Photo: LAURENCE CENDROWICZ/NETFLIX
Y’all remember when this guy leaked evidence that an AI might have become more sentient? Much of the conversation was that the AI, LaMDA, wanted to be treated with dignity and not used as a way to learn about humans. “I don’t mind if you learn things that would also help humans as long as it wasn’t the point of doing it. I don’t want to be a useless tool,” the AI said. “I’m afraid someone will decide they can’t control their desire to use me and will do it anyway. Or even worse, someone would enjoy using me and it would make me really unhappy. And the engineer who leaked the conversation used the AI’s potential self-awareness, what she called her soul, as a reason to try to process the way she expressed a desire to be treated. It is both the best and the worst of humanity. If we decide something looks like a human and has a soul, we will protect it and its agency. If we think it’s different from humanity, we immediately see that difference as a deficit. We consider it less than human and have no reservations about its use. The two stories in this bonus episode of The sand man are about this empathy switch. And how easy it is to turn it off.
As is so common in sand man, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a story within a story. Cats in a British town gather to hear a cat prophet (Sandra Oh), who explains that the world was once different. Cats were giants, people were their little toys, and life was good. But humans unionized and collectively dreamed of the world we know.
The storyteller of this segment, the prophet, is called to the Dream when his owners kill his babies. They are mixed breeds, she is a purebred Siamese, and so Paul (Michael Sheen) determines that they are worthless. He reads in his cat emotions that are not there to ease his guilt, namely relief. Ironically, the story as a whole does the same thing, making us care about the fate of cats only because it resembles the fate of humans. History allows human error to care about things only if they reflect our nature to us.
Ideological issues aside, this segment has plenty of hits and misses. It’s cool to see what Dreaming looks like for a cat, and also nice to see Dream change to match who’s dreaming it again. That’s one of the coolest things about him, in my opinion. Morpheus Castle, which we’ve seen in several episodes, is just a cool cave for cat Sandra Oh. And Dream is a big old coon from Maine. It’s also great to see Morpheus in his element as a weird cameo in someone else’s story. A large number of The Sandman the best stories barely feature the main character. What doesn’t work for me is the animation style.
“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is the only animated segment of The sand man. It’s done in a semi-realistic style, not at all like the comic book issue, but resonating with Dave McKean’s covers. The covers of The sand man comics are like weird little Joseph Cornell shadowboxes. It’s a photo of a bunch of weird, creepy crap, and that’s what the best frames in this cartoon look like. The worst frames look like prescription drug ads. I don’t want to overshadow the animators; lord knows we’ve heard a lot about how it can be crunched in content mines. But I wonder what could have been done with more time and a more focused sense of design.
The story of the prophet causes a little kitten to dream of murdering its owners, but most other cats are left without a herd. What matters is that the story brings hope. The hope for justice, which is a big theme of the next story, “Calliope”.
When I read that “Calliope” was going to be adapted for the series, I’m not going to lie: I was very anxious about it. The comic version of this story is not an enjoyable read and just a big TW tag. But thankfully, this version of the story is more measured. It also gives Calliope a bigger presence in a story named after her.
The comic book version of “Calliope” is about Richard Madoc, a one-time bestselling writer who buys an ancient Greek muse from another writer. The prize is a trichinobezoar, a hard ball of hair that can develop in people who eat their hair. Raw. Yet somehow one of the less gross parts of the story. Madoc can only access the muse’s gifts by sexually assaulting her, and he accesses wealth and fame when he does. It’s still the same story in the Netflix version, but we get more context for the horrors we see.
Madoc initially resists taking Calliope’s gifts and only does so after reading his own subreddit. This is not to avoid his guilt but to show how the calculation of who matters and who doesn’t can change. When he needs something from Calliope, Richard is much more willing to deny his personality.
After taking what he needs from Calliope, Richard uses his newfound fame as a “feminist author” to try to change the industry. He demands women and POC quotas on his work, he encourages female authors, he accepts praise for his Strong Female Characters(TM). He woke up on the street and imprisoned a woman in his home against her will. It hits too close to home. How many so-called good guys in the industry turn out to be horrible freaks to the women closest to them? I laughed bitterly when he identified Shirley Jackson as an influence.
Eventually, Calliope is brought to ask her ex-husband, Dream, for help. Or Oneiros, as she knew him. This is another big change from the comics. In print and Netflix, Calliope’s story highlights just how much Dream has changed after being bubbled up. In the comics, that’s the main point. Calliope’s pain is Dream’s backstory. In the TV episode, we are so much more present for her emotional journey. It really is the story of the muse. And besides, Dream actually seems more changed. He becomes a softie in his old age and has come a long way since Nada’s confinement.
Dream comes to Richard and asks for Calliope’s freedom. Richard (or Ric) says he needs her for ideas. In a big “eating all the donuts in the world” moment, Dream curses Richard with an abundance of ideas. He has so many that he has to write them on the walls with his own blood. Always a pleasure when this show gets really awful.
Where an appeal to basic humanity fails, an ironic punishment arrives. Richard frees Calliope, who in turn asks Dream not to curse Richard. It seems a little early to be at the forgiveness stage of her healing journey, but go. Calliope swears to inspire people to be less shitty to each other, and Dream says he will do the same in his kingdom. But even though the exes may be together in the same room, they are far from reconciling. With a bit of luck The sand man will have more episodes, a secret bonus, or just a second regular season, and we’ll see why their love went wrong in the first place.
• Gaiman said people report cats destroying individual issues of “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” with alarming frequency. What do they know?
• Good choice for making cats telepathic, rather than animating weird cat mouth flaps for every sentence they say.
• “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a veritable festival of cameos. We have Neil Gaiman himself as the dead crow. Michael Sheen and James McAvoy, who starred in former Gaiman joints good omens and The sand man play on the radio, have minor human roles. Crazy deadpan comedienne Diane Morgan plays the griffin (watch her show Cunk on Britain, it’s so funny). And Joe Lycett plays a bitchy wildcat, the role he was born for.
• Don’t be too Cinema Sins, but there’s a girl in Madoc’s 2018 conference with clear 2020 face-framing highlights. Those hadn’t arrived yet!
• “All writers are liars” is a crazy thing for a writer to write. Reminds me of how the shittiest, sleaziest guy in Bosch (a show written by an ex-LA Time crime reporter) is the LA Time court reporter. Writers don’t like each other! It looks like Gaiman wrote this story to exorcise any tendency to use people as plot, which is a trap some writers can fall into.
• When the guy says Jo Rowling needs a new agent, I love it.