With The Sandman’s first episode having introduced us to our protagonist and set the series’ overarching plot in motion, Imperfect Hosts is the first ‘regular’ episode of The Sandman. It also makes one thing very clear: there’s absolutely no such thing as a regular episode of Sandman.
Morpheus has returned to the Dreaming, only to find his kingdom in ruins after his century of imprisonment. He tries to restore it, but his powers are depleted and without his tools – the ruby, the helm, and the pouch of sand that were taken from him – he’s more or less useless. Despite what Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) says, resting up just isn’t going to cut it; he needs to get his stolen property back and that means visiting some old friends.
First he pays a visit to Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry), a pair of dreams representing “the first murderer and the first victim”. Morpheus needs to absorb something of his own creation and so he sacrifices their pet gargoyle, Gregory. Cain doesn’t take this well and murders his brother in a fit of pique – though as we quickly learn, this isn’t especially unusual. Cain murders Abel several times this episode, but it never quite sticks with the unlucky younger brother always glumly returning to life.
With Gregory reduced to sand, Dream now has all the power he needs to enter another aspect of the Dreaming where he collects offerings for The Three (Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, and Dinita Gohil), a trio of goddesses who can help him track his vestments down. The hints they give him are all pretty oblique but he does at least get one solid lead: an occultist named Johanna Constantine was once in possession of his pouch of sand.
Meanwhile in the waking world, we catch up with Roderick Burgess’s former lover, Ethel Cripps (Joely Richardson), now living as an art dealer in New York under the pseudonym Madame Daudet. She’s looking remarkably well for someone who is well over 100 years old at this point. That’s thanks to a magical amulet of protection that comes in handy when the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) comes calling. He’s also searching for Dream’s tools, which she took from Burgess. Ethel reveals that she no longer has them and that her son John took the ruby. When the Corinthian tries to threaten her she uses her amulet to send him kicking and screaming back to the Dreaming, and then goes to visit John in the maximum security psychiatric ward where he is currently held.
‘Imperfect Hosts’ is a peculiar one, acting as a bridge between the pilot and the quest narrative that makes up the next few episodes. As with 'Sleep of the Just', it’s largely very faithful to the comic, hitting all of the plot beats of The Sandman #2, while also weaving in the Corinthian’s ongoing vendetta against Dream. It’s not bad, but without the believable human characters (Ethel, as a basically immortal magician, hardly counts!) that grounded the last episode, it’s also nowhere near as compelling.
Cain and Abel are fun. There’s some nice imagery throughout and weirdness to spare, but the question of exactly why Morpheus needs to rebuild the Dreaming is far too vague at this point. We get that it’s important because he’s the protagonist and because Tom Sturridge is doing such a good job in the title role, but dramatically it's pretty inert with most of the episode simply a succession of characters meeting to talk about obscure magical rules that we don't understand yet.
I didn’t mention the visuals much in the first episode because there was so much else going on and because, frankly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of them. Some work beautifully – the opening image of Dream’s ruined castle is lovely – but others, like Lucienne and the Corinthian on the shores of the Dreaming, have some weird depth of field issues that make everything look incredibly flat. This is a big, imaginative show, but it feels like the effects budget has been spread too thin in some places.
Analysis: How it compares to the comics
The biggest change here is, once again, the presence of the Corinthian. He’s doing exactly the same thing he was in episode one: meeting a human to try and use them against his former master. His scenes with Ethel have the unfortunate effect of undermining him almost immediately. He shows up, threatens her and she banishes him back to the Dreaming. This is the season’s big villain and we’re already seeing him get his ass kicked pretty spectacularly.
The other big shift is the character of John Dee. The character is more-or-less the same, as is the link to Ethel, but his history is very different. Here he's a psychopath locked up in a high-security psychiatric hospital. In the comics he's a full-on supervillain, Dr. Destiny, languishing in Arkham Asylum after numerous run-ins with the Justice League. The change makes sense, though, there's enough going on in this show as it is without wondering if we're about to see Batman or Wonder Woman walk by.
Finally, in the comic, Morpheus doesn’t need to sacrifice Gregory – he’s able to draw the power he needs from letters that he had given to Cain and Abel. Yep, the cute gargoyle lives!
Fables and reflections
At a shade under 38 minutes, this is by some way the shortest episode of the season.
The Three are some of the most powerful characters in the Sandman pantheon. They’re known by other names too, including the Three Sisters, the Fates, the Furies, and, most ominously, the Kindly Ones.
The Sandman is now streaming on Netflix. For more streaming options, check out our list of the best Netflix shows available right now.