TL;DR – This is a genuinely odd series bouncing from one story to the next with the power of a tsunami, yet somehow it all flows together into a grand gothic fairy-tale.
Disclosure – I paid for the Netflix service that viewed this series.
Warning – Contains scenes of abuse and scenes that may cause distress.
The Sandman Review –
In 2019, I wrote an article on how we entered a New Golden Age of Science Fiction on Television. However, in the last twelve months, we have gotten, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, Shadow and Bone, The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, and more. It is such an incredible rise that I think I need to update my article and explore the new Golden Age of Fantasy on TV, and the next entry into this world is the dark gothic fairy-tale set in the modern world.
So to set the scene, humans go about their day in the real world, but every night they dream, but for some reason, they feel that The Dreaming realm is somehow less natural just because it is filled with dreams and nightmares, and they wake up in the ‘real’ world every morning, well most of the time. The Lord of this Realm is Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), one of the seven Endless, powerful beings that shape all forms of reality. In 1916, when one of his nightmares, the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), goes rogue, Morpheus takes a rare trip to the ‘real’ world to take care of the matter personally. However, at that moment, an incompetent aristocratic occultist called Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) delves into spells he does not understand because he wants to capture Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) to bring back his beloved son, who was killed in Gallipoli. Still, he gets Morpheus and binds him under his mansion for 106 years. Now from here, we will be looking at the season as a whole, so there will be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
Before we dive into the review proper, I have to clarify that I have not read the source material on which the series is based. I know the comic series is immensely loved by those who have read it, so I had some expectations of quality before I watched it. So this will be a review from the perspective of someone who is not coming in with the background details [for better or worse]. As well as this, I have enjoyed the works of Neil Gaiman in the past with the deliciously mythic American Gods, the delightfully camp Stardust, and the wild ride that was Good Omens. All of this meant that I thought I had a good sense of his style, but then nothing quite prepared me for what we got in The Sandman.
One thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was how fragmented the narrative was in this series. Throughout this season, there were several almost self-contained storylines that in any other show would have been a whole season of narrative, but not here. We get the hunt for his artifacts, the fall of John Dee (David Thewlis), and then Rose Walker’s (Kyo Ra) dream vortex. Interspersed with these overarching narratives were these standalone experiences where we take a trip down memory lane with a man who cannot die or spend a day in the life of Death. These shifts could have led to some severe tonal whiplash, but there are enough links to keep it all together so that you are ready for a story about a Cat Prophet (Sandra Oh) by the end. I assume this fractured nature comes from how the source material was delivered through the form of a comic book, and I don’t envy the people who had to adapt that to screen because it must have been an interesting challenge.
One of those linking factors is the titular Sandman himself. For the first episode, he is just a presence, an evil doom waiting to be unleashed. I thought he would end up being the most challenging part of the show because I thought he would be a dour drag on the story. But there is a sadness and power to his performance that suits a character with so much power and was removed of all agency. As the show goes on, he is both the glue that holds all the disparate stories together, but his arc about finding who he is after his trauma is compelling as he interacts with the denizens of his world like Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) and Matthew the Raven (Patton Oswalt). It also works because he is so powerful, and he will 100% hold a grudge, so you don’t know when he will choose to show kindness or terror.
While Morpheus is the core of the series, the show would not work if the many different supporting actors didn’t also come to the plate and give it their all. The Sandman would not be the show it was if we didn’t get moments like John Dee getting a lift from the good Samaritan Rosemary (Sarah Niles), only for Rosemary to discover the person she picked up could be a monster. Or Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) helping out the Anglican vicar Erica ‘Ric the Vic’ (Meera Syal) with a slight demon possession of a royal family member. You have Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) playing their games, trying to bring Morpheus down. I think for me, and looking online many other people, the highlight was on Death. This character is historically portrayed as malevolent, but here is full of life and committed to helping people take that final journey.
The central villain and person that works as the other glue in the show are the Corinthian, a nightmare who has spent the last 100 odd years carving people’s eyes out. In many ways, he is a reflection of Morpheus and a direct personification of him as Morpheus created him. Boyd’s immediate presence in the show goes beyond his sunglasses and the mouth-eyes they conceal. Every time he walks into a room, you become concerned that the characters in there will not come out alive, and in many cases, they don’t. He is an agent of chaos, and something the show needed as it came towards its concluding arc with Rose, Lyta Hall (Razane Jammal) and their housemates Hal Carter (John Cameron Mitchell), Gilbert (Stephen Fry), Barbie (Lily Travers) and Ken (Richard Fleeshman), & Chantal (Cara Horgan) and Zelda (Daisy Badger), who all come together to help find Rose’s missing brother Jed Walker (Eddie Karanja).
While the show has interesting characters in weird but engaging scenarios, that would not have been as interesting as it was if not for the themes that the show explores throughout its runtime. One of the main themes is that of fate. Indeed the Fates (Nina Wadia, Souad Faress & Dinita Gohil) are literal characters in the show. Are you destined to be a nightmare all your life, or can you be a dream? Is it your fate to always act the same way, or can you change and grow? But also, sometimes that fate is tied to your actions or inactions, and sometimes you reap what you sow. You also see this in the show’s tone, which can switch on a dime. For example, the monotonous dullness of trying to arrange a conference only to discover that this is a conference for serial killers or, as they like to be called, collectors. Or how a lovely day out at a diner becomes a slaughterhouse by the end. I think you would have gotten tonal whiplash if the show did not take the time to nit all those disparate threads together. Though I will say that probably due to Covid, a lot of this show is set in America with American characters, yet those sections still feel very English in tone.
In the end, do we recommend The Sandman: Season One? I don’t think the tone and content of the show will be for everyone. However, this was a series that seduced and then captured me as it went through its many twists and turns. Every moment is filled with exciting character beats and fantastic worlds. There was clearly more story to tell, and I hope they get a chance to dive back into this world.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Sandman
Directed by – Mike Barke, Jamie Childs, Mairzee Almas, Andrés Baiz, Coralie Fargeat, Hisko Hulsing & Louise Hooper
Written by – Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg, Jim Campolongo, Austin Guzman, Ameni Rozsa, Lauren Bello, Heather Bellson, Alexander Newman-Wise, Vanessa James Benton, Jay Franklin & Catherine Smyth-McMullen
Created by – Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer & Allan Heinberg
Based On – The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth & Mike Dringenberg
Production/Distribution Companies – PurePop Inc., The Blank Corporation, Phantom Four, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television & Netflix
Starring – Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, Vivienne Acheampong & Patton Oswalt with David Thewlis, Jenna Coleman, Gwendoline Christie, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Ferdinand Kingsley, Sandra James-Young, Kyo Ra, Razane Jammal, Melissanthi Mahut, Joely Richardson, Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, Dinita Gohil, Gianni Calchetti, Asim Chaudhry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Mason Alexander Park, Cassie Clare, John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Mark Hamill, Donna Preston, Lloyd Everitt, Eddie Karanja, Andi Osho, Ann Ogbomo, Cara Horgan, Daisy Badger, Lily Travers, Richard Fleeshman, Sam Hazeldine, Lisa O’Hare, Kerry Shale, Danny Kirrane, Jill Winternitz, Lenny Henry, Arthur Darvill & Sandra Oh and Bill Paterson, Laurie Kynaston, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Benedick Blythe, Niamh Walsh, Charles Dance, Meera Syal, Claire Higgins, Sarah Niles, Martyn Ford, Munya Chawawa, Deborah Oyelade, Ernest Kingsley Jnr, Sam Strike, Emma Duncan, Steven Brand, Laurie Davidson, Daisy Head, James Udom, Lourdes Faberes, Samuel Blenkin, Ian McNeice, Ben Wiggins, Lewis Reeves, Roger Allam, Peter de Jersey, Derek Jacobi, Rosie Day, David Gyasi, Joe Lycett, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Georgia Tennant, Michael Sheen, Anna Lundberg, Nonso Anozie, Diane Morgan, Tom Wu, Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, Dinita Gohil, Kevin Harvey, Amita Suman & Neil Gaiman
Episodes Covered – Sleep of the Just, Imperfect Hosts, Dream a Little Dream of Me, A Hope in Hell, 24/7, The Sound of Her Wings, The Doll’s House, Playing House, Collectors, Lost Hearts, Dream of a Thousand Cats & Calliope