Five Thoughts On The Sandman‘s “Playing House”
Well, another week has passed and we once again find ourselves ready to look in on Netflix’s The Sandman. I must confess to be rather impressed with how last week’s episode kicked off the show’s adaptation of the comic’s second arc, ‘The Doll’s House,’ which had far more life and energy than much of the show’s opening set of episodes. Now, the real question is: can the show keep up that energy moving forward through this arc or will old, familiar problems rear their head? There’s only one way to find out.
Join me as a I dive in to The Sandman‘s “Playing House.” As always, spoilers below.
1. An Audience With Dream
Last week’s episode ended with a bit of a cliffhanger as Rose found herself walking right on in to Dream’s throne room as her abilities as a dream vortex continue to develop. Here, we see the follow on from that and, honestly, this a pretty big change to the shape of the arc. In the comic, Rose doesn’t meet Morpheus until much later than this, facilitated by Gilbert giving her Morpheus’s name to call out in a moment of need which happens when she finds herself overpowered when caught up in the Collector Convention. It seems like most of the Collector Convention stuff is being saved for next week at the earliest as it doesn’t reappear in this episode at all, so instead we have this as a way of facilitating Dream and Rose interacting. At first, I was pretty okay with this largely because it feels like a change that favours the strength of this new medium.
‘The Doll’s House’ is a strange arc that meanders through several layers of storytelling and is even interrupted halfway through by the Hob Gadling storyline that we saw two weeks ago. It’s not quite the level of sheer fantasy horror as ‘Preludes & Nocturnes’ as its focus on Rose grounds it to a human level, but the artwork by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III and Robbie Busch is so 90s alt comic with wild layouts, strange typographic art brought in through Todd Klein’s lettering and, simply, there was no way this show could have captured that. Not without going full Mirrormask, but the version of this show that’s entirely directed by Dave McKean will love only in my dreams. No, instead, the show choose to foreground its performers over the experimental layering of storytelling of the comics and, here, I actually commend the choice. Dream is a pretty background player to Rose’s story in the comic and largely has his own shit to deal with, so it’s nice to get to see them interact here, even if it does outstay its welcome by the end of it, but we’ll get to that. This, at least, was a fun episode opener and a nice twist on the story that let Tom Sturridge and Kyo Ra play off of each other and started the episode off on a pretty high note.
2. This Looks Like A Job For…
Remember when I said last week that Lyta’s original role in the comic was vastly different to how it’s been presented in the show and I did not have the time to really dive into it? Well, turns out the show has pulled a fast one on me because all of this stuff with Jed being his own Sandman in his dreams, that’s where Lyta and Hector were involved in the comic. Much as it is presented here, Jed spends most of his time in the comic being held in captivity by the cruel and ruthless Barnaby and Clarice and so escapes into fantasy via his dreams where he can find some measure of joy. It’s in his dreams that he meets Hector Hall, who is a mainstay of the DC Universe and has been alternatively known as Doctor Fate and the Silver Scarab, who appears in the same Sandman get up that he wore in “Infinity Inc.” and who is revealed to be trapped in a pocket Dreaming by the nightmares Brute and Glob. There’s a lot more I could get into, but suffice it to say that the show has decide to have Jed be the one to be this would-be Sandman and, I have to admit, I rather like this change.
The show really commits to the heightened, Silver Age camp of this whole plotline and it works when you consider it to be a power fantasy of a powerless and captive child. Eventually it becomes clear that Gault, the shape-shifting nightmare, has been facilitating this pocket Dreaming as a place for Jed to escape to in some small ways, and that’s a fairly interesting interpretation of the story. While Jed’s actual captivity and abuse isn’t played anywhere near as dark as it is in the comic, giving Jed the totality of the power fantasy of being the Sandman of his dreams is a nice touch and carries throughout the episode. We’ll get to how this all wraps up in just a moment, but I think its introduction, at least, is a satisfying enough change that allows the show to move into a more fun, campy tone for just a moment and its ode to Silver Age heroics is a heartfelt pastiche.
3. The Search For Jed
I’m not going to lie to you: a lot of the middle of this episode felt a lot like narrative busywork. There’s a lot going on, but very little in the way of forward momentum to the narrative. We see more of Rose and the B&B crew as they agree to help her put up posters looking for information on Jed’s whereabouts. We start to see more of what the show actually has planned for Lyta and Hector. We get a bit more of Dream and Lucienne looking into Jed’s whereabouts as it is hinted that, what with Unity being the last survivor of the sleepy sickness, Rose being a vortex might not be mere random happenstance. We even get to see The Corinthian practically teleport between continents because the show is so in love with him that they are trying their hardest to have him show up in every episode, even when they completely dropped the Collector plotline from last week.
I wish I could go in depth on any one of these points here, but I’m honestly not sure what I have to say about any of it. I hazard to call this filler because, honestly, we’ve only got two more episodes left of the season, not counting the special secret bonus episode, but that’s the vibe here. It feels like the show is running down the clock on this and while there’s elements of the episode, particularly surrounding Jed’s dreams, that are interesting, that energy that I noted that this arc kicked off with last episode is nowhere to be found here. Hell, the big thing here is what the show is actually doing with Hector and Lyta which is revealing that, somehow, Hector has managed to live on in Lyta’s dreamspace and awaits her every night when she falls asleep, which could be interesting if it wasn’t so obviously a ploy to still have the same outcome of their storyline as in the comics. See, Lyta is trapped in the same pocket Dreaming as Hector and, while he’s off playing Sandman, she’s trapped in their bubble and is perpetually pregnant. Upon her eventual release, she gives birth to a boy, Daniel, and because of his gestation within the Dreaming, he becomes incredibly important to the comic’s endgame.
Here, it feels like they made the decision to rip Lyta and Hector out of Jed’s storyline and would have likely let them fall by the wayside until they remembered, oh shit, we have to make sure Daniel is born. Cue an incredibly dull subplot of these two pretty, boring people shagging in their perfect dream mansion because we don’t have anything better for them to do. Which, honestly, feels rather par for the course for the show at this point.
In the comic, there’s a sequence where Rose starts walking through the dreams of the B&B residents and the reader gets a glimpse, through Rose’s eyes, of the kind of damages and horror that lurk beneath the skin of these quirky weirdos. Gaiman isn’t exactly shy about letting on that all these characters have something going on with them and, true to form of the comic’s themes, it’s through their dreams that we see the layers of artifice peeled back to see the dark truths underneath. We see Hal’s complicated relationship with his identity as his drag queen persona rips off her face to reveal to Hal’s before ripping off Hal’s face to reveal the messy mass of muscle underneath. Ken dreams of money and business and the darkness of capital. Barbie dreams of the fantasy land that captured her imagination as a girl. Chantal is in love with a sentence. Zelda wanders alone, shunned by her parents, in a graveyard and finds comfort in the creeping in the dark. In the comic, it’s a marker of the stresses that her search for Jed has put her under that Rose can’t sleep, but can’t help but find herself in these dreams and private, awful moments of the people around her.
Here, though, it’s honestly little more than background dressing for Dream and Rose to meet up and have a wee chat about Jed. The recreation of the dreams is admirable, especially Hal’s, but they don’t seek to serve the same purpose as their inclusion in the comic. The show isn’t interested in these characters as people and so seeing into their dreams isn’t the same pulling back the curtains of their psyche as it is on the page. Instead, it functions more like a montage of strange imagery that backdrops Dream and Rose’s conversation about… honestly, I don’t really remember what. Everything they talked about kind of slid completely off my brain. Either way, it’s pretty much just a stepping stone scene for Rose and Dream to find their way into Jed’s dreamscape and… well, if the episode was already in danger of coming apart on the track, this is where it crashes and burns.
God, I forgot how intolerable this show can be. I was honestly riding the high of how surprisingly good the past two episodes were that I forgot the depths that the writing could stoop to and the last fifteen minutes of this episode found some new lows here. As much as I commended the change to Jed’s dreamscape storyline, the way it’s wrapped up here by not just undercutting the dreamhopping sequence with the rest of the B&B residents, but having Dream and Rose just find and wander into Jed’s dream as easily as they did felt insultingly convenient. I’m not one to typically complain about storytelling convenience because I find most complaints of that ilk are fundamentally misunderstanding the basic structure of storytelling, but this felt all too rushed. Hector, Lyta and Jed’s dreamscape storyline in the comic is told over most of the arc and layered atop and around the other stories happening with Rose, Unity, the B&B residents and the Corinthian and the Collector Convention he gets wrapped up in, but this decision to take each element and dedicate a full episode to it, seemingly, feels remarkably hollow. To introduce Jed’s dreamscape and have only a handful of scenes with it before it’s wrapped in the same episode feels so trite and so halfbaked that by the time we get here, there’s practically no drama left.
Rose so easily manages to free Jed from the manipulations of Gault and the reveal of Gault’s motivation and subsequent punishment are breezed through so quickly that I have to wonder what the point of going with this direction was. It’s not just a far cry from the comic, but it’s a far cry from the energy and quality of just last week’s episode that I’m left, once again, feeling deflated by this goddamn show. I wonder if those two episodes of sheer quality were either some measure of stockholm syndrome or if this is the universe’s cruel joke on me, in particular. To show me how good this show could be if given half the chance to actually put the effort in to make The Sandman work in a televisual medium only to snatch it away just as I’ve tasted what could have been. By the time the episode wraps around to The Corinthian driving off into the sunset with Jed, I was just done. Once again, I find myself questioning who this show is for. Once again, I find myself wondering why all this effort went into a halfbaked, underwritten mess of a show. Once again, I cannot believe that this is the show Neil Gaiman spent thirty years trying to perfect. Til next week, once again, I guess.
* This article was originally published here