With the first episode of The Sandman introducing us to our protagonist and setting the overall plot of the series in motion, Imperfect Hosts is the first “regular” episode of The Sandman. It also makes one thing very clear: there is absolutely no such thing as a regular Sandman episode.
Morpheus has returned to the Dreaming, only to find his kingdom in ruins after his century of imprisonment. He attempts to restore it, but his powers are depleted and without his tools (the ruby, helmet, and sandbag taken from him) he is more or less useless. Despite what Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) says, resting simply isn’t going to cut it; he needs to recover stolen property from him and that means visiting some old friends.
He first visits Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry), a pair of dreams that represent “the first murderer and the first victim.” Morpheus needs to absorb some of his own creation, so he sacrifices his pet gargoyle, Gregory. Cain doesn’t take it well and murders his brother in a fit of pique, though as we quickly learn, this isn’t particularly unusual. Cain kills Abel several times in this episode, but he never gets to keep the unfortunate younger brother who always sadly comes back to life.
With Gregory reduced to sand, Dream now has all the power he needs to enter another aspect of Dreaming where he collects offerings for The Three (Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, and Dinita Gohil), a trio of goddesses who can help him track his robes down. . The clues they give him are pretty oblique, but he at least gets a solid clue: an occultist named Johanna Constantine was once in possession of her sandbag.
Meanwhile, in the waking world, we meet Roderick Burgess’s ex-lover, Ethel Cripps (Joely Richardson), now living as an art dealer in New York under the pseudonym Madame Daudet. She looks remarkably well for someone who is over 100 years old right now. That’s thanks to a magical protection amulet that comes in handy when the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) calls. She is also looking for Dream’s tools, which she took from Burgess. Ethel reveals that she no longer has them and that her son John took the ruby. When Corinthian tries to threaten her, she uses her amulet to send him kicking and screaming back to the Dreaming, and then goes to visit John in the maximum security psych ward where she is currently being held.
‘Imperfect Hosts’ is quirky, acting as a bridge between the pilot and the quest narrative that makes up the upcoming episodes. As with ‘Sleep of the Just’, it’s largely very faithful to the comic, hitting all the plot beats from The Sandman #2, while also weaving Corinthian’s ongoing vendetta against Dream. It’s not bad, but without the believable human characters (Ethel, as a basically immortal magician, barely counts!) that grounded the last episode, it’s not nearly as compelling either.
Cain and Abel are funny. There are some nice pictures throughout and oddities to spare, but the question of exactly why Morpheus needs to rebuild the Dreaming is too lazy at this point. We get that it’s important because he’s the lead and because Tom Sturridge is doing a good job in the title role, but dramatically it’s pretty inert with most of the episode just a succession of characters coming together to talk about obscure magical rules that they don’t we know. I don’t understand yet.
I didn’t mention the footage much in the first episode because there was so much else going on and because frankly I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Some work perfectly (Dream’s ruined castle opening image is lovely), but others, like Lucienne and the Corinthian on the shores of Dreaming, have some weird depth-of-field issues that make everything look impossibly flat. This is a big and imaginative show, but it seems the effects budget has been spread too thin in some places.
Analysis: How It Compares To The Comics
The biggest change here is, once again, the presence of the Corinthian. He’s doing the exact same thing he was in episode one: meeting a human to try and use against his former master. The scenes of him with Ethel have the unfortunate effect of undermining him almost immediately. He shows up, threatens her, and she banishes him back to the Dreaming. This is the big villain of the season and we’re already seeing him kick some butt in pretty spectacular fashion.
The other big change is the character of John Dee. The character is more or less the same, as is the bond with Ethel, but his story is very different. Here he is a psychopath locked up in a high security psychiatric hospital. In the comics, he is a full-fledged supervillain, Dr. Destiny, languishing in Arkham Asylum after numerous run-ins with the Justice League. The change makes sense though, there’s enough going on in this show already to wonder if we’re about to see Batman or Wonder Woman move on.
Finally, in the comic, Morpheus doesn’t need to sacrifice Gregory: he can get the power he needs from the cards he gave to Cain and Abel. Yes, the cute gargoyle lives!
Fables and reflections
At just under 38 minutes, this is in some ways the shortest episode of the season.
The Three are some of the most powerful characters in the Sandman pantheon. They are also known by other names, including the Three Sisters, the Fates, the Furies, and, more sinisterly, the Kindly Ones.
The Sandman is now streaming on Netflix. For more streaming options, check out our list of the best Netflix shows available right now.