“It has many names. Avernus. Tartarus. Hades. The infernal region we call… Hell.”
Brief trip to Hell, anyone? Hell, in the DC Universe anyway, is pretty much the Abrahamic concept of eternal punishment and damnation. But it’s a surprisingly recent portrayal in DC, especially given how many demons have featured in their comics over the years. In fact, Hell as a place wasn’t shown until Alan Moore depicted it in 1985 in Swamp Thing, and it was left to Neil Gaiman in The Sandman to build on that portrayal and define it for years to come.
And define it he did, starting with the classic issue 4, adapted here under its original title. Moore may have shown us a gaudy place of torment, where demons eternally tortured Swampy’s vanquished villains, but it wasn’t until Sandman that we saw the actual Lucifer that reigned in Hell (better than serving in Heaven apparently).
Here again, though, we run into rights problems. What, I hear you say? Surely no media corporation owns the rights to Lucifer Morningstar, formerly known as the angel Samael, as depicted by John Milton and, um, the Bible?
True, as far as it goes. But the DC version of Lucifer, as originated by Neil, was later spun off into his own comic series, which then got a TV adaptation. Thing is, the TV version of Lucifer, as played excellently by Tom Ellis, is a very different character from the one in the comics. Apparently some consideration was given to casting Ellis in the part for The Sandman, but apart from the rights problems, that’s not really the character Neil Gaiman wrote.
So, instead, we get Gwendoline Christie, formerly best known as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. And yes, predictably, plenty of fanboys were outraged. How could Lucifer be played by a woman? As it turns out, very well indeed. As conceived by Neil Gaiman and drawn by Kieth and Dringenberg, Lucifer was intentionally androgynous (not to mention physically based on the gender-bending David Bowie). Angels, after all, don’t have genders.
And Christie gives a superb performance, all polite civility with an undercurrent of pure malice bubbling under the surface. It’s a terrific turn, and her physical stature means that she towers menacingly over the already quite tall Tom Sturridge as Morpheus. She also really looks the part – compare her to the Bowie-influenced comic version.
Actually, though, casting this good deserved a change from the original story, where Lucifer mostly sat on the sidelines and arbitrated as Dream fought the demon Choronzon for his helm. Here, the allegorical, rhetorical battle can be fought via a champion – and while Dream chooses to fight himself, Choronzon nominates Lucifer to fight in his stead, putting the Fallen Angel front and centre in the action.
Before all this, though, Dream has to navigate his way through Hell to Lucifer’s palace (not to mention actually get in through the gates). In the original comic, his guide is the legendary Demon Etrigan, another classic DC character from decades past; but here, either for rights or tonal reasons, it’s gatekeeper demon Squatterbloat who takes the Dream Lord on his journey. I do think it’s a bit of a shame not to have seen Etrigan, who’s not particularly well-known outside of geek circles, but I can also see that his bright colour scheme might have clashed with the grey, muted Hell we see here. There is at least a nod to Etrigan, in that Squatterbloat too speaks in rhyme – just not very well.
Another change from the original is that, this time, Matthew the raven is along for the ride, functioning as a sort of Burgess Meredith to Morpheus’ Rocky. That too is a welcome change, as Patton Oswalt immediately stole the show on his introduction last ep. Unlike the usual portrayals of Hell (even in DC comics), as Matthew notes, this one is cold. It’s hard to visualise a place of ultimate, unending torture, and to its credit, this ep doesn’t really try; we see a few details among the expansive CG vistas, but most of it is left to the viewer’s imagination.
One of those details, though, is a crucial bit of backstory for Morpheus himself. Just as in the comic, he is led past a cell where a woman, in eternal torment, cries out his name. Not “Dream” or “Morpheus” though, but “Lord Kai’ckul”. This is the first time we learn that Dream can have human passions – and fallibilities – as we learn that this was his former love Nada, who did something he could not forgive ten thousand years ago, and has been suffering in Hell ever since. It’s a revealing bit of knowledge at an early stage about Dream’s occasional human fallibility and pride, and I’m glad it was included here.
And of course, we see Dream not as we’ve seen him up till now, but as Nada knows him – not a pale white face, but an exceedingly beautiful black one. Ernest Kingsley Jr captures the essence of Morpheus while making the portrayal his own; and should the series last long enough to tell the story of what happened to Nada, I sincerely hope he’ll be back as the African incarnation of Dream, Lord Kai’ckul. If nothing else, it should ram home the point to some of the less enlightened fanboys that, for beings like these, race and gender are entirely mutable. As they were in the original comics.
Which brings us back to Lucifer. This adaptation is probably the most faithful yet in terms of dialogue, which for the most part was entirely unaltered from the original. Good thing too – that was such a memorable script, it would have been a shame to change any of it. Fans of Choronzon (if there are any) might have been disappointed to see his dialogue reassigned to Lucifer; but with a portrayal as good as Christie’s, it was actually a treat. Besides, Choronzon too was slightly altered here – he had one fewer mouth, for a start. Actually, as portrayed by Munya Chawawa, he was kinda sexy – which is not something I ever thought I’d say.
The battle of words and wits was unaltered from the comics in terms of dialogue, but I liked that, to emphasise the stakes, the participants here suffered actual physical damage. Of course they’re supernatural beings so it’s not going to be permanent; but seeing Morpheus grey, drained of life and helpless on the floor gave the battle a sense of jeopardy it didn’t have in the comic. Of course, fanboys like me knew that Dream was never going to lose, but I’m slightly envious of viewers who’ve never read the comics seeing his clinching victory for the first time.
While all this was going on though, the ongoing arc of John Dee’s escape was interwoven throughout, in a surprisingly touching tale of Stockholm Syndrome. Taking pity on what appeared to be a helpless befuddled man, a nice, ordinary lady called Rosemary offered him a lift that turned out to be quite the emotional journey for them both.
While this ep mostly adapts issue 4 of the comics, this thread was taken straight from issue 5, Passengers – albeit much truncated to cut out all the appearances of the Justice League and the Arkham inmates. Still, it was a good story in its own right, as Rosemary realised just what sort of loon she’d let into her car, and saw the power of the Amulet of Protection when she tried to get a hapless gas station attendant to call 911.
It’s also notable for giving Dee a more defined agenda than he had in the comics. There, he didn’t seem to have any plan beyond just watching the world burn; the Dee we see here despises lies, and his motive is to get everyone to tell the truth, to themselves and everybody else. Even if it kills them.
It was an emotive journey that revealed plenty about both characters. Rosemary, as played by Sarah Niles, was likeable from the start; but it also felt like it humanised Dee, making his history and motives sympathetic in a way they never were in the comic. David Thewlis carried that off well, especially with his ultimate gift of the Amulet to Rosemary – somebody he saw as a “good person” who wouldn’t lie. In the comic, he kills her anyway (albeit with seeming regret); but his recognition here of her goodness makes him more likeable too. Unless, of course, you know what he’s going to get up to in the next episode…
As with the original comics, these last two eps have seen the series really hitting its stride. A Hope in Hell is one of my all-time favourite comics, and this adaptation didn’t disappoint; it was worth it for Gwendoline Christie alone, but the whole thing was superb. Passengers, issue 5 and the source of the Dee thread, was less memorable, but it was clever that this script took the real heart of that story and wove it through here to provide us momentary breaks from Hell (cos who doesn’t need one of those?)
Next time – let’s go to a diner, maybe get some coffee… and wait for the end of the world.