THE SANDMAN, Chapter 5. 24/7

Posted on August 06, 2022

Dream is unconscious in John Burgess’s storage trailer, having been knocked out by his own ruby. Matthew provides exposition. “Come on boss, you’ve gotta wake up and get your ruby! Wake the fuck up!” Once again, we have no problem with Patton Oswalt, who’s a funny and talented voice performer, but for whatever reason, most of Matthew’s dialogue has been painfully unnecessary. We suppose it was decided that the world of these stories needed a little more in the way of comedy, so they settled on making Matthew a bit more of a cutup than he was in the books. We can understand the impulse, especially since the first two books, upon which this entire season is based, were a little darker than the rest of the series; something writer Neil Gaiman has admitted was part of his own process of getting his feet under him. In other words, this entire season of stories is based on stories the author himself has noted were not necessarily the best entry point. We’re telling you this now because we’re about to recap the very darkest of those stories. You can’t walk through the dream world and not expect to get stuck in a nightmare now and then.

We feel like we should take a moment here for the newbies and note that this story is largely considered to be not only the darkest story in The Sandman, but also something of an outlier. Tonally, it never fit with the rest of the series. Dark, nihilistic horror comics written by British writers were all the rage in the comics world of the late eighties and this story more or less represented writer Neil Gaiman’s concession to the trends of the time. After he got this out of his system, he settled into the dark fantasy mode with humanistic undertones that defined the rest of the series. It’s not really a coincidence that the story/episode directly following this one is “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduces Death and repositioned the series as a deeply emotional story that valued the breadth and depth of people’s lives. One of the challenges facing the creators of this series was always going to be how to deal with the main challenge that Gaiman himself faced; namely that they are adapting a story that was told in bits and pieces, in serialized fashion, over the course of many years. Writing serialized comics isn’t like writing a novel, even if you already know the ending. Things shift over the years in ways the writer can’t expect or prepare for; the focus, the tone, the central cast. To be fair, this story was widely praised and deservedly so. The version in the comics is considerably darker than the version you’re watching and it was rightly hailed as a horror comic masterpiece. When publicity photos of this episode were released, book fans were all over social media admitting that they were going to need to prepare themselves to watch this episode.

John Burgess, now in possession of Dream’s ruby, wanders into a diner, ready to begin his previously stated mission of saving the world from lies. He surveys the mostly empty restaurant and takes a table off to the side, where he can observe everyone. The diner’s only waitress is Bette (Emma Duncan, doing a lovely job); the kind of diner waitress that never lets a coffee cup get low, always has a menu suggestion for the undecided, and knows all her regulars’ names, but calls every man “Handsome” and every woman, “Hon.” She comes over to John’s table and does that harmless flirty thing that all good waitpersons know how to do. John is happy to have anyone pay attention to him. Given his time in Rosemary’s car last episode, it’s perhaps not surprising that he latches onto the first friendly woman he encounters and then proceeds to terrify her. He tells Bette that he’s feeling better than he’s been in a long time, mere hours after watching his mother die. In her politeness and eagerness to please, Bette makes a mistake that dooms everyone in the diner. She says in passing to John that honesty is the best policy. He is obsessed with the idea of honesty after years of being lied to by his mother and he’s in possession of a magic artifact that can alter reality. He shows her the ruby and tells her about the new world to come, based on honesty. She notes with a flicker of pain across her face that it sounds like a dream and goes to get his coffee.

John sits and watches the various dramas unfolding before him in the diner. Bette is clearly infatuated with Marsh (Steven Brand), the line cook, who doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in her. Judy (Daisy Head), a sharply funny but clearly high-strung queer girl, had a fight with her girlfriend Donna (we love that they kept the very ’80s names of most of these characters) and is frantically texting and calling people because she hasn’t heard from her since the previous night. Note that one of the people she calls is Rose Walker, who will become the centerpiece of the next story arc. This is no coincidence, since we will find out that Rose draws dreams and dream energy toward her and Judy is currently on a collision course with an utter nightmare. If things proceed from the books, this will not be the only upcoming storyline with a connection to this interaction. Bette eavesdrops on the conversation, not because she’s a gossip, but because she likes writing stories in her head about the people she knows, giving them happy endings. She wants nothing more than for Judy to have what she wants herself: a good man to treat her well. Mark (Laurie Davidson) comes in to kill some time before a job interview. Bette figures out his whole story and supplies him with the happy ending he’s hoping for. “They’re gonna love you. You’re gonna get this job.” She seats him next to Judy, who immediately announces to him that she’s gay and moves to a booth. Garry (James Udom) and Kate (Lourdes Faberes), a tense, over-achieving couple of what used to be called Yuppies come in and Bette runs over to wish them both a happy anniversary. Judy has clearly heard this story a thousand times before and narrates it to Mark almost word-for-word along with Bette, who explains to the rest of the diner that she set them up together years ago because she credits herself with having a special sense about these things and seated them together. They thank Bette for the happiest five years of their lives (said, like everything they say, in an extremely tense tone) and ask how her writing is going. Bette is immediately embarrassed and shifts the focus to talking about her son home from college.

Garry and Kate “lightly” bicker about his desire to order an enormous burger instead of the spinach salad she wants him to have. John is extremely disappointed to see Garry order the salad. Judy tells Mark that, coincidentally enough, Kate is the CEO of the company for which he’s interviewing, and that Garry is her “trophy husband.” Bette explains to John that she writes stories with happy endings for all of the people around her and John observes that she knows when to stop. “The trouble with stories is, if you keep them going long enough, they all end in death.” And we’re off. John ends his observation period and begins his fucking-with-everyone period. We should pause here and note that the acting in this episode was some of the best of the series. We’ve already mentioned that we had a few problems with the casting of some of the side characters, but everyone in this episode is fantastic. This was one of those “they need to nail it” adaptation moments and everyone nailed it.

John uses the ruby to force Bette to admit that she called him handsome because she wanted him to like her. He uses it to force Kate and Garry to be more honest with each other about their feelings, an exchange which gets immediately ugly because of how clearly unsuited they are for each other, Bette’s “special sense” notwithstanding. Mark blurts out to Judy that Donna’s not answering her texts because she doesn’t want to hear from her, which upsets her and sends her running for the door. Despite John’s constant ranting about honesty and lies and wanting a better world, it’s extremely telling that he abandons that conceit within minutes and just starts controlling everyone. He forces Judy to turn around and sit down and he wipes the memory of Garry and Kate’s entire visit and forces them to restage it. It gets uglier much quicker the second time around. He forces Bette to introduce Mark to the furious Kate, who decides to interview him on the spot. Bette makes her play for Marsh, who goes all in on the honesty, calls her lonely, says he doesn’t like her, and tells her he only comes over to fuck her son when she’s asleep. And just like that, everyone’s fucking. Marsh is blowing Garry in the kitchen, Kate and Mark are celebrating a successful job interview in the booth and Judy and Kate are making about by the ladies room. Interestingly enough, the original comic from 1989 makes it way clearer that what happens here is sexual assault and rape. John helps himself to a tub of ice cream and enjoys the show. Garry attacks Mark after catching him with Kate, which results in him getting stabbed in the neck and bleeding out. Bette realizes what’s been happening to everyone and confronts John, who insists that he just gave them the freedom to be their true selves. He decides that the gift has been wasted on them and that they can only achieve their true selves through suffering. In other words, the veil is off and he’s just a psychopath with unlimited power. Everyone’s dead in the most gruesome manner possible within an hour. While all of this has been happening, the weather outside has grown apocalyptic. The ruby is affecting far more than the poor souls in this diner. To underscore the gravity of the situation, the Fates pay John a visit and foretell what appear to be conflicting futures for him. One has him returned to an institution and the other has him taking the dream lord’s power and crushing his life in his hands.

Bette’s final, awful act was apparently the thing that woke Dream up and he strolls into the diner fairly appalled at what John has done. He explains to him that what John called lies were actually dreams and when he removed them, he destroyed the people he claimed to be saving. John doesn’t accept this and tells Dream he’s going to kill him. Dream whisks them both back to his realm immediately. John has little understanding of who he’s dealing with, having spent his life scoffing at the mention of him, so he doesn’t realize that he lost the battle the minute he stepped into his opponent’s kingdom. Dream sends some weird dream imagery his way, but John fights it off. He uses the ruby to tear down the remains of Dream’s castle and crush the Dream King himself. In order to deny Morpheus his power, he crushes the ruby, assuming it would destroy everything. The opposite happened and all of the remaining energy in the stone returned to its creator, bring Dream of the Endless back to his full power for the first time in over a century. The Fates were right; just not in the way that John assumed, those tricky witches. The shot of Morpheus holding a tiny John in his hand is straight out of the comic, where it works much better. Even so, we were glad to see it. In a world where everything is as literal as possible to an almost childlike extent, “I won so I am a giant now” makes perfect sense. We wish the episode had ended there, but unfortunately, they had to do one of those television things where Dream stands in the flaming rubble and says things like “Tomorrow the rebuilding can begin.” We really wish they wouldn’t do that. Let the dark episode be dark. No one needs to learn a lesson.

On the other hand, that scene also gave us our first good look at Mason Alexander Park as Desire and they could not be more perfect. “I’m watching you, big brother.” Desire is a major player in the overall story, but before we get to meet them, Death must pay a visit, just to lighten things up a little.

 

Next: The Sound of Her Wings

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