Leave it to the showrunners of Netflix’s The Sandman to have an episode starring both Death and an immortal man and still have it be one of the most hopeful entries in the season. The sixth episode of The Sandman, titled “The Sound of Her Wings”, finds Dream mulling over the end of his quest to reclaim his relics and not knowing what to do with himself. Enter Death, Dream’s older sibling, who parses out some words of wisdom while performing her duties. The introduction of an immortal who meets with Dream every 100 years in the same pub allows the second half of the episode to end on a hopeful beat.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the sixth episode of The Sandman “The Sound of Her Wings”.
Much of the first half of the episode is spent with Dream (Tom Sturridge) meeting his sister Death (played with cheerful enthusiasm by Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Death is one of the Endless and by all accounts older than Dream. But where Dream is often a morose stoic who shows very little emotion, Death is the opposite. Instead of a grim, dour, and unpleasant creature, Death is a friendly face that helps the living transition into the Sunless Lands, the next step before whatever happens after death.
I enjoyed Kirby’s performance as Death. Since this incarnation of the Endless spends so much time among humans, she is far more personable and amiable than her moribund sibling. Death enjoys her job but not in a sadistic way. This is shown in three key scenes where she collects a soul. The first is an old man playing on his violin. The violinist requests a brief moment to recite the Shema Yisrael, a prayer devout Jews say at the moment of their death. Death, in this instance, is accommodating and respectful before whisking the man away. When Death comes to collect a husband on his honeymoon, he pleads with her to let him say goodbye to his new wife and give her the passcode on his phone, since everything for their trip is on it. Death cannot accommodate this request but you can see on her face that she understands why he’s asking for just a few more moments. The most heartbreaking is the infant, who dies in their crib of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There’s a melancholic expression for a brief moment on Death’s face but it’s quickly replaced with a nurturing, almost motherly quality that reassures the infant that it’s time to go. Seeing Death depicted in such a way is quite refreshing. In many ways, it reminds me of the character found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which does not surprise me given how much Neil Gaiman loved Pratchett’s work.
The interactions between Death and Dream are genuinely affectionate as well. It’s clear that Death missed her brother during his captivity and knew that she had been the original target of Sir Roderick Burgess. It is Death that reminds Dream that the purpose of the Endless is their function for all living beings, not some grand quest that takes them away from their duties. It is a reminder to Dream that his charge of watching over the dreams of the living is a responsibility all on its own that is fulfilling and worthy of his attention rather than trying to find something else to occupy his mind.
The transition in the second half of the episode deals with Hob Gadling, a man who makes a boast that he will simply choose not to die in 1489 while being within earshot of both Dream and Death. On a bet, Dream states that Hob would wish for death within a century but Death thinks otherwise and challenges Dream to get to know Hob. Over the next four centuries, Hob and Dream meet in the very same pub every 100 years to discuss what Hob has been up to and if he still wants to live. During once such meeting, Dream meets Will Shaxberd, who he takes under his wing and eventually becomes William Shakespeare (which is an allusion to the later story involving A Midsummer Night’s Dream). In another meeting, the pair encounter Lady Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman returns to play the distant ancestor of her character Johanna from episode three).Try Audible Premium Plus and Get Up to Two Free Audiobooks
There’s a progression to the meetings that I found exquisite in its execution. With immortality at his disposal, Hob manages to make himself wealthy, even gaining a title. But then he loses everything, including his wife and child, then spends 80 years in squalor. Despite the destitute nature of his life, Hob still wants to live. Over time, Hob becomes a refined gentleman, although there is an exchange where Hob reveals he is involved in the slave trade, something Dream finds distasteful and warns Hob to get away from. The final meeting between the two occurs during the reign of Jack the Ripper in 1889. Hob posits that Dream is looking for friendship, since it should be plainly obvious by that point that Hob will never want to die. Dream finds this suggestion disdainful and leaves in a huff, despite it being rather obvious that he enjoys Hob’s company.
With that fight in mind, Hob waits for Dream in 1989 but due to his incarceration in the Burgess residence, Dream is unable to make it. You can see it in Hob’s face that he misses his centuries-old meetings with Dream, even though he doesn’t fully know what Dream is. Another blow is struck when Hob learns from the old barkeep that the pub Hob and Dream have been meeting in has been sold to make way for new construction. The same expression can be seen on Dream’s face when he finds the abandoned pub after spending time with Death until he sees a graffiti sign pointing to a new inn. It’s there that Dream meets up with Hob again, with a genuine smile on his face. After dismissing Hob’s claim of friendship, it’s heartwarming to see Dream refer to the immortal as his friend in that moment as the two sit down to talk.
Episode six of The Sandman definitely felt like a breather episode before the next half of the story kicks in to gear. The reveal at the end that Desire was behind Dream’s incarceration and that they were speaking to someone else is quite an interesting turn of events. Desire’s wicked grin at the end caused me to feel a strong foreboding for what lies ahead. Overall, though, I greatly enjoyed “The Sound of Her Wings” and look forward to seeing what is in store next.
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