The final arc of Sandman proceeds to bookend the series with cameos and homages to earlier plots. The feel here is different from previous arcs; Gaiman explains elements as they come, rather than holding back the twists and turns until the very last moment. Just as the previous arc unfolded, so does this one explore deep psychological issues in the characters. Rose’s quest to deal without a heart leads her to England to explore the world her grandmother lived in most of her life. There she finds the fates exploring feminized storybook romances, finding the beastly origin tales to be quite different from their latter masculine reinterpretations. The players of the supernatural converge on Dream with interest, attempting to understand the mind of the Dream Lord as paranoia mounts in the narrative. Lyta is determined to have revenge against Dream, but at the cost of her sanity, as she reaches out to the gods of madness that are in her mind. Only those who have let their minds go, like the homeless man who appears in the initial pages of Chapter 1, understand her journey, leaving those like Carla hopelessly removed from the truth of what is happening. In the midst of tumultuous affairs, Gaiman’s evolving tale of sanctified vengeance and justification explores themes of impending death, closure, and vindication. Closer and closer Lyta comes to her goal. Whether or not she is antagonist or protagonist still eludes the reader, but clues interspersed through the narrative suggest that she might just be the hero of the tale.
The three primary female protagonists contained in chapters 4-6 all possess unique perspectives on the nature of reality. How they conceive of their world determines their course of action. How Lyta, Carla, and Rose deal with the truths placed before them will explain their success, failure, and stagnation through their journey. Removed from Lyta’s ongoing struggle to cope with the death of her son, Carla and Rose are foils of one another. Carla’s approach to the narrative conflict is influenced by her need to find rationality in the events as they have transpired. Before she cries foul and suspects something out of the ordinary, her first inclination is to go to the LAPD to follow up on the mysterious detectives Pinkerton and Fellows, despite having at least two odd circumstances arise prior to her visit. Rose tells Carla plainly that she was not consulted by the detectives and the card that was given to Carla with contact information was actually blank. Carla was made to believe that the card was legitimate at first, but was victim to Loki’s sleight of hand. Even when Loki sets her on fire, though she is unfettered and unhindered from escaping on her own, she stays compulsorily, desperate to understand what has happened. This craving for clarity ultimately leads to her downfall.
How Carla is a foil of Rose’s character is apparent in light of Carla’s misunderstanding of her own circumstances. Previously aware of the super-real that saturates the world around her, Rose is no stranger to bizarre circumstances. She understands the significance of dreams and the Dreaming from her escapades with Gilbert. Also, she has been irrevocably altered by her exposure to the Dreaming after giving her “heart,” (a totem signifying her designation as a Dream Vortex) to Unity Kincaid, her grandmother, that she would die instead of Rose. Her dispassionate listlessness is the result of this shedding of traits and it permanently affects her. It is speculated that she too might be immortal, because Rose descends from a member of the Endless, but this is never clear. Rose coins her experiences with the supernatural as “weird shit,” and reflects the ambiguity she feels toward those experiences. However, her ability to deal with ambiguity allows her to escape compromising situations unscathed, such as the harassment she experiences at Gatwick Airport when she arrives in the UK. Carla, by contrast, is unable to deal with situations that compromise her grip on reality, and doesn’t fare too well in her encounter with Loki. This is because she strains to gain understanding from a being outside of her knowledge and familiarity.
Chapters 4 through 5 deal with Lyta’s progression through the fantasy world she has generated to cope with the loss of her son. The uneven beats in her story are characteristically absurd and follow a logic more at home with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Gaiman’s traditional storytelling. In his encounter with Carla, Loki suggests that those who “touch the gods” must endure the “wild wood of madness,” which adequately explains Lyta’s descent into insanity. Midst her breakdown, Lyta is able to make contact with the players that exist in the shadows of waking humanity. In her journey she meets an adventurer who possesses relics of power. Lyta is given one of these totems to aid her quest, thereby following the typical rhythms of any adventure story. The Cyclops she meets afterward serves as a static observer, a character who contributes their presence without any implications to the story. This character’s stagnation is a foil to Lyta’s proactive search. After passing along, Lyta meets an anthropomorphic cat, though this time she is able to self-consciously reflect on the narrative stereotypes that populate adventure tales. This last episodic encounter is the final piece by which Lyta subconsciously justifies herself to be a protagonist and not an antagonist. Whereas before she was hopelessly detached from her actions, she now becomes self-aware of her quest and one step closer in carrying out her revenge.
At the end of Chapter 5, Lyta confronts her reflection in a streetside shop window to gain clarity on her quest. Previously she had the opportunity to stay with the sisters Stheno and Euryale, the surviving members of the Gorgons of Greek myth. Each are shrouded in cobwebbed wedding gowns similar to Chantal and Zelda from the Dolls House arc earlier in Sandman. Their presence in Lyta’s journey symbolizes stagnancy in the Hero’s Journey, similar to Odysseus’ blithe vacationing on Circe’s island of pleasures. While in their care, she feeds on the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides and is advised by the serpent, Geryon, to refrain from staying with the sisters of Medusa. Were Lyta to stay with them, she would slowly transform into a Gorgon herself. Medusa was unable to confront her own ugliness when Perseus forced her to see her own reflection. Likewise Lyta must confront her own ugliness in the context of her journey to kill Dream in order to justify her impending act of violence. In her window shop conversation she realizes that her whole life has been marked with complacency and indifference. Daniel’s death, which woke her up, roused her from her spiritual slumber and into action. Despite this, she resolves that she cannot achieve this task on her own. This, however, isn’t the end. Thus far she has experienced the hero’s Call to Action, has obtained a relict to use in the primary conflict, and faced her greatest temptation, thereby averting stagnancy. Now she can continue on to find someone able to help her. Who that may be is left to imagination, for now.
In context with the arc thus far, the narrative aside between Rose and the fates that takes place in Chapter 6 at first seems out of place. However, it serves to justify Lyta’s goal of killing Dream as a just act in the narrative. The battle over whether to consider Lyta a villain or a protagonist seeking justice is the primary philosophical aim of The Kindly Ones. The story that Rose hears is a traditional story told with a feminist bent, which features a woman abused by a womanizing male antagonist. His unscrupulous and murderous actions unfold as he impregnates the unnamed female protagonist, murders an old woman to take possession of her home, and abandons the woman to fend for herself while periodically returning every so often. This tale parallels the Greek stories in which the gods would come to rape and copulate with mortal women, but also alludes to Dream’s complicated relationship with Lyta. Dream considers Daniel, who was conceived in the Dreaming, to be his child, placing Dream in the position of the many gods that subjugated unwilling women. Were Lyta to take vengence, it would be seen not as an act of evil but as an act of “sanctified revenge,” a term coined by Helena, one of the old women surrounding Rose. The unnamed woman, slowly taking her revenge on the man by torturing his wicked soul, alludes to Lyta’s quest for vengence. If she kills Dream, the reader is likely to associate her retribution with the satisfying finale of the feminist tale. It is reasonable to say that Lyta, in the context of this story, is not a villain, but rather a protagonist seeking much-needed justice for being maligned and used by the overbearing male presence, Dream.
As the details unfold, the tension within the supernatural world of The Kindly Ones nears critical mass. With the introduction of so many supporting characters from earlier tales, reading through the final pages of Sandman’s 75 issue run is much like reading Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. Everything is coming together as all the players take their positions for the final bow. Now that Lyta has obtained justification for carrying out her impending deicide, Dream awaits judgment as all his contemporaries anticipate the end. It is difficult to feel too sorry for Dream though, considering his previous relationships that have typified him as aloof and childish. Nada’s time in a Dante-esque Hell was served for the sole reason that she spurned Dream’s advances. In the case of Calliope, even though she wasn’t indirectly harmed by Dream’s relationship with her, Dream doesn’t seem in any particular rush to save her from the clutches of Richard Madoc, world best-selling author and supernatural rapist. Considering the motivation for Lyta’s quest, as well as his dubious past, Dream is due for his comeuppance. How she will accomplish this, awaits explanation.