The first issue of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning and influential The Sandman arrived in comic book stores in 1989, published by DC, marking the birth of a long-running saga that would go on to be collected in volumes of graphic novels and rank on The New York Times Best Sellers list. With comic book adaptations filling our screens for the past couple of decades, the revered property has long been a prime target for a movie, but as Gaiman told The Queer Review, none of the screenplays that came his way succeeded in capturing the spirit of the work and suffered from trying to cram the narrative into a couple of hours. With the ten-episode first season of The Sandman, which launches today on Netflix, Gaiman has adapted it himself, developing the series with showrunner Allan Heinberg and executive producer David S. Goyer. The result is well worth the wait.
I came to the Netflix series having a familiarity with and admiration for some of Gaiman’s other work and a sense of Sandman’s iconography and legacy, but without having read the original comics or graphic novels. What I encountered was a thrilling surprise, so I will avoid going into too much detail with the plot and characters. The action largely takes place between the waking world and the sleeping one, the Dreaming, which is ruled by Morpheus; the Sandman, Master of Dreams (a fantastic, subtle, and brooding Tom Sturridge). He is one of the Endless family of immortal rulers including his calmer, more mature sister, Death (a charming, effortlessly natural Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who is less like the Grim Reaper and more akin to a compassionate hospice nurse; then there’s his appropriately cheerless sister Despair (Donna Preston); and their mischievous, genderfluid sibling Desire (a captivating Mason Alexander Park on deliciously seductive form), who makes several impactful appearances as the season progresses.
We first encounter Dream in the early 20th century at a pivotal time in his eternal existence. While an eyeless hunky anthropomorphic nightmare known as the Corinthian (an enticingly menacing Boyd Holbrook) has escaped the Dreaming and is wreaking havoc in the waking world, the Sandman is captured by a devious British man, Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). Burgess was using dark magic in the hopes that he could strike a bargain with Death to bring back his dead son, who perished in the recent Gallipoli campaign. Instead, he ends up mistakenly catching Dream and decides to keep him. Stripped naked, and deprived of his all-powerful tools—his sand, helmet, and ruby—the Sandman is imprisoned in a glass sphere in the basement of Burgess’ English countryside mansion, where he remains for a hundred years. Fortunately for Dream—though he seems unable to appreciate her efforts—his chief librarian, Lucienne (a wonderful Vivienne Acheampong), took it upon herself to become the guardian of the Dreaming while he was missing.
It’s an enthralling opening premise that’s beautifully rendered with some majestic cinematography by George Steel, stunning production design by Gary Steele, and exquisite costumes by Sarah Arthur. All elements that continue to impress throughout the season, along with first-rate visual and special effects by Ian Markiewicz and Mark Holt respectively, including Dream’s realm in all its glory and later in its bleak state of neglected disrepair. The most breathtaking moments though generally come not from the spectacular visuals, but in the expansive scope of the piece, its delicate dance between genres, its imaginative and fully-realized characters, and in the consistently strong acting performances, with some inspired casting choices by Lucinda Syson.
Despite the epic scope, there’s such clarity in the storytelling and a sense that whatever is happening on screen at any given moment is the most vital event; unlike other bloated shows, nothing here feels like filler. While every character is introduced in a way that we can imagine the narrative being told from their perspective, and the shift between who we spend time with keeps things unpredictable and exciting. There are some tense action sequences, but equally gripping drama and touching emotionally potent moments too. One of the standout episodes is the fifth, 24/7, which sees the long-neglected John Dee (David Thewlis)—who has come into the possession of some of the Sandman’s powers—intent on making the human race truthful about how they are feeling and what they want. He experiments within the microcosm of a Hopper-esque roadside diner. Written by Ameni Rozsa (Yellowjeackets) and directed by Jamie Childs (Doctor Who), the expertly plotted and paced episode sees Dee observe the customers and staff as they let down their guards and embrace their true desires. As it unfolds, several queer characters reveal themselves; those who had already embraced their sexuality and those who were only able to thanks to Dee’s removal of their inhibitions and the limitations they had placed upon themselves.
As the season unfurled itself, I lost count of the number of queer characters that emerged, which is thrilling enough in itself. Sweet dreams are made of this kind of queer characterization. Here, queerness is an aspect of a character that isn’t given any more weight than anything else, never sensationalized, judged, or telegraphed; it’s just part of who they are. For instance, we meet the charismatic, no-nonsense Johanna Constantine (a terrific Jenna Coleman) in the present-day as she’s been hired to perform an exorcism ahead of a royal wedding in London. We get to know her and see her in action before we learn that she happens to have an ex-girlfriend whom she ghosted months before, but the love between them remains deep. Later in the season we meet the bohemian Hal (a delightfully mellow and alluring John Cameron Mitchell), who runs a boarding house in Florida, with Barbary Lane vibes. His eclectic range of house guests includes the apparently perfect heteronormative couple Ken (Richard Fleeshman) and Barbie (Lily Travers); the surprisingly endearing taxidermy-spider-collecting goths (perhaps sisters, friends, or lovers) Chantal (Daisy Badger) and Zelda (Cara Horgan); and Gilbert (Stephen Fry in a role that fits like a glove), an eccentric English gent who dresses a little like Sherlock Holmes, and lives in the attic.
Hal, who is immediately smitten by a handsome man he meets on the beach—again, with no comment, authorial or otherwise on either of those characters being queer—had envisioned a future for himself on Broadway, but his performances are now mostly restricted to a local nightclub, and to his dreams, where he watches his Lucille Ball-esque drag persona perform numbers from Gypsy. The way that the series frequently contrasts a character’s reality with the dreams of what they hoped their life would be, is beautifully nuanced and often poignant. Like the sleeping life of Lyta (Razane Jammal)—who has come to stay at Hal’s with the young Rose Walker (an excellent Vanesu Samunyai) to help her in her quest to find her missing brother Jed (Eddie Karanja)—which is permeated with powerful visions of her dead husband Hector (Lloyd Everitt) and what their marriage might have been like. Dreams which begin to bleed into reality.
Over the course of the season, we’re deftly taken back in time hundreds of centuries in one episode, where we encounter Shakespeare, then dragged down to the depths of hell in another, ruled by Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie). The Game of Thrones favourite makes for a bewitching devil, who revels in her power while also appearing to be a little insecure and conflicted as she presides over a population of unruly demons. Bowie was one of the inspirations that Gaiman gave his original comic book illustrators, and Christie’s fallen angel has rockstar swagger and a showstopping wardrobe to match. As her and the Sandman come face-to-face in conflict, it’s not about the dominance of physical strength or supernatural powers as we’ve come to expect from so many other comic book adaptations, but an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat cerebral fight of imaginative dexterity. Hell’s high-stakes version of rock paper scissors.
The Sandman is equally adept at shifting tones as it is genres and timelines. Along with some grisly, genuinely disturbing scenes, there’s plenty of humour here too, albeit rather dark in the case of the fratricidal Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry). There are also some gorgeous fantasy creatures like the ever-dependable raven, Matthew (voiced by Patton Oswalt who brings rich character work and great comic timing), which Dream reluctantly allows to assist him; a cute gargoyle hatchling, Goldie; and a grumpy pumpkin-headed janitor (Nicholas Anscombe) who loyally remained in the Dreaming throughout the Sandman’s century-long absence. These fantasy elements don’t detract from the series’ more profound moments; rather the grand, metaphysical setting allows for a distinctive prism with which to examine our existence through. It’s darn good entertainment too. The good news is, the creators are already talking about a second season. In the meantime, I’m going to rewatch this one—yes, it’s that good—and count those queer characters.
By James Kleinmann
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix. Watch the official trailer and exclusive interviews with The Sandman cast and series creators below: