The Sandman: The Endless, Their Powers, and Who Is the Prodigal?
A brief primer on Morpheus' dysfunctional family of eternal beings.
This article contains spoilers for The Sandman.
Perhaps more than most writers, The Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, in collaboration with producers David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, faced a considerable challenge when adapting his acclaimed comic book series for Netflix. Working within a medium that lends itself to deep lore and divergences, Gaiman wrote 80 issues of The Sandman between 1989 and 1996, weaving a rich narrative tapestry. Characters in the series ranged from historical figures such as William Shakespeare and Augustus Caesar, mythological creators from cultures across the globe, and DC Comics heroes. But one of the most important elements of Morpheus‘ world came from Gaiman’s own imagination, and thus might be hard for those new to the series to understand: the Endless, Morpheus’s dysfunctional bunch of squabbling siblings.
The seven members of the Endless each rule a domain visited by humans. Although they are absolute within their realms, able to toy with the humans who enter, they (usually) understand that they exist for humans, not the other way around. Although they are personifications of universal entitities, it might be helpful to think of the Endless as gods, even as they exist outside the authority of dieties
Visually, members of the Endless generally take the form of humans, reflecting the assumptions of the people they interact. Thus, when Morpheus visits Shakespeare, he looks like a 16th-century European man; when he speaks with a member of an unnamed African tribe from centuries ago, he is a Black man in similar garb. But even if they aren’t technically human beings, the Endless often act like people we know, getting into petty squabbles and embarking on fool-hardy plots.
Here’s a breakdown of the seven members of the Endless and their respective jobs:
Our title character rules the Dreaming, the place humans go when they sleep. As king, he’s responsible for creating the various lands inside the Dreaming as well as its denizens. Dream creates the nightmares people encounter, most notably the Corinthian, and makes sure that they all stay in their place. Dream has access to humanity’s boundless imagination, which allows him to use ideas as a gift, as when he inspires Shakespeare, or as a weapon, as when he punishes a writer who kidnaps a Muse by filling his head with story ideas.
As one of the older members of the family, second only to Destiny and Death, Dream often draws the ire of his younger siblings, especially Desire and Despair. But he’s also given to bouts of moodiness and acts of cruelty, even against those he loves, including his own son. Even more than his kidnapping by magician Roderick Burgess, Dream’s arrogance drives the larger arc of The Sandman, turning the story into a great tragedy.
The oldest sister among the Endless, Death is also the second-most powerful and the most feared of the family. Death’s realm has no name, referred to only occasionally as “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Throughout The Sandman, we largely see Death doing her job by ushering people into the afterlife, often with kindness and humor. Perhaps more than any of her family members, Death admires humans and respects their anger when they discover that their lives are over.
Because of her pleasant disposition, Death comes to Dream to offer advice and support, whether he wants it or not. This sometimes brings her into conflict with her other siblings, but her importance and power keeps them in check. Before becoming the lovable goth girl we meet in the comics, Death dispatched her duties with cold pragmatism. The others know not to push Death too far, lest she revert to her old ways.
The most openly villainous of the Endless, at least in the main arc of The Sandman, Desire rules the Threshold, depicted as a giant statue of itself. As their name suggests, Desire gains power from the longing of humanity, but they lose control of people once they get what they want. Thus, Desire takes pleasure in toying with humans, keeping them in a perpetual state of want. The most amorphous of the Endless, Desire takes the form of whatever the people they address find beautiful.
Because they don’t respect humans, Desire often finds themself in conflict with their brothers and sisters, especially Death and Dream. And like most younger siblings, Desire resents the power and esteem their big brothers and sister enjoy. It will employ their twin Despair and youngest sister Delirium to enact their plans, constantly sowing unrest among the Endless.
At first glance, Despair might seem like the victim of her twin Desire. After all, humans often find themselves in Despair’s realm because they can’t have the things they want, giving Desire the upper hand. But as her story unfolds, Despair reveals herself to be not only a knowing, but also active, participant in her own plans, which do not always coincide with those of Desire. Like Desire, Despair dislikes Dream, owing largely to a contest she lost against her brother. But of all the Endless, Despair most admires her older brother Destruction.
Although she is not the youngest of the Endless, Despair’s current form is newer than most. Her first form died centuries ago, and while they shared certain physical characteristics, her current form is far more taciturn and cold than the previous. She doesn’t hold quite the same antipathy toward humanity as her siblings, but Despair does want humans to suffer, thus giving her more sway over them.
The oldest of the Endless, Destiny is also the most mysterious. His realm is a garden, through which he walks while reading the Book of Destiny, chained to his wrist (fans of DC television adaptations may recall the Book from its central role in the CW crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths). The Book records everything that can, has, and will happen, accounting for his sometimes distant nature.
Despite his apparent stoicism, Destiny often serves as the host for meetings of the Endless. He seems to have affection for his siblings, even if his knowledge of all things renders their grand plans and hopes as ultimately petty. In most cases, Destiny is depicted as a hooded old white man, although he, like his brothers and sisters, can change his form. He simply does not care enough to do so.
Delirium is the youngest of the Endless and the most beguiling. Often depicted as a young woman with multicolored hair, Delirium seems aloof and disorganized, given to non sequiturs and uncompleted sentences. She seems to take joy in interacting with humans, even if she seems unaware or unconcerned with the suffering they sometimes experience. This tendency generally seems more playful than vindictive.
However, Delirium’s carefree attitude is a more recent development. When she first manifested, Delirium was known as Delight, a more structured entity who actively sought to bring joy to humans. Not even Destiny knows why she changed, and Delirium refuses to acknowledge her other self. However, at times of great distress, aspects of Delight break through the façade, indicating that Delirium may not be in her final form.
Destruction and the Prodigal
The fourth oldest of the Endless, Destruction also uses the name Olethros. For most of his existence, Destruction ruled over an unnamed realm of constant change and disorder. Because of the nature of his realm, Destruction often interacted with Death, Desire, and Despair. However, despite the grisly nature of his work, Destruction did not hate humanity nor revel in their suffering. Instead, Destruction recognized the beauty and necessity of change, even if it was painful. Rather than encouraging bloodlust in humanity, Destruction insisted that the end of things brings about the birth of new things.
At least, that was the case. At some point around the dawn of the age of reason, Destruction abandoned his realm and his position in the Endless. Dubbed “the Prodigal,” Destruction wanders the universe, trying to escape his responsibilities. Having removed the sigil that allows his siblings to call him, Destruction seems to have no further contact with his brothers and sisters. However, Delirium may know his whereabouts and even communicates with the Prodigal.
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.