Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 7”

Where the end of issue #46 presents a level of heartwarming that’s unusual in The Sandman, issue 47 begins a long string of heart wrenching moments that are going to carry us through to the end of Brief Lives.  Now that Dream has come clean to Delirium about his original motivation for starting their search for Destruction, the two are ready to try again in earnest with a better understanding between them.  Immediately, we see Dream treating Delirium more like a partner now than as a sidekick (as soon as they establish that they need to go talk to Destiny next, Dream turns the decision of how to get there over to Delirium).  It’s a nice change in the status quo, and a necessary one once Dream and Delirium finally meet with Destiny.

Destiny’s always a funny character to see show up, because I can never shake the feeling that he’s something of a narrator surrogate (it doesn’t help that in this issue he even has a moment where he starts reading the text of the caption in the next panel out of his book).  His purpose in virtually every appearance he makes in The Sandman is to foreshadow what’s going to happen and, if he’s talking with other characters, make sure they’re warned too so that the tragedy can be maximized when the bad thing comes to pass (you never see a scene where Destiny informs his siblings that they’re about to have some pretty good times all around; maybe if he did that every once in a while the rest of the Endless wouldn’t think he’s such a killjoy).  In this case, Destiny serves to give Dream a reality check on his latest failed relationship (“she wasn’t in love with you, and the last time you see her is going to suck” is the basic gist of what he says) and to not so gently nudge Dream in the direction of the one oracle who’s capable of telling him where Destruction is: Orpheus.

Yep, Dream has to go see his estranged son’s head in order to find out where his estranged brother is, all because he promised Delirium that he’d help her out.  Given all these developments, it’s pretty understandable that this is the issue where we see Dream have a real, authentic emotional breakdown.

This breakdown is a very different experience from Dream’s affected moping back in issue 42.  There are no panels where Dream poses dramatically in a rainstorm of his own making.  He doesn’t gaze wistfully at the landscape with an artfully composed bit of sorrow stubble on his chin.  The whole incident here barely lasts two pages.  Destiny tells Dream a series of things he already knows but has been denying, and facing the reality of what’s coming next proves too much.  Dream collapses, weeping over the series of events he knows is going to unfold once he goes to see Orpheus.

This is a watershed moment in the entire Sandman series.  Before this point, Dream’s story has a certain sense of inevitable movement towards something, but he’s largely been unaware of it.  After this, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Dream fully understands everything that’s going to follow, and he’s going to do his level best to approach it with the same equanimity he always tries to project.  We as readers still don’t quite know what’s going to happen, but we can tell just from Dream’s reaction that it won’t be anything good.

This is the most undramatic breakdown Dream’s ever had, but also the most authentic. (Artwork by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, and Daniel Vozzo)

Anyway, while Dream’s having his epiphany, Delirium has a similar moment of stark clarity.  Being in Destiny’s garden is a disorienting experience, since it’s meant to be sort of a timeless place where all events intersect; just before encountering Destiny, Dream and Delirium catch a glimpse of her from long in the past when she was still Delight.  One of the major mysteries of The Sandman is the circumstances surrounding Delirium’s change.  It comes closest to being explored in this issue here, but everything still remains incredibly vague.  We’re reminded that Delirium has a unique perspective on existence: she can see everything that’s outside Destiny’s garden.  It’s never made clear if this is a side effect of her current state or if she has always been able to see the impossible (Gaiman only ever wrote one story set before Delight’s transformation where she appears, and there’s no real exploration of this aspect of her character there).  What we do know is that in this moment, when Dream’s at one of his lowest points in the entire series, Delirium collects herself enough to scold Destiny for being himself.  The only thing she manages to say before he walks away is a reminder that Destiny doesn’t know everything, and they both know there are two sides to every coin.

Then we get to see Dream and Delirium’s roles reverse, even if it’s only briefly.  Delirium acts as Dream’s caretaker, pulling him to his feet and reminding him what they need to do.

The remainder of the issue moves pretty quickly over Dream and Delirium’s arrival at Orpheus’s shrine, where Dream speaks to his son (entirely off panel) and gets directions to Destruction’s current whereabouts.  It just happens that Destruction, who we’ve been seeing in small interludes throughout the arc doing a very bad job at being an artist of various sorts at a small scenic villa, is living on the cliffs just across the strait from the island of Orpheus.

Next time Destruction invites Dream and Delirium in for dinner.


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