In the third episode of The Sandman, Dream’s quest to recover his sigils of power gets fully underway. Causing him to cross paths with charmer and rogue Johanna Constantine. Also, Ethel makes what is likely to be a truly bad decision. That’s right; the story is taking off. And every episode so far has left me with a single thought: This series is so damn good.
The Family Constantine
As we discovered in the previous episode, Dream’s bag of sand was sold in London. To a woman named Johanna Constantine (played by the always delightful Jenna Coleman), no less. The episode begins with him seeking her out, and she’s every bit what one would expect from her family namesake. Charming and clever. Mysterious and tortured. Don’t forget the tortured.
Naturally, she has good cause to be. Magic is an unpredictable thing, and hers once took the life (or at least the arm) of a little girl she loved. Of course, the little girl would have been fine if she’d stayed away, as Johanna instructed. But when do little kids do what they’re told?
The memory gives Johanna nightmares, and it’s through these nightmares that Dream is able to find her. And so he proposes a trade: his bag of sand to make the nightmares go away. Which would be fine if Johanna was the trusting sort, but “Constantine” and “trusting” aren’t two words that go together often.
Through Johanna, we learn that the magic community had all heard rumors of the devil kept in Roderick’s basement for all those years. Though Dream doesn’t want to talk about that right now, geez, Johanna. And, like his fellow Endless, it seems no other magic wielder took action all those years to free him.
No wonder Dream is so sad and solitary at the moment. Though less solitary in the end, thanks to Lucienne and her insistence that he will take a crow with him and he will like it. The crow, on the other hand, may be starting to have some regrets.
The Price Paid
With Johanna’s help, Dream does recover his first sigil. But not without a cost – to Johanna, at least. As it turns out, she’d left it behind with an ex-girlfriend she’d previously ghosted when things got too serious. And sigils of power just aren’t meant to be wielded by humans.
Holding the bag of sand has exacted a terrible price from Rachel, the girlfriend in question. When they arrive to her apartment, Johanna is first swept up in a dream before awakening and finding her former lover on the brink of death. Nearly mummified in her own bed, kept alive only by the sand.
It’s in the interaction between Dream and Johanna that you see the weakness in both their armor. Johanna would like to pretend she’s cold and uncaring. That she’s happy to forego companionship rather than risk hurting someone else. And Dream is, of course, one of the Endless. Not of this world, and perhaps somewhat above it.
But in the face of Rachel’s pain as she lingers on the brink of death, Johanna reminds Dream what it is he’s fighting for. Why he needs so badly to save his realm. If it’s to save humans, as he claims, then he can’t turn his back on this one. And it’s true; he can’t. He can’t save her, but he can – and does – bring her peace. Which is perhaps all we can hope for, in the end.
The idea that magic (or the ordinary crossing paths with the divine) comes at a price isn’t a new one to The Sandman. It’s a common thread in these kinds of stories. And watching Johanna say goodbye to her former lover reminded me of an early episode of the cancelled-too-early series Constantine, starring the rather perfectly cast Matt Ryan in the titular role. Sitting by his best friend’s side as he dies. But it’s a good reminder why it’s so important than Dream regains his sigils. Not just for his sake, but for ours.
As well as reminding us just why we can’t get enough of anyone named Constantine. (I certainly want to hope to see more of Johanna in the future.) They might be rogues and scamps, but there’s a good heart beating deep down. Sometimes deep, deep, deep down.
With his sigil recovered and his mercy bestowed, dream and Johanna part ways, with his vow to live up to his end of the bargain. And it’s off to hell for Dream and his new – incredibly stubborn – raven, Matthew (voiced by Patton Oswalt). Much to the latter’s chagrin.
Mother of Bad Decisions
With one sigil down and another in Dream’s sights, there’s only one to go. Its fate continues to be the most mysterious. Originally taken by Roderick, then stolen by Ethel. Then taken from her by her son, John. Who is involuntarily committed in a hospital after…well, we don’t know what, but it caused several people’s deaths.
Ethel originally stole the sigils for her own protection, and now she shows remarkable pragmatism in realizing she needs to give the one she still has access to back. If she returns the ruby, maybe Dream will let her and John go in peace. And perhaps he would. As demonstrated with Johanna, he might be vengeful when crossed, but he’s not necessarily unkind.
Not that John has any intention of taking the chance. He won’t tell his mother where he’s hidden the ruby, insisting it will only work for him. Which causes her to make what I can’t help but feel will turn out to be a spectacularly bad decision. She gives the Amulet of Protection to John, in the hopes he will realize that he doesn’t need the ruby, after all.
It seems remarkably short-sighted, given that he was claiming he wanted to create a world without the Sandman not five minutes before. But, hey, Ethel is 116 years old. A fairly spry 116 years old (well, until the years catch up with her fast). But maybe the years took a toll on her reasoning skills.
Or maybe she’s blinded by love for her child. I suppose I can’t blame her there.
At any rate, she channels her inner Mother Gothel as soon as she gives the Amulet away, and John escapes from his imprisonment soon after. Without the slightest hint he has any intention of returning the ruby to Dream and carrying on his merry way. Which fits in perfectly well with the Corinthian’s plans, it seems.
This will no doubt end well.
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.