The structure that Gaiman’s following in this last arc is very simple. In the previous issue we proceeded through the aftermath of the news of a person’s death. Plans began to coalesce as they usually do; you have to organize your goodbyes after all. This issue focuses on that peculiar waiting period that comes between the initial shock and the official funeral; whatever your personal traditions regarding the length of this interim, it’s that period of time where everything feels like it’s been put on hold.
That’s where we are in this issue. The entirety of humanity has come to the Dreaming to see Dream off, but before the funeral proper can take place, there has to be a waiting period. Like in real life, the ways we fill this time vary from person to person. Some, like Matthew the raven, take a long time to process their grief, and this waiting period becomes especially painful; interactions with others are fraught, and even the customary pastime of telling stories to remember the dead feel like too much. For others, like the Cluracan, it’s all about just passing the time while you wait to pay your respects; these people are already emotionally prepared to move on with their lives (there’s nothing wrong with this attitude).
This issue’s plot bounces between Matthew, who is coping with his grief through a series of conversations with various people of the Dreaming, and short vignettes where people who have known Dream share their memories of him. The standout moments here come from the women who have loved Dream, including Nuala (still grappling with feelings of guilt for asking Dream to come to her at the height of the Furies’ attack), Calliope, Titania, and Larissa.
Nuala’s scene here is a relatively minor one that shifts focus to her brother the Cluracan after a page. We learn here that during The Kindly Ones, when Nuala was visited by her brother posing as a boggart, it was actually Cluracan’s nemesis, which he accidentally spawned when he first came to the Dreaming to retrieve her. It’s a small, dense bit of characterization that suggests to us that Cluracan really is as oblivious as he appears (the only moments of genuine comfort that he offers Nuala during her ordeal in Faerie are in the privacy of her room, which we see here was actually not him at all). His nemesis, in contrast, seems like a perfectly likeable sort who also has the good manners not to try to kill Cluracan at Dream’s wake. Cluracan, for his part, is rather bewildered by the encounter, and shakes it off with some heavy drinking and dancing, ignoring the fact that he’s doomed to a deadly confrontation at some point in his future. We won’t get to see that story play out here, and Cluracan completes his character arc as the most charming shaggy dog in The Sandman.
The rest of Dream’s lovers play out there stories of lament to one another; there’s a panel at the start of Calliope’s sequence that establishes she, Titania, and Larissa are gathered in a small circle talking (in the same panel is a small Chinese girl whom I suspect is meant to be the reincarnated Nada). Calliope speaks openly about her relationship with Dream, recounting the arc of it from their early infatuation through Orpheus’s birth and death, which seemed to be the breaking point for them. Dream’s decision to turn his back on Orpheus throughout the episode with Eurydice’s death didn’t sit well with Calliope. She railed against Dream for his callousness, which was apparently too much for him to bear. In a pattern similar to how he reacted to Nada’s rejection, Dream shunned Calliope for expressing her anger with him. This is where they had left off way back in the one-off story “Calliope,” where Dream is still in the early stages of learning how to make reparations to people he’s harmed unjustly. Calliope and Dream’s romance is long dead, and at the wake she notes that she’s just there to say goodbye to a man who did her and her son each a good turn.
Titania’s reminiscence comes second in the sequence, and hers is the briefest. She refuses to share any of her history with Dream, pointing out that her memories of them belong only to the two of them, and she expects that if the situation were reversed he wouldn’t be discussing his memories of her either. Titania and Dream’s relationship is another of those mysteries that Gaiman never bothers to deeply explore in The Sandman, and it serves well here as an example of a different approach to grief from everyone else. All the other mourners freely tell stories of their encounters with Dream here, but Titania chooses to be more private. She doesn’t need to share her memories for them to remain a comfort to her, which is legitimate.
The last of Dream’s lovers to speak in this issue is Larissa. In a two page sequence, she tells the story of her and Dream’s romance, which happened entirely off panel sometime after A Game of You and before Brief Lives. From her first appearance, Larissa has always had a close association with the moon, and here she uses it as the key simile for describing her time with Dream. He loved her intensely, and as long as he directed his love towards her she was happy to reflect it (the same way the moon reflects light from the sun), but as time passed and he grew indifferent towards the relationship, she realized that she wasn’t really in love with him. When Larissa tried to talk with Dream about this he was indifferent, and so she left him. We know the aftermath of that relationship, although Larissa characterizes Dream in a way that sheds an interesting light on his response to being dumped. In Brief Lives Dream spent a lot of energy appearing to be torn up over Larissa’s departure, but her account of his attitude suggests that it was mostly performative (that jives with the contrast between Dream’s grief over Orpheus’s death and his wallowing over Larissa’s departure; the former is genuine and so he keeps it private, while the latter is what he believes he’s supposed to do in such a situation and very publicly displayed). It’s a good moment that highlights the emotional progress Dream made over the course of the series; instead of looking for ways to punish Larissa like he did with his previous lovers, Dream spent some time pouting and then moved on to other things.
Lots of other stuff happens in this issue as well; Matthew has a conversation with Dream and learns that when he was still Daniel he saved Matthew’s life; Rose Walker tells Lyta Hall that she’s pregnant (Lyta is, understandably, more aggrieved by her losing Daniel than Dream’s death); the Justice League makes a cameo (charmingly, Superman appears as Clark Kent while Batman appears as Batman; J’onn Jones the Martian Manhunter appears as himself, because he doesn’t have any identity issues); and Hob Gadling contemplates how much time he’s spent urinating in his six hundred years of life.
The next issue will be the funeral itself, and so it will be most concerned with the memories of the Endless themselves.