Sandman fans, rejoice! For decades, Neil Gaiman’s fantasy masterpiece was deemed unfilmable, until Netflix decided to bring the seminal comic to the small screen. Now it’s finally out, and it’s very much the magical, whimsical, dark, tale we all know and love. With glorious sets and a stacked cast, this is the best possible Sandman adaptation we could ever have hoped for. But just how good is it? From the moment Dream gets imprisoned to the sprawling epic that unfolds, we’re diving deep into all 10 episodes of the first season.
Dream goes by many names: Morpheus, Kai-ckul, Oneiros, and so on. To make it easier for everyone, in these reviews, we’ll mainly stick to calling him Dream, unless his other names become important in certain episodes.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Episode 1: “Sleep of the Just”
The episode opens with a little exposition for newcomers to the series; through narration, Dream tells us who he is and introduces us to his realm, The Dreaming. They get the basics out the way early. However, it might have been a better move for the writers to spare us this info-dump in favor of letting the details come out naturally during the course of the story. Telling us immediately ruins some of the mystery.
Just like in the comics, we watch John Hathaway enter Fawny Rigg to deliver the Magdalene Grimoire — a book of occult rituals — to Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who intends to use them to capture and imprison Death…the literal personification of Death.
I remember Neil Gaiman mentioning that the pilot feels like Downton Abbey but with magic, and he’s hit the nail on the head. The atmosphere is strange and mystical but also grounded, like a historical drama. The set is stunning…and if you look carefully, you may spot some easter eggs from the comic, including some from Dave McKean’s cover from Sandman #1. It’s little touches like this that make the show feel like a passion project.
While the ritual to capture Death is underway, we see Dream out in the Waking World, chasing after his escaped nightmare the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). It was an unexpected surprise to see the Corinthian show up this early in the series. On the page, he doesn’t pop up until later.
I loved Charles Dance as Roderick Burgess. His new motivation to capture Death adds a lot to his character. We learn that Burgess wants to bargain with Death to bring his son back from the dead, which isn’t the case on the page. Hathaway is keen to bring his son back from the dead, too.
But of course, as fans of the comics will tell you, Burgess doesn’t get his wish. Rather than capturing Death, he imprisons her brother Dream by mistake.
Introduction to the Corinthian
For this episode, the show basically turns the Corinthian into an exposition machine, and I don’t know how to feel about it. Boyd Holbrook is great in the role, although I think he’s been let down by the writing. His appearance in this episode feels forced; he comes out of nowhere to explain to Roderick Burgess (and the audience) who Dream is and what his imprisonment means. The writers rob him of a lot of mystery by using him to spoon-feed us information. Did we really need this and the prologue?
I also didn’t like the quick reveal of the Corinthian’s most notable feature: the teeth he has in place of his eyes, which is a chillingly distinctive feature he usually hides behind dark sunglasses. Showing us those teeth right away takes away the suspense. There should’ve been more build-up to it; those teeth needed to be a huge reveal.
Jessamy and Alex
The Corinthian warns Burgess that he’s being watched, pointing to Jessamy, a raven and one of Dream’s loyal messengers. It’s actually quite funny to see how Burgess is continually haunted by the presence of the raven, eventually forcing his son Alex to kill it. I found Burgess’ relationship with Alex pretty intriguing. He’s nasty to him, taking his anger out on his second-born son after losing his first.
There’s a cool sequence when Jessamy attempts to infiltrate Burgess’ home of Fawny Rigg to release Dream from his cage… only to be shot by a frightened Alex at the last hurdle. Dream is visibly distraught by his raven’s death. Meanwhile, Roderick Burgess berates his son for almost smashing Dream’s glass cage. No one wins this scene.
The Sleepy Sickness
With Dream imprisoned and away from his kingdom, a “sleepy sickness” affects humanity. Some people fall asleep and are unable to wake, while others cannot sleep at all. One of these people is the young Unity Kinkaid (Sandra James-Young). We only see her for a second, but she will be important later in the show.
With everything going on, it’s easy to forget what is perhaps the key part of the premiere: Roderick Burgess’ lover Ethel Cripps sweeps into his life, gets close to him, and then abandons him after he demands that she abort her baby. As she leaves, she takes with her Dream’s three totems of power: his helm, his ruby, and a pouch of sand, all things Burgess collected when he captured Dream.
This will be hugely important later. Remember the baby, John Dee, because he becomes a huge character later in the story!
Returning to The Dreaming
Even though it’s expected by fans of the comic, Roderick Burgess’ death comes out of nowhere. He takes a blow to the head and is almost instantly pronounced dead. As a result, his son Alex is given the burden of watching over Dream.
Interestingly, Alex never hates Dream; he’s more cautiously curious…although he also doesn’t let him out of his prison. As Alex grows old, he never gets a word out of Dream. Even until his final days — when he’s confined to a wheelchair — Dream never makes a single remark.
So how does Dream finally escape? After decades of being imprisoned, all it takes is for Alex’s wheelchair to rub off the binding runes, therefore removing the enchantment binding Dream and allowing him to escape. The simplicity of it is quite funny.
After escaping captivity, Dream seeks revenge on his captors. With Roderick Burgess long dead, he goes after Alex. When Alex is asleep, Dream haunts him and condemns him to “eternal sleeping.” This is one of the only times we see stars in Dream’s eyes like he has in the comic. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get more of that since his eyes are one of his most defining features.
When Dream returns to his realm, he’s greeted by his librarian and trusted advisor Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), who tells him that the Dreaming has fallen into decay in his absence. Many of the residents of his palace have abandoned their posts. Dream has lost everything. He’s almost powerless in his own domain. In order to restore The Dreaming, he needs his tools of office, which are stuck in the Waking World. He begins a quest to reclaim them for his own.
Overall, this is a pretty solid premiere. Not perfect, but not bad at all. The Sandman is a show that will throw a little of everything at you. If you thought this one was strange, you better prepare yourself for what’s to come!
- Time and time again, Neil Gaiman has talked about how the show is made by people who love The Sandman. You can really see it. Some scenes are exact recreations of the comic.
- The sets are spectacular. Kudos to production designer Jon Gary Steele, who also worked on the sets for Outlander.
- In the prologue, when we get a glimpse of The Dreaming, we get a very brief first look at Mervyn Pumpkinhead, who appears later in the series voiced by Mark Hamill.