This issue concludes the first arc of The Sandman, offering a resolution to the problem of John Dee’s abuse of Dream’s dreamstone. As stories go, it’s quite a thin one, since the vast majority of the issue is simply the face off between Dream and Dee.
Interspersed among the fight are scenes of the world going mad in the wake of Dee’s actions; it’s a device that’s meant to give a sense of scale to the conflict, emphasizing that Dee could very well destroy the whole of reality if Dream can’t find a way to subdue him. It’s the sort of climax that you regularly find in more action-based comics with the hero confronting the villain while the stakes are laid out to bare for everyone to see. I’m going to say now that we’re very fortunate that Gaiman never attempts another story climax like this one again, where Dream is at a definite disadvantage and his adversary is a fully realized villain. It just stretches belief a little too far to suggest that Dream, an anthropomorphic representation of the concepts of dream, imagination, and story, could be left in a disadvantageous position based on purely a power differential. Later stories will explore more fully how Dream often forces himself into disadvantageous positions because of his personal code of conduct, but here it really is simply about Dee possessing the dreamstone and being more powerful.
The story’s resolution, which involves Dee becoming progressively more frustrated with the cat and mouse game Dream is playing with him in the Dreaming, decides that the most expedient way to kill his opponent is to shatter the dreamstone, which Dream admits holds the majority of his own power and essence.
This backfires spectacularly, providing the single best sequence in the issue, where Dee finds himself in a blank space thinking that he’s won until the boundaries recede and he realizes he’s standing in the palm of the fully restored Dream (though Dee has been a legitimate threat for the past several issues and has done some truly horrific things, Gaiman takes the opportunity here to present the madman in a comical light as he offers a genuine, if muddled, apology for his behavior once he’s free of the dreamstone’s influence).
In the midst of a decidedly light issue, we do get one hugely significant piece of character development, as we see Dream show mercy to someone who’s wronged him for the first time since the series’ beginning. While Dream muses that he would be perfectly justified in killing Dee for the trouble he’s caused, he instead chooses to return the man safely to Arkham Asylum, citing his gratitude at having the power that was trapped in the dreamstone restored to him. This isn’t precisely a flimsy excuse for an act of kindness, but it matters because it shows for the first time that Dream is capable of making allowances for human fallibility, though he struggles with the concept. We’ll see this idea revisited time and time again as the series progresses, with Gaiman exploring the bounds of Dream’s ability to evolve his personal ethics.
And that’s pretty much it for this issue. The title of the story is a suitable one, since it alludes directly to the lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which conclude that all the flash is ultimately just for show without delivering any deeper meaning. There are a lot of really good visuals in this story, and one interesting character moment, but there’s little else here besides the ending of a larger story. Fortunately, Sandman only gets stronger from this point forward.