The Sandman – Season 1

Aug 23, 2022 | Posted by in TV

The first season of The Sandman is upon us, and one of the primary questions that must be asked is whether it does its expansive source material justice. Short answer: Yes. Definitely. Absolutely. However, more important is the related but not specifically synonymous question of is it actually good? Slightly shorter answer: Oh hell yes!

The comics’ writer Neil Gaiman has spent the best part of three decades battling adaptations of his work that wouldn’t and couldn’t come to any kind of adequate fruition, and evidently decided to go with the old adage about wanting things done right. Of course, he has prior showrunning experience in adapting Good Omens, an apocalyptic fantasy novel he wrote with Discworld author Terry Pratchett prior to when either attained stratospheric success for their respective creations, but it’s a little more straightforward to adapt a single novel with a relatively linear plot than it is the opening instalments of a 75-issue comic book series with a narrative that spans millennia. Unlike other shows adapted from adult-oriented comics like The Boys or Preacher that use little more than base concepts and characters, the four-colour pages are followed closely, albeit with noticeable alterations that serve to streamline the story and prevent those who’ve read ahead from knowing everything that’s going to happen.

The Sandman

Lost Dream

Things kick off with a cabal of magi summoning and imprisoning the Dream Lord Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) after having intended to ensnare Morpheus’ sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) with the hope of containing what they perceive as her influence over humanity. What they expect is bargaining with some extra-planar entity like their grimoires have told them, rather than decades of being ignored and having nothing but an uncooperative prisoner standing in silent witness to the depths of their failure.

Even though he has a reactive introduction, right from the off Sturridge embodies Morpheus, not only from the lanky and wiry frame and pallid complexion perfectly matching his comics counterpart, but also the taciturn arrogance of the character that occasionally makes way for flashes of darkness threatening the nigh-bottomless extent of his power and experience. As the series progresses and we learn more of his nature we begin to understand what drives him, as well as realising just how much more about him there is to uncover.

After Morpheus’ escape, his journey to reclaim his totems of power and restore himself to what he once was takes us across places familiar and otherworldly, from the hidden basement of a mansion to an abstract dreamscape to the backstreets of London to the very depths of Hell itself to a madness-plagued diner. In the process, we have the scope of the nocturnal otherworld opened up to us, along with how it interacts on the very fringes of our reality, visible only to those it has already touched and know what to watch out for.

The Sandman

Fallen kingdom

Naturally, Hell was always going to be one of the most complex sequences to realise, with effects-heavy rendering portraying the underworld in all its vitality-sapping gloom where you can practically hear the echoes of damned souls wailing in eternal torment drifting on some ethereal breeze beneath a decaying ashen sky choked by the thick smoke of torturous pyres. Appropriately, it creates an atmosphere of hopelessness that merely the prospect of being within would make the hardiest of us want to drop in surrender.

The shape-changing duel between Morpheus and Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) is a tense and imaginative set-piece, albeit over too quickly, and demonstrates the rules and traditions by which beings of eternity operate when interacting with one another. It reminds us that even though the characters are being presented in human form they are in actuality anything but, and as such cannot be expected to think and act in ways that you or I would. Lucifer’s colossal arrogance incapable of allowing to let pass even the most imagined slight makes them more of an enemy than they already were, while Morpheus escaping by turning the very nature of Hell against its ruler suggests both the reach his power has and the myriad ways it can be called upon.

Morpheus’ venturing into the mortal realm forms sections not as overwhelming but no less imaginative. Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) was something of a controversial choice for reasons you’ve probably read about and I have neither the inclination nor the patience to go into. Nevertheless, she carries herself with the same swaggering confidence and flirtatious charm as her more familiar counterpart, undercut by her haunted torment from carrying of the weight of her errors of judgement, in particular her failure to save a young girl killed during an exorcism. No amount of projected bravado can truly silence the torment of her guilt, and Coleman balances the two states beautifully. Likewise, John Dee (David Thewlis) is clearly unbalanced and dangerous, but there is sympathy to him you’re reluctant to allow yourself to feel, giving the impression that in a better world he would have been helped through his eroding empathy and encroaching madness, preventing him from growing into the malevolent danger he became.

After Morpheus regains his stolen possessions (and has some sense browbeaten into him by his sister), his next task is to track down a dream vortex in the form of a young woman named Rose Walker (Kyo Ra), whose very existence threatens the fabric of reality, while the girl’s own story sees her searching for her younger brother Jed who has disappeared into the foster system. Ra plays Rose with a vulnerability clear even through her only partially feigned confidence, but also one that doesn’t hamper her determination to see her mission through to its end. Although it’s some time before she realises and truly understands just how much danger she’s actually in, it doesn’t cheapen her growth along the physical and personal journey on which she finds herself. Even when it’s revealed the only way for a vortex to be dissipated is for the person it embodies to die, she accepts her fate in the knowledge it will save the world (and more pressingly, her new friends she helplessly watched the gathering maelstrom swallow only moments previously).

The Sandman

Lord of the Pit

We also get a bonus episode of two one-shot stories, the first of a cat prophet (Sandra Oh) preaching about how all it would take to rewrite existence with felines as giant predators and humans their playthings is a thousand of them to dream of it, and the other involving Calliope (Melissanthi Mahut), a literal muse and Morpheus’ former wife, imprisoned and drained for inspiration by desperate authors. While tangential to the principal narrative they are in no way surplus to it, reinforcing to the viewer of how bound immortals are by traditions they had no role in forming, and also that the inhabitants of this ephemeral realm on the edges of reality have lives of their own that don’t revolve around the Dream King’s presence.

The initial episodic structure could be a little off-putting, leaping past fantastical concepts and bizarre characters with barely a pause for breath to acknowledge them, while hinting at actions and story only vaguely alluded to. While this accurately reflects the swift worldbuilding and lack of in-depth explanations given at the series’ beginning, there is also the risk of it seeming like background understanding has been assumed and the adaptation is flitting past it for the sake of narrative expediency. Also on the subject of apparent oversights, there is the replication of one of the loose ends of the comics’ original run, specifically how Morpheus, a being practically omnipotent, could have ever been summoned and bound by the magic of human mortals wielded by the small cult of a sorcerer little more than a charlatan. Gaiman intended to tell the story during the comics’ initial run but it never seemed to fit anywhere, and it was ultimately related many years later in a six-issue prequel series titled Overture. If you’re familiar with its featured events you can mentally slot them in, but without that prior knowledge the gap seems like something of an omission.

However, the potentially disjointed nature of events is partially held together by the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a literal creature of nightmare created by Morpheus to reflect humanity, and in his creator’s absence found his calling as a serial killer. His schemes to imprison or destroy Morpheus do a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes, shunting unsuspecting individuals towards information they might otherwise have missed and aiding him in his goal of removing his former master from play and maintaining his freedom to terrorise the waking world, while his manipulative sociopathy convinces of how he could have moved through the shadows for over a century as he preys on humanity. Additionally, using Morpheus’ new raven Matthew (Patton Oswalt) as an audience surrogate was an inspired choice, as having him around to ask bemused questions prevents exposition instead being delivered by introspective narration, and makes the judicious dropping of details more natural in addition to pointedly underscoring when Morpheus chooses not to disclose something.

The Sandman

The not-so-grim reaper

When the comics first began being published there were some attempts to tie it into the larger DC universe it’s technically a part of, its events even retconning some established details. Early on, there are brief appearances from characters like Wesley Dodds, the Scarecrow, Martian Manhunter, Etrigan the Demon and Mister Miracle, and one panel even features cameos from Green Lantern and Batman. The problem is, drafting in such individuals would have been distractingly jarring, as it’s very much not a superhero show and having that presence would have been an unwelcome distraction, not to mention giving an inaccurate indication of how it would progress. As a result, most of them have been excised or replaced, while those who remain such as John Dee or Lyta Hall (Razane Jammal), are hardly household names and so to reimagine them as ordinary humans caught up in mystic forces beyond their ken doesn’t do them any disservice. Also, while not intentional, having a gender-flipped version of John Constantine helps to distance Johanna from the superhero worlds John has most recently been a part of in live-action TV and animated movies.

The story isn’t just about one eternal being’s journey towards self-awareness but is also heavily focused on how the presence of such entities affects humanity, most powerfully and memorably with Death. The character’s charisma, vibrancy and spirit are perfectly realised, but none risk lessening either her dedication to her responsibilities or the sensitivity she has for the people she crosses over. If your end was at hand and hers was the last face you saw the dread of finding out what happens next would be eased a little, which is precisely the point. Be it consoling a junkie freed from her suffering by a lethal overdose or being pleasant to a young man clumsily trying to flirt with her, she sees everyone for who they truly are and knows just what to say to let them do the same. A more malevolent side of things comes from their sibling Desire (Mason Alexander Park), whose animosity towards Morpheus is made as clear as how little they care about the humans used in their manipulative games.

I mentioned in my introductory article that the story is driven by the theme of personal growth, and while there are seeds of such a theme firmly planted in its rich narrative soil, such as with the shapeshifting nightmare Gault (Andi Osho and Ann Ogbomo) wanting to inspire rather than terrify, just as significant is the notion of regret and how the desire to atone for past mistakes is a universal constant, be it for ordinary humans or anthropomorphic personifications of the functions of existence common to all sentient life. As well as those previously mentioned, like Johanna, it extends to the inclusion of Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), an ordinary man given immortality in the 14th century by Death to satiate Morpheus’ curiosity. He begins his newfound longevity with learning that by natural causes or otherwise he will eventually watch everyone he knows and loves die and as a result he can never truly be close to anyone, not to mention presumably (hopefully) harbouring eternal guilt over his heavy involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

The Sandman

Unmaking a murderer

Morpheus himself comes to realise how much he takes for granted those most loyal to him, and it begins to gradually dawn on him how much suffering his aloof arrogance has caused over the millennia. It begins quietly, such as acknowledging that he was dismissive of his librarian Lucienne’s (Vivienne Acheampong) loyalty and diligence in acting as de facto caretaker of the Dreaming while he was imprisoned, and he even allows himself to begin feeling and expressing empathy, seen in his behaviour towards Calliope now that he partially understands what she endured while imprisoned for decades by selfish humans.

However, these are small developments for a being who has existed for immeasurable eons, and will seem exceptionally minor when contrasted against Nada, Morpheus’ lover he damned to ten thousand years in Hell for a reason that will infuriate and disgust you when you learn it. Any change in him would be slow in truly materialising, and it takes him first recognising the errors in his actions for him to then make amends for them, but the very fact he is aware that he could benefit from doing so is in itself a small degree of growth. It’s worth reiterating that even though Morpheus looks human and spends much of the series interacting with them he is anything but, and as such the way he reacts to certain situations might seem unusual, but isn’t out of the ordinary for someone for whom humanity is little more than a curiosity rather than something with which he feels any true kinship. Either way, it’s this willingness to own the mistakes we’ve made and retain the desire to atone for them that makes the actions of the characters relatably human, whether or not they themselves actually are.

It’s worth mentioning, if it were not already clear, that I am very much one of the people this series was made for. I’m a gigantic nerd (obviously; it’s necessary for writing for a site such as this), and have loved the comics for so long I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read them. So in that regard the series more than satisfies. However, adaptations aren’t just for a work’s existing legions of fans, but should also be accessible for people coming into the property blind. And this is where it excels; even though the genre is firmly rooted in fantasy with more than a few grace notes of horror its themes remain universal, beginning an engrossing experience for those who’ve never heard of the title or perhaps haven’t even picked up a comic book in their lives.

The Sandman

The Heart of the Dreaming returns


The Sandman is a nigh-flawless adaptation of a seminal work, and everything newcomers could want and existing fans could have hoped for. The blending of a phantasmagorical otherworld with the drab reality of the everyday fully evokes its mix of traditional and urban fantasy, with tinges of the horror that comes with the terror of mortals dealing with entities older and more powerful than they can comprehend. It’s brought to life by the wide assortment of distinctive characters played to perfection, and driven by eternal themes relatable to anyone who watches.

  • 9/10
    The Sandman - 9/10


Kneel Before…

  • the story’s accessibility for new fans
  • the gradual beginnings of Morpheus’ character growth
  • the greater presence of the Corinthian
  • excising the comics’ early superhero links
  • the exceptional casting, most notably Tom Sturridge, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Gwendoline Christie, Kyo Ra and Jenna Coleman
  • changes to the story preventing existing fans from predicting everything
  • using Matthew as an audience surrogate to prevent expository voiceovers
  • the themes of guilt, regret and the desire to change
  • judicious effects work realising the fantastical otherworlds


Rise Against…

  • no real justification for how a being as powerful as Morpheus could be trapped by mortal magic
  • newcomers possibly feeling like details have been omitted


What did you think? Select your rating in the “User Review” box below

User Review
9.33/10 (18 votes)

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