“I offered you a world where you could be yourselves without having to suffer for it, but it seems you enjoy your suffering. And if that is your truth, then perhaps your suffering will set you free.”
Oh boy. Ep 5 of The Sandman adapts the hugely memorable issue 6 of the comic – well-remembered by longtime readers as “the one in the diner”. Good though the Constantine ep was, this was perhaps the closest the series came to real, unadulterated horror. As previously mentioned, this was the issue that so engrossed me when I first bought it and read it on the train that I nearly missed my stop.
It’s a claustrophobic piece, set in a 24 hour diner, from which the Sandman himself is almost entirely absent. Instead, we watch as John Dee, powered by Dream’s now-altered ruby, gradually sets the patrons and staff of the diner against one another, playing on their flaws and insecurities until the mounting sense of unease erupts into a horrific explosion of gory self-mutilation, suicide and murder. It’s perhaps the nastiest thing Neil Gaiman ever wrote (in a good way).
Focusing on Dee means for the first time that the ep has only one storyline; that’s a good thing, as staying in this one setting without cutting away increases the sense of claustrophobia and intensity throughout. It starts slow – Dee ruminating quietly in a corner, toying with the ruby, as customers and staff go about their business. We gradually get to know them – Bette the waitress, with her writing hobby and dreams of real-life happy endings; Judy the unhappy lesbian, abandoned by her partner; Garry and Kate, the unhappily married couple “celebrating” their anniversary; Marsh, the taciturn chef; and Mark, the eager young man having a coffee before an important job interview.
Mostly, these characters are unaltered from the original comic (though Garry and Kate have different motivations here, with him feeling inadequate compared to her as the CEO of a corporation). A sense of unease slowly builds as people start to receive the same orders twice; or try to leave only to stop, mystified, by the door before turning and returning to their seats. By the time it’s clearly dark outside, you know something is going seriously wrong.
Some clever direction heightens the unease, as we start seeing characters in closeup at skewed angles, or oddly lit by the diner’s coloured glass partitions – well done to director Jamie Childs, also responsible for some of the better recent Doctor Who episodes. It’s a good cast, too, making these characters believable and sympathetic even as they descend into madness. As he promised, Dee mercilessly shows them their truths; and those truths are not the good ones, but the ugly ones we all try to keep hidden. The end result is predictably horrific, and watching it unfold is hypnotic, like slowing down to look at a car accident. You want to look away, but you just can’t help yourself.
Daavid Thewlis remains quietly riveting as Dee – not actually malevolent, but simply unable to comprehend why these people can’t accept the gift he thinks he’s giving them. In that, once again, he’s a more sympathetic figure than the Dee of the comics, who has no motivation beyond chaos. This Dee honestly thinks untrammelled truth would make the world a better place, a viewpoint I have some sympathy for.
But of course life isn’t that simple. Some truths are better left unsaid; there’s a good reason for what we call white lies, designed not to deceive but to make people feel better. This actually comes up fairly early on, as Dee questions why Bette would call him “handsome” when (to his mind) it’s clearly not true. “I wanted you to like me,” Bette blurts, unable to lie. It’s the first in a series of telling moments as truth escalates, but not in a good way. Mark tells Judy her partner just doesn’t want her; Marsh tells lovelorn Bette that he’s been having casual sex with her beloved son; Garry admits to Kate that he what he really wants isn’t her, but food and random sex; Kate tells him that their love life is empty and unsatisfying for her.
As Dee forces them to give in to their darkest impulses, the unease gives way to outright violence, gore and horror. Mark nails his hand to the countertop; Marsh cuts off his own fingers with a cleaver; Judy slices off the tattoo bearing her lover’s name from her arm; Kate slashes her own throat with a burger knife; and most horrifically of all, Bette burns her manuscripts then rams spikes into her eyes to “see better”. The lighting has been getting darker throughout; at the precise moment the spikes go in, the power goes out and the diner is in both real and metaphorical darkness. Another nice touch from the director.
As in the comics, there’s a nice moment when the Fates pop up, using the dead bodies of the women, to tell Dee his future. “You have some of the Dream Lord’s power. You will take all of it.” Dee, perhaps less skilled in dealing with mythical oracles than Morpheus, foolishly takes this at face value.
The last ten minutes of the ep, when the formerly comatose Dream actually shows up, are a nicely compressed adaptation of issue 7, which is wholly a magical battle fought between Dream and Dee. It’s good that this was compressed to fit in with the earlier ep, as phantasmagorical displays of magical power aren’t really enough to sustain a story, though the issue is a satisfying enough end to the Dee arc. But it does plunge more into Dee’s oedipal neuroses, picturing his mother wearing the Sandman’s helm, and alternately trying to kiss him or strangle him.
One thing missing here, though, is the story’s cutaways to the wider world, showing the horrific impact that Dee’s meddling is having on all of humanity. “You are hurting the dreamers,” Morpheus reproves; but we see little evidence of that until the epilogue, with Dream and Matthew standing on a street in flames. I can understand that keeping the action centred in the diner increases the story’s claustrophobic intensity; but even in the original comic, we see what’s happening in the rest of the world through disturbing snippets on the diner’s TV screen. A bit more of that would have helped convey the scale of what’s at stake here.
That’s a minor quibble really, and the compression of that final battle certainly makes it more tense as it looks like Dee really has destroyed the Sandman. But what he’s actually done, in destroying the ruby, is release all that power back to the Dream Lord. There’s a marvellous recreation of one of the more striking images from the original comic, as Dee, thinking himself victorious, gradually realises that the blank white space he’s standing in is actually Dream’s hand, the returned power having magnified him to a giant size.
This is obviously the end of the Dee storyline, and very effective it is too. With Dream’s totems found and his power returned, it’s also the end of the first story arc in the comics, collected as Preludes and Nocturnes. But the show has been smart in seeding its main antagonist as the Corinthian right from the start, and he’s still out there somewhere, so it doesn’t feel like an ending.
And indeed, though the Corinthian himself isn’t present here, a new antagonist shows up right at the end – Desire of the Endless, Dream’s sibling. Desire is incarnated by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park, who sets the tone perfectly with a gleaming smile and a threatening, “I’m watching you… big brother”. And anyone moaning about the casting of a non-binary actor really should take another look at the original comics; Desire is about as non-binary as it gets.
So, a perfect halfway point in the series, marking the end of its first major story arc just as in the comics. Next time – meet Death. But don’t worry, she’s not as scary as you think…