back. I’m such a Sandman fan that I do, in fact, have a tramp stamp somewhat modeled on the character of Death. But we don’t have to get into that now. This show should work for diehards but also for people who don’t have any embarrassing tattoos about the source IP.
The Sandman comic series, which ran from 1989 to 1996, told the story of Morpheus, aka Dream, who is one of the Endless — seven personifications of masters over all the kooky things we mortals do. There’s Death, Destiny, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and … the other one. He quit, don’t worry about him. Although they’re more ageless than gods and more powerful than superheroes, Dream still somehow gets trapped in a glass-bubble prison by creepy occultist Roderick Burgess. Burgess was trying to capture Death and missed, which is lucky for all of creation. As it stands, though, things get pretty weird with Dream trapped for most of the 20th century. Some people fall asleep and never wake up, nightmares walk the earth, and one guy works out his daddy issues for an implausible amount of time.
They’ve been trying to make a live-action Sandman almost since the comic book premiered. The first Sandman script came into being in the mid-’90s, written by the guys who would go on to script Pirates of the Caribbean. That one died because no one wanted to work with Jon Peters and then a post-500 Days of Summer Joseph Gordon Levitt got attached to play Morpheus. That version lived in potentia from 2007 to around 2016. Series creator Neil Gaiman then busied himself with adaptations of American Gods, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Anansi Boys, and Good Omens. Now, Netflix has finally done the impossible, actually filmed the King of Dreams, and made Gaiman very happy in the process.
The arduous adaptation process is reflected in this show’s timeline. Morpheus is stuck in his snow-globe prison for “over a hundred years” instead of the 70 or so he is in the comics. That way, the rest of the show will be set in the present day rather than the then-contemporary early-’90s setting of the comics. It’s a confusing, possibly reality-breaking choice. If Roderick Burgess’s son, Alex, was there when Dream was first captured — more than a century ago — how old was he when Dream broke free? We probably won’t have to think about this very much in subsequent episodes (except with regard to future-generation characters Rose and Dr. Destiny).
And it’s not like Netflix hasn’t had success with period pieces. Why not make Sandman the British equivalent to Stranger Things? The comic series is deeply indebted to ’80s goth, with Dream modeled in part on Peter Murphy from Bauhaus, Death a dead ringer for Siouxie Sioux, and Desire riffing on Annie Lennox. Sandman could even use some Kate Bush, as her album The Dreaming is the namesake for Morpheus’s realm. The decision to update the time period feels like a missed opportunity.
But let’s get away from complaining about what the show isn’t and back to reckoning with what the show is. Like many issues of Sandman, this episode features Dream as an ancillary character at best. It’s really Alex Burgess’s story, the unfavorite son of Magus Roderick Burgess. Daddy values the kid so little that he makes Alex grab Dream’s sand pouch, just in case it’s booby-trapped. Roderick demands absolute obedience from his son, despite not liking the guy. He makes Alex kill Dream’s raven and refuses to release Dream even though he can’t give him what he wants (the favorite son back from the dead), and his jerk-ass behavior gets him abandoned by his mistress and accidentally killed by his son .
The tragedy of Alex is that even after he kills his father, he can’t kill his father in his head. This guy treats him horribly, but he still can’t help but seek Daddy’s approval by killing Dream’s raven. He’s stuck. And Dream is so stuck in his ways that he can’t guarantee Alex’s safety and get out of bubble jail because he needs to punish Alex for killing Jessamy. So much Sandman is about people metaphorically tripping over their own dicks, and this episode sets that up perfectly.
But beyond the family drama, we’re introduced to what looks to be big players in the rest of the series. The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) is a nightmare that went rogue right before the Dream got bubbled. He spends the 20th century being a serial killer and having a thing for eyeballs. The Corinthian helps Roderick build a better mousetrap for Dream, setting himself up to be the Big Bad of the series. In the comics, there is no one overarching villain. Sometimes it’s a dream itself. It’s an interesting choice to make there be a more explicitly designated villain for the TV show, and one that is something of a pat sociopath stereotype. (Okay, a sociopath stereotype with teeth for eyes. That’s an improvement on the basic formula.)
We also meet Ethel Cripps, the Magus’s mistress. When Roderick insists on Ethel’s getting an abortion, she fucks off to America with all of Dream’s stuff. Ethel seems to be pretty kind – she’s one of the few people nice to Alex – but I’m guessing she might be trouble for Morpheus later on.
It’s only when Alex is an old man (how old? Don’t ask) that Dream is able to escape. Alex’s wheelchair rubs away some of the protective circle Roderick painted on the floor back in the 1910s, and that’s all Morpheus needs to worm his way into a guard’s daydream and out of his glass prison. It almost makes one wonder: Could he have gotten out sooner? How is a drawing on the floor keeping an omnipotent being trapped? He probably could have gotten out of that prison any time, but felt bound to play by the magic rules set before him. Dream is kind of the Dwight Schrute of his family: rule-bound, uptight, yet somehow getting laid consistently.
Morpheus is free, but his kingdom has fallen into disrepair. All the weird little guys that populated the Dreaming have disappeared. Most either absorbed back into the land itself or went on vacation like the Corinthian. Dream’s goals for the rest of the season are clear: get his crap back from Ethel Cripps, rebuild his realm, and take down the Corinthian once and for all.
• When we pan over the Dreaming, we get a few Easter eggs for comic-book dorks like myself. Wassup, the gates of horn and ivory, Martin Tenbones, Mervyn Pumpkinhead, the Dream library of every book never written, the House of Secrets, and the House of Mysteries?
• Very tasteful hog coverage when Dream is trapped naked in a bubble for more than a century. I don’t think I could go a century without flashing my bits, but Morpheus is built differently.
• The little kid from The Haunting of Bly Manor (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) did a great job as Young Alex Burgess. Because Sandman‘s story is so sweeping and rarely revisits old characters, I think a good chunk of this stray-thoughts section will be shouting out character actors that are woefully underused.
• In many ways, Sandman is the perfect property to adapt. At its core, the Vertigo comic-book series was about the power of stories, and how they need to change over time or die. Morpheus’s story is about a guy who cannot adapt and what tragedies befall him because of that obstinance. In other ways, Sandman is a loose collection of disconnected stories, many of which barely feature the alleged protagonist, about people’s faces melting and going to heaven and other things that are very difficult to film. Will this show work better than, say, Death Note? TBD.
• There’s no way Unity Kinkaid is still alive, right? Now that they’ve extended Dream’s prison sentence. She was a teenager when she took her long nap. Did everyone with sleepy sickness just never wake up?