The Sandman was never going to be an easy comic to adapt. Neil Gaiman's masterpiece – and the saga remains, for this reviewer's money, his finest work in any medium – is such a tangled knot of plot threads, stories within stories and allusions to literature, mythology, art, and other culture that it defies easy translation. You can’t change things too much without losing what makes Sandman Sandman, but likewise, it’s impossible to simply stick it all up on screen.
Or so we thought, because here we are, with the first episode of Netflix’s much anticipated new show and not only is it pretty good, it's also very close to the comic that inspired it. There are a few tweaks here and there, but if you ever read and fell in love with the doomy gothic vibe of The Sandman then it's hard to imagine you not enjoying at least this episode.
After a brief, expository visit to the Dreaming (the ever-changing realm that every human goes to when they sleep), the series begins in 1916 as Dr. John Hathaway (Bill Paterson) heads to Wych Cross for a fateful meeting with the occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). Burgess and his magical society, The Order of Ancient Mysteries, are planning to summon and bind a member of the Endless – supernatural beings that rule over different aspects of human existence. Both Hathaway and Burgess have lost sons to conflict and the magicians aim to invoke Death in the hope of bringing them back to life (along with a few nice optional extras like wealth, power, immortality, that sort of thing). Instead, they end up with Death’s brother, Dream (Tom Sturridge). Unsure what to do with him, Burgess imprisons Morpheus in his mansion and leaves him to rot for the next several decades.
The rest of "Sleep of the Just" follows the effects of Dream's imprisonment on our world. With Morpheus separated from his realm, people start to get sick in the waking world, either falling permanently unconscious or never sleeping at all. A decade passes and Randall Burgess has become rich and influential, thanks in part to his use of Dream's totems of power – the Helm, ruby, and pouch of sand. Meanwhile, Burgess's other son, Alex (Laurie Kynaston), has grown up to resent his cruel, vindictive father. Could he be the key to Dream's eventual escape?
Alex is, in many ways, the main character in this episode and Kynaston is excellent in the role, bringing out both Alex’s capacity for empathy and ultimately the inertia and cowardice that will be his undoing. He’s a prisoner too, in a way, trapped by a bullying, dismissive father. He comes close to setting Morpheus free several times, but the fear of his dad stops him, even after Burgess eventually dies. And when Alex shoots Jessamy the raven dead in front of Morpheus he crushes Dream’s hope of escape - and damns himself to a terrible end in the process.
Eventually, of course, Dream does get free, thanks to adult Alex's partner, Paul (Christopher Colquhoun) who deliberately breaks the magic circle. The scene where Morpheus confronts a pair of comedy guards is more than a little hokey (“Why do you call him Dracula?” “Because I think he’s one of them Draculas!”), but is made up for by the lovely, straight-from-the-comics image of Dream arcing up into the air as he finally returns home after a century of imprisonment.
Even better is the sequence where Morpheus confronts Alex for the final time, his eyes sparkling sinisterly, as he condemns him to endless sleep. It's both a tragic and satisfying fate for his former captor and one that says something important about Dream – he may be wise and broadly speaking "good", but he can also be frightening and vengeful. Mortals who mess with the Endless tend to meet very unpleasant fates.
This is an unusual start to a series, in many ways, focussing more on the impact of Morpheus's absence on our world and on Alex than on who Dream actually is – but that's just the nature of this story. Dream is ultimately as much of a universal function and an observer of events as he is a traditional protagonist. We don’t see much of the Dreaming itself – there’s more of that in the next episode – but “Sleep of the Just” does a fine job of setting up the world(s) of the show, laying out numerous paths that we’ll follow over the next nine – often very odd! – episodes.
Analysis: How it compares to the comics
For the most part this is a very faithful adaptation. We’re not going to fret about the slight name-changing or gender-swapping of some characters – honestly, why would you? – just the big changes to the story.
The most notable shift is the role of the Corinthian. In the comics, he’s not introduced until #10, part of The Doll’s House arc (which makes up the second half of this season). Establishing him here does make a lot of sense, though, both in terms of proving a throughline for the show and for how Burgess knows how to build a prison for one of the Endless.
Speaking of Burgess, his character is fleshed out much more here. His desire to bring Randall back to life seems sincere and he’s driven by grief as much as lust for power. There’s no mention of his dead son in the comics, where he’s manipulating those around him. His accidental death at the hands of Alex is new, too - previously he dies of what appears to be a heart attack brought on by stress and old age.
The other major change is Jessamy. The raven barely appears in the original run of the comic, being introduced in #29 and then popping up again in a few of the spinoffs. Her death here adds another layer of melancholy to Morpheus’s plight and another reason for him to feel rage, rather than pity, towards Alex.
Fables and reflections
In the 1926 sequences we see a couple of adverts for Kincaid Sugar on the newspaper that Alex is reading and the one that Jessamy sets fire to. The Kincaid family actually appear in this episode – Unity Kincaid is the little girl suffering with sleepy sickness. We’ll return to her later in the show…
One of the guards that Morpheus overpowers is reading a copy of The Sun. The headline for that edition (dated Tuesday 25 May 2021) is TUG OF LOVE BABY EATEN BY COWS. It is – thankfully – not real. The actual headline that day was the far less exciting LITTLE MIX LEIGH-ANNE ROBBED OF £40k RING. The other guard is reading a copy of IT by Stephen King.
No less than four people play Alex. Aside from Laurie Kynaston, we also see his six year old self played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, with Simon Bundock as his double. And then finally, older 70-year-old Alex is played by Benedick Blythe.
The Sandman is now streaming on Netflix. For more streaming options, check out our list of the best Netflix shows available right now.