‘The Sandman’ grappling with a world full of terror and grace

If you’ve had enough of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and jumped off the Batman bandwagon several movies ago, The sand man could be the series to restore your faith in comic adaptations.

Instead of super-powered men in tights running around blowing things up, the new Netflix series introduces viewers to the Lord of Dreams, Morpheus (played to perfection by Tom Sturridge) – one of the seven Endless who try to make the universe work well. Morpheus’ job is to keep the walls firm between the waking world and his realm, the Dream. But while there are a few villains scattered throughout this first season, the show is much more about the inner workings of the cosmos – mechanisms that are way above humanity’s pay grade – and the dire consequences when we try to interfere with these workings. More intriguingly, the series seeks to explore the bewildering combination of kindness and cruelty that we experience in our universe.

The first episode starts off with a bit of gothic hammy. An esoteric cult, led by a wealthy nobleman (Charles Dance) who has taken on the title of Magus, attempts to perform a ritual to capture the figure of Death. Their thinking is that once they bond Death, they can extort him (although we later find out that Death is actually a her) to bring their loved ones back. Their ritual almost works; but instead they capture Death’s brother, Dream, aka Morpheus.

Morpheus spends the next century encased in a glass ball, refusing to speak to his captors, while in the outside world millions fall victim to a sleeping sickness that prevents them from sleeping or waking. This is only the first of many times in the series when humans, either out of indifference, greed, or a misunderstanding of the universe, meddle in the affairs of the Infinite and cause disastrous consequences on the heads of innocent passers-by.

Morpheus waits for his captors and is eventually freed, but finds that a lot has changed during his captivity. His three most important tools were stolen from him; collecting them will consume the first half of the season. If you come to The sand man If you’re expecting a traditional superhero story, you’re bound to be disappointed: When the Sandman finally faces off against the adversaries that crop up this season, the clashes are over before they’ve even barely begun, both the power of Morpheus over his creations is overwhelming. Instead, what’s most compelling about the series is the hugely creative and deeply thought-out world-building that writer Neil Gaiman, who was heavily involved in the adaptation, has undertaken.

And what a world this series builds. Episode five, “24/7,” is one of the nastiest TV shows you’re likely to see. One of Morpheus’ missing tools is his amulet, which gives him control over humanity’s dreams. It fell into the hands of a deranged man named John (David Thewlis), who decided to use it to reshape the world into a place where everyone is honest with each other, all the time. He tries this on a group of customers at a local restaurant, with horribly awful results. John’s command of radical honesty leads to clients being unable to repress their desires, whether to possess themselves sexually or to harm themselves – or even themselves.

I hope viewers can get through this episode in order to experience the next one; the grace-filled “The Sound of Her Wings” is so much more beautiful after seeing the terror that comes before. In this climax of the show, we are first introduced to Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Morpheus, having recovered his tools, languishes on a park bench, throwing pieces of bread at a flock of birds. His sister appears and tries to snap him out of his funk by taking him on her daily rounds.

We learn that Death considers kindness the most important part of his job. She takes Dream to the apartment of an old man who plays the violin. Recognizing her, he asks for a moment to recite the Shema one last time, the prayer that some Jews recite in the morning and in the evening. She willingly grants him this moment. As Death takes his hand, he asks, “Now what?” Death said to him: “It is now that you discover it.” Later, in a truly heartbreaking moment, Death gathers a baby from its crib. She cradles the baby and says softly, “Yeah, I’m afraid so.” That’s all there is, my dear. That’s all you get. It is a beautiful encapsulation of The sand man‘s vision – a world where nasty, sometimes horrible things happen, but which is always ruled by empathy. It’s a lesson Morpheus is spending this season learning.

These episodes offer contrasting visions of darkness and kindness, evil and hope, but they contrast in another important way: they are a vision of how the universe works when humans try to control it, about how the universe can work when we make peace with the little roles we play in this life, and the little time we have for them. In these two episodes, Gaiman has constructed a kind of theodicy – an apology for the workings of the universe. We see its cruelty, brought about both by humans and by the mechanisms that make the world work. But we also see the benevolence of those who hide behind these mechanics, embodied in particular by the compassion of Death.

Viewers would be advised to approach The sand man expect a slow burn rather than a frenzied action extravaganza. There’s a lot of horror, but those moments are spaced out by the deeply human moments of Morpheus coming to terms with what it means to serve humanity – and what it really means to dream in a world filled with both terror and grace, a world which works best when humans can believe there is goodness at the heart of the universe, even when it’s hard for us to see.

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