Character Of Johnny “John” Dee In ‘The Sandman,’ Explained: What Did John Dee Want? Is He Dead Or Alive?


Johnny “John” Dee, played by David Thewlis, is portrayed as a potential antagonist in Netflix’s “The Sandman.” It was a delight to find out that the creators haven’t treated the character as outrageously villainous in the series, and have given him enough emotional and intellectual depth that depicts him more as an “Anti-Hero.” It is the choices of a character, his obsessions, and his actions that reveal his true nature, but before diving deep into the complex mind of John Dee, let’s find out first who he is and where he comes from.

Spoilers Ahead

Who was Johnny “John” Dee?

It was in 1916, when Roderick Burgess, aka, Magus, had captured Morpheus, the king of dreams, and imprisoned him in his basement, and soon the rumors of his greatest achievement started to spread. Ten years later, in 1926, a woman named Ethel Cripps came to meet the lord of the Order of Ancient Mysteries at his mansion called Fawney Rig, situated in Wych Cross, England. Ethel was young and curious and was fascinated by the fact that Roderick knew magic and was apparently rich. Ethel probably wanted to marry Roderick, but instead he made her his mistress. She started living in the mansion with Roderick and his second son, Alex. But soon, a conflict arose. Ethel was pregnant with Roderick’s child, and Roderick asked her to get it aborted. Roderick was obsessed with his first born, Randall, whom he had lost in 1916 during the Gallipoli Campaign (First World War). Nevertheless, Ethel, as a mother, wanted her son and thus decided to run away from the mansion to lead a new life somewhere. But before leaving, she took away Morpheus’s Totems, i.e., the Helm, the Sand Pouch, and the Ruby, along with an occult book of rituals, the Magdalene Grimoire, and 200,000 in cash. Nine months later, Ethel Cripps gave birth to a son, whom she named Johnny.

Roderick knew that Morpheus’s tools were his source of power and extremely important, so he used all his wealth and power to find Ethel Cripps, but couldn’t locate her. Ethel, on the other hand, kept on changing cities and frequently changed her last name to protect herself and her son, John. She even traded away Morpheus’s helmet with a demon, Choronzon, Duke of Hell, who gave her an Amulet of Protection in exchange. The amulet not only protected her from her perpetrator but also slowed down her aging process, because of which she was able to live for more than 100 years. She used this long time period to build a successful career as an antique seller. Ethel had wealth, power, and influence, but in her blind obsession with materialistic greed, she forgot to take care of the most important person in her life, her son, John Dee.

What Did John Dee Want?

Ethel had lied to John Dee since he came to his senses. She never told him about his birth father and instead lied that his father died when he was a baby. The way Ethel changed cities not only traumatized a young John Dee’s mind, who failed to adapt to the constantly changing environment and thus developed an antisocial personality because of which he never made any friends. To add to the existing trauma, all of Ethel’s boyfriends used to physically abuse John, as he told his mother later in the series. John Dee was not born a psychopath, but all this childhood trauma and an absence of maternal love made him so.

John was of the belief that his mother was constantly lying to him, and thus he started hating that one single thing that destroyed his entire life: lies. He hated it when anybody in the world lied to anyone. He wanted to create a world where people would be more honest with themselves and with each other, and that was why he became obsessed with Morpheus’s ruby. In that ruby, John felt the power to change the world and was ready to kill anyone who wanted to take it away from him.

In the comic book, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” John is depicted as a super villain called Doctor Destiny, a mad scientist who wants to bring mayhem to the world, but John’s character in the series is much more empathetic (or human, maybe). In the comics, he was arrested by the Justice League of America, but in the series, it was his own mother, Ethel Cripps, who locked him in a private facility in Buffalo, New York, after John killed some people who tried to take the ruby away from him. But before he was captured, he hid the ruby in a storage facility in Mayhew and never told its whereabouts to his mother, who wanted to return the ruby to the Sandman so he would spare their lives. As soon as John Dee discovered that Morpheus had returned, he told his mother that he had altered the ruby in a way that it could make dreams come true, which meant that, with the help of the ruby, John Dee was able to make the dreams a reality. Nevertheless, Ethel tried her best to convince John to drop his obsession with the ruby and return it to its rightful owner, but John never listened. His mother gave him her Amulet of Protection and sacrificed her life to convince him, but everything went futile as, in the end, John went out to Mayhew to get his ruby back and finish what he always wanted to do: to create a more honest world.

Why Didn’t John Shoot Rosemary Like In The Comic Books?

The character of John Dee in the ‘The Sandman’ series believed himself to be a hero in his own life and was trying to create a more honest world devoid of any lies. All his motivations were influenced by his childhood trauma and the absence of parental love in his life. His desires were amplified by the ruby’s power and probably made him insane, as the ruby wasn’t meant for human possession. But no matter how evil John turned out to be, he was a man of his word till the end. He believed in honesty and spared the lives of anyone who was honest with him. For example, Rosemary.

In “Preludes and Nocturnes,” when John runs away from Arkham Asylum after finding out about his mother’s death, on the road, he stops a car and takes a hostage named Rosemary. While in the series, it is Rosemary who offers to drop John off where he wants to go, in the comic books, John points a gun at Rosemary and threatens her to take him to Mayhew.

In the comic book, Rosemary tries to scare John and tells him that her husband, Harry, is a mafia hitman, but it doesn’t make a difference to him. While in the series, Rosemary is a simple woman who talks to John about her family and, in a very moving speech, tells John that people lie because they are scared and they will say anything to protect themselves or their loved ones from getting hurt. Her words move something in John, which later influences his decision not to shoot Rosemary. In the comic book, John shoots Rosemary for lying to him, but in the series, he gives away his mother’s amulet of protection so that Rosemary wouldn’t have to lie to anyone in the future. In the comic books, John never had the amulet in the first place, and was never shown such empathy and sacrifice by his mother until the end, and thus it could be one of the reasons for his change in behavior. But yes, it was Rosemary’s honesty that saved her life that day.

Is John Dee Dead or Alive?

With the ruby in hand, John Dee arrived at the diner to experiment with the lives of the people under the roof. Using the jewel’s power, he compelled these people to be honest with each other. However, their complete honesty ended up in mayhem. The world was not ready for the truth, and it never would be, John realized. He understood the fact that people only pretended to be nice to each other. But once you remove that mask of pretentiousness, you will find a world full of monsters with nasty and greedy desires. You will see the true nature of human beings. And that’s what happened in the restaurant that day. People killed each other because they couldn’t accept the honest truth. People killed themselves because they couldn’t face themselves without their lies. The world was in complete chaos, both inside and outside.

John believed in honesty, and there was nothing evil in it. But he wanted to impose that honesty on the world. He robbed people of their choices. He didn’t believe in giving people a chance to redeem their mistakes, and thus his obsession with honesty was what made him evil in the end. John failed to see the other side of the story, he failed to understand the reason for those lies, and he failed to understand the truth about humanity. Morpheus arrived at the dinner table at the end of “The Sandman,” Episode 5, and explained to John that those were not lies, but rather people’s dreams. They wanted to escape life, which is why they created dreams, lies, and illusions. They were each struggling in their lives and didn’t want to face reality all the time. Without dreams, imagination, and hope, their lives would be null and void. But for John, these dreams were a lie because he never had any dreams. For him, no hope was left, and so he hated everything that was an illusion. It was the reason why he altered the ruby so that even dreams could be turned into reality because he defied anything and everything that didn’t exist for real.

In the end, John challenged Morpheus in his own dreamworld and tried to kill him there. In the process, he destroyed the ruby and released the power inside it. These powers were returned to their rightful owner, Morpheus, who used them to rebuild both the human world and the dreamworld. As for John, Morpheus didn’t kill him but took him to the psychiatric hospital that Ethel Cripps had built for him. Morpheus puts John Dee into a deep sleep without dreams and bids goodbye to the weary soul. Maybe we will see John again, or maybe he will die in his sleep one day.

See More: ‘The Sandman’ Ending, Explained: What Will Happen To Lyta Hall’s Son? What Was Desire’s Secret Plan?

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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