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DIRECTED BY: Mike Barker, Jamie Childs, Mairzee Almas, Andrés Baiz, Coralie Fargeat, Louise Hooper, Hisko Hulsing
FEATURING: Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, Vivienne Acheampong, Vanesu Samunyai, David Thewlis, voice of Patton Oswalt
PLOT: Captured by a human magician, the entity Dream escapes after a century and sets about reclaiming his tools to rebuild his realm.
COMMENTS: This Sandman is no “candy-colored clown.” Dream is more of a contemplative type, deathly pale, darkly haired, and pursed-lipped. But then, when we meet him, he has considerable reason to be. Roderick Burgess, dark sorcerer extraordinaire, has captured the ruler of the dream lands, and, with his son taking over the guardianship upon the wizard’s passing, kept him incarcerated for a century. So begins Netflix’s chronicle of “The Sandman,” an effects-filled, symbol-heavy, and, yes, dreamy vision of Neil Gaiman‘s much beloved comic book series.
Dream is one of seven godlike entities collectively known as “the Endless,” and his realm (“the Dreaming”) is laid out in full splendor as we travel through it while he softly narrates the introduction. Tom Sturridge’s performance as Dream is well up to the task (even accounting for his excessive habit of pursing his lips). The first episode chronicles his capture, hinting at the world’s characters as we observe the Dream trapped in a glass-and-steel orb nestled within a summoning circle. There is a sad twist from the get-go, for we learn that it was not this particular Endless that Burgess was after—he intended to capture Death, to bargain with her to return his dead son.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste, as the friendliest Death this side of the divide, and Gwendoline Christie, as a prim-and-proper-and-not-ever-to-be-crossed Lucifer, shine in their roles. Dream’s early encounter with Lucifer in Hell hints of some nastiness to come (in season two, presumably). You see, having escaped his cage, Dream is weakened not only by the long-separation from his realm, but also from the loss of his regalia: a bag of sand which allows him to travel the dream world (as well as summon it); a helm, which allows him to travel freely through the waking world; and most importantly, a ruby amulet which allows him to craft dreams—and destroy them.
The fifth episode is the best. I give nothing away by telling you that Dream does collect his accessories, and it is in the pursuit of the final element—the ruby—that “The Sandman” experiences its strangest turn. Set almost entirely within a diner, the episode explores one man’s dream of a better world: a world in which lies cannot exist. The antagonist, and the man with this dream, is one John Dee (David Thewliss, providing the best performance of the series), the civilly unhinged son of the woman who stole Dream’s gear from Burgess all those many years prior. John Dee, and his dream, are unleashed on an unsuspecting assortment of diner workers and regulars. His mild manner belies an inadvertently sinister ambition, and the feature-length episode unspools with quiet menace as a waitress, a cook, and four customers watch their worlds disintegrate through the machinations of Dee’s wish-fulfilled ambitions. After dooming these fellow humans, Dee has a wondrously ethereal showdown with Dream himself, climaxing in the very realm of dreams.
Things then fall off sharply. The keen-eyed among you probably noticed the asterisk by the “Recommended” tag. After Dream gets his stuff back, the show loses its focus—the titular Endless similarly lamenting his own sense of drift to his sister Death in the subsequent episode. While episode six provides a welcome break from the action, featuring rendezvous between Dream and a man made immortal (through a bet between Death and the Sandman), the final four episodes feature two of the least compelling characters in a story arc involving “the Vortex” (Vanesu Samunyai, probably doing her best) and the inadvertent (there’s that word again) peril she poses to the Dream, the Dreaming, and all of humanity. This was by no stretch unwatchable, but felt a bit of a let-down after all the creative chicanery found during Dream’s fetch quests.
“The Sandman” continued to hold my interest mostly because of the presence of “the Corinthian” (Boyd Holbrook, channeling David Bowie‘s Southern-fried evil twin). This nightmare is one of the kingdom’s dreams-gone-rogue, alongside Fiddler’s Green, an idyllic landscape which went exploring, and Gault, a shape-shifting nightmare who dreams of being a force for good. The Corinthian electrifies (a word I do not use lightly) whenever on screen, drawling a malevolent charisma. He has inspired legions of followers, in the form of serial killers (for reasons explained late in the game, the Corinthian has a rather particular method of murder), which leads him eventually to be keynote speaker at a “Cereal Convention.” There, he and Dream meet eyeball-to-eyeball in a battle of influence over the Vortex.
“The Sandman” starts strong, and never lets go of its visual appeal—and not just in dreamscapes (Cain and Abel’s abode, a baby gargoyle, roiling-water-into-staircase; the list goes on…) Sturridge is never allowed to sink too deeply into melancholy through judicious use of a raven familiar who close observers will note sounds quite like Ratatouille‘s Remy. The final four episodes were equal parts hit and miss, but the groundwork has been laid, and well-reinforced, for what will hopefully not be one of Netflix’s one-season-wonders. “The Sandman” is lovingly crafted, with close involvement by the original creator. Presuming the bean-counters are pleased by the view tallies, further adventures in this wonderful world will—with luck—not merely be a dream.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“THE SANDMAN is an ambitious undertaking. The pacing of the overall series is a bit of a mixed bag, and part of it may be due to sticking so closely to the comic book. In the original comics, things jumped around a bit, with the tone and pacing changing sometimes at warp speed. The series is similar, with the first half bouncing around as we follow Dream on his journey. The second half’s pacing is much more settled and reads less disjointed. I’d argue that when you’re dealing with dreams, a bit of rattling around never hurt anyone. Others may feel differently.” -Sarah Musnicky, Nightmarish Conjurings (contemporaneous)