The Sandman arrived on the small screen three decades after its inception within Neil Gaiman’s mind. Let’s get real here: a lot could have gone wrong. The dark-fantasy vibe, for one thing, must have been incredibly difficult to adapt (and this series embraces that trickiness with wildly, effectively exaggerated visuals), and on a story level, The Sandman means so very much to so many people. Everyone who’s read The Sandman remembers how they learned of the series, who recommended it, and whether they dove into the beginning or in the middle (I happened to first pick up the “Calliope” story, and had the distinct pleasure of talking to Neil about how the story began as a take on writer’s block and “the need for ideas” yet transformed into something largely different). Yet the bottom line is this: The Sandman hits everyone hard, and it gifts people with what they’re looking for at the precise moment that they discovered the saga.
One need only listen to Marc Maron’s relevant edition of the WTF podcast, in which he met up with Neil after explaining that he’d spent his own “time with The Sandman,” and that discovery coincided with his own drug use. Maron admitted that he was so amped up that he interpreted both Alan Moore’s Hellblazer and The Sandman as “journalism,” which… it happens. This is a terribly funny admission, and Gaiman responded, “I love that it gave you what you needed at the time that you needed it.” Maron’s take might be out there, but he’s not off base with his devotion and enthusiasm.
Fortunately, there’s also plenty to love about Netflix’s The Sandman, which is at once lugubrious and striking and delicious. Tom Sturridge gives a perfect representation of all of Dream’s angular aspects (both physically and internally). Gwendoline Christie portrays the most regal version of Gaiman’s Lucifer Morningstar on record, and Patton Oswalt (who is a devoted Gaiman nerd to the core) swoops into souls as the voice of Matthew the Raven. And then there’s Death, who is (as one devotee described to me before I surrendered to the comic book) “a total sweetheart.” Gaiman originally wrote her as an adorable, ankh-sporting goth girl, full of boundless energy and positivity, despite her incomprehensible, difficult job of escorting human souls to the Sunless Lands.
In the ongoing Audible The Sandman series, Death is portrayed by Kat Dennings, who told us that she asked Neil how to play Death, and he honest-to-God told her to “be yourself.” She totally did that, meaning that she maintained Death’s bubbly and “bright side at the forefront” aura with a bit of a darker vibe simmering underneath, and since Death’s duties are very grim, Kat was “playing a little bit against what is happening in these scenes.” And I absolutely dig the way that Kat portrayed Death, who turned out spot-on for the audio-only version of her story.
Fast forward to The Sandman‘s recent arrival on Netflix, and I fired up the 10-episode season and mostly enjoyed the first five episodes, but I shall not lie: Death’s impending arrival was what I really wanted. She would make or break this adaptation for me, and my god, I was not disappointed. The Netflix version strikes a different tone for the character with the same ultimate effect, which is suitable for the onscreen Death, who arrives in Episode 6, “The Sound Of Her Wings.” It’s an episode that’s not as gorgeously rendered in an aesthetic sense as the rest, but emotionally speaking, it’s a masterpiece.
Death was always going to be the hardest character for anyone to pull off, and die-hard fans of The Sandman (damn well) spotted Dream sitting on this park bench and waiting for Death to appear alongside him. In hindsight, I’m realizing that the most effective approach to Death (in live-action form) was for her unyielding positivity to be understated, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (who is obviously not a pale goth girl) nailed this role. Here’s where I must mention how (last year) Neil saw the (ridiculous) backlash following Kirby’s casting and promptly declared, “I give zero f*cks about people who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining… that Death isn’t white enough.” He further urged, “Watch the show, make up your minds.” Enough said, and it’s also worth noting that Death, Dream, and the rest of the Endless do not have a specific race.
Death, as Kirby portrays her, takes on a wisdom-filled, warmer glow, rather than an overwhelmingly perky one. One particularly well-known line — “You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification in this or any other plane!” — rolls right out of her British accent like it’s the most natural thing in the world. She’s a cocksure version of Death, tossing out the “fat pigeons” joke with droll humor. She’s also got the right amount of swagger to pull off those moments when the bros fawn all over her, including one dude who’s so excited at her promise to meet again (“soon”) that the interactions come off as tragicomic.
Oh, I did grow teary-eyed when Death comforted a baby immediately before the child died from SIDS. As well, Dream seamlessly bounces right off Death, with Tom Sturridge somehow doing nothing and everything all at once while he observed his sister going about her unfathomable duties. These humans desperately needed to feel her presence as they faded away from the realm of the living.
The team of Death and Dream delivered pure magic in the season’s best episode, one that serves to remind everyone about how much The Sandman helped people get through life’s tough episodes. Gaiman has spoken about how people frequently speak to him with gratitude for helping them “get through dark times.” And I’d be willing to bet that Death’s introduction (and Dream’s reaction) is what comes to mind for a majority of these people when they thank Neil Gaiman for the entire saga.
One more thing that this episode pulls off: translating Gaiman’s infusions of history and mythology in perfect lockstep with the saga’s spirit. To that end, this episode heads back in time to witness Death and Dream back in 1389, when they first met up with Hob Gadling, the rambunctious bar brat who became immortal. His adventures began thanks to the gifted siblings, including Dream looking like the third Oasis brother. These period costumes are more enjoyable than they have any right to be.
All of this arrives with lessons for every character, other than Death, who’s already the wisest sibling of the Endless. And I’m pleasantly surprised at how the season as a whole turned out because I admit to feeling apprehensive as heck on whether Netflix could rise to the occasion. Because we all know that Netflix is having difficulties lately, and I really couldn’t bear the idea of The Sandman becoming The Pentaverate: Part II. Yet Neil Gaiman’s genre-stretching, sprawling comic book series has finally come to deserving life. Mind you, Gaiman once stated that “I’d rather see no Sandman movie made than a bad Sandman movie.” It’s safe to assume that he felt the same way about a TV series, and although this show’s about much more than Death, Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s spin on an iconic Neil Gaiman character makes The Sandman a real stunner.
The Sandman is currently streaming on Netflix.