“Calliope,” the second story in the 11th episode of “The Sandman,” takes us back to August 2020 and a reception for novelist Richard Madoc’s acclaimed second effort “…And My Love, She Gave Me Light.”
Madoc casually retrieves a cocktail and listens to guests’ appreciations of his latest, ranging from envious to gushing. Then he sits down on his divan and hands the drink to an infatuated woman.
“I was saying how much I liked your description of Eileen,” she told him. “There aren’t enough strong female characters in fiction, not even fiction written by women.”
“I agree,” Richard said. “And I know it’s trendy right now to say that only women can write authentically about the female experience, but uh… well, I tend to think of myself as a feminist writer. .”
“And where does this voice in you come from, the female voice? asks his guest.
He replies, “Women in my life.”
It’s fun to imagine Catherine Smyth-McMullen, the author of the episode, concocting this exchange while wearing a wry smile, energized by knowing what type of man comes out as a spontaneous feminist, especially in 2020. By then we were well into the post-#MeToo era and understood the term as the verbal equivalent of Rohypnol, a little something that scammers slip into conversation hoping to break a woman’s defenses.
Then, after he treats her like trash, maybe she’ll question her judgment or, worse, her dignity in calling herself a feminist. If he has power, as several infamous artists did (and still do), he can destroy his career. And supposedly wiser people, mostly men, will just tell her she should have known better.
All of this informs Smyth-McMullen’s take on “Calliope,” a much-edited version since it was first released in 1990 as part of a “Sandman” issue collection titled “Dream Country.” (This collection also includes “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” an anime adaptation that opens the episode.)
In the Netflix version, Richard Madoc (Arthur Darvill) is the author of a blockbuster (and changes his pen name to the very pretentious Ric) by imitating the female gaze. Like the guest at his reception, his female readers love the way he receives them.
Melissanthu Mahut as Calliope in ‘The Sandman’ (Courtesy of Netflix)
None of them knows that the literary voice belongs to a mythological muse whom he has imprisoned in his house, and whose divine inspiration he forces by abusing it, including by violating it.
This “Sandman” story turns from a simple sexist savior tale into a tale of mass violation.
Neil Gaiman originally wrote Calliope as a device for Dream to play the hero by punishing a crime no good man would accept. Dream and Calliope were married and had a son, Orpheus, whose tragic death inspired another mythos in addition to hastening their breakup.
His choice to save her somehow demonstrates that her imprisonment makes him more understanding than he was before. It gave a flattened clarity to his and Calliope’s role, as well as that of Richard, who has no qualms about assaulting Calliope as long as it gets him what he wants.
None of this would play well in a modern adaptation of the story, no matter who took on the task. But it’s absolutely significant that Gaiman brought in Smyth-McMullen to write this updated version and Louise Hooper to direct it. Through them, this “Sandman” story is transformed from a simple sexist savior story into a full-scale violation story.
Richard is presented as a reasonably decent man who degrades his soul, and a goddess, out of desperation: he has long been waiting to deliver his second novel to his publisher and is stuck with writer’s block.
Yet he acknowledges that the deal that brings him Calliope (played by Melissanthu Mahut) is criminal exploitation. Richard trades a bezoar made from a tuft of hair to get Calliope from acclaimed author Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi), who captured Calliope in 1927.
Fry is at the end of her life and has stripped all the wealth and fame he wants from Calliope’s powers, and hands her over as if she were a spent piece of cattle. “They say you have to woo your kind, but I have to say I’ve found the most effective force,” Fry says before adding, as if to appease Richard, “Oh, make no mistake, she’s n She’s not human. She’s thousands of years old. She was created for that. That’s her purpose: to inspire men like us.”
Nevertheless, Richard tries the gentler route first, showering Calliope with flowers, chocolates, perfumes and other luxuries to tear every thread of an idea out of her. But she insists she won’t comply until he releases her and then she begs. He still refuses, then tries his version of a prayer: “I’m drowning, Calliope.” Please. I beg you.
“Ask me again when I’m free,” she replies softly.
Each written and visual update to the story reflects the perspective of women who have their version of an encounter with Richard Madoc to tell, or many, whether experienced first-hand or second-hand, qu whether physical or emotional.
Casting Arthur Darvill as Richard further heightens the horror of the character’s crimes: Darvill is best known for playing “Doctor Who” sidekick Rory Williams, the man who loved his fiancee enough to watch over her for 2,000 years . Rory is the ideal man: devoted, intelligent, courageous and loving.
Richard sounds like a certain TV series creator-turned-director who built his career on a reputation for writing supernaturally strong women.
Richard, on the other hand, stares at a blank computer screen after this painful conversation before making a decision. Hooper keeps the camera trained on the blank digital page as we hear Richard knocking on Calliope’s door and saying her name. . . before the scene fades to black and silence. When the story resumes, “Ric” is typing on his computer keyboard with mad satisfaction. His shirt is unbuttoned past his sternum and on his cheek is a fresh, still bloody scratch.
Whether it was intentional or not on Smyth-McMullen’s part, Richard sounds like a certain TV series creator-turned-movie director who built his career on a reputation for writing supernaturally strong women.
You can recognize the outline of her features in Richard’s jokes or a later phone conversation with his agent where he demands that the cast and crew of his film production be at least 50% women and people of color. . So he tells him to be sure to publicize this, as he wants his fans to know what a fantastic guy he is. Especially women.
He also has a lot in common with the comedian who made a public display of his alliance with female comedians, only to be outed for his habit of forcing other women to watch him masturbate when he has them alone. Really, though, Richard could be any number of famous men who tout their feminism in magazine profiles and red carpet interviews while abusing women in their private lives.
Finding out the truth about who these men are is a profound betrayal for some fans who believed in the false image they cultivated. This is especially true of those who, as Richard Calliope says, designed their art to inspire people – women, in particular – instead of simply entertaining audiences.
Arthur Darvill as Richard Madoc, Melissanthu Mahut as Calliope and Derek Jacobi as Erasmus Fry in ‘The Sandman’ (Courtesy of Netflix)
“Writers are liars, my dear,” Fry says pompously to Calliope after she reminds him that he had agreed to release her at the end of her life. Richard repeats this to her later, when he is long past the point of needing her to survive and has simply decided he wants more of everything – fame, wealth and worship.
Smyth-McMullen transforms Calliope into a goddess trapped but not resigned to her exploitation. She takes every possible step to free herself from Richard until, finally, Dream (Tom Sturridge) answers her call.
Then “Calliope” turns into a story of revenge: Dream castigates Richard for holding Calliope captive and orders him to release her. He moans that he needs her. “Hold your tongue,” Dream growls. “She was held captive for over 60 years. Diminished. Abused. Soiled. And you won’t release her because you need ideas?
In response, Dream gives Richard Madoc what he wants, and it ruins him even after freeing the imprisoned Muse.
A few posts on social media questioned whether a story centered on the violent sexual exploitation of a woman should be featured in “The Sandman” regardless of its altered context.
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But this episode is everything “Games of Thrones” — along with every other show that treats rape as a narrative device designed to stoke a man’s rage or add complexity to a woman’s story — is not. Hooper does not show his physical pain. She doesn’t need it. No director has ever done that. If we appreciate Calliope’s courage, rage and ultimately her grace in the aftermath of her horrific confinement, it’s because of the dignified and just angry way she behaves when Richard isn’t in his presence. Mahut and her writer never forget that she is a living goddess, not a possession.
It’s also clear that Dream responds to Calliope’s plea from a place of empathy, which is an unfamiliar concept for an Endless. But none of his siblings have spent decades in a box, having been conned by a cheap man whose skill level could be described as mediocre, at best. They didn’t come to his aid either. He knows Calliope’s fate because he lived it. Helping someone he loved makes him better than those who let him down.
In this way, “Calliope” indicts men like Richard Madoc while granting blessing to all who feel cheated by those like him, characters who owe any polished image they earn to stolen power. Some writers, comedians and other artists can indeed be liars. But “The Sandman” undoes that deception with an inspired take on one woman’s truth. . . even though this tale began as an imperfect figment of one man’s imagination.
All episodes of “The Sandman” are streaming on Netflix.
on the work of Neil Gaiman