Netflix’s The Sandman benefits greatly from its episodic form of storytelling. Some have criticised the show for this very thing, and while they have a point, it isn’t the whole story. There are downsides to the series’ format but, as we shall see, there are enormous benefits as well.
The following will continue assuming that readers have watched the show or are familiar with its source material. That means SPOILERS AHEAD!
"A Tasting Menu of a Larger Story"
The Wrap called the series’ “anthology style of storytelling” like a “tasting menu of a larger story, never really settling with any character.” As criticism goes, it’s fair, but misses the point the show is making. Dream’s (Tom Sturridge) entire series arc is, as writer Allan Heinberg said, “an exploration of what it means to be human… The Sandman is the story of an honourable, arrogant king who slowly – very slowly – learns how to love.” How does an immortal personification of a concept come to love?
Dream, in the series, has existed for eons and has as a result become distanced from humanity. When we meet his sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), in “The Sound of Her Wings” he witnesses that her interaction with humanity, both the poor and old, rich and poor, has granted her compassion for humanity. She always arrives as a friend despite taking them away. She is immortal, Death can never die, human lives are tiny, insignificant things in comparison to hers, but she shows compassion anyway because she has seen the wide spectrum of humanity. That is why The Sandman ploughs through characters we enjoy almost as soon as we meet them. The series is about this; Dream must go through the slow and arduous process to gain compassion and love for others and humanity because that’s what it takes for an immortal being to discover them. That process is the series itself and the various events that take place within it are but blocks building towards the completion of the process.
Think about a regular person trying to improve themselves and how long that takes. Multiply the time taken by a million and maybe we will have come close to realising how long it would take for an immortal being to change.
The “Big Bad” this season is the escaped nightmare, The Corinthian. But that isn’t immediately clear until later in the season. One would have expected John Dee and his reality destroying intentions to be the big bad of the season, but he is dealt with in the fantastic episode five, “24/7.” Why? Because that isn’t what the story is about. It isn’t a grand story about the fate of the world as we see in the MCU. The Corinthian isn’t Thanos, and neither is Desire.
"A Pile of Stories"
USA Today wrote that the series “is a perplexing failure.” The outlet states that “the stories that make up the comic-book epic are sewn together haphazardly and confusingly, never building to discernible arcs and not even broken down into interesting standalone episodes.” Respectfully, it feels the writer wanted something that the show wasn’t offering.
Describing the series as a “pile of stories and moods randomly tossed on top of each other” isn’t inaccurate, if you remove the phrase “randomly.” Nothing has been done randomly:
- The first episode tears Dreams world apart.
- The second begins his quest to rebuild.
- The third showcases Dream’s continued impact on the Waking World even when he is missing.
- The fourth expands the world and establishes the idea that hope will be a prevalent theme in the series
- The fifth showcases an “anti-Dream” through John Dee’s (David Thewlis) actions and motivations. Hope becomes established as a core part of humanity and part of the purpose of dreams themselves.
- The sixth aims at teaching Dream about purpose and fulfilment as well as bringing Dream closer to humanity through friendship.
- The seventh establishes a story in which Dream will grow to understand humanity further by admitting the ability of people (and dreams) to change.
- The eighth shows Dream as an arrogant tyrant in a sense, rebuking any who disagree with his choices and punishing those whom he believes to be acting outside of their duties.
- The ninth, admittedly, is an extension of the eighth episode and a prelude to the tenth meaning that Dream is stagnant here.
- The tenth is finally where Dream can admit a few of his mistakes (thanks in part to the friendly advice from Fiddler’s Green [Stephen Fry]) and tries to become a more benevolent ruler. Marking this is his transformation of Gault (Ann Ogbomo) from nightmare to dream.
In each episode (barring the ninth), Dream becomes a little more human and improves himself bit by bit. The characters in the series remark constantly how staying around humans in the Waking World changes both dreams and nightmares, and that maybe, just maybe, Dream will experience the same effect. You might say that they hope this happens.
The Issue With Episodic Storytelling
The Sandman is not without its problems. Both USA Today and The Wrap discuss the series’ pacing issues and it cannot be argued otherwise, especially in the last few episodes. This is why episode nine feels stagnant. Sure, it progresses the plot but that is all. Pacing issues are an unfortunate by-product of episodic storytelling.
The reason for episode nine seeming so lacklustre is due to it being an adaptation of the first half of a story, namely The Sandman #14 (“Collectors”). It is merely set-up but for events and themes that we’ve already encountered in episode eight. There are additions, of course, Lyta’s pregnancy and exploration of her grief chief among them, but that is only one small part of the episode.
What cannot be denied is the overall quality of the show from the visuals, performances, and the writing. The episodic approach allows for a larger world and story that is more interesting than typical plot-driven fantasy involving the end of all things that reaches its zenith during its climactic final battle. Each episode is but one chapter in Dream’s eternal life and while it may be exaggerated, it is not indifferent to how people change throughout their own lives. One interaction with a person can change your entire perspective regardless if you meet them again. That’s what The Sandman excels at and that’s why audiences should watch it. Otherwise only disappointment will follow.
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