The worst things you can do

There’s a sequence within the Netflix series The Sandman that I thought was, ya know…worth writing about. David Thewlis has quietly been one of my favorite actors for over a generation now. I remember him as a rising star in the 90s, playing the main character in Naked, a Waiting For Godot-like play on film about an itinerant, intellectual, conspiracy-minded bitter man. He played a less anti-hero like figure opposite Brando in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau; andlater, he was excellent if lost in a crowd within the Harry Potter series;of more personal interest, he was rumored at one point to play Pete Townshend in a long-mooted film about Keith Moon. Incidentally, he would also have made a great Johnny Rotten (ne Jon Lydon), the great punk/Sex Pistols icon. A terrific actor, he’d be a star if he was better looking. Anyway, in Sandman he plays John Dee, a version of Doctor Destiny from the Marvel series, though in Sandman he is the bastard son of magus Roderick Burgess, is in possession of main character Morpheus’ precious ruby and protection amulet, and in the fourth or fifth episode of the series is an itinerant figure also, having escaped from a psychiatric hospital.

Nevermind so much how all of that came into being. What concerns me here, as in the point of this entry, is a touching and thought-provoking side-plot involving the Dee character and a good Samaritan who nearly runs over him in the street and then offers him a ride, having first deemed him frail and unthreatening. Indeed, he certainly looks that way, and his genteel Englishness furthers the underdog image. Rosemary, the kindly black woman who finds Dee sympathetic, is herself a genuine innocent. Saying she’s heading the same direction, she engages him in conversation as she drives, at first thinking that Dee is a kindred spirit. They confide in each other, reflecting upon harsh upbringings, untrustworthy others, assuming a shared spirit of victimhood and survival. Dee is an able and compassionate listener when Rosemary shares tough luck stories involving men: for example, she was abandoned by the father of her children, and thus left to raise them alone as a poor, working woman. Hearing this, Dee gushes disgust at footloose, wayward men, to which Rosemary concludes, “he was a liar”, in reference to the man in question. Then she adds, “I think lying is the worst thing you can do to a person”, setting up the ironic mini-drama that follows.

Dee’s lamenting ear is authentic, but he unwisely speaks of his own psychiatric commitment and other problems when it is his turn, confessing even to murder at some point, which stills Rosemary. Suddenly, she is re-thinking her earlier pronouncement about liars, believing she has erred in being drawn by Dee’s dithering charm and realizing with mounting horror that there are actually some things worse than an unfaithful husband. Now her needy passenger seems self-absorbed and sinister, like a serial-killer or something, so as Rosemary continues to drive with him ensconced in her back seat, she attempts surreptitious maneuvers with her phone, seeing if she can reach out for help. Soon, a better option occurs to her as she approaches an isolated gas station and thinks to stop and solicit help from a clerk. By this point, Dee has begun to suspect that his increasingly quiet driver and listener has changed her tune, so as she steps towards a station shop, saying she must pay inside for gas, he asks to join her, not quite sure he can trust this good Samaritan after all. Moments later, unaware of Dee’s special powers, which include being able to cause attackers to bloodily explode (a grotesque outcome that is suggested visually but not wholly shown), she asks a predictably terse yet responsive clerk to call 911. Instead, as Dee attempts to escort Rosemary outside the shop, the brutish man behind the counter pulls out a firearm and threatens to shoot. Unfortunately for him and Rosemary, a display of Dee’s power becomes necessary and is carried out, so as they exit the store, leaving behind a grisly scene, Dee admonishes Rosemary, “you shouldn’t have done that”.

Fortunately for Rosemary, Dee has no axe to grind with her, and besides, as he soon explains, he understands why people behave in deceitful ways, why they lie. People are scared, he decrees, empathizing if not exactly pleased with her action. He may have intended a life lesson for his worthy now-hostage, but he soon lets her go, determined to continue a separate mission and not needing Rosemary anymore. In fact, he gifts her the protective amulet he’d taken from his mother earlier, which Rosemary accepts warily, not sure how to make use of it but grateful for Dee’s mercy and parting wisdom. As the two characters separate, the viewer is left with the impression that Dee might trust her once again were they to meet in another context. He even implies as much, so she and us are left with a further message about truth being an ideal, but one that is hard to achieve, which previews the following episode which is entirely about that theme. However, we’re also left with the idea that mitigated judgement for liars is reserved only for those whom we think really have something to fear. For anyone listening to the subliminal meanings of Sandman (not to mention most horror stories, plus little things like cable news and social media), but also the thread of essays that have adorned this blog over the last year or so, that privilege doesn’t apply to a lot of people. It doesn’t apply to sex addicts, for example; it doesn’t mean anyone who has broken promises, the tacit agreements of intimate commitment. Why? It’s nothing to do with modern sexual mores, actually. Rather, it means that human beings basically expect one another to be honest in their daily affairs, with one another—whether they actually live up to this standard or not. But because we created something we call society, and therefore filter thoughts and feelings through a social unconscious, fear is not just a primal state of mind but a modernized neurosis which is subject to our permissions. Fear has become a prerogative.

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