The Sandman: Chapter 3 – Dream a Little Dream of Me

“Morpheus. The oneiromancer. You know, the Sandman. He’s back.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

As with the comics, part 3 of The Sandman is where the story really gets going. Finally given a lead on the whereabouts of his lost magical totems, Morpheus hotfoots it to London, where he has a lead on his inexhaustible pouch of sand. But at this point, the comics were still making a show of being part of the wider DC Universe, and it was perhaps inevitable that the Lord of Dream would run into one of its most notable magical denizens – John Constantine.

Except not here. Perhaps due to the aforementioned rights issues; Constantine as we know him had his own series (cancelled after one season), then became a regular in the Arrowverse, most notably in Legends of Tomorrow, a very different show tonally to The Sandman. Matt Ryan’s portrayal of Constantine is excellent, but to my mind he’s never had the appropriate show to showcase it in.

So what we get here is, intriguingly, Johanna Constantine, perfectly incarnated by Jenna Coleman. Johanna’s an interesting one – she was originally conceived by Neil Gaiman as an 18th century ancestor of John, which was referred to in the previous ep (“I knew a Constantine. But that was three hundred years ago.”). Either unable or unwilling to use John, the showrunners fell back on making the character a modern namesake of her own ancestor. Now, those who know my nerdy tastes know that John Constantine is absolutely my favourite comic book character. So you’d think I’d be pretty unhappy with this change, right?

Wrong. Much as I praised Matt Ryan’s performance, Jenna Coleman is perhaps the best version of Constantine I’ve ever seen. It helps that the dialogue is perfect Constantine – all cynicism, weariness and deadpan snark. It feels like this could have been played by an actor of either gender and still have been a great portrayal. And Coleman delivers the lines perfectly, albeit with a London accent rather than a Scouse one. Bonus points too for being the first live action version to pronounce the name correctly, as repeatedly pointed out by John in the comics (the last syllable rhymes with “fine”). Admittedly I did miss Constantine’s chain smoking habit, but I can see why a modern show might not want to depict that.

While the show is generally steering clear of references to other DC series, this was a treasure trove of references to Constantine’s history and the characters associated with him/her. References were made to best friend Chas and his dragonish wife Renee; Constantine’s exes were listed as the same ones from the comics, notably Oliver and Kit Ryan. We also got to see Neil’s own addition to the Vertigo London – the centuries-old bag lady Mad Hettie. Without even a closeup I could tell that this was the magnificent Clare Higgins chewing the scenery.

Needing to establish the character for those unfamiliar with it, the ep opened with a nightmare version of its most defining trauma – the failed exorcism at the Casanova Club in Newcastle which led to the death (and condemnation to Hell) of an innocent little girl. This was nicely subtle; for years mentioning “Newcastle” to John would provoke massive PTSD, but here only the Geordie accents gave away the location.

We also got a proper Constantine story in miniature before the Dream Lord even showed up, the better to establish the character. It was perfectly in keeping with the socio-political subtexts Hellblazer always had (an aspect sorely missing in every live action adaptation) that Johanna had to stage an exorcism at the secret marriage of a British princess to a famous footballer. It was also pure Constantine that she snuck in the Latin exorcism rite as part of the marriage ceremony by posing as the vicar. That’s the thing with Constantine – why use magic when you can con people instead?

Ah, if only we could have had a decent Constantine series along those lines. But showy though the part may be, this isn’t a show about Constantine, it’s The Sandman. So having established this guest character (with some style) for those unfamiliar with DC’s magical universe, the ep could get on  with a fairly straight adaptation of the original issue 3. And it’s a good one. Constantine accidentally left the pouch of sand with an old girlfriend (it helps that both the male and female versions of the character are bisexual), with horrific consequences.

Actually I have to say that the ep downplayed the horror compared with the original story; I think at that point it seemed Neil Gaiman was trying to write a Hellblazer story rather than a Sandman one, something he did very well later in the run of Hellblazer. So we don’t get Rachel’s apartment festooned with the deconstructed but still living remnants of her father. Just the tragic remnants of a once vivacious woman used up by her addiction to the Dreaming the sand could provide. Just like in the comic. It had emotional heft too; Constantine is well aware of his/her failings – and the scene where the illusory dream version of Rachel listed them in pitiless detail was a masterclass of subtle reaction from Coleman.

It’s actually a fairly slight story by the standards of either Hellblazer or Sandman, but what makes it (in both comic and TV form) is the well drawn characters.  It’s essentially a two hander between Morpheus and Constantine, with the latter displaying more humanity than the former at the end – “You can’t just leave her like that” – tripping the inhuman Morpheus’ conscience to at least grant Rachel a peaceful, happy death in dreams. And Morpheus shows an unusual level of gratitude by telling Constantine she’ll no longer be bothered by her nightmares.

While the teamup with Constantine formed the lion’s share of the ep, it’s important to note the introduction of another vital, much-loved character from the comics – Matthew the raven. Now, Matthew is another one with a complicated history in the DC Universe. Once the alcoholic, misogynistic husband of heroine Abigail in Swamp Thing, Matthew Cable found himself in a coma after being possessed by Swampy’s arch-nemesis Anton Arcane, Abigail’s uncle (yeah, it’s like Neighbours with added monsters and horror). Visiting Eve, the first woman, in the Dreaming, helped him deal with his misogyny; and accepting his own death, his soul moved on. Into Dream’s raven.

Thing is, you don’t need to know any of that. All you need to know about Matthew is established in his first few minutes, voiced excellently by Patton Oswalt; he used to be a man, and not a particularly good one, and now he’s a wisecracking bird who likes to snark at his ‘master’ and yet is fiercely loyal. It’s notable that, having established Dream as a somewhat humourless character, Neil Gaiman chose to surround him with quite comic sidekicks as if to compensate. There’ll be more to come, if they’re faithful to the comics.

We also had more of what’s becoming the show’s underlying story arc, as the destinies of Ethel Cripps, John Dee and the Corinthian once again intersected. This had the ultimate result of the well-meaning but murderous John possessing the Amulet of Protection and disintegrating guard after guard on his way out of the asylum. With the helpful assistance of the Corinthian, giving him a coat and a purpose. It’s a shame to lose the excellent Joely Richardson as Ethel, but her story at this point is clearly over.

This was, by far, the best episode yet of a show that started out well and gets better every instalment. It’s also, by any measure, the best live action Constantine story I’ve ever seen. If the show gets renewed, I expect we’ll see Jenna Coleman as Johanna again, albeit in her 18th century incarnation. Meanwhile, I hear rumours that another stab at a Constantine series is in the works, and the showrunners are looking to cast a black actor in the part. If nothing else, this shows that the character can work regardless of gender – I expect the same will be true of ethnicity.

Next time – it’s a trip to Hell, in one of my favourite stories from the original comic. Matthew is understandably sceptical, but… “I don’t get a sense that you’re listening, so – fuck it, let’s go to Hell!”

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