The Sandman was never going to be an easy comic to adapt. Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece – and the saga remains, for this reviewer’s money, his best work in any medium – is such a tangled knot of plots, stories within stories, and allusions to literature, mythology, art and other cultures that defies easy translation. . You can’t change things too much without losing what makes Sandman Sandman, but by the same token, it’s impossible to just show it all on screen.
Or so we thought, because here we are, with the first episode of Netflix’s long-awaited new show and it’s not only pretty good, it’s also very close to the comic that inspired it. There are a few tweaks here and there, but if you’ve ever read and fallen in love with the goth vibe of The Sandman, then it’s hard to imagine not enjoying at least this one episode.
After a brief expository visit to the Dreaming (the ever-changing realm all humans go to when they sleep), the series picks up in 1916 as Dr. John Hathaway (Bill Paterson) heads to Wych Cross for a fateful meeting with the occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). Burgess and his magical society, The Order of Ancient Mysteries, plan to summon and bind a member of the Endless, supernatural beings who rule over different aspects of human existence. Both Hathaway and Burgess have lost children in the conflict and the wizards intend to summon Death in hopes of bringing them back to life (along with some nice optional extras like wealth, power, immortality, that sort of thing). Instead, they end up with Death’s brother Dream (Tom Sturridge). Not knowing what to do with him, Burgess imprisons Morpheus in his mansion and leaves him to rot for decades to come.
The rest of “Sleep of the Just” follows the effects of Dream’s imprisonment on our world. With Morpheus cut off from the realm of him, people start getting sick in the waking world, either falling permanently unconscious or never sleeping. A decade passes and Randall Burgess has become wealthy and influential, thanks in part to his use of Dream’s totems of power: the helm, the ruby, and the sandbag. Meanwhile, Burgess’s other son, Alex (Laurie Kynaston), has grown resentful of his cruel and vindictive father. Could it be the key to Dream’s eventual escape?
Alex is, in many ways, the main character of this episode and Kynaston is excellent in the role, highlighting both Alex’s capacity for empathy and ultimately the inertia and cowardice that will be his undoing. He is also a prisoner, in a way, trapped by an intimidating and dismissive father. He comes close to freeing Morpheus several times, but fear of his father stops him, even after Burgess is finally killed. And when Alex shoots Jessamy the raven and kills him in front of Morpheus, he crushes Dream’s hope of escape, dooming himself to a terrible end in the process.
Eventually, of course, Dream breaks free, thanks to Alex’s adult partner Paul (Christopher Colquhoun), who deliberately breaks the magic circle. The scene where Morpheus confronts a couple of comical guards is more than a little corny (“Why do you call him Dracula?” “Because I think he’s one of those Draculas!”), but it’s offset by the charming and straight-up comics imagery of Dream arching through the air as he finally returns home after a century of incarceration.
Even better is the sequence where Morpheus confronts Alex one last time, his eyes glowing ominously, as he condemns him to endless sleep. It’s a tragic and satisfying fate for his former captor and one that says something important about Dream: He can be wise and generally “good,” but he can also be terrifying and vindictive. Mortals who mess with the Eternals tend to meet very unpleasant fates.
This is an unusual start for a series, in many ways, focusing more on the impact of Morpheus’ absence on our world and on Alex than on who Dream really is, but that’s the nature of this story. Dream is ultimately as much a universal feature and event watcher as he is a traditional protagonist. We don’t see much of Dreaming itself – there’s more of that in the next episode – but “Sleep of the Just” does a good job of setting up the world(s) of the show, laying out numerous paths that we’ll follow next. nine, often very strange! – episodes.
Analysis: How It Compares To The Comics
For the most part, this is a very faithful adaptation. We are not going to worry about the slight change of name or the change of gender of some characters; Honestly, why would you? – only the big changes in the story.
The most notable change is the role of the Corinthian. In the comics, he is not introduced to her until issue #10, part of the Doll’s House arc (which makes up the second half of this season). Setting it up here makes a lot of sense though, both in terms of proving a common thread for the show and how Burgess knows how to build a prison for one of the Endless.
Speaking of Burgess, her character is fleshed out a lot more here. His desire to bring Randall back to life seems sincere and he is driven by both pain and a desire for power. There is no mention of his dead son in the comics, where he manipulates those around him. His accidental death at the hands of Alex is also new: he previously died of what appears to be a heart attack brought on by stress and old age.
The other big change is Jessamy. The raven barely appears in the original run of the comic, it was introduced in #1. #29 and then reappeared in some of the spin-offs. His death here adds another layer of melancholy to Morpheus’ plight and another reason for him to feel anger, rather than pity, toward Alex.
Fables and reflections
In the 1926 footage we see a couple of Kincaid Sugar ads in the newspaper Alex is reading and the one Jessamy sets on fire. The Kincaid family actually appears in this episode: Unity Kincaid is the girl who suffers from sleeping sickness. We’ll come back to her later in the show…
One of the guards Morpheus overpowers is reading a copy of The Sun. The headline for that edition (dated Tuesday, May 25, 2021) is LOVE SHOOTER, BABY EATEN BY COWS. He is, fortunately, not real. The real headline that day was the much less exciting LITTLE MIX LEIGH-ANNE STOLEN OF £40k RING. The other guard is reading a copy of Stephen King’s IT.
No fewer than four people play Alex. In addition to Laurie Kynaston, we also see her six-year-old self played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, with Simon Bundock as her stunt double. And finally, Benedick Blythe plays Alex, 70 years old.
The Sandman is now streaming on Netflix. For more streaming options, check out our list of the best Netflix shows available right now.