Reading “The Kindly Ones: 9”

There’s so much going on in this issue.

Rose Walker encounters Desire in the cellar of the Burgess mansion where Dream was kept prisoner for nearly eighty years.

The Furies kill Gilbert, or Fiddler’s Green as he’s known in the Dreaming, inaugurating their assault on the Dreaming in order to punish Dream for killing Orpheus.

Dream goes to Larissa’s house to try to physically kill Lyta Hall, and we learn (twenty-three issues later!) that the ex-girlfriend who left Dream so twisted up was, in fact, Larissa herself.

The Corinthian beats the snot out of Loki and eats his eyes on the way to finally recovering Daniel Hall.

Let’s take these plot points one by one, shall we?

Family reunions can be terrible. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Rose has been in England for several issues now, sort of recapitulating the start of her original story, The Doll’s House, while also crossing paths with a variety of callbacks to Gaiman’s first Sandman story, “Sleep of the Just.”  This issue resolves those plots back at the place where it all started: Fawney Rig, the estate that belongs to the Burgess family.  Desire’s reasons for drawing Rose to Fawney Rig remain incredibly obtuse, though we might speculate that it’s a combination of compassion for family (Desire makes it clear that they fathered Rose’s mother by raping Unity Kincaid while she slept) and the general capriciousness of Desire’s nature.  Since Rose reappeared earlier in The Kindly Ones, we’ve learned that she’s been living under some sort of malaise, probably mystical in nature, that has left her the same physical age as she was when Dream removed her heart to keep from having to kill her as the Dream Vortex, and has also apparently shut down most of her emotions.  It’s been frequently demonstrated that Rose is coping with a lack of natural empathy for people around her; she notes in her journal entries and private thoughts that she never seems to get very upset when her romantic relationships end, and she’s not sure what the disconnect is.  That changes after an ill-advised encounter with her English lawyer, Jack Holdaway.  Rose invites Jack to have sex with her after they spend a day together, and he agrees without telling her that he’s already in a committed monogamous relationship.  Rose finds out by accident, and initially she has the same reaction as in previous romantic misadventures: she’s frustrated, but not terribly upset that things haven’t worked out.  Then, when she meets Desire in the cellar where Dream was trapped, Rose is inundated with sadness over Jack’s deception.  Desire literally returns Rose’s heart to her, making her whole again (and because Desire’s rather cheeky, they symbolize Rose’s restoration with a heart-shaped lighter).

The Furies feature relatively little in this issue; they’re only the focus long enough to walk through Gilbert’s death.  It’s a gruesome one, and it helps to pull together the long plot thread of the ravens congregating in the Dreaming.  For a few issues, there have been sporadic mentions of ravens appearing in the Dreaming unbidden, with no real explanation as to why they’re showing up.  It’s meant as a sign of the bad things that are coming, but Gaiman’s been careful not to explain anything about what symbolism he’s been applying to the ravens up to this point.  Here it becomes clear that he’s pulling on a medieval tradition of ravens symbolizing the portent of massive death that comes before a major battle (ravens are carrion feeders, and they’re often used in old poetry as a stark image for highlighting the human cost on battlefields).  Gilbert’s death is the first opportunity the ravens have to feed, but it won’t be the last.

Larissa’s assessment of Dream is probably more accurate than he’d care to admit. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Dream’s visit to Larissa feels to me like the narrative climax of the issue.  Rose getting her heart back and Gilbert dying are significant events too, but they don’t turn on revealing the answer to a mystery that Gaiman maintained for nearly two years during The Sandman‘s original run.  We know that Dream has a fraught history when it comes to romance, and leaving the audience to wonder for so long who it was that last broke Dream’s heart is just too tantalizing to ignore.  So here we learn that it’s Larissa, and we also learn that she’s protecting Lyta for mercenary reasons: the deal she cut with the Fates involves protecting Lyta in exchange for a few thousand years of life (Larissa notes that it’s not a whole lot, highlighting just how old she must be).  Dream arrives assuming that Larissa’s involvement is of a more personal nature; their breakup wasn’t amicable, and he figures protecting Lyta is her way of getting back at him.  On the one hand, this is a pretty self-centered assumption for Dream to make; he’s wronged multiple lovers in the past, and they’ve usually ended up getting punished by him instead.  On the other, Larissa is a very different sort of person from the women Dream has loved before: she’s ruthlessly self-interested, and we saw back in A Game of You that she’s willing to go to extreme lengths in order to get redress for a wrong that’s been committed against her, so it might not be so far-fetched to assume to she’s acting on a personal vendetta.

Either way, this is the meeting that Dream has been hoping for since he initially set out on his journey with Delirium, and like Destiny predicted (of course) it’s not a very satisfactory one.  There are definitely some deeper reasons for Dream’s actions leading up to his harassment by the Furies, but in a very direct way, this scene serves to give Dream the original result he wanted in contrast with all the ruin it’s brought about for him.  After all, his and Larissa’s entire conversation happens while Lyta Hall, the avatar of his punishment for all the people Dream has wronged over the course of the series, sleeps on a cot in the same room.

The Corinthian’s plot finishes out the issue by providing a bit of catharsis for all the terrible things that have been happening in the Dreaming.  Loki gets rightfully punished for all the mischief he’s caused, and Daniel, who has been missing and presumed dead since issue #58, is found alive.  It’s all very actiony, which is a fun twist when we take a moment to remember that the Corinthian is designed to be a really scary nightmare; his first incarnation became a serial killer when left unsupervised for a few decades after all.  This character belongs in a horror story, but he’s been cast in a buddy cop comedy with Matthew the raven, and the effect is morbidly funny.  Especially poignant is Matthew’s continued discomfort at being partnered with the Corinthian; both characters debuted in The Sandman during the Doll’s House arc, and only one of them survived the experience.  Matthew feels like he has nothing in common with the Corinthian, though Gaiman makes a point of underlining the similarities of their natures as Matthew ponders the delicious smell of Gilbert’s corpse (which he refuses to eat out of respect for his friend while Noah’s raven eats one of Gilbert’s eyes) at the same time the Corinthian delights in munching on Loki’s eyes.

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