“When you go to sleep tonight, you have to find him and end this. It’s up to you now, Rose. You’re the Vortex.”
In (what we thought was) the season finale of The Sandman, all the ongoing plots of The Doll’s House finally come together to an emotional climax. This ep freely adapts a mixture of the story’s last three comic issues largely unchanged, but as with previous eps there are some small and subtle differences that add depth to the story. It’s a heady and emotional mix involving a new set of characters that we’ve nonetheless come to care about deeply over the last four eps of the season.
Obviously the two major threads to be resolved are the Corinthian and his serial killer convention, and Rose’s dangerous, world-threatening status as a Dream Vortex. After last time’s disturbing glimpses into the psyches of the “Cereal Convention” attendees, this ep is if anything more disturbing as Rose finds herself walking through their dreams.
This of course gives Morpheus an instant link to the Corinthian’s location, and the climax of the story comes as he pops up unexpectedly during the Corinthian’s keynote speech. This was one of the changes from the comic, and done well; there, the Corinthian tries to fight but fails to inflict any damage on the Dream Lord. Here, though, with Rose already aware of her status as a Vortex, the stakes are upped considerably.
As an immortal being, it’s quite difficult to put Morpheus into any convincing jeopardy; it’s the same problem comics writers have with Superman. But this is where the intermingling of the Vortex story with this one pays off, as Dream stares incredulously at the knife wound the Corinthian has just inflicted on him, courtesy of Rose’s weakening of his powers. “Think dreams can’t die?” drawls the ever-excellent Boyd Holbrook as the fugitive nightmare. “Let’s find out.”
It gives the two of them the chance to have a final battle in the mingled dreams of the hotel guests, competing for Rose’s power. This is considerably more exciting than the comic, where Dream simply turns up and effortlessly disintegrates his errant foe; you really feel that the Corinthian might get the upper hand. And given that he’s been less than sympathetic in his dealings with Rose, you can certainly see how the Corinthian’s entreaties might be persuasive.
Of course the ending was never really in doubt, even if you’re not familiar with the comics – after all, there’s a second season in the offing. Defiant to the last, the Corinthian even hints that he might be back, somehow; a real change from the comics if so, but a welcome one. The show’s played a blinder by setting him up as a major antagonist from the start, and it seems a shame to lose him permanently.
Dream’s parting speech to the serial killers is also considerably more powerful than in the comic, as is their reaction to it. There, they just slink shamefacedly away, as Morpheus has condemned them to the knowledge of how little they are; here, in the face of an even more damning speech, they start turning themselves in to the police and committing suicide. I don’t know, though – the hint last ep that such people only exist because of the Corinthian’s inspiration, and that his disappearance along with the Dream Lord’s judgment rather implies that, after this, there will be no serial killers. If only I could share such an optimistic view.
But that still leaves the issue of the Vortex unresolved, for which the stakes are far higher. In the comic, Morpheus referred to a previous Vortex as having caused the destruction of a world; here, the entire universe is at stake. You can understand his reasoning behind needing to kill Rose, but we, the audience, have to come to like her over these last four eps, and wish for some alternative resolution to be found.
As of course it ultimately is. This part of the story is necessarily more metaphysical and cerebral than the serial killer one, but again the show tops the comic by having the mingled dreams of everyone in the boarding house threatened by an ACTUAL Vortex, sucking them – and Rose’s beloved brother Jed – out of the Dreaming altogether. It gives a much more dramatic sense of what’s at stake; you can talk all you want about a threat to the universe, but these are characters we’ve come to care about and like.
Along the way, we also lose Gilbert, aka Fiddler’s Green. Stephen Fry has played the part as if born to it (like his previous turn as Oscar Wilde some years ago), and I shed a few tears as he resumed his rightful place as… a place. I’d thought it was a little dull to have the climax of the story take place in what appeared to be a standard Doctor Who quarry, but the reason became clear as he dispersed into greenery and meadows.
Like so many of the myths featured in the story, Fiddler’s Green has a historical origin – it was the mythical afterlife for sailors who had served fifty years at sea. Morpheus describes himself, later in the ep, as an embodiment of humanity’s collective unconscious, so the Dreaming is where all such myths reside. It’s why, throughout, The Sandman is a story about our stories, and perhaps the best one ever written.
It might have been more dramatically effective if Dream had no alternative to reluctantly killing Rose to save the universe, but that would have been a massive downer, and made him impossible – rather than sometimes difficult – to like from hereon in. So we get the same compromise as in the original, of Unity stepping in to save the day by dying as the Vortex she was always meant to be. Still harsh, but it’s portrayed as her choice, a woman who’s lived more than a century, rather than an act the Dream Lord himself has to carry out. Perhaps a bit of a cheat, but it’s a heroic sacrifice that retains our sympathy for this otherworldly being.
As in the comic, this season has shown us Dream growing and learning as a result of his experiences, having previously been staid and inflexible. Lucienne has helped him along the way, a nice evolution of the character from the comics, and nowhere was it better demonstrated than his ultimate relenting over the fate of Gault. If he can change, so can she – no longer a nightmare, she flies off as a beautiful, butterfly-like creature. Yes, it’s a bit on the nose, but still worthy of a tear or two.
While it might seem to be happy endings all round though, we still get the portents of bad times to come in future seasons. As was nicely seeded throughout, we discover that the manipulator pulling the strings of events was none other than Desire, Dream’s sibling, who gets a damned good talking to as in the comics; but we also learn of more of the Endless who we haven’t seen yet. Yes, we’ve met Dream, Death, Desire, and (briefly) Despair; now we first hear of Delirium and Destiny, who will also have important roles to play. I’m not sure if Neil Gaiman intended some deeper meaning by having all their names begin with D, but it works as a memorable conceit.
And there are also hints of stories to come as we unexpectedly find ourselves back in Hell, where Gwendoline Christie returns in her superb turn as Lucifer Morningstar. The Lords of Hell are plotting revenge on the Dream King, and Lucifer promises action – we don’t know what yet (unless we’ve read the comics), but it’s going to be “something that I’ve never done before… something that will make God absolutely livid.”. Oooh…
This was a satisfying end to a season that, if anything, has managed to improve on the source material, which is no mean feat. I’ve loved every minute of it – the faithful recreation of characters and stories I’ve been reading and re-reading since the 90s, in a magnificently satisfying way. It’s perhaps true to say that this ending is a little murky and metaphysical compared to the emotional heights of, say, The Sound of Her Wings, but overall it was a perfect ending to a perfect season…
Wait, what’s that you say? There’s another episode we weren’t expecting? Well blow me down, I’d better go and watch it then. On the strength of everything I’ve seen so far, I’m betting it’s good.