Thus far, The Sandman has primarily been a fantasy show. It veers into the realm of suspense in its fifth episode, however. We finally get to delve a little more into the character and psyche of John (David Thewlis) while Dream takes a bit of a back seat for most of the episode. Only to return – not with a vengeance, but with compassion and mercy.
Nature v. Nurture?
The question of nature v. nurture has long been debated when it comes to the formation of our personalities. But how much do our dreams shape us? Not just the content, but the essence of what they are and what they do for us? That very question is part of what makes John such an intriguing character.
There are, after all, many sides of him. Not all of them are bad. At first blush, he comes off a lot like his portrayal of Professor Lupin in Harry Potter, if I’m honest. (Yeah, I went there.) Gentle and unassuming. Caring but a bit distant. Troubled.
And then the cynical malevolence creeps out. John isn’t overtly evil, like The Corinthian. While power-hungry, ruthless, and a bit mad – as his father was – he carries these traits themselves differently than Roderick. Roderick was selfish and self-centered. John is seemingly doing what he genuinely thinks would be best for the world. A child, raised in a sea of lies, wanting nothing more than to erase lies from reality.
But lies aren’t just human; they’re often necessary. They keep us going. They allow us to put forth our better selves, even when we don’t always feel like better people. They give us hope that we can one day achieve our dreams.
Which is where the question comes into play: how much do our dreams shape us?
Remember, John was born in a world in which the Sandman was captive. Had been captive for a while, no less. He’s not known a reality in which the Dreaming has been healthy and strong. And, true, he’s not the only child born into a world with only tattered dreams. But he had the added benefit – or drawback – of having exposure to Dream’s ruby from birth.
We have seen the toll a sigil of power can have on a full-grown adult. Just imagine the influence – or corruption – one could have on an infant.
Does John even dream in the same way he would have done if he hadn’t had both these things acting against him? (Not to mention being sired by an evil magician and a woman shrouded in lies, who can explode people who threaten her.) It is clear he doesn’t understand what dreams fundamentally are. Let alone why they’re important.
The fifth episode of “24/7” subtly introduces these questions while masterfully building suspense. Until the inevitable epic conclusion. To the first arc of the season, at least.
The Sandman hasn’t been wasting any time blowing through its plots, has it? Whereas other shows might have milked the search for Dream’s sigils for an entire season, this series knocks them out in the first five episodes.
Yes, Dream recovers the last of his sigils in “24/7” – in a sense. Ruby in hand, John announces his intention of destroying the Sandman and taking his power. (Just imagine the Dreaming run by a person who doesn’t – perhaps can’t – understand the importance of dreams.) This leads to a face-off inside the dream realm, in which John temporarily seems to gain the upper hand. Until he destroys the ruby.
Far from being the finishing blow, the destruction of the ruby returns all of Dreams power, as it had contained a part of him inside it. So Dream’s down to two sigils, but he’s at full strength. (And he’ll undoubtedly need it for what’s coming.)
For now, however, the return of Dream’s power offers another chance to demonstrate his compassion. He could be angry and vengeful toward John. Every bit for what he did to the innocent diners as for what he attempted to do to Dream. But he – more than anyone, perhaps – understands just how damning the influence of the ruby would have been. For John, it was more or less inescapable his whole life. Which doesn’t negate the evil of what he did, but it does warrant a tiny bit of pity, perhaps.
And so Dream does show John both pity and mercy when he returns him to the mental hospital, to live out his days there. Hopefully with the dreams he should have had, in a world in which they hadn’t been tarnished.
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.