Episode five of Netflix's The Sandman adapts "24 Hours", the fifth issue of the comic where John Dee sits in a diner and subjects the staff and customers to the powers of the ruby, leading them to madness, destruction, and death. This episode is another one that makes major changes in the TV adaptation because many elements of the comic didn't date well, and also to fit the pacing of a TV show.
Bette (Emma Duncan) is, well, more like a character in a cable TV show. She looks younger and less dowdy than in the comic, is presented as more visibly quirky but otherwise is the same character from the comic, an aspiring writer who writes fanfic with happy endings for her regular customers. Her homophobia, kept mostly under polite wraps, is also intact in the way she thinks regular Judy's (Daisy Head) troubled life would be better if she stopped being gay and just met the right man. She's dating Marsh, a widowed trucker in the comic but who is the diner's cook in the show. Walsh (Steve Brand) in the show covers up a major plot hole since the cook is completely absent in the comic. Mark, a young business executive (Laurie Davidson) comes in on his way to a job interview at a big company. A local CEO, Kate Fletcher (Lourdes Ferberes) and her henpecked husband Gary (James Udom) arrive for dinner, the cracks in their marriage barely concealed.
The comic followed the dynamics of 1980s Horror: set up stereotypes, then indulge in the goriest violence that explodes the repressed for social commentary. Dee unleashes the repressed ids of the diner occupants. The comic displayed a 1980s crassness that wouldn't fly today – it's a bad look to suddenly have a frustrated lesbian have sex with a man during an orgy. 1980s Horror was loud, flashy, even crass, and often gratuitous. 2022 is more about nuance. The montage effect of showing global scenes of horror was a storytelling technique first used in Alan Moore's run of Swamp Thing at the time that was being replicated in this issue of The Sandman. That single issue features possibly the most unsubtle writing of Neil Gaiman's entire career, a lapse we don't associate with him today. The John Dee of the comics is a cruel child who likes to break things and people for kicks. This John Dee (David Thewlis) is sad and gentle, wracked by a lifetime of trauma, loss, and despair. He has a deep wound that he wants to heal by remaking the world, but it would only be warped by the cruelty of his quiet anger. That makes him a sympathetic villain. He causes mayhem and death passively. He just lifts people's inhibitions and lets them destroy themselves and each other as he quietly eats ice cream, a lost little boy seeing more proof that the world is broken, even though he's the one breaking it.
The show hints at but mostly leaves out the global chaos Dee causes with the ruby. There are no TV reports of people driven to acts of psychotic self-destruction. Instead, the show stays in the diner. Instead of Dee sadistically mind-controlling everyone, he just lifts their inhibitions so they don't lie and exposes their truth. Marsh's lack of interest in Bette turns out to be his repressed homosexuality that he indulges in with her college-aged son. Kate Fletcher takes out her boredom with her husband by having sex with young wannabe-executive Mark. Bette's homophobia turns out to hide her own gayness that she consummates with Judy. Gary ends up having sex with Marsh in the kitchen. This is more nuanced than the orgy that Dee forces everyone to have in the comic. The show also has more nuance in having the occupants realise what Dee has done to them before his manipulation gets more insidious as they still end up destroying themselves, thinking it's their choice.
In The Sandman, a Sad David Thewlis is the Scariest David Thewlis
This whole episode is really a character study of John Dee. David Thewlis is one of the great British actors that the industry hasn't known what to do with, even though he's been consistently busy and in demand since the 1990s. His breakthrough performance was Johnny, a quick-witted homeless misanthrope, conspiracy theorist, and serial abuser of women in Mike Leigh's 1993 dark comedy Naked. Johnny might be a worse monster than John Dee, and it feels like every major role Thewlis played since has been in dialogue with it. He was completely wasted as Ares in the 2017 Wonder Woman movie, and this is the best use of him since his turn as a fantasist husband, accused embezzler, and murderer in Landscapers.
Come to think of it, John Dee's rage and nihilism, his tantrum to destroy Dream and the realm of dreams, are a result of his despair. He would have become one of Despair's people, and she could have shown up to claim him. That might have brought on a new change to the show: to introduce Despair sooner, but it didn't happen. We're now just writing fanfic, so back to the show.
The final third of the episode condenses and adapts issue #7 of the comic, which was entirely devoted to Dream's battle with a tantrum-throwing Dee. It skips straight to their battle in Dream's palace without the distractions that took up most of the comic. Instead of attacking Dee directly, Dream defeats him passively. Dee was most powerful when he passively unleashed the amulet and the ruby's power on people and let them destroy themselves. When Dee actively tries to kill Dream and his kingdom, he ends up losing. This is where Dee, the angry boy who wants to break the world, comes out. Dream reclaims his power when Dee destroys the ruby, releasing its power back to Dream, making the latter more powerful than ever.
Once Again, The Sandman Chooses Kindness
Instead of killing him, Dream shows Dee mercy and delivers him back to the mental institution to live out his days. This is one of the first signs that Dream is changing, which is his long-term arc of the series. In episode 3, "Dream a Little Dream of Me", Constantine (Jenna Coleman) had to guilt-trip him into showing mercy to her dying ex Rachel in episode 3. His easing Constantine of her recurring nightmare is a transaction they'd agreed upon. The show emphasizes Dream's change includes seeing and caring about people as more than just ideas or abstraction and taking the time to tend to them individually. That is a lesson Dream is going to have to learn again and again throughout the series.
The Sandman is streaming on Netflix.