“At the end, each of us stands alone. The Sunless Lands are far away, and the journey is hard. Most of us will be glad for the company of a friend.”
Wow. That was one of the most beautiful hours of TV I’ve ever seen. I may have had… something in my eye at various points. Yes, we (like Morpheus) needed a bit of time to relax and take stock after the sturm und drang of the show so far. But who knew it would be so emotional?
Well, I guess fanboys like myself probably did. This ep adapts two of the finest standalone stories in the whole of the original Sandman series – issue 8, The Sound of Her Wings, and issue 13, Men of Good Fortune. And what have they got in common that ties them together? Death – or in the latter, her intentional absence. Yes, it was time to meet Dream’s big sister, the one Roderick Burgess had really been trying to capture way back at the beginning of the show.
Neil Gaiman’s conception of Death was an instant hit back in 1989. This was no grinning, scythe-wielding skeleton in a robe; rather, Dream’s big sister was depicted as a gamine young woman with an ankh pendant, a smile, and a friendly sense of otherworldly wisdom.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way early on. Yes, Death was drawn in the comics as pale and white, like the rest of the Endless. So the casting of black actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste drew screams of protest from… certain sections of fandom. You know them, the ones who ”aren’t racist, but…”
Well, sod ‘em. Howell-Baptiste is exactly the right person for this part. She captures everything that Sandman’s version of Death is – the smile, the sense of fun, the gentle ribbing of her moody brother… and the solemnity and sense of duty about her work. Howell-Baptiste effortlessly pivots from vivacious and fun, to serious and mournful at exactly the right points. For me – and hopefully for those unfamiliar with the comics – she made an instant impression of the best kind. This absolutely was Neil’s version of Death.
The ep was divided into two halves somewhat conspicuously, but given the two stories’ thematic link, it wasn’t jarring. The Sound of Her Wings was transposed from its original New York setting to an idyllic summer’s day in London, and as a Brit who doesn’t see enough of my country in comic book adaptations, that was very welcome. So we follow Dream as he grudgingly accepts Death’s invitation to spend a bit of time with her, to try and break himself out of the funk he finds himself in after completing his Epic Quest of the first half of the season.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Tom Sturridge have an instant chemistry as the very different, but very loving siblings. It’s clear that not all of the Endless have this kind of bond, as we saw with the brittle, scheming Desire at the end of the previous ep. But Dream and Death complement each other perfectly, each respectful of the other’s gifts despite humanity’s very differing attitudes towards them. “They fear the Sunless Lands, and yet they enter your realm every night without fear,” Death smiles. “And yet I am far more terrible than you,” says the stentorian, uber-serious Dream.
Who ever would have thought it would be so engrossing watching two anthropomorphic personifications of abstract concepts ruminating and going about their work? And so moving too. Death is a model of compassion to all those she collects, from the elderly violinist (the first time my eyes welled up) to the drowning family man, and most tragic of all, the baby who’s hardly had any life at all. Given the potential trauma to viewers for that one, I thought it was very sensitively and compassionately handled. A word of praise too for David Buckley’s beautiful music underscoring all this; I gather the soundtrack album is already available if you want to treat yourself.
Between jobs, the siblings ruminate on their tasks; Death reveals that she too almost gave up the day job in a funk, but realised that she needed humanity as much as they needed her, a salutary lesson to her moping brother. She also dropped hints that the Endless far predate humanity, so presumably their current “anthropomorphic personifications” are a recent development. If you’re worried about their ethnicities, ask yourself what they must have looked like before the Earth was even formed.
Dream is finally shaken out of his funk by mention of his “ongoing project” – a man called Hob Gadling, who Death agreed to leave alone way back in 1389, and who’s been meeting Dream in the same London pub every hundred years since. At their original meeting, in 1389, he declared death to be “a mug’s game” – and so Dream’s sister agreed to leave him alone to see what would happen. Cue an equally pitch-perfect adaptation of Men of Good Fortune, a series of vignettes showing their meetings once a century, as in the comics.
Of necessity, this being basically a two-hander, you need a decent actor to play Hob, and the show gives us one in Ferdinand (son of Ben) Kingsley, who’s appeared with Jenna Coleman before in ITV’s Victoria. That’s right, Johanna Constantine was back sooner than expected – well, her ancestor anyway, whose cut glass accent in place of the London drawl betrays her status as a Lady of the realm.
In the comic, this issue is a treasure trove of historical, literary and political references, and that’s nicely preserved here. In 1389, we see Geoffrey Chaucer sparring with “Edmund” over the merits of their work (Piers Plowman vs dirty Pilgrims), while in 1589 one “Will Shaxberd” is idolising fellow playwright Kit Marlowe, and Dream takes an interest. Hopefully this will pay off in later seasons, as it does in the comics.
The new timeframe necessitates a change from the original ending. The show couldn’t just shift all the dates to 33 years later, as curiously so many of those -89 dates are very historically significant and inform the story of what Hob’s been up to. 1589 – the year after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the beginning of the Elizabethan Golden Age; 1789 – the French Revolution; 1889; the year after inequality in London was ruthlessly exposed after the press-fuelled rampage of Jack the Ripper.
Through it all, Hob remains a perfect everyman. Sometimes on the way up, sometimes on the way down; making shrewd decisions like investing in Caxton’s printing press, and terrible mistakes like embarking on the slave trade. He’s a human after all, and perfectly fallible. And yet, in contrast to so many depictions of immortality, he still doesn’t want to die. “I’ve got so much to live for,” he proclaims in 1689, dressed in rags and having lost his wife and children years past.
It’s another step in humanising the remote, otherworldly figure of Dream when Hob tells him he’s lonely, and their once-a-century meetings are actually friendship rather than curiosity. As in the comic, Dream reacts indignantly, flouncing out; Hob tells him that if he’s there again the next century, it will be for friendship. Unlike in the comics, though, this time he’s still captive in the Burgess house when 1989 rolls around.
That actually makes their final meeting, in the present day, even more poignant than it was in the original. This time, Dream is 33 years late; but he finds Hob anyway, who’s bought a nearby pub to replace the now derelict White Horse. Dream offers him a rare smile as he sits, with the exact same line as the end of the comic – “I have always heard it was impolite to keep one’s friends waiting.” (Sniff), no, YOU’VE got something in your eye…
OK, this one doesn’t exactly advance the story. But the show needed a lull (as the comic did) after the nonstop drama up till now. It’s a character-driven story (well, pair of stories) that advances our understanding of, and sympathy for, these otherworldly beings, while showing us vignettes of the most human stories along the way. Hugely, hugely, emotional, it’s if anything the best episode yet, and a perfect exemplar of why I love Neil Gaiman as a writer.
Next time – Desire’s still scheming. What can they be up to? Let’s find out…