Dream talking to Death

Neil Gaiman’s "The Sandman" is one of the most influential and lauded comic book series of all time, with numerous Eisner Award wins and plenty of other accolades. It’s a gorgeous, sprawling, and at times oppressively dark saga about dreams, stories, and the inevitability of change. And in Netflix’s live-action adaptation, Gaiman himself attempts to bring the magic and artistry of "The Sandman" to life. How successful is that attempt, exactly? The answer to that question is complicated.

At its best, Netflix’s "The Sandman" beautifully captures the comics’ unique blend of terror and wonder. Each episode brings new fantastical locales and new characters to the table, feeling more like a grimdark season of "Doctor Who" than other big-budget Netflix adventures like "Stranger Things" or "Shadow and Bone." It’s expensive (it cost "as much as $15 million per episode," according to Deadline), thematically complex, and occasionally stunning.

Unfortunately, the show’s ambition is often more than it can sustain, leading to several instances of scattered focus and inconsistent writing. As a whole, "The Sandman" succeeds on the merits that have always made the comics compelling — the mythical and textured storytelling pulls you into a world that feels so big it could sustain a dozen seasons. These are the best and worst things about Netflix’s "The Sandman" Season 1.

Be warned, there will be major spoilers ahead.

Worst: The beginning

Morpheus using his dream powers

Though it hits an incredible stride a few episodes in, "The Sandman" struggles a bit at the beginning. That’s largely because of how the story starts. Like in the comics, things get kicked off when British occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) conducts a ritual meant to capture Death but which ends up imprisoning her brother, Dream (Tom Sturridge). A hundred years pass in the first episode alone, during which numerous characters are introduced, live, and die. There’s very little time to spend developing any one area of the story because there’s so much going on and so much lore to explain, even after Dream escapes. This format is somewhat necessary to set up the rest of the season, but that doesn’t make the first few episodes any more engaging or less confusing.

The Lord of Dreams suffers for a hundred years in a glass cage before speaking more than a handful of lines. When he returns to the Dreaming and declares his mission of reacquiring his tools and rebuilding his realm, it’s hard to feel much emotional connection to him because he’s simply one largely unexplored part of a massive and scattered narrative. Only once you get several episodes deep into "The Sandman" will you begin to fit all the pieces together, but by that point, many viewers who lack the context of the comics may have already lost interest. There’s a brilliant depth to "The Sandman," but it takes some time to excavate it.

Best: The middle

Death taking a soul

Once Morpheus starts reacquainting himself with the human world, "The Sandman" makes a huge leap in quality. Episode 4, Episode 5, and Episode 6 are particular standouts, with each one offering an almost entirely self-contained story driven more by themes and thought-provoking moments than by sprawling plots or tense action.

In Episode 4, "A Hope in Hell," Dream journeys to Hell with his new raven Matthew to seek an audience with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie). His quest to reclaim his helm, which has fallen into the hands of a demon, culminates in a battle of will and creation with the Devil, which is one of the standout moments of the whole season. Almost all of Episode 5, "24/7," takes place within a random small-town diner, which is yanked through a gauntlet of dark revelations by the complicated antagonist John Dee (David Thewlis). Up until Dream’s arrival on the scene, it feels like a particularly mythical episode of "The Twilight Zone," with a tension that refuses to let up.

The crown jewel of the whole season, though, is Episode 6, "The Sound of Her Wings," which explores Dream’s relationship to his sister Death and a man she once granted immortality to as part of an experiment. It’s a haunting, touching, and quiet saga with a lot of powerful individual moments. "The Sandman" is at its best in these more isolated middle episodes, which bring a bit of an anthology feel to proceedings.

Worst: The Cereal Convention

The Corinthian walking on beach

The convention of serial killers that Rose Walker stumbles into at the end of "The Sandman" Season 1 is pulled straight out of Neil Gaiman’s comics, but it struggles in the transition. Though the show deals with plenty of dark and unsavory subjects, the absurdism of a hotel full of mass murderers sharing dorky details of their grotesque careers goes a bit too far. It’s not exactly bad on its own, but the whole event feels pulled from some other show — something more befitting an episode of "Rick and Morty" than the mythical drama of Gaiman’s world.

If the "Cereal Convention" took up less screen time, it might be easier to write it off as a bizarre but memorable part of the story. Unfortunately, it appears far too much. We spend more episodes checking in with the serial killer planning committee than we do in Hell, or with Death, or exploring any number of other, more interesting storylines. That’s mainly because the Corinthian — who becomes the de facto "big bad" of the season after all other threats are neutralized — is so involved in the whole thing.

Sadly, Boyd Holbrook’s charismatic performance as the Corinthian isn’t enough to save this arc. After dueling the Devil with reality-bending power and exploring the endless possibilities of the Dreaming, the reunion of Morpheus and Corinthian in a hotel conference room feels woefully anticlimactic. Fortunately, it’s not the only thing the season finale has going on.

Best: The Lord of Dreams

The Sandman surveying Hell

Morpheus. Dream Lord. Kai’ckul. The Sandman. Gaiman’s protagonist is one of the biggest figures in modern comic book history, both in popularity and the sheer thematic scope of his character. Something between a god and a sad robot, Dream deals with very human emotions but struggles to embrace his own sense of humanity. He’s a character who could easily be turned into a laughable caricature by a bad performance or a weak script. Fortunately, "The Sandman" features neither.

Tom Sturridge is perfect in the role of Morpheus, even if it takes a few episodes for his Edward Cullen energy to become endearing. At first, he feels like a walking affectation — a cliché coated in black clothing and overly dramatic dialogue about loneliness. But the more time Sturridge gets to sit in the role, the more compelling Morpheus gets.

Dream’s journey to Hell and his friendship with Hob Gadling are two particular standouts, but Sturridge thrives in pretty much every situation the character faces. He begins the series as a guilt-ridden loner bent on rebuilding his kingdom exactly as he left it. By the end, though, Dream accepts that even he can and must change. His arc is simple but effective, and he carries a base "cool guy" energy that’s hard not to root for. When he tracks down the Corinthian, Lucifer, and John Dee, it feels like Goku showing up to fight in "Dragon Ball Z."

Worst: Cheap animation

Gregory snuggling in the Dreaming

Let’s be honest for a second: Animation is hard. Creating whole fantasy worlds and mythical characters out of CGI nothingness is tricky — sort of like crafting dreams for humanity from the ether. But that’s still not an excuse for cheesy special effects, which "The Sandman" unfortunately suffers from quite a bit.

Whether it’s Desire’s massive statue, the admittedly cute baby gargoyle Goldie, or Mervyn Pumpkinhead’s, well, pumpkin head, the show is littered with lackluster effects. Some of these instances, like the fantastical inhabitants of the Dreaming, are clearly meant to convey a sense of whimsy and fairy-tale fun, but it’s hard to appreciate that when the CGI looks so jarringly dated. Not every special effect suffers from this issue, but the inconsistency only makes the poor cases that much more noticeable.

This problem spills over into other related aspects of the show as well. For instance, Patton Oswalt does his absolute best as Matthew the raven, but his completely unfiltered voice just sounds strange pouring out of an otherwise ordinary bird, and not in the way the creators probably intended. Overall, "The Sandman" looks as expensive as it is, but it’s also easy to see where the money was spent and where it wasn’t.

Best: Magic

Panning over the Dreaming

Yes, there are some special effects shots in "The Sandman" that may make you giggle. But in the end, they’re drastically outnumbered by the ones that take your breath away. Gaiman’s fantasy world comes to life across the season’s 10 episodes, with the best ones oozing style from every void and Hell pit.

The Dreaming is obviously the main attraction. Morpheus’ realm is built up steadily over time, with each episode revealing new pieces of its ever-shifting landscape. Hell is equally stunning, albeit in an entirely different way. "The Sandman" can get downright frightening when the strength of its writing and its brilliantly oppressive aesthetics collide, such as in Episode 5 when John Dee slowly turns a regular restaurant into a living horror movie. The series can be terrifying and gorgeous to watch in back-to-back scenes, which works well in a story about the necessary duality of dreams and nightmares.

All of these striking visuals are aided in their efforts by a spine-tingling score from composer David Buckley, as well as some masterful creations by the costume and prop departments. It’s not all pretty, and it’s not all smooth, but when "The Sandman" fires on all cylinders, it’s easy to get swept away into its fantastical dream world.

Worst: Tonal dissonance

The Corinthian smiling

Tonally, Netflix’s "The Sandman" covers a lot of ground. It features an army of serial killers, numerous instances of severe child abuse, and graphic exorcisms, but it also has baby gargoyles and Patton Oswalt as a raven. The show blends whimsical myth, horror, absurdism, romance, drama, and oddball comedy to create its richly textured world. At times, though, some of the more tangential tonal choices simply feel out of place.

This is perhaps most visible when "The Sandman" gets goofy. Sometimes it works, like in the case of Cain and Abel’s dark slapstick cycle of murder. In other cases, though, you might find the silliness more jarring than funny, like when Matthew approaches every supernatural event with all the wonder of an office temp. On the flipside, moments that are clearly not meant to be comedic sometimes become inescapably laughable, like when Dream flashes back to 1389 with a hairstyle that can only be described as hilarious.

At times, this tonal dissonance can even manifest within single character arcs. John Dee is a riveting antagonist for the most part, but by the time Dream finally catches up with him, he’s sacrificed a lot of his nuanced motivations in favor of a much more generic madman persona. Again, it’s clearly by design that "The Sandman" jumps all over the place tonally, but that doesn’t mean that it always works.

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Best: Literary ambition

Lucifer talking to the Sandman

For much of their history, comic books have been viewed as low-brow writing — stories with little thematic depth meant primarily for children. That perspective has changed a lot in the past few decades, and "The Sandman" was a big part of that change, following on the successes of graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s "Maus" and Alan Moore’s "Watchmen." Debating the "literary" merit of a story is a slippery slope that can quickly turn elitist, as Gaiman himself has observed in the past. Still, there’s no question that "The Sandman" has a tremendous depth of thematic ambition and artistry. It’s a saga that deals with philosophy, mythology, religion, family, and death, among other things, often with a style more akin to epic poetry than traditional science fiction.

Netflix’s "The Sandman" carries that same ambition, and while it can feel a bit heavy-handed at times with all the monologues about dreams and death, it works an impressive amount of the time. This is largely thanks to the performances, particularly from Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste. When Dream defeats Lucifer by invoking hope, it feels powerful. When Death gently guides an old man’s soul to the afterlife, it strikes just the right nerve. Any story starring anthropomorphic embodiments of human feelings is bound to do its fair share of philosophizing, but "The Sandman" pulls most of it off with style and subtle weight.

Worst: Lack of focus

Desire laughing at the Sandman

A lot happens in the first 10 episodes of "The Sandman." The season spans hundreds of years and includes a huge cast of characters, many of whom only really exist in one or two episodes. Even when looking at the bigger-picture plot lines, "The Sandman" has a lot going on. There’s Morpheus’ rebuilding of the Dreaming; the secret schemes of his siblings Desire and Despair; John Dee’s quest to reclaim the ruby; Corinthian’s campaign of carnage; and Rose Walker’s vortex arc, just to name a few. Then there are the smaller, more self-contained stories, like Dream’s evolving relationship with Hob Gadling and Johanna Constantine’s demon-fighting business.

"The Sandman" probably wouldn’t be the same without at least attempting to include so many different things. It’s an epic by design. But when you try to fit all of those details into just 10 episodes of prestige TV, you’re inevitably going to run into some focus problems. Simply put, "The Sandman" stretches itself a bit too thin at times. The episodes that focus on singular arcs are the highlights of the season because they allow the characters and the gorgeous fantasy vistas of the show to properly breathe. Other times, though, things can feel a bit jumbled, especially at the beginning and end of the season. It’s not enough to ruin the series by any means, but it’s an unfortunate hiccup in a show that does so much so well.

Best: The supporting cast

Lucienne looking disappointed

Though Tom Sturridge definitely leads the way in "The Sandman" as Dream, the show is buoyed by an expansive supporting cast of stars, most of whom are equally as entertaining to watch. Vivienne Acheampong anchors the whole story with her grounded performance as Dream’s librarian Lucienne. Boyd Holbrook delivers a charming and unsettling turn as the Corinthian, more than making up for some of the villain’s lackluster dialogue. Gwendoline Christie is a regally intimidating Lucifer, David Thewlis makes John Dee frighteningly sympathetic, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste brings an absolutely captivating performance as Death.

That’s without mentioning half of the show’s guest stars — a list that includes great turns from the likes of Stephen Fry, Mason Alexander Park, Vanesu Samunyai, Sarah Niles, and Jenna Coleman as a delightfully wry Johanna Constantine. Even when it suffers from issues of pacing or scattered focus, "The Sandman" remains entertaining because of the strength of its truly diverse ensemble. There’s always someone interesting doing something curious somewhere, and the sheer number of intriguing characters makes the whole world feel brilliantly alive.

Worst: Inconsistent

Rose Walker protecting her brother

Watching Netflix’s "The Sandman" is a journey of highs and lows. It struggles at the start, peaks in the middle, and oscillates throughout the final act of Season 1. Sometimes the music, the visuals, and the performances all come together to form beautiful and poignant moments. Other times, the dramatic monologuing feels forced and flat, and the tone veers away from high brow horror into shallow edginess.

It’s a show that’s good more often than it’s bad, with the high points outweighing the low ones. That being said, "The Sandman" never fully finds itself in Season 1. It wants to be an epic fantasy saga as well as a grounded human drama and a psychedelic display of visual creativity. Yet, it almost never manages to accomplish all those things at once.

Whether or not the inventiveness of "The Sandman" is worth the constant dips will likely be different for each viewer. There are some things the series does that are only possible because of its ambition, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if each episode mirrored the last in form and tone. But it’s also hard not to feel like the series hasn’t yet hit its stride by the time the season finale comes to an end. Hopefully, future installments can minimize the cracks and make "The Sandman" the show it clearly wants to be.

Best: The little things

The Sandman entering Hell

In spite of its inconsistency, or perhaps because of it, "The Sandman" thrives in the small moments. Death shares a darkly tender moment with an infant before guiding its young spirit to the afterlife. Dream is truly shaken at the sight of an old lover in Hell. John Dee gives his protection amulet to a woman he barely knows because he truly believes her to be good. There are so many of these little moments of poignancy scattered throughout "The Sandman" that it’s impossible to list them all. Taken together, they weave a web of haunting vignettes that sets the series apart from other big-budget fantasy shows.

It’s not just the small touches dropped into the story, either — it’s all the details around the edges. It’s the way people under the influence of John Dee’s ruby glow faintly red on screen. It’s the fact that Barbie has a recurring dream spoofing "The Chronicles of Narnia." "The Sandman" may struggle to make its big-picture plot really matter, but it excels in the quieter moments.

At the end of Episode 6, Dream returns to the site of the tavern where he and Hob Gadling would meet every hundred years, only to find it defunct. Signage points him to a new inn across the street, and he steps inside. In the grand scheme, Morpheus’ friendship with a random human doesn’t really matter. But when he lucks upon Hob at a corner table and finally admits their friendship, it feels like the world has been saved.