This issue sees the end of Nuala’s plot line (and pretty much the end of her involvement in The Sandman; she might cameo later, but even Darkseid cameos in a few issues, so that’s not saying much), Dream’s decision to face the Furies, and Rose learning to cope with her newly restored emotional core after she receives more bad news.
Let’s get Dream out of the way first, because he more or less engulfs Nuala’s story here, and I feel like she needs a bit of summation as a character. In this issue there are three full body shots of Dream. They’re pretty key to communicating his state of mind throughout the issue (and they’re all beautiful pieces of art). The first comes with the chapter title, and it’s Dream standing mostly in shadow, illuminated by (of course) moonlight, naked except for his cloak and clutching his shoulders. Marc Hempel’s style is highly angular, and it’s always struck me as a dramatic departure from all the previous artists who worked on The Sandman, but this image takes it up to eleven. Dream’s bare torso looks gaunt, more starved than simply slim like he’s normally portrayed. He’s just made the decision to leave the Dreaming for the sake of a promise to Nuala, and it’s clear that this is the thing that’s finally going to seal his doom. In the background you have Nuala looking at him, uncertain about what’s going on with Dream. Outside scenes with his family, I think this might be the only instance in the series where Dream appears vulnerable in the presence of someone else.
The second panel is my favorite of the issue, mostly because of its style rather than what it represents about Dream. He’s made his decision to return to the Dreaming and face the Furies, and he arrives off of a sleek bullet train dressed in a double-breasted gray suit with a scarf around his neck, black and flame cape flowing from his shoulders, and thigh high boots. It feels like it should be too many accessories for a suit and yet Dream just looks good in it. This is the moment where he’s pulled together his resolve, and he’s projecting nothing but confidence again. If we didn’t already know this story is a tragedy, we might believe for a moment that Dream’s about to set things right.
The third panel closes out the issue. It’s a half page splash of Dream in his accoutrements of office (cloak, gloves, etc.), gazing at his raven’s skull helmet. He’s lost the suit and now he’s just wearing his usual comfort outfit: a black t-shirt and jeans. This is Dream tempered by the reality of his most recent encounter with the Furies, who struck him across the face with their scorpion whip. He’s accepted that he only has one course of action to appease the Furies; all that’s left is to get things in order. There’s no false confidence here like with Dream in the suit. He accepts the scar left on his face by the Furies’ attack, notes that it’s what Alianora predicted would come to him in time (you’ll remember her as the woman who appeared briefly at the end of A Game of You; she’s one of those delightful mysteries that never get fully explained in the original series), and sets about doing necessary work. It’s probably Dream at his best.
But enough about that guy; this series is about him, and a lot of stuff happens in the next two issues, so we’ll discuss more later. Right now, I’m interested in Nuala.
It’s not really a secret that I think Nuala is, objectively, the best. She’s a minor character in a very long series who goes through a pretty complete character arc in her handful of appearances. Her indenture to Dream following Season of Mists is a pretty sad state of affairs, and plays in with that plot’s larger themes about the petty capriciousness of deities very well. She’s mostly a hapless victim who just happens to be fortunate that she’s been gifted to Dream, whom we now know is actually very kind to his servants. She fades into the background from there, popping up as one of the denizens of the Dreaming who seems to be going about their lives as well as they can; she carries a warning to Barbie about the Cuckoo during A Game of You and she makes a job for herself keeping Dream’s throne room tidy. Nuala’s altogether quite endearing during this period, and we get the sense that she’s actually happy living away from the intrigues of Faerie. When we see her again at the beginning of The Kindly Ones, it’s clear that she doesn’t want to go back to her old life, and we’re left to wonder what this motivation must be. We eventually learn it’s a combination of both her feeling liberated by not having to present herself in a specific way (the imposition of a glamour to be acceptable at court) and her being in love with Dream. The second factor is what clues us in that things can’t end well for Nuala (not after Nada, and Calliope, and Larissa, and maybe Alianora). Women who fall in love with Dream don’t get to live happily after they part ways, and Nuala’s no exception. She gets stuck back in Faerie, living under social rules she’s no longer accustomed to following, resenting her sovereign for being in love with the same man she is (that plot point’s a real eye-roller, since it seems to overshadow the other legitimate reasons Nuala might have for rebelling against the expectations of Titania’s court), and pining over a bit of hope that Dream’s offered her in the form of a boon, unaware that he’s incapable of giving her what she really wants.
Nuala’s doomed to have her heart broken, and even worse, Dream uses his promise to her as an excuse to let the Furies wreak havoc in the Dreaminng. It’s not fair to Nuala that she should be made to feel like she’s done anything wrong in calling for Dream’s help (like I said, he’s perfectly capable of explaining that he’s indisposed before he comes to her side), and the last scene with her in this issue feels like it’s going to carry on after Dream’s exit with Nuala lost in the wilderness in tears over the thought that she’s both been rejected by her love and that she’s responsible for bringing harm on him. I think Nuala’s role in Dream’s death is one of the most despicable things he does as a character, and it highlights how for all the progress Dream’s made towards taking responsibility for himself, he’s still incredibly flawed and selfish. Nuala deserves better than to be infatuated with someone so self absorbed who’s willing to saddle her with feelings of guilt over his own self destruction.