Netflix's The Sandman may not directly adapt its comics source material created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg, but it does include characters and story arcs from the series' first 16 issues. The latter half of the streaming series specifically focuses on the Dream Vortex, which could destroy reality as we know it.
The original Sandman comics series ran for 75 issues between 1988 and 1996, and it's since become a classic in its own right. Part of the reason behind its fiercely loyal fandom is its protagonist, Morpheus AKA Dream of the Endless (played by Tom Sturridge in the Netflix series), as well as other memorable characters including Rose Walker (played by Vanesu Samunyai for Netflix).
Although Dream and some of his siblings are adapted from mythology and other sources, Rose is an original character whose role in The Sandman is integral. She's a Dream Vortex, which makes her incredibly powerful and incredibly threatening.
What is a Dream Vortex, and how does Rose Walker come to bear its abilities? Let's look at the comic origins and how they're adapted for The Sandman streaming series.
What is the Dream Vortex in the Sandman?
In the simplest terms, a Dream Vortex in the Sandman universe is capable of not just connecting their dreams to other people's or traveling through dreams, but actually breaking down the walls that separate people's dreams (or building them back up).
While that may not sound like a particularly dangerous ability, breakdowns caused by the Dream Vortex create powerful earthquakes in the Dreaming, AKA Dream's realm. These earthquakes become increasingly violent with each subsequent breakdown of the walls between dreams until the Dreaming is destroyed.
When the Dreaming ceases to exist, people have nowhere to go when they sleep. Thus, the destruction of the Dreaming will result in the destruction of the waking world. The snowball effect is swift and brutal, and the only way to stop it is for Dream to kill the Dream Vortex and remove it as a threat.
Unfortunately, that means that whichever human currently plays host to the Dream Vortex has to die. Per the ancient rules that govern Dream and the other Endless, this is the only time he is permitted to take a human life.
How does Rose Walker become the Dream Vortex?
In both The Sandman comics and the Netflix streaming series, the character Rose Walker is the Dream Vortex. Rose is an orphaned young woman with a difficult family history, and her main drive after her mother dies is to find her little brother, with whom she's been estranged for several years. In her search, she meets Unity Kinkaid, her grandmother (or great-grandmother in the Netflix show).
Unity also has a unique life story. Born in the early 20th century, she was destined to become a Dream Vortex but never did. When the would-be sorcerer Roderick Burgess captured Dream in his attempt to capture Death and resurrect his son, it sent people all over the world into an endless sleep – including Unity.
Unity dreamt of a full life for herself, wherein she grew up, got married, and had a child. However, in real life, she was raped by Dream's younger sibling, Desire, and gave birth to a daughter while she was still asleep. The child was put up for adoption and later gave birth to Rose and her little brother, Jed.
Because Dream was imprisoned and Desire interfered in the natural cycle of the Dream Vortex, Unity's daughter Miranda never inherited the power. It instead passed to Rose, further complicating her search for her brother and making her a target for powerful nightmares that were created by Dream before his imprisonment and had been running rampant for over a century in the waking world.
As Rose's knowledge of the Dreaming grows, so does her power as the Dream Vortex, until she accidentally breaks down the walls between her friends' and family's dreams and nearly destroys everything.
But Dream doesn't kill Rose. Instead, Unity takes the power that was meant to be hers in the first place and kills herself, allowing her granddaughter to live and saving both the Dreaming and the waking world.
How is the Dream Vortex portrayed in Netflix's The Sandman?
The Netflix adaptation of The Sandman keeps the Dream Vortex storyline very close to its source material. The main change is that Unity is Rose's great-grandmother, which is likely because the present day in the comics took place in the late '80s and early '90s, but in the streaming series, the present day takes place in 2021. To make the family connection work, an extra generation needs to separate Rose from Unity.
The "final" confrontation between Dream and Rose (for now), when Unity steps in and claims the Dream Vortex for herself to save the world, is nearly a shot-by-shot recreation of the panels in Sandman #16 (1990).
Learn more about The Sandman's Endless family and their comic book origins.