Death and Humanity: The Sandman S1E6 ‘The Sound of Her Wings’

Dream and Death looking upwards

Both The Sandman comics and the Netflix adaptation are focused on a group of god-like beings called the Endless. They each control a different aspect of human existence and emotion. For example, the Sandman himself, Dream (Tom Sturridge) has power over humans’ sleep, dreams, and nightmares. His sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is responsible for—you guessed it—humans’ deaths. Leading them by the hand, she ensures they pass over to the afterlife as peacefully as possible once their time on earth is over.

Although the Endless are integral characters in the Sandman stories, most of the commentary is about humanity. To paraphrase Dream and Death themselves, the Endless are there to serve humans, not the other way ’round. Episode 6, ‘The Sound of Her Wings’, demonstrates this theme well. The episode is split into two stories, both about death, but with very different approaches. Death (the character) is also introduced here. 

Part One: The Introduction of Death

The first half of the episode follows Death as she goes about her job. Dream has just been reunited with her after his century of imprisonment, and is currently feeling rather aimless, so he tags alongside her daily duties by way of a catch-up. It’s a great character introduction, as Death is essentially defined by her duty to humanity (her very name is her function). It’s the whole reason why she exists. However, it’s her way of going about guiding souls to the afterlife that brings out her personality.

When asked about why he created this version of Death, Neil Gaiman said:

“Death is so adorable in The Sandman because I wanted to create the kind of Death that I would like to meet when my life is over. And I thought I would like a Death who is practical, a Death who is sensible, and a Death who is, above all, kind.”

Death in the park chatting to Dream

This sums up Death’s character. Although her job isn’t exactly pleasant, she approaches it with simple practicality. Her interactions with the humans who have died are friendly and sweet. She does all she can to make them feel at peace, while gently informing them that there’s no way out of it.

In this way, the perspective of death as a concept in The Sandman is very matter-of-fact. It’s simply part of how the world works. Avoiding it is impossible; realistically, removing death would upset the balance of the universe, while also taking meaning away from human life. Ironically, the second segment of ‘The Sound of Her Wings’ entirely contradicts this, but more on that later.

Despite the pragmatic outlook of death, the moments when Death has to tell humans they’ve died and whisk them away is still extremely sentimental. We see the reactions and ramifications in real time. The humans who are dying often react with denial and bargaining (two early stages of grief) before accepting that it’s their time to go. In one case, a young man on his honeymoon drowns, and we see his wife discover that he’s died. Not only do we witness the man’s distress, but his living loved one’s terror and grief as well.

Circumstances and ages vary wildly, even in such a small snapshot of Death’s daily victims. An elderly man sees it coming, yet it still feels too soon—doesn’t it always? Before Death takes him, she allows him a little time to say a Hebrew prayer, as he believes it guarantees him a place in Heaven. It’s a touching moment, one tinged with desperation. The saddest death, as I’m sure most viewers agree, is an infant baby. As soon as the camera hones in on the cot, there’s an instant sinking feeling. Please, not this one. But Death tells her, “That’s all there is, little one. That’s all you get.” It doesn’t feel fair, but it can’t be changed. All human souls are equal in death.

Death and the old man, right before he dies

Through all this devastating grief, Death remains comforting and kind. She makes difficult circumstances easier to deal with. Her monologue about her job is impactful and moving:

“At the end, I’m there with them. I’m holding their hand and they’re holding mine. I’m not alone when I’m doing my job. And neither are you. Think about it. The only reason we even exist, you and I, and Desire and Despair, the whole family. We’re here to serve them. It isn’t about quests or finding purpose outside our function. Our purpose is our function. We’re here for them. Since I figured that out, I realised I need them as much as they need me. I’ve seen so many cool things and people and worlds. I’ve learned so much. Lots of people don’t have a job they love doing, do they? So, I think I’m really very lucky.”

What more could you ask for?

Part Two: The Absence of Death

The second half of the episode follows a rather different story. In 1389, Dream and Death come across a man in a tavern bragging about how he’s never going to die. His name is Robert ‘Hob’ Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), just your everyday Englishman. Nothing special about him. But because of his sheer conviction, and out of curiosity, Dream and Death collectively decide to make an experiment out of it by never letting Hob die. There’s a rather playful aspect of the Endless shown here, as they’re messing with a random human (inoffensively, of course) just out of their own interest.

Dream and Death in the 14th century

Hob Gadling isn’t fearful of death, moreso irritated by it. He claims “the only reason people die is ’cause everyone does it”, and refuses to “go along” with it, insisting he has so many things to see and do. It’s an almost admirable and charming sort of entitlement. You can’t help but respect the guy for being so bold. So, his wish is granted. The only condition is that he must return to the same pub, The White Horse, every 100 years, to tell Dream what his life has been like.

Some years, Hob is thriving, healthy and wealthy and happy. Other years, he’s lost everything and is miserable. For example, by 1589, he’s become ‘Sir Robert Gadlen’, amassing great wealth and earning himself a knighthood. However, during the next century, he lost not only his wealth and status, but his family, a wife and son who both died. Even at this lowest point, Hob refuses to die. He tells Dream “I got so much to live for”. I suppose when you’re at rock bottom, the only way is up, and this is clearly the way Hob sees it. It’s an uplifting moment, representing the determination of humanity in the face of misery.

Unfortunately, Hob appears to be a product of the times. In 1789, he’s investing in the slave trade, which Dream warns him against. Obviously, Hob made an active choice to involve himself in this, so the responsibility is his own. He isn’t a victim of circumstance by any stretch of the imagination; perhaps the arrogance and materialism evident in him from the start was a warning sign as to what kind of person he could become. The TV episode is a very faithful adaptation of the comics story, so the slave owner aspect is an uncomfortable inclusion. Although I believe the intention is not to shy away from representing a person to the fullest, no holds barred. Hob is supposed to be flawed, and the idea of living life large to him means exploring his full potential, even the ugly things. This is what Dream himself is interested in, seeing what and how Hob experiences life.

Hob Gadling in the 18th century

In 1889, Hob claims he’s “still the same as ever”, unchanging through 500 years. Despite learning a bit from his mistakes, he keeps making them. How very human of him. This time, however, Hob turns the tables on Dream. He states that the actual reason Dream meets him every century is that he’s lonely and wants his friendship. In this twist, the segment of the episode suddenly becomes a character study in Dream instead of Hob. After getting deeply insulted, seeing Hob as speaking above his rank, Dream walks out.

Due to his imprisonment by Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), Dream is unable to meet Hob in 1989, though the circumstances of their last departure makes it look purposeful. It’s a wonderful set-up that links back to earlier events in the series in a satisfying way. While Hob mopes over Dream’s absence, he does perhaps his first decent thing by admitting their argument was his own fault. So, maybe he has changed after all. Befriending Dream has encouraged him to partake in some self-reflection and take responsibility for his own actions.

When Death does find his way back to Hob in 2022, it’s clear he’s also been mulling things over. He apologises to Hob and says, “I’ve always heard it impolite to keep one’s friends waiting.” What started off as idle curiosity for Dream ends in an unlikely, but confirmed friendship. Dream may be a higher being, but he’s not above human desires after all. Both parties growing and allowing themselves to be emotionally vulnerable is to their benefit. Only then can they accept a healthy relationship that makes them both better people. Ultimately, the story results in telling us more about Dream than it does humans, bringing them to a similar level.

The End of It All

Dream walking towards The New Inn

As ‘The Sound of Her Wings’ tells us, death is an inevitability for humans, except for when it’s not. The Endless must maintain the balance of the universe and humanity, except for when they don’t. There are always exceptions, but in the end, they do prove the rule. Hob’s story is also a subversion of the ‘be careful what you wish for’ moral, and a nice, positive spin on immortality. It doesn’t always have to be lonely and depressing; some people enjoy living life. The unexpected turn to focus on friendship is also rather heartwarming. Sometimes, that’s all you need to make life worthwhile. Cherish what you’ve got while you’ve still got it.

Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *