Of all the graphic novel adaptations to hit the small screen this year, “The Sandman,” based on the Neil Gaiman and Sam Keith series published by DC Comics’ now defunct Vertigo imprint, is one of Netflix’s most anticipated. Spanning seven years and 75 issues, the Sandman universe chronicles The Endless, a dysfunctional family of siblings that anthropomorphize Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction, Death, and Dreams.
The first season of Netflix’s “The Sandman” primarily focuses on Morpheus, The King of Dreams (Tom Sturridge), his attendants, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), the librarian who catalogs all of human existence, and Matthew (Patton Oswald), a talking raven. He serves as Dream’s eyes and ears in the waking world. However, when Morpheus unexpectedly disappears, leaving the Dreaming unattended for a century, his realm and humanity are left vulnerable.
Created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer (“Foundation”), and Allan Heinberg (“Wonder Woman”), “The Sandman” is gorgeous, unfolding like an anthology. Every episode introduces us to colorful characters tangentially connected to Dream. Seamlessly running the gamut from horror to comedy and back again, the plot doesn’t require prior knowledge of the comics to be enjoyed, but it certainly does help.
The show begins with Morpheus venturing out of his realm, The Dreaming, to the human world to capture one of his creations, a nightmare entity known as The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), who eats chaos and eyeballs for breakfast. While working, Morpheus is captured by Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), a mage who was casting a spell intended to ensnare Death. At the moment of Dream’s capture, millions of people fall into comas worldwide, including a human girl, Unity Kincaid (Sandra James-Young), who will not wake until Morpheus escapes a century later.
After securing his freedom, Morpheus’ first order of business is reclaiming his tools: his helmet of protection, a ruby that makes dreams come true, and his signature pouch of sand that compels anyone it touches to sleep. Each item is charged with Morpheus’ essence and gives him immense power, and can be deadly in human hands.
His quest to reclaim his talismans and return balance to The Dreaming is the season’s main arc. Along his journey, he crosses paths with everyone, from occult detective Joanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) to Lucifer of Hell, the only character that appears to be a real threat to Dream, masterfully played by Gwendoline Christie.
However, another threat to The Dreaming is Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai), a human possessing the ability to travel through others’ dreams and give them life without the ruby. A vortex. It’s the protocol for the King of Dreams to eradicate a vortex for the safety of both realms, but The Corinthian, who has been serial killing for 100 years, has other plans. Rose must learn how to use her powers quickly if she is to save both worlds and her family.
“The Sandman” is visually stunning. From the “hand” carved bridges and waterfalls of The Dreaming to the writhing walls of human bodies in Hell, the show often juxtaposes beauty with horror. Seamless visual effects, costumes, and meticulous sound design create an immersive experience.
Sturridge is the perfect Morpheus, somehow managing to look old and young, wise and inexperienced all at once as he navigates the human world. Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer is equally impressive, exuding power, grace, and loathing with a lilt of an eyebrow. Acheampong is perfect as Dream’s jaded employ, and although Mason Alexander Park makes only a brief appearance as Desire, you can’t take your eyes off them whenever they are on the screen. Equally underused is Mervyn Pumpkinhead, The Dreaming’s janitor, voiced by Mark Hamill, who stole every scene he was in.
David Thewlis also gives a riveting performance as the twisted John Dee (aka Doctor Destiny) in “24 Hour Diner”. Here Dee holds a restaurant’s customers mentally and physically hostage, slowly stripping away their inhibitions one by one until nothing is left. The psychological and body horror displayed here is the stuff of nightmares. (Which is, of course, the point).
“The Sound of Her Wings” also stands out. It’s the only episode featuring Dream’s sister Death (Kirby-Howell-Baptiste), whose calm and thoughtful version of a reaper is a balm after the carnage of the earlier episodes, as she coaxes her traumatized sibling to touch grass once in a while.
Due to the anthology style of storytelling, the series sometimes feels like a tasting menu of a larger story, never really settling in with any character, even Dream. This is felt the most towards the season’s end when the plot suffers from pacing issues, speeding into the resolution so quickly it pulls the punch of its impact.
“The Sandman” should also be commended for being one of the most queer- and racially inclusive shows in sci-fi as of late, but in an effort to adhere to the source material, the show visually ends up painting itself into an awkward corner with some of its characters.
Although their stories are pulled directly from the source material, a Black woman dying of addiction, another caged, one as a nightmare, another disfigured, and a Black boy physically abused by his white foster parents (in fact, he’s the only Black male that survives the entire series) are all choices that have real-world implications outside of the rigors of canon, especially for fans not as familiar with graphic novels. Script changes or a more ethnically diverse cast could have easily remedied these oversights, and will hopefully be addressed as the show evolves (although it has not yet been officially renewed for a second season, there’s plenty more source material to mine).
“The Sandman” is a beautifully rendered and riveting horror thriller series with the potential to be a huge hit. Hopefully Netflix gives it another season for us to meet more of The Endless, and to work out its flaws.
“The Sandman” is now streaming on Netflix.