After absconding to an inn outside the bound of time and reality, Gaiman takes the reader on to the final arc that constitutes The Sandman (discounting the coda material The Wake). The first three issues constitute the journey of Lyta Hall through loss and disillusionment after finding her son kidnapped while she is out one night, attempting to break her spinster-like living conditions. Interspersed between the pages of her escapades is the emancipation of Nuala from her position of servitude under Dream, as well as Matthew’s attempts to understand the nature of the creatures that roam the Dreaming under service to their lord. Common threads of paranoia and fear emerge in the initial pages between Lyta and her friend Carla, the former quick to feel apprehensive around strangers. The Kindly Ones initiates its tale under the pretense of death. Somber moments come and go, and the psychosis of loneliness consumes its protagonists. The foreordaining climax of The Sandman is consolidated in smaller, more intimate moments than what is expected. Nuala is surprised and full of dismay when she finds Dream completely unmoved as he dismisses her from service. The foreboding moments before her release indicate that she dreads going back to the Faerie (a realm predicated on subterfuge and obfuscation). Subtle cues hidden in the frames show her fixating on objects, then dropping them when she is disclosed the bad news. She will miss having the Dream Lord appreciate her work. Another subject in the issue involves Matthew’s frustration over his fate, expressed despite the visual limitations of his non-anthropomorphic appearance. So much unrest is bottled in the first few pages that the ultimate goal the characters must attain is overshadowed by their personal suffering. Nevertheless, this narrative offers tangible contemplations on the nature of death. As if preparing the reader for the inevitable end of The Sandman series, the journey there is both cathartic and heartbreaking.
Gaiman manifests tales that deal with death or loss to ultimately force the reader to confront the terminable nature of his dynamic characters. The Kindly Ones picks up on these themes, revealing the subtext of the first major piece of the arc: all things come to an end. Lyta’s connection with Daniel supports this; she is over-protective and attached to her son. This is seen in the confrontation with a mad homeless man who cheerfully distributes flowers to passersby. As he attempts to give the flower away, Lyta accosts the man, which causes him to fall to the ground weeping. Her reticence to leave the house is documented shortly before this incident. Previous attempts to make connections with the outside world have failed. This is a development of earlier problems depicted in Parliament of Rooks. In that issue, Lyta is seen talking on the phone with Carla, sharing her failed attempts to reconnect with her friends, as well as holding a general apprehension and xenophobia toward others. This problem has exacerbated into a fully developed attachment disorder, and once Daniel is abducted her life falls apart at the seams.
Matthew’s search for identity does not share the urgency of Lyta’s growing insanity, though his quest turns over some odd stones. As a servant to Dream, annexed from the waking world, his existence is not wrapped up in the Dream Lord. This is problematic to Matthew, who cannot bear the veiled answers that he receives from the trio of gatekeepers posted on Dream’s castle. He also questions Dream’s motive in fabricating a second Corinthian, proposing the possible outcome of the Corinthian going rogue once more. Why does Dream reconstitute a creature that tried to kill him before? In the moment, Matthew feels confused by the act of creation because the decision, in his mind, lacks an awareness of consequence. Life without consequence leads to a life without purpose. What is the point of living at all, when your actions either negative or positive have no meaning in the grand scheme of things? When Matthew questions Dream, he is dismissed, much to Matthew’s frustration. According to Delirium, there had been at least 12 others before Matthew, a detail that has caused him to seek out what his terms of service entail. Trying to comprehend the depth of his existence, Matthew tells the ambling dreamer in The Castle (from Vertigo Jam #1) that he wishes he knew his own ends. Like all other living things, he is afraid of dying, only this time it would be for the second time. Restlessness grips Matthew. He wishes for a final home somewhere, preferably a conscious afterlife.
How fate is considered in light of this arc depends on how one interprets the appearance of the Wyrd Sisters, or Fates, in The Kindly Ones. The sisters deal with life through the perspective of beginning and end. The crone suggests that beginnings are often muddled and unclear; she prefers endings (meaning the end of life) for their simplicity. Lyta’s insanity paired with the inevitability of fate is grating to the reader. She simply cannot wrestle with an existence that is in flux. This is why Lyta’s mental breakdown at the discovery that her son has been murdered is so palpable. Despite the cryptic language employed by the fates, even though living life embracing the possibility of change is difficult, enduring events with those expectations allows for some cognitive cushioning. Lyta is told up front by the Fates that it is the two detectives (disguised forms of Puck and Loki) that took her baby. Her emotional state, however, cannot allow her the ability to see beyond her current situation. Lyta lives so much in the past, wrapped up in the life of her husband Hector Hall, that she can only bear the present with Daniel with no mind for the future. This is apparent in Black Spider’s recruitment of Lyta into his business. She has no idea what she can do for Mr. Needham because she operates in a mindset that doesn’t allow for her to even consider moving onward in her life. Therefore, the mechanism of fate in The Kindly Ones embodies the concept of inevitability. In her current state, she cannot accept the possibility that life it outside of her control. She will inevitably be disappointed by this, and entrapped by her circumstances and past trauma. Though it is unclear as to what the ultimate fate of Daniel is, one can assume that Lyta’s freedom lies in letting go of her old life (symbolized by Daniel) and embracing her new one.
Hob’s appearance in Chapter 3 of Kindly Ones introduces a wistful approach to the problem of change and ultimate endings. Hob is introduced standing before the grave of his recently deceased wife, reflecting on his past loves. He resolves that the nature of love from the perspective of animals hopelessly lacks the humanistic qualities of companionship. He says, “I thought that life was all about fighting and eating and sex,” and offers momentary insight that is so crucial to all of Sandman’s protagonists in their quest for peace in a life of chaos and change. Fight or Flight, the concept by which animals survive in nature, operates in humans as well, only in this case mankind employs this reaction to escape the reality of death. One can be like Lyta in her anger, fighting the opposition that could take her son away from her, or one can be like her in her social escapism that allows her to disengage from the world. Hob’s realization suggests that contentment draws from being able to accept death, and not oppose it, nor flee from it. Choice and the power of freewill is the only means by which a sentient creature can find relief. Lyta cannot conceive of it when she is enthralled by the fates, and Matthew cannot receive this realization from non-autonomous creatures caught up in the fabric of Dream’s consciousness. This is perhaps why Hob initially escaped death, because he no longer spent his years fighting it or running away from it (an act which is so extraordinary that Hob was able to get Death and Dream’s attention). Hob perhaps understands the motives of the Wyrd Sisters most appropriately. He accepts the nature of death, faces it boldly, and moves on. It is because of these traits that Hob is the most emotionally developed character in The Sandman.
The Kindly Ones, it should be noted, employs a disparate art direction, noticeably different from the realistic styling of previous artists like Charles Vess and Jill Thompson. Marc Hempel’s penciling captures a new element not previously explored in the Sandman mythos. Psychosis and the fragility of the mind are aptly conveyed by the surreal and potent imagery. Lyta’s form contorts and changes fluidly from frame to frame to match her demeanor. What she sees also conveys her perception of the world as it is influenced by her emotions. The world caves in around her as she waits for details on Daniel’s disappearance to arrive. Ultimately when she hears of his death, she is crushed, and her mind is compressed by grief and shock. Compared to what she looked like at the start of the arc, her form is contorted beyond the likeness of her former self, having become a caricature and self-parody. This effectively conveys the immediacy of death, and the state of mental disrepair that is to come.