The Sandman: Chapter 8 – Playing House

“This looks like a job for… the Sandman!”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

With the last ep having established the premise and cast of The Sandman’s new story, this one sees it really get going. We get a fuller look at young Jed Walker with his abusive life in foster ‘care’ – and his rich fantasy life that may not be all it seems.

As I recall, the original Doll’s House storyline in thecomics runs for six issues. The previous ep adapted the first and some of the second; this one adapts the rest pf the second and most of the third. The approach, in the earlier half of the season, of each ep being a version of one or two original comic issues, is less important with this second story – it’s more continuous, rather than the vignettes of the first.

So the writers have a bigger bag of story elements to play with in whatever order they like. They’re also freer to change the order of events to better suit an episodic TV show than a monthly comic book, and to simplify some of the more convoluted, DC history-dependent aspects.

That’s important so as not co confuse TV viewers who probably aren’t as steeped in decades of comic lore as nerds like me. We’ve already seen one of those changes, with Lyta Hall being recast as a friend of Rose’s, rather than her more complex status in the comics. We see it again here, with Jed’s own private version of the Dreaming cast in (thankfully) far simpler terms than the original.

To understand the comics’ version of this thread, you have to know quite a bit about the history of the DC Comics hero known as “the Sandman”. The character was originally established in the 1950s as a costumed vigilante with the power to put his opponents to sleep; basically a human being with a magical pouch of sand. As frequently with comic heroes, the mantle was passed from one character to another, its sleep-related powers expanding along the way.

When resurrecting the title, Neil Gaiman was given a free hand to do what he liked – so he kept the name and jettisoned the rest, making his “Sandman” the immortal being we know and love as the central character of this story. In the process, he retconned the earlier characters with the title as the Universe’s attempt to fill the void left by Morpheus’ imprisonment.

The second Sandman was one Hector Hall, accompanied by his wife Hippolyta (affectionately known as Lyta). Just as in the TV version here, Hector died; but his living wife was imprisoned along with his ghost by two escaped nightmares, Brute and Glob, in their own version of the Dreaming, with Jed Walker as its only dreamer.

With Lyta recast in a different role, this storyline is helpfully simplified in the TV show, but given extra degrees of pathos not present in the original. So, rather than Brute and Glob, whose characters are as simplistic as their names would suggest, we get the far more complex escaped nightmare of Gault, who plays on Jed’s affections by taking the appearance of his mother – who Jed doesn’t realise has since died.

Gault may be a nightmare, but she’s a complex and sympathetic figure who’s trying to escape the nature her creator intended for her. “I merely wished to be a dream and not a nightmare,” she bitterly tells Morpheus once recaptured, “to inspire, rather than to frighten.” Her earnest desire to be something better than what she is, confronted with Morpheus’ inflexibility in condemning her to “thousands of years in the darkness” makes her actually a more sympathetic character than he is. It’s an excellent, defiant performance from Ann Ogbomo, and Gault’s philosophical debate with Morpheus about the ability or otherwise to change one’s nature is one of the highlights of the episode. It takes a convoluted but cerebral storyline and turns it into something both more straightforward and more affecting.

Echoes of the original remain though, with Jed himself being cast in the dream role of “The Sandman”, facing down typically simplistic four colour villains while clad in the original Hector Hall’s gaudy costume. After all, what little boy doesn’t dream of being a superhero?

Especially when their real life is as horrific as Jed’s. This ep, we saw how his ‘uncle’ keeps him locked in the basement, bitten by rats, and threatens to “break every bone in his body” for trying to communicate his predicament to his social worker. All to keep hold of the $800 a month the state provides him as a foster carer. This is unchanged from the comic, and sadly all too believable.

It’s inevitable that Rose’s search for Jed will bring him to the attention of some of the more worrying players in the story, and so this ep sees a lot of focus on the Corinthian as he continues his attempt to manipulate Rose in her capacity as a Dream Vortex. But we also see something of what that means, as Rose exploits her ability to walk through the dreams of others, seeing the inner, subconscious lives of her housemates.

Hal’s drag-related dream progresses from an amusing pastiche of Rupaul-style ‘reveals’ to something genuinely horrific when his final reveal is to pull off his own skin, revealing the glistening flesh beneath. Zelda dreams of being a child walking through a graveyard, while Chantal is publicly proclaiming her love for a sentence – a concept that nicely catches the somehow logical but surreal quality of dreams. Ken has a typical dream of being naked in public, while Barbie’s dreamworld is a magical fairyland where she’s on a quest accompanied by a noble creature called ‘Martin Tenbones’.

All of these are faithfully recreated from the comics. Lenny Henry’s presence as the voice of Martin Tenbones gives the sequence a real gravitas, but is also a nice nod to Lenny’s influential advocacy for comics as a genuine literary artform – he was one of the first to champion Alan Moore’s Watchmen, picking it as one of the books he would take if marooned on legendary BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs, despite the derision of ‘serious’ literary critics.

If the show makes it to a second season (and I expect it will), Martin Tenbones, presumably still voiced by Henry, will have a bigger role to play later. Also seeding future storylines is the fact that Lyta has been sleeping with her dead husband in her dreams – and it’s made her pregnant in real life. Rather than being an accidental byproduct of Brute and Glob’s antics as in the comics, here it’s implied that this situation is triggered by Rose’s Vortex powers blurring the line between dreams and reality. It’s also, if they stick to the comics, an occurrence that will have profound ramifications in stories to come.

This may be the first ep where we see Morpheus as a force of nature, and a much less sympathetic character than before. His flat refusal of Gault’s desire to change, his condemnation of her to darkness, and his apparent disinterest in the fate of Jed after she’s captured, don’t paint a flattering picture. That’s necessary – Dream is fallible, and full of hubris, in the comics. Again, it’s to Tom Sturridge’s credit that the less pleasant aspects of his character don’t make us lose our sympathy for him.

While progressing the story with a grab bag of elements from the comic version, this ep felt a bit more uneven than the assured, emotive tone of the season’s first half. There was still trauma, with Jed’s abusive foster home, and horror, as the Corinthian left a bloody trail of torn-out eyes in his search; emotional heft, with Gault’s heartfelt desire to be something more than she is; and nice surrealism, in the visualisation of the dreams Rose finds herself walking through.

However, the eps in the first half of the season were self-contained, whereas this is much more clearly just part of a larger story without a clear beginning, middle or end. That’s not to say it’s bad – just a different format. From what I’ve seen so far, the story as a whole is being done very well, but the format change does make it harder to assess individual episodes. Nonetheless, there was plenty to love here.

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