The Sandman: Chapter 2 – Imperfect Hosts

“He’s out of his cage and he’s coming for us. You and me.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Like ep1, ep2 takes its title directly from the original issue 2 of the comic. Unlike ep1 however, it’s less of a straight adaptation – the original scenes are intercut with more of the machinations of the Corinthian, showing us how he’s influencing the events of the story.

It has to be said that, without that, it would be a pretty slender story; as it is, the ep only runs to about 38 minutes, far shorter than the opener. Its main function is to introduce us to more of the characters and concepts of the Dreaming, but it’s fair to say not a lot actually happens. Morpheus takes stock of what’s left of the Dreaming; he consults the Fates as to the whereabouts of his magical tools; he goes off to find them.

But again, this is driven more by character than plot. And what characters! Last time we met Lucienne, keeper of the Dream realm’s library; this time, we also meet legendary brothers Cain and Abel, proprietors of the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets, and the embodiments of one of humanity’s earliest stories – the very first murder, which they reenact on a more or less daily basis.

While Neil Gaiman obviously intended Cain and Abel to be representative of the original Biblical characters, they’re also obscure denizens of the DC Universe. House of Mystery and House of Secrets were originally 1950s horror anthology comics, with Cain and Abel as the respective ‘hosts’ introducing the stories. They’ve popped in and out of DC continuity for decades, but until Neil used them in The Sandman, they were fairly obscure characters.

That’s important, because so many of the characters used in the original Sandman comic were obscure DC characters. Issue 5, though, also features guest spots from the Justice League and various prisoners in Gotham’s Arkham Asylum.

Here’s where things get knotty. Warners and DC already have various ongoing films and TV series constituting the DC Extended Universe, and the rights are… complicated. Plus, it’s fair to say that, as the comic series really got into its stride, having Superman and Batman pop in on a regular basis would have been very jarring – a bright, gaudy superhero comic this is not.

So, it’s ok to have Cain and Abel (and various other resurrected, forgotten characters now only known through Sandman these days). But I don’t think we’re going to see any of the DCU’s major players here. There’ll be more discussion of this in later episodes, because it certainly does get complex.

Here, though, we get Cain played by Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Abel by Asim Chaudhry. And they’re both perfect, encapsulating these mythic but essentially comic figures exactly as they were portrayed in the comics.

But this takes me onto an even knottier issue that some fans have had with the casting of the show. Both Cain and Abel were originally drawn as being white (Cain in particular had an intentional resemblance to Vincent Price). So some fans have reacted with uproar to the casting of non-white actors in the roles.

So let’s get this clear – firstly, they’re perfect for the roles. Secondly, if they’re the Biblical Cain and Abel, OF COURSE they’re not white. And thirdly, Sandman the comic was a trailblazer for diversity of race, gender, and so much more. If you object to its TV adaptation continuing that trend, I humbly suggest you didn’t get the point when you read the comics.

Lucienne is another case in point. Like Cain and Abel, ‘Lucien’ (as he then was) was the host of a horror anthology series, Tales of Ghost Castle. Also like Cain and Abel, he had previously always been depicted as a white man. Here, we get ‘Lucienne’ (the feminine version of this French name), who’s neither white nor a man. But, played by Vivienne Acheampong with the exact same glasses and tailcoat, it’s still obviously the Lucien from the comics. It’s a great performance, and if your problem with it is the actor’s race or gender, then you really didn’t get the point when you read the comics.

Anyway, after much consultation with these denizens of the Dreaming, Morpheus needs to talk to someone who actually has the answers he seeks – the Fates. The Furies. Later to be known, terrifyingly, as the Kindly Ones.

I’d forgotten the series introduced them this early, but they were present in the original issue 2 as well. Hailing from Greek mythology, they’re a gestalt feminine entity consisting of three incarnations of femininity – the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Here, as in the comic, they’re portrayed as interchangeable aspects of the same being; and again, the imagery matches the original art.

They’re also, as is common in myths, irritatingly cryptic in their answers. So, Morpheus gets three questions, which they answer in an infuriatingly non-specific way. His ruby was “passed from a mother to a son” (no mention of their names), his helmet was “traded to a demon” (no names again), but finally, an actual lead – his pouch of sand was “last purchased” by a certain Johanna Constantine (of whom more in the ep3 review).

So off he goes to London via a magically parted lake, which will obviously lead into the next ep. While all this has been going on, though, the ep has been bolstered by a tense confrontation between the Corinthian and Roderick Burgess’ old girlfriend Ethel Cripps (Joely Richardson). Interweaving between the scenes set in the Dreaming, much of this is exposition, but Richardson and Boyd Holbrook play it as a dangerous meeting beneath a veneer of civility. It’s the first time we get a decent look at the Corinthian’s mouth-eyes, but importantly it fills us in on what happened to Morpheus’ talismans at a point where the man himself has far less information.

It also introduces another magical artefact that will play an important role, which as I recall didn’t feature in the original comics – the Amulet of Protection, which rather gruesomely disintegrates anyone attempting to harm its wearer. The Corinthian’s not human, so he gets to reconstitute himself in the Dreaming. Others will not be so lucky.

Still, it worries Ethel enough to go and warn her estranged son – John Dee, played with marvellous weariness and restraint by the reliable David Thewlis. Again, conflicts with the wider DC Universe have led to a change in his character. Originally, John Dee (not coincidentally the name of Elizabeth I’s court astrologer) was a minor league supervillain who went by the name of Dr Destiny, and was imprisoned in Arkham Asylum after being apprehended by the Justice League.

Here though, the showrunners are either forbidden from, or want to distance themselves from, the wider DC Universe. So this John Dee is still a prisoner in a psychiatric facility – but it’s not Arkham Asylum, being located in Buffalo NY, rather than Gotham. He has the same history of psychotic murder, influenced by the ruby his mother stole from Morpheus – but at no point is he referred to as “Doctor Destiny”. With Thewlis, what we get is a slightly pathetic, but still intrinsically frightening character who seems more like Brian Cox’s genial first incarnation of Hannibal Lecter. It’s plain he’s going on the same plot journey as in the comics, but he’s no longer a habitué of the same world as the Justice League.

This second episode doesn’t advance the plot very much. But it’s important to introduce us to yet more of The Sandman’s world, and to introduce us to some very memorable characters. If the comic is followed even loosely, they all have important parts to play, so this widening of the ensemble is necessary. It’s also charming – Cain and Abel are impossible to dislike, and with the introduction of the befuddled John Dee, we’ve been introduced to another of the important antagonists of the series. On to ep3, then, where things will really start to get going.

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