I’ve been working my way through the entire original run of The Sandman for over a year now, and this post feels like a pretty important one because it marks the start of the last major story arc of the series. The Kindly Ones is an ambitious project that spans thirteen issues and serves to explain the events that result in Dream’s death. A multitude of previous plot threads from the other big arcs of Sandman get wound together here: Hippolyta Hall, whom Dream rescued from a fantasy world by killing the image of her late husband, goes on a quest to recover her son Daniel, who was born in a dream; the fallout of Lucifer’s abandoning Hell reaches a climax; and the consequences of Dream spilling family blood, which began with Desire’s unsuccessful machinations to get Dream to kill Rose Walker and culminated with the mercy killing of Dream’s immortal son Orpheus. Gaiman’s been building to this story since very nearly the beginning (Rose’s grandmother, Unity Kincaid, is mentioned in a panel in the very first issue, and the three sisters who manifest as the Fates or the Furies throughout make their first appearance in the second), and it’s a remarkably satisfying bit of work.
Issue #57 is primarily concerned with getting us up to speed on what’s been happening in Lyta Hall’s life since the last time we saw her in the one-off issue “The Parliament of Rooks.” She appears to be in a relatively stable place, but it’s clear from her interactions with her friend Carla that most of her life revolves around caring for Daniel, whom we can infer has continued his practice of physically visiting the Dreaming while he sleeps. Lyta’s contemplating taking a personal assistant job with a wealthy executive whom she suspects is simply trying to seduce her (the reason for taking this job isn’t fully apparent; Carla notes that Lyta can afford to hire a babysitter for a night, and nothing in this issue suggests that Lyta is struggling financially), but she feels reluctant about the prospect because she’s so protective of Daniel. Lyta’s preoccupation with caring for her son is going to be a major motif for this entire story arc, and we see here in this first issue that there’s some severe rage hiding underneath her concern. Early on Lyta accosts a mentally ill homeless man who tries to give Daniel a flower, and later when she and Carla are eating ice cream, she makes it clear that her first response to Daniel being harm wouldn’t be sorrow but an attempt to seek out vengeance on whomever hurt him. It’s important to remember that these aren’t moments of empty posturing. Lyta is a former superhero, and though she’s trying to live a normal life she still possesses superhuman strength. Her moments of rage, of which she has several throughout this issue (including one directed at Daniel for inexplicably getting sand in her bed during his nap) should be taken seriously. She’s fully capable of carrying through with her threats, so there’s an undercurrent of menace to all of her interactions with the normal people with whom she’s surrounded herself.
Besides Lyta’s story, we’re treated to an interlude that focuses on Matthew the raven. We learn from Matthew that it’s been some time since the conclusion of the Brief Lives story arc (Matthew’s not sure precisely how long because time passes strangely in the Dreaming, but I suspect part of the vagueness of the time period has to do with the fact that we’ve spent the last six issues with a story arc that may or may not be set after this one in a series that generally tries to run contemporaneously with its publication date), and in that time Dream has been keeping to himself, or at least, not speaking to Matthew. It’s easy to forget with Worlds’ End in between the two arcs that the last time we saw Dream in the present was immediately after he was forced to kill his son Orpheus. Dream preferred not to let his subjects know that he was in mourning, and it’s clear here that he hasn’t confided in Matthew, who feels especially close to Dream. Because of this distance, and Matthew’s role as adviser (it’s kind of what ravens in the Dreaming do), Matthew is experiencing a small existential crisis that drives him to ask various inhabitants of the Dreaming about their roles in Dream’s kingdom. This sequence serves as a nice reintroduction to many of the side characters we’ve gotten to know and reveals a bit of inner motivation for them; generally, all the inhabitants of the Dreaming that Matthew encounters feel a core sense of purpose in their lives, which contrasts with Matthew’s own doubts about himself (even Mervyn Pumpkinhead, who gripes incessantly about his job as the Dreaming’s handyman, admits in a roundabout way that he’d rather not lose it). When Matthew finally does find Dream and ask him about the long silence, Dream spends a bit of time ruminating on why he’s recreating the Corinthian, the nightmare who previously escaped into the waking world to become a serial killer, before he says that he doesn’t currently have any need for Matthew before peremptorily dismissing him back to Eve’s cave.
Speaking of Dream, this is the first time we’ve gotten to see him in person since that last time in his private chambers at the end of Brief Lives. He appears occasionally in the stories that make up Worlds’ End, but usually as a deus ex machina or in an official capacity; there’s virtually shown of Dream that doesn’t fit with the persona he likes to maintain in the presence of people he isn’t close to. We don’t get a whole lot here, but we do find that Dream’s remaking the Corinthian, whom he originally created before Orpheus was born, and that this is a rare thing for him to revisit something he’s done in the past. Considering that this will ultimately be a story about Dream’s death, it’s important to note here that Dream is still in mourning here. Later issues will further explore his mental state and give opportunities to consider his motivations for how he reacts to the conflict that’s brewing, but for now we simply get a hint that he’s still thinking of his son (understandable) and he’s associated that event with the recreation of a dream that he was also forced to kill. Dream has displayed a pattern of letting relationships sour to the point that they become unsalvageable, and in the aftermath of Orpheus’s death he finally seems to be showing some serious regret about that bad habit. Remaking the Corinthian is likely an attempt at redeeming in a small way one of his previous failures; it’s telling that he’s chosen something so dark, and that he’s focusing on a subordinate creature rather than trying to repair his relationships with people like Matthew, who despite being a servant isn’t fully subject to Dream’s will in the way other denizens of the Dreaming often are.
The last characters worth touching on here are the three Fates, who open the story with a scene that’s an extended play on the double meaning of “yarn” which can either be a story, like the one we’re reading, or the literal ball of yarn they’re shaping into an item of clothing (which, metaphorically, represents a person’s life; Gaiman does love to layer in his symbolism). The Fates, made up of the maiden, mother, and crone, are going to become larger players in this story later on, which is a departure from their usual function as road signs for the plot (it’s convenient how mythical creatures who are supposed to know the future can be used to convey information about the plot ahead of time). As always with the Fates, their appearance in this story is closely bound up with issues of gender and femaleness; they appear here as nurturers (even the crone Atropos, who chides Clotho and Lachesis for being too soft as she cuts off the end of a life that they’re spinning), and the dominant aspect they’ll be assuming later in the story as the Furies is tied up with ideas of the importance of familial bonds and protecting them (it’s no coincidence that our two most significant characters for this arc are Lyta, who is willing to kill anyone who might harm her son, and Dream, who killed his son because he did irreparable harm to him).