Reading “The Kindly Ones”

It makes sense that Gaiman would decide that for Dream’s death issue he would do an extended callback to the first issue where The Sandman began to feel like something unique: “The Sound of Her Wings.”  Dream’s moping on the edge of Nightmare, waiting for his sister Death to arrive, and when she does he produces a loaf of bread for her, harking back to that first time we saw the two of them together.  Dream’s progressed a long way from where he was; he knows how to apologize to people, and admit when he’s wrong, and even sometimes shows concern for the well being of others.  He’s still a mopey guy, but he’s a mopey guy with some empathy, which is a lot more than you could say about him in issue #8.  The whole quest to recover his power was fun in its own way, and it did evoke a sense of pity for Dream’s predicament, but it didn’t do much to establish Dream as someone we should like (it’s probably because of the series’s strong horror roots in that first arc; you could call Dream a mostly just character, but he was remarkably scary; the intervening sixty issues served to soften the tone of the series as a whole and the character in particular).

Death is remarkably unchanged.

“Bread?” “It’s all soggy.” “Doesn’t have to be.” “I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humor.” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Seeing as this is the point where Dream finally dies (after more than a year’s worth of issues foreshadowing the moment), it feels like there should be some big dramatic revelation here, but the reality is that everything you can glean here is just confirmation of what we’ve suspected for a while.  Death tells Dream that he set this whole thing up himself, whether he realizes it or not (we don’t have any reason to doubt her; Death has proven repeatedly to know her brother better than he knows himself), and she scolds him sharply when he tries to shove the blame off on Nuala for summoning him at a bad time (it’s really satisfying to see a character call out Dream for the one thing he does in this story that I think is really reprehensible).

Much of Death and Dream’s conversation recapitulates the sense of premeditation we’ve been gleaning from Dream’s actions.  It becomes apparent that Dream hasn’t been fully aware that he’s been setting himself up.  This is actually a really fun bit of retroactive continuity; I don’t believe for a moment that Gaiman knew from the very beginning that he was going to end the series with Dream’s death and resurrection in a new facet.  Suggesting that Dream has been planning his own demise subconsciously helps put a neat bow on all the plot threads that Gaiman pulled together to reach this climax without undermining the integrity of the individual stories as they were published, which is always a risk you take when you employ a retcon on previous stories.  It’s remarkably elegant and subtle; I’ve read through this series three times now, and I think this is the first time it’s occurred to me that Dream’s self-destruction is a late addition intended to unify his actions throughout the whole series.

Without Daniel Vozzo’s normal color scheme for unglamoured Nuala, it really doesn’t look like she’s changed appearance at all here, does it? (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Like I mentioned last time, Nuala gets a more fitting epilogue than I had originally remembered.  It’s confined to only a page, but there’s a lot of significance packed in.  You’ll remember that I was pretty irritated with Nuala’s infatuation with Dream much earlier in The Kindly Ones, especially when Gaiman put her in direct conflict with Queen Titania with Dream as the point of contention.  I felt like a love triangle was more than a little cliche and disrespectful to Nuala after Gaiman did so much to establish her as a complex secondary character; in this last page where Nuala is finally endeavoring to leave Faerie, she confronts Titania, and Gaiman fixes that previous problem.  At the moment when Titania is ready to drag Nuala back to Faerie for her desertion, the sky splits and they all realize that Dream has died.  Titania, whom Gaiman has heavily implied throughout the series is deeply in love with Dream (whether they’ve ever actually been lovers is left ambiguous), is overcome with grief and can’t bring herself to detain Nuala.  Nuala isn’t similarly moved, and she escapes Faerie to make her own path forward.  I love that Nuala, who spent pretty much all of The Kindly Ones pining over Dream, has as her ending a moment where she’s focused only on doing what’s best for herself independent of any others.  I take this last scene to suggest that Nuala is putting Dream’s rejection behind her, especially when Titania openly weeps despite possibly being in the same position.  The only mar on the scene is the fact that Marc Hempel has inexplicably drawn Nuala in a way that seems far more traditionally attractive than her unglamoured self has previously been depicted.  Her coloring is the same as when she appears without glamour in the Dreaming, but Hempel’s art doesn’t resemble Nuala as she looked back in issue #58.  Of course, Hempel’s style seems to have evolved significantly in the last few issues of the story in comparison to what he drew at the beginning, so this inconsistency might be chalked up to the style change.

The story wouldn’t be totally finished unless we also address our chief antagonist’s ending.  Hippolyta Hall appears to have lost her hold on the Furies a few issues back when it became clear that Daniel was still alive in some capacity within the Dreaming.  Her personal grievances were never that important to the engines behind the events of The Kindly Ones.  The Furies needed her as an avatar to harass Dream for Orpheus’s death, and Daniel’s disappearance served only to motivate her to seek them out; no one who manipulates Lyta through this story actually cares about her achieving her goals (this is especially true in the case of Dream once you accept that he’s just as guilty of using Lyta as Larissa or the Furies or Loki and Puck).  We leave Lyta waking from her long delirium to a newly hostile world where many beings of some consequence have a legitimate vendetta against her, and to throw salt in the wound, she has failed to recover Daniel.  Lyta’s story is tragic in a way that Dream’s can’t be; he gets what he wants, even if he doesn’t fully realize it until the end, and she simply can’t.  Even worse, she’s left alive with the worst of her endeavor left before her: a life devoid of the thing that’s most important to her, and the constant threat that results from her attempt at vengeance.

“Why am I covered in sage and honey? Also, why are you looking at me like I did something terrible? Where’s Daniel?” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

I feel a lot of sympathy for Lyta Hall; she’s the most manipulated character in the whole story, and her reward is the absolute worst.

As for Daniel, we learn in the final pages of the issue that he’s been marked as Dream’s successor.  Dream is dead, long live Dream.  It’s sensible that Dream’s death couldn’t leave a vacuum in Gaiman’s cosmology, especially when Dream is such a meticulous planner.  We’ve seen that Daniel navigates the Dreaming like he’s a native of it (he literally is; remember that Lyta was pregnant in the Dreaming for years before she gave birth to him), and from Lyta’s introduction in The Sandman it was clear that Dream had laid claim to her child for some purpose.  We now know what that purpose is.  The series’s last six issues will spend some time helping us get to know what kind of Dream Daniel will be.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 12”

So, when I wrote up my post for the last issue, I mistakenly said it was the end of Nuala’s story in The Kindly Ones.  I had forgotten that she does get a little bit more resolution in this issue and the next, so I want to revisit her quickly before I get into the meat of the issue, the relationship between Dream and Matthew the raven.

Yes, Nuala! Get away from that toxic environment. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Nuala’s scene in this issue is a brief one; we see her grieving her part in Dream’s doom and the fact that she’s still stuck with the glamour that Cluracan put on her to save face in front of Queen Titania.  A boggart who’s appeared to pester Nuala before shows up and recites a bad poem to entertain her.  Nuala immediately recognizes the boggart as Cluracan in disguise, and she complains to him about Dream being in danger and not returning her love.  Cluracan rather flippantly asks if she would prefer that Dream did love her and was in danger, once again highlighting how he tends to diminish his sister’s feelings.  The intended point, that it’s ridiculous for Nuala to focus on Dream’s affection while he continues to be mortally threatened by the Furies, is a fair one, but it still diminishes Nuala’s stake in the story.  I’d prefer if she hadn’t fallen in love with Dream, but that’s one of her two major motivations throughout The Kindly Ones, so we need to respect how it impacts her character.  She’s reeling from a failed confession of love, and that’s certainly something with which most people can empathize.  Nuala’s other motivation, which I think’s a far less troublesome one for the audience, is her frustration at having her own wishes constantly undermined.  It’s fitting that Cluracan’s silly poem serves to inspire Nuala to leave Faerie and go make her own way for once.

The main event of this issue is between Dream and Matthew.  Matthew has been around since the second major arc of The Sandman, The Doll’s House.  I don’t remember if I’ve gotten into his background as a character before, but it’s worth bringing up here that readers commonly believe that Matthew the raven is the supporting character Matthew Cable from the comic series Swamp Thing.  During Alan Moore’s famous run on that series, Matthew Cable became an alcoholic and a domestic abuser, and he was eventually killed off following events that play out like a fantastic version of domestic violence.  In the continuity of The Sandman, Matthew is one of the select few mortals whom Dream keeps from going into Death’s domain so that they can serve a purpose within the Dreaming.  Understanding Matthew’s mortal life provides a lot of important context for his relationship with Dream throughout The Sandman.

Because so much of Gaiman’s cosmology is informed by his extensive knowledge of folklore and mythology, it’s not surprising that he established that Dream keeps a raven as a messenger and advisor; Odin has appeared at regular intervals with his own ravens Huginn and Muninn.  In The Kindly Ones, ravens are a recurring motif, with Gaiman using them as a way to signal the impending slaughter in the Dreaming and also having Dream explain to Matthew that he’s employed a long line of ravens.  This is a question that Matthew’s wondered about for a while now (I think the first time the question comes up is during Brief Lives), and it points toward his doubts about his role in the Dreaming.  Matthew’s history is never directly discussed within The Sandman, nor is any explanation given for why he was chosen to be Dream’s new raven, and his questioning (which seriously began at the start of The Kindly Ones) suggests that he’s in the dark about his arrangement as well.  This existential crisis strikes me as notable because it emerges at just the moment when Dream is in the depths of a parallel struggle.  In The Kindly Ones‘s first chapter we find Matthew seeking out Dream to check on him and to ask for more information about the Dreaming’s line of ravens.  It’s not a very fruitful conversation for Matthew, and he comes away from it in just as broody a mood as Dream.

I think the obfuscation on Dream’s part (he dismisses Matthew rather than offering any answers) is significant because it marks a split between these characters that hasn’t been present before.  Dream doesn’t generally like to explain things if he thinks they don’t need to be known, but in the time that Matthew has been his companion, they’ve always had a slightly more open relationship than that.

This is where Matthew’s background comes into play.

Remember that Dream’s arc throughout the entire series has been a gradual development of empathy and humility.  I think that his long imprisonment in the Burgess house and the subsequent struggle to reclaim his power from John Dee do a lot to teach Dream that he would be better served to build up his interpersonal skills, and it’s no coincidence that he selects Matthew to be his new raven once he returns to his full stature.  Matthew’s mortal life ended in ruin, and he made a lot of choices that damaged people he cared about; he’s a flawed person who knows a lot about messing things up, and he’s invested in trying to be better.  These qualities make him an ideal advisor to Dream, who at least subconsciously knows he needs to learn the same lessons.

What we’ve come to understand since the end of Brief Lives and throughout The Kindly Ones is that Dream is deep into an existential crisis that he doesn’t believe he can escape.  His nature is too fixed to fully embrace the changes he needs to make to repair the relationships that he cares about, and his rejection of Matthew in that first chapter is indicative of that.

Here in chapter twelve, where Dream is ready to confront the Furies with the full knowledge that he really only has one option to get them to leave the Dreaming alone, he relents and allows Matthew to accompany him.  That Matthew remains loyal to Dream, even after he’s been mostly shut out throughout this story, is pretty heartwarming.  That the last exchange between Matthew and Dream involves Matthew insisting that Dream needs to ask nicely almost makes me want to cry.  Even when Dream’s fully aware that he’s about to die, he’s still learning how to be better from Matthew.

Besties say goodbye. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Next time, Dream dies and the aftermath begins.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 11”

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.

I could not make this look work. Dream does it effortlessly. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

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.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 10”

I have to admit that after all the stuff that happens in the previous issue, this one feels just a little thin.  Things are still happening, but the vast majority of the issue centers around events in Faerie, which up until this point has been a sort of free floating thread that lacked much direct connection to what’s going on with Dream.  Really, up until this issue it wasn’t entirely clear where Gaiman was going with Nuala’s sudden reclamation by Titania.

Of course, everything falls into place pretty neatly as we hit the last row of panels, where Dream explains to Nuala the current unpleasantness with the Furies tearing the Dreaming apart and assures her that they can’t do any real damage while he remains present there.  Nuala’s observation that Dream isn’t in the Dreaming while he’s speaking with her serves as a pretty emphatic endpoint.  It’s no wonder that this issue also marks the breaking of the thread that’s been featured in the first panel of every issue of the story arc so far.  Back in #57 that thread was established as the life line of someone that the Fates were preparing to cut off, and a lot of the context of the story suggests they’re talking specifically about Dream.  The thread’s been getting pulled tighter and tighter over the course of the arc, and it finally reaches its breaking point here, which is fitting since Dream’s disappearance from the Dreaming really marks the point where he’s irreversibly doomed (this also happens to be the first issue where others begin to speak of Dream in the past tense, even though he’s not technically dead yet).

Besides a couple of brief scenes showing the Furies murdering various denizens of the Dreaming, our real focus here is on Puck and Nuala.  Puck, you’ll recall, has been Loki’s partner in the scheme to kidnap Daniel Hall, though he was curiously absent for much of that plot after his initial appearance.  Here he emerges from the shadows to congratulate the Corinthian on succeeding, and refuses to explain himself before disappearing back to Faerie, from which he’s been absent for some three hundred years.  Puck’s involvement up to this point has been mostly a mystery; his decision to stay in the mortal world didn’t actually concern Dream at all, so his alliance with Loki appears to be born mostly out of a need to entertain himself.  Puck is a trickster, and he admits in this issue that the mischief he causes is mostly motivated by his need to be true to his inherent nature.  It’s hard to view Puck as a villain in light of this explanation, even though his actions directly harm a lot of sympathetic characters.

Puck’s note about being true to himself does sting in a particularly harsh way in this issue, where Nuala creates an uproar at court by appearing before Titania without a glamour (this moment is preceded by Cluracan soliloquizing about the subversive nature of violating local custom; while a drinking buddy claims there are no taboos among the Fae court, Nuala’s entrance puts the lie to that observation quickly).  I always feel especially sympathetic to Nuala, because she’s a woman struggling to establish her own identity while other people use her as a pawn in their games.  Her introduction was as a gift to Dream from Titania, and she found herself unable to escape such a contract.  After she grew accustomed to her job as a servant in the Dreaming and even began to enjoy it, her brother Cluracan strode in to beg her release on Titania’s behalf without stopping to ask if Nuala would be happy with that arrangement.  Since returning to Faerie she’s been bristling under court customs that she finds tiring and disingenuous in comparison with the straightforward and uncapricious expectations of Dream’s household.

Cluracan once again undermines Nuala’s wishes in order to “help” her. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Nuala’s moment of rebellion feels like a direct parallel to Puck’s reappearance in this issue, and it highlights a significant double standard.  Nuala is not directly harming anyone with her desire to remain unglamoured, and her defense that she simply feels more comfortable echoes Puck’s talk of being true to his nature.  Glamours are built on the premise of careful presentation of a persona that hides the true self.  Faerie here is all about image, and Nuala has lost her taste for that game; she’d rather be a humble elf.  Puck enjoys the position of Auberon and Titania’s court jester, meaning he’s allowed to be as disrespectful and disruptive as he wishes.  He’s also left to appear like himself; never is it suggested that he or any of the other non-elf inhabitants of Faerie must be glamoured in the queen’s presence.  No one even bats an eye at Puck despite his long absence, where Nuala is so disruptive that Cluracan puts a glamour on her himself to smooth over the situation.  That this leaves Nuala stuck with an appearance she doesn’t want (apparently the rules of glamours say that they can only be removed by the person who places them) and robs her of perhaps her only avenue for escaping Faerie receives no comment in the issue, but the subtext is pretty heavy.  Nuala’s choices don’t matter to the people around her; she’s meant only to be a pretty thing in Titania’s collection.

Of course, this whole series of events serves as Nuala’s breaking point; she decides to use the boon Dream granted her when he released her from his service, and she calls him to Faerie.

At this point, I again want to reiterate that I think Dream is setting himself up to die.  Whether or not he could predict that Nuala would use her boon at the worst possible time isn’t really important.  We see Dream answer her call immediately, and he hardly attempts to explain that Nuala shouldn’t be calling on him at that particular moment.  It seems like it would be a simple matter to tell her that his realm is under attack, but he chooses instead to acquiesce when she insists that she needs to speak to him face to face.  He seals his own fate, and I don’t think it’s just because of his rigid attachment to obligation.

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.