It’s true, dreams don’t die—especially Netflix’s dreams of turning The Sandman right into a years-long sci-fi/fantasy franchise, ideally set to rival Stranger Things when the latter draws to a detailed next season. But a part of what has transformed Stranger Things into such a titan of the streaming landscape is its lead ensemble’s chemistry, a charm that The Sandman’s central protagonist, Dream (Tom Sturridge), lacks by design. It’s not that the anthropomorphic realization of all our sleeping hours can’t be charming; it’s that he’s not convinced charm befits a lord, a ruler, a keeper of all consciousness. Except within the moments where he’s convinced, and his emo-kid act dissipates into something resembling wisdom. As such, Dream’s listless will-they, won’t-they relationship with humanity (in a literal and figurative sense) means The Sandman ends its first season on intriguing but unsteady footing.
The finale begins with The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) attempting to persuade Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai), a human dream vortex, that he’s the just one who can keep her alive. That is somewhat true: The Sandman’s mythology around dream vortexes is murky at best, but they apparently have the power to “weaken the partitions between the realms” of the actual world and the Dreaming. The inevitable collapse would create a “single waking dream,” ultimately resulting in the destruction of the universe. And so Morpheus, an all-powerful everlasting being, has no alternative but to kill Rose; it’s his duty as ruler of dreams. The choice is that the Corinthian protects Rose, but everyone she loves and cares about perishes. This seems an obvious downside, but Rose sits back to do a little bit pondering regardless.
The Corinthian steps up for his highly anticipated keynote speech on the Cereal Convention (“cereal,” in fact, being a cheeky substitute for “serial,” as in “serial killer”), and he asks the group of murderers to shut their eyes and envision themselves as gladiators. And so that they begin to daydream of chopping, slicing, and bludgeoning their technique to glory. Rose, dosing in The Corinthian’s room together with her little brother, Jed (Eddie Karanja), finds herself seemingly trapped in these daydreams, each of them merging into the opposite until—finally—she realizes she has the facility to place the partitions back up. At this point Dream has arrived on the scene, unfurling a cautionary tale of one other instance during which a universe under his protection died, because of a dream vortex. But Rose refuses to simply accept the limited options Dream and The Corinthian are offering. “If I’m as powerful as you say, then I’ll find my very own way,” she instructs, an incidental poet. With that, she awakens.
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Tom Sturridge as Dream and Mason Alexander Park as Desire.
Back on the keynote stage, The Corinthian removes his glasses to disclose his creepy teeth-for-eyes. “You don’t care about humanity,” he accuses Dream. “You simply care about yourself and your realm and your rules.” It doesn’t matter that the nightmare is completely right. Dream un-creates him anyway, leaving nothing but a tiny Hamlet-esque skull with toothy eye sockets. “Next time I make you, you won’t be so flawed and petty, little Dream,” Morpheus says, a slice of foreshadowing so obvious it stings.
On the drive home to Florida, Rose and Jed learn that Rose’s best friend, Lyta (Razane Jammal), is in labor. Her bouncing little dream-baby had an alarmingly fast gestation period—lower than 24 hours is a hell of a rush to get all those cells in place—but her labor’s apparently normal. By the point Rose and Jed arrive, Lyta’s only three centimeters dilated, so she’s calm and cozy enough to persuade Rose that, tonight, in her dreams, she has to face off against the Sandman himself. Rose herself can rule the Dreaming! Rose doesn’t pause to contemplate Lyta’s personal vendettas here; the aforementioned Sandman did, in any case, re-kill her already dead husband.
That night, as Rose traverses between the dreams of her eccentric housemates, she by chance sets off a tempest on the collision site of their imaginings, and every friend is subsequently sucked inside a dream-tornado. When Jed himself is lost within the swirling ether, Dream arrives as scheduled, reminding her that none of her friends is protected until the vortex is dead. Not even Gilbert (Stephen Fry), a.k.a. Fiddler’s Green, can save her, bless his aggressively old-English heart! But he imparts a nugget of wisdom before he explodes into lush foliage: “The miracle of humanity itself should all the time be more vivid to us than any marvels of power.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge there, Dream.
Thankfully, a deus ex machina reveals itself elsewhere in The Dreaming, where Dream’s librarian-cum-assistant, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), encounters a sleeping Unity Kincaid (Sandra James-Young), Rose’s still-living great-grandmother. Just a few episodes ago, Unity told Rose that she gave birth while still within the clutch of the “sleepy sickness,” the years-long coma that settled over hundreds of thousands of humans during Dream’s imprisonment. On the time, her comment in regards to the father being “golden-eyed” meant little, though in hindsight it’s alarming. Dream puts the pieces together in real time: Desire (Mason Alexander Park), Dream’s younger sibling, has golden eyes. Desire will need to have appeared to Unity in her sleep and (by some means) impregnated her, thereby making Rose Desire’s great-granddaughter and Dream her great-grand-uncle. His niece, twice removed? Forget the terminology—the purpose is that Dream can’t kill his family. Unity was meant to be her era’s vortex, but her long nap meant she never had the possibility to act on her dormant powers. And so the power was passed right down to Rose.
As such, Rose is in a position to transfer her vortex back to Unity—a convenient little bit of narrative tidying-up explained by the indisputable fact that, in The Dreaming, “anything is feasible”—and Unity falls on the sword of its power. Dream is visibly moved by this act of sacrifice, but not moved enough to linger on its, uh, humanity. He still has Desire to cope with.
As Rose, Jed, Lyta, and the others have fun the healthy birth of Lyta’s baby boy, Dream heads back to his castle and calls upon his sibling’s sigil, thereby entering Desire’s chambers. He’s understandably pissed that Desire tried to release a dream vortex into the world by impregnating Unity, which—in theory—would have required Dream to “spill family blood, with all that might entail.” But Desire demonstrates glee quite than remorse. “My sibling, we of the Limitless are servants of the living, not their masters,” Dream tells them, a lesson he’d do well to heed himself. Desire shouldn’t be convinced. “Next time,” they hiss as Dream stalks away, “I’ll draw blood.”
And so the finale lumbers toward resolution, during which Dream re-creates the nightmare Gault as a dream and tasks Lucienne with keeping The Corinthian’s skull protected. But the nice humor is unlikely to last. In Hell, Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie) has a young chat with Lord Azazel in regards to the paramilitary efforts of their assembled demon spawn. They intend to march on the Dreaming, after which the waking world, and eventually the Silver City, Heaven itself. Why now? That continues to be to be explained, and it likely might be, given Netflix’s intense—forgive me—desire for a multi-season arc.
But the issue of Dream’s personhood stays. He’s Limitless; it is sensible that he would come across aloof. And yet a part of what made the comics so beloved for hundreds of fans was author Neil Gaiman’s uncanny ability to make Morpheus into a sophisticated and nuanced protagonist balancing his brooding self-obsession with a real take care of humankind. The Sandman has yet to nail this balance, often swinging Dream into nice-guy territory long enough for him to crack a smile, only to yank him too far back, into monotone platitudes about power and consciousness. That unsteadiness can’t sustain a franchise; the crucial balance between dream and reality is what made Gaiman’s story soar.
Sturridge’s Dream has great potential, as does the whole creative engine of the series. The finale is perhaps one among the weakest episodes of the primary season, and still it’s clear an ideal deal of care has gone into lifting the story from page to screen. However the Sandman still stays crucial cog on this machine. There should be a more honest conviction behind his status as ruler and servant, protector and tyrant, brother and loner. Only with a greater grasp of that equilibrium will Netflix’s The Sandman meet its lofty aspirations.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.