Reading “The Kindly Ones: 2”

The first chapter of Kindly Ones ends with the revelation that someone has kidnapped Daniel Hall.  As one might expect, this is a distressing turn for Lyta Hall, whom we established before is perhaps homicidally protective of her son.  When we return to her in issue #58, Lyta’s in a semi-comatose state, sitting on her couch while her friend Carla argues with the police about why it’s taking them so long to come investigate the kidnapping.  When a couple of detectives, Luke Pinkerton and Gordy Fellowes, do show up, they ask questions that Lyta is barely able to answer, emphasizing that Daniel’s kidnapping is highly unusual (the doors were all locked when Lyta returned home, the babysitter was dead asleep, and Lyta can’t think of anyone “real” who would want to harm her or Daniel).

What we’re going to see over the course of Lyta’s arc is a gradual erosion of her sanity as she becomes more and more desperate to find her son.  It begins here with small things like the very normal shock that she displays upon finding that Daniel’s missing, but it quickly escalates.  Lyta has a dream later in the issue where she encounters the Fates working away over a cauldron for some unspecified reason (the scene ends with them plunging Lyta into the mixture to “see what she’s made of;” we’ll see what this testing is for in a few issues, but for now its mysterious).  They chide her for having a son instead of a daughter (again, the Fates and the Furies are highly gendered beings in Gaiman’s cosmology) and answer Lyta’s confused questions in the straightforward but elusive way only mythological plot devices can (I especially like that they gripe about Lyta not following the rule of only asking three questions, a callback to the rules established way back in the Fates’ first appearance in issue #2).  A throwaway line about Lyta having already met the ones who took Daniel is nicely tantalizing, and along with the handful of clues scattered in the previous issue and this one, we can see how Lyta might begin to suspect that Dream has something to do with all of this (we mustn’t forget that when Dream freed Lyta from her dream prison, he told her that he had claim to Daniel as a child who developed mostly within a dream).  Lyta hasn’t yet made that connection, but it’s obviously coming.

That “Pop!” is the sound of Nuala’s unvoiced despair. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The other half of the issue concerns itself with Nuala of Faerie.  Her brother, Cluracan (my favorite shaggy dog of the Sandman universe) arrives in the Dreaming after having experienced the events of Worlds’ End and reported back to Queen Titania about them.  Things are a little timey-wimey here (don’t forget that at least one of the refugees in the Worlds’ End comes from eighty years in the past, so the precise location in the timeline of that arc’s events is always going to be more than a little vague), but that’s about par for the course in the Dreaming (remember Matthew’s complaints last issue that he wasn’t sure precisely how long it had been since he’s talked with Dream).  What’s significant about Cluracan’s visit is that while he’s not there on official business, he has been sent to retrieve Nuala, who’s been serving in Dream’s court since the end of Season of Mists.  We can presume that Titania understands that Dream’s death must be imminent, and she’d prefer to have her subjects not be caught up in all the unpleasantness that’s sure to ensue, but Cluracan’s too oblivious to recognize that’s what’s going on.  He doesn’t even recognize that Nuala is clearly heartbroken over the possibility of leaving Dream’s service, and takes all of her suggestions that it might be difficult to get Dream to release her in precisely the wrong way.

Cluracan misses the point, as usual. And Hempel draws another fantastic closeup panel. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The interplay here between Cluracan’s expectations of Nuala’s motivations and their reality is an interesting one.  When we first met Nuala way back in Season of Mists she was a relatively flat background character who came along with Cluracan on his diplomatic mission without knowing what her role was going to be.  She understood that she would be used as a bargaining chip, but everyone in Faerie assumed that Dream wouldn’t actually give Hell to them in the first place, so she figured it was all part of a ruse.  The revelation that she was expected to stay in the Dreaming because Titania wouldn’t hear of a gift being rejected was a shocking one.  Even more shocking for Nuala was the fact that Dream insisted she remove her glamour while in his service; this requirement appeared at the time as a mild form of comeuppance for a background character who came off as too preoccupied with appearances (just like everyone we encounter from Faerie).  At the same time, Nuala’s predicament is one of the more troubling ones in the Sandman mythos.  What happens to her in Season of Mists is entirely unfair, and our protagonist Dream piles on the cruelty by robbing her of what she thought of at the time as her last bit of dignity.  Cluracan, for all his imponderable obtuseness, recognizes the strain the circumstances put on Nuala at the time of her indenture.  What he can’t fathom is that spending time in the Dreaming, living and working among beings who have different values than those of Faerie, might influence Nuala’s outlook on her life.  And so, at every turn where it’s obvious that Nuala is stricken with misery at the thought of leaving the Dreaming, Cluracan blusters on until he gets Dream’s attention.

Dream’s involvement here is minimal, but he does grant Nuala a parting gift of one boon to be claimed at any time in the future as thanks for her service.  It’s the closest thing you get to a moment of kindness from Dream in relation to his subordinates, but it still feels remarkably cruel from Nuala’s perspective.  She’s been a very faithful background character, popping up at unexpected points in many of the stories we’ve read since her introduction, usually with little purpose other than to deliver a message or provide a moment of levity, and at this moment where Dream dismisses her without apparent thought makes plain why Nuala has been as dedicated as she’s been: she’s fallen in love with Dream.

And we all know how that usually turns out.

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