The weight and emotional draw of the Brief Lives narrative arc is massive, serving perhaps as the long awaited catharsis for Dream’s inner anguish. Yet it also offers something new, albeit profound: Dream has changed, and will never be the same again. Now two thirds through the original run of the Sandman, the reader must confront a new reality. Has Gaiman’s thesis changed? Long ago at the outset of this analysis, it was speculated that while the Sandman was a story about gods becoming human, in doing so their humanizing tales and exploits to the mortal were simultaneously aggrandized and turned into mythic constructions. Therefore, all myth and legendary purport in the Sandman universe could be reduced to circumstance and the mundane. Now it is clear, however, that these enduring narratives are whimsical yearnings for permanence against the awesome interminable span of the cosmos. Destruction posits this transgressive belief in the skybox spread, painted and glossing two consecutive pages nearing the conclusion of Sandman #48. In it Dream, Destruction, and Delirium confront the transient quality of their nature, seeing high above them countless points of ancient light that in all probability had long faded. The members of the Endless, like the stars, are fragile creatures and not as potent as they first imagined. Destruction at the dawn of the universe was the first to admit this, confiding in his sister, Death, that in spite of his great and terrible power he truly knew nothing about the universe, and felt insignificant. As the people of the world in their suppressed subconscious ascribe to the Endless inflated worth and purpose, Dream and his family must declare that they too are as aimless as the mortals they claim to steward. Their vulnerability is expressed when it is revealed that an older personification of Despair existed prior to the start of the series, and had actually died, thus proving that the Endless are hardly that at all, but infinitely looping patterns flaring up and burning out until the end of space-time. In fact, they are on the cusp of changing, as Delirium did before the rest of the seven. How they transform is hauntingly intriguing.
“There are two sides to every coin,” goes Destruction’s adage. It is the one that he used to leave the Endless and abandon his responsibilities. The analogy shows that the nature of the Endless is bifocal. One can look through one lens, observing the anthropomorphic manifestation carry out his/her duties, and also look through another to witness their abstention. Regardless, if one nature is neglected the other will continue unhindered. In the case of Dream, his existence is one abstracted, existing between worlds and states. Likewise, the opposite of this quality must be equally true, that he is connected to a physical reality, one where he is bound to rules and insurmountable physical laws. In the first issue of Sandman, Dream is subjected to physical laws and principals when he is captured and bound to a defined space. As he endures this, he is no longer omnipresent and absent from his realm, thereby allowing it to fall into ruin and disrepair. Morpheus is the Lord of the Dreaming, but excersizes his power understanding that his abstracted being is without significance unless there are spacial qualities that he is rebelling against. Thus the caveat is that the Endless are at odds with their counter natures constantly, poised to give in. Delirium already has, having been Delight before.
How Dream’s progressive transformation from being ethereally benign to emotionally transparent is expressed in Sandman is when he no longer conceals his intrinsic realism through subterfuge and emotionally grounds himself with real intimacy. He does this when he must confront his son and kill him. As it stands, the act is the most “real” thing the Dream Lord has undertaken. It has immediate and long term ramifications, both for himself and his immediate family. While Merv mocks Dream in the company of Lucien, he suggests that Dream is always distancing himself from reality and the mundane concerns of life by focusing his attention selectively on only the superfluous details that pertain to his realm. In Merv’s mind Dream is blind to the common affairs of those below his calling, which is true. In the case of his son, Dream however cannot distance himself. By necessity he must painfully reconcile the matters between himself and Orpheus when he needs to call upon his son’s aid. In killing his Orpheus, Dream is irrevocably changed and becomes more aware of the emotional needs of others in consequence, a development that deeply troubles his brother Destiny and sisters Desire and Despair. Following the dispatching of his son, Dream no longer pouts or sweats small details above others that are before him. This can be gleaned from his interaction with Nuala for instance, who wears jewelry that once belonged to Dream’s old lover. Now that he is fully aware of the consequences of death, Dream’s mood changes towards the people that perished in the process of seeking out his brother at Delirium’s side. No longer is he callously apathetic, but deeply sentimental, regretting their loss of life and recognizing the inordinate cost of his actions. This mindset radically contrasts with his dealings with Nada earlier in the series, in which Dream’s act of kindness find’s its motivations in simply righting the wrong done out of principal. He even greets his underlings with patience and understanding, ultimately changing the way he conducts his business in the Dreaming. It causes the reader to ponder the future of Sandman, and what will come of the protagonist.
Strangely these changes in Dream conflict with Desire and Despair. Earlier in Brief Lives it was suggested that the twins of the Endless are the only members of the Endless that were unable to cope with Destruction’s passing. This inability to do so is outstanding, but in the arc’s conclusion manifests in the fear they share towards Dream, who has stepped beyond his station and done what they are could never do: redefine autonomously their role in the created order. Of the Endless, Despair and Desire both are the most enthralled in their callings, and reflect the false permanence they embrace. Destruction’s humility and willingness to acknowledge his temporal fragility was a sign to them that the Endless are truly not what they seem, serving less in the capacity of guardians and rather as benevolent observers. Sandman has always been a story about maturation and change, growing into one’s responsibilities, and reserving the grace to accept change. Ignoring their need to adapt and conform to a changing world simply ends in death. Destruction abdicates his post because he believes the humans no longer need him. Abandoning his post has not yielded absolute chaos, and little has changed in his absence, but he recognizes that he is not defined by his calling. Each realm of the Endless exists in spite of the master but never appear to be anything but extensions of their consciousness, with the exception of Dream’s realm. At the start of the series, Sandman’s forced incarceration bore terrible fruits for mankind, implying then that the Dreaming was a place of functional purpose. The fact that none of the other Endless truly need their realm to carry out their duties could be interpreted as a plot hole in Sandman. Why hasn’t Destruction’s realm undergone a similar destabilizing, for example? Perhaps the reason for this disparity is explained by Dream’s architecture of his realm, which relies heavily on his direct intervention.
Brief Lives concludes what could be considered the denouement of the Sandman series. Dream receives closure with his son, while donning a new, more sympathetic hat toward the mortals. “Has the series truly now begun,” dominates the focus of this arc. With only 26 issues remaining, featuring The Kindly Ones as the only prominent narrative arc, it appears that Gaiman is now beginning to close up shop on his sprawling fantasy world. What then becomes of Dream will unveil the fruits of his expansion produced by Brief Lives. For the first time in Sandman the Endless will become defined. What becomes of them will determine the ultimate direction of Gaiman’s work and his sprawling cosmology.