The Sandman is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when fans thought we’d binged all that the season had to offer (more than once!) and had settled in for a long wait for word of renewal, Netflix surprised us with a bonus episode. (If they wanted to do so again, we wouldn’t mind.)
The episode is a bit of a departure from the norm for the series. Both stories were dark, in their own ways. The first story, “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is animated and focuses on what our furry friends dream about – and get up to in our absence. The second, Calliope, focuses on Dream’s ex-wife. Let’s break the two stories down.
Dream of a Thousand Cats
Ever wonder what cats dream about? Maybe it’s best we don’t ask. But, in case we’re curious, The Sandman has an answer. They dream about a world in which they’re in charge and we’re part servant, part food. Honestly, that’s the least surprising fact of any episode in the series to date.
Since it’s an animated episode, I should take a moment to comment on the animation. It is…and I know this will be a surprise to everyone…gorgeous. Each cat is depicted in loving detail. The voice acting is also stellar, bringing together such names as Sandra Oh (The Prophet), Nonso Anozie (Wyvern), Rosie Day (The Tabby Kitten), David Gyasi (The Grey Cat), James McAvoy (Golden-Haired Man), Michael Sheen (Paul), and author Neil Gaiman himself (Crow). Of course star Tom Sturridge makes a vocal appearance, as well, as the Cat of Dreams. I admit I hadn’t pondered if Morpheus would also be the Lord of Dreams for other animals, but he naturally would be.
It isn’t exactly the most upbeat hour, and animal lovers will be distraught at the fate of the kittens. Not that I’ve forgiven Gaiman for the SIDS scene earlier in the season. Give my heart – and babies everywhere – a break, will you? Yeah, okay, since having a child, I’m much more emotional watching television than I used to be.
The story doesn’t really have a place in the greater mythology. Except to say that it reiterates the power that dreams have (or could have) on reality. And also to confirm for viewers everywhere that, yes, your perfect-killing-machine feline absolutely would eat you if given the chance. Not that this is a surprise to anyone who has loved or been loved by a cat. And the knowledge certainly will never stop us from kissing their little noses.
Come to think of it, it’s probably best that a thousand cats will never come together to do anything. Including dream of a reality in which they’re in charge.
You ever walk into a story ready to be like, “Well, I can relate to that” only to get partway in and realize “Oh…oh god…nope, no longer relate!” I imagine a number of writers had that very progression of thought watching “Calliope,” the second story in the bonus episode. Anyone who’s ever tried to write can sympathize with the desire to make a deal with the proverbial devil to get past writer’s block. (One has to clarify a proverbial devil in a world in which the actual Devil exists.)
We would, of course, like to think we wouldn’t go that far, however. Certainly not as far as Richard Madoc (Arthur Darvill) and Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi). And for the record, I don’t care how many bad guys he plays. Darvill will always be my sweet, under-appreciated Rory of Doctor Who. And I’ve been impressed by Jacobi as an actor ever since I, Claudius. So this was again another star-studded story.
“Calliope” tells the story of a struggling author who makes a deal to take “ownership” of the Calliope of Greek mythology. Calliope is the muse of epic poetry and eloquence. In The Sandman, she’s also Dream’s ex-wife. It’s revealed that the pair also once had a son, Orpheus. Yes, that Orpheus.
For those unfamiliar, in Greek mythology, Orpheus petitioned Hades to return his dead wife, Eurydice, to him. Hades agreed, with the stipulation that the pair not look behind them. When he stepped into the sun, he wanted to share his joy with his wife and turned a moment too soon. Losing her forever.
Back to the episode. Calliope (Melissanthi Mahut) was captured by another author, Erasmus Fry, but his career is at an end. So he trades her to Richard Madoc, rather than set her free as he promised.
At first, Madoc seems torn on what to do. He clearly views himself as a good man. Can he reconcile his image of himself with a man who would imprison and “defile” (and, yeah, we all know what that means) someone? Even if that someone isn’t strictly human? When push comes to shove, and the choice is between his morals and returning his publisher’s advance, it turns out he absolutely can.
The most uncomfortable thing about “Calliope” is that we all have met or known people like Madoc in our lives. Hopefully not going so far as sexual assault. And probably not with mythological beings trapped in their guest room. But we’ve certainly known people who have been ostentatious in their performative feminism/”woke”-ness. Madoc professes his love of female authors and demands equal representation in front of and behind the camera. All the while willing to exploit and abuse a woman (non-human, but a woman nevertheless) to get what he wants.
His praise for female authors being the inspiration for his own career is too heavy-handed to believe that even he’s buying into what he’s selling. But when he demands equal representation for a film adaptation of his work, one has to wonder. Does he actually buy that, at least? Does he genuinely think he’s the kind of person to fight for equality, even when standing in front of Calliope, who he’s exploited and sexually assaulted to get where he is? That he continues to exploit, in fact. It’s clear that, his promises to the contrary, he never intends to let her go.
Not that Dream gives him much of a choice. If there’s anyone you don’t want to cross, it’s the King of Dreams. Madoc wants ideas, and Dream’s happy to give them to him. More than he can handle, in fact. And though Calliope asks him to release Madoc in the end, I have a feeling Madoc has more than a few unpleasant nightmares in his future. Not that he’ll remember them, because without Calliope there to inspire him, he seems unable to retain much thought at all.
“Dream of a Thousand Cats/Calliope” is a different kind of episode for The Sandman. But it’s a welcome one, nevertheless. One that only leaves us wanting more. We’ll take that second season confirmation now, Netflix.
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.