[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” including the ending.]
Given you’re curious enough to read this, then odds are you’ve reached the end of “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” and are thus well aware of the distinctions separating it from its predecessor, “The Haunting of Hill House.” Less focused on inexhaustible frights and more ambitious in its thematic questioning of life after death, Mike Flanagan’s latest anthology entry for Netflix is also a bit of a let down — not for either of the aforementioned variations, but because of how close this tender ghost story comes to achieving the thoughtful resonance it seeks.
Never is its brush with greatness more evident than during the season’s final two episodes, which come stacked with surprises as well as critical moments of clarity (as most endings should). They also, upon reflection, provide a tidy way to divide “The Haunting of Bly Manor’s” weak spots from its strong suits: While Flanagan’s story (inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” among other works) thrives on meaningful symbolism and mystery, it struggles with basic plot and character development. That’s why, by the time it’s over, “Bly Manor” lingers in your mind, even after trying your patience.
So let’s dig in to what works, what doesn’t, and what’s downright eerie. For general thoughts, be sure to check out my spoiler-free review; below, I’ll be focusing on the details and how they congeal to form an ending that sticks.
Why It’s Hard to Connect With Anyone Who’s Alive
Part of the problem with the first half of “Bly Manor” is denial; specifically, that nagging tendency in horror stories to withhold pertinent information from both the characters and the audience during scenes when any reasonable person would be sure to get answers. Take Dani (played by Victoria Pedretti). When Dani is asked why she wants this job — which would require the young, single teacher to move to the middle of nowhere for years, instead of living it up in a thriving European city, filled with social and professional opportunities — she doesn’t say. Not really. Knowing what we know now, it’s somewhat believable that Dani doesn’t want to divulge her trauma in a job interview, but it’s even more believable that she’d settle her prospective employer’s nerves by briefly explaining that her fiancé passed away so she’s taking some time to focus on herself.
Either way, these are the sacrifices in logic we make for suspenseful entertainment. What’s more trying is the tragic backstory itself, which, as much as I tried to deny it, simply doesn’t gel with the patient storytelling deployed elsewhere in “Bly Manor.” As we learn through her attraction to and relationship with Jamie the Gardener (I can only assume that’s part of her name, considering how often she’s called “the Gardener”), Dani is a repressed lesbian (or bisexual), and part of her hesitancy to embrace her sexual orientation stems from the punishing reaction she received after her first attempt. Within minutes of breaking off her engagement to her lifelong best friend, Eddie, her would-be-husband freaks out, steps out of the car, and is promptly flattened by a passing truck. The glare from the headlights reflect in his glasses, and from that day forward, Dani is then haunted by the fateful image: her doomed ex-fiancé with glowing yellow eyes.
And he haunts her… a lot. Our first glimpse of this ghost is jarring, in part because he’s yet another specter only seen in mirrors, and in part because he has glowing yellow eyes. But he’s shown so often over the first four episodes, before we’re given even the slightest inkling of who he might be, that the hard cutaways that always mark his arrivals become annoying, and the Episode 5 explanation is a major letdown. Yes, the experience is horrifying, but her beau is introduced and killed off so quickly that it tarnishes the impact (no pun intended) of her complicated reaction. Since we don’t know why she’s haunted, those first five episodes keep Dani at a distance; it’s hard to get to know someone when they’re scared to talk about their past. Wouldn’t it have been better to tell us about Eddie earlier, so all that time could’ve been spent exploring Dani’s misplaced guilt over what happened and why? Or, better still, wouldn’t it have been better to give Dani, our protagonist, more development beyond this singular, devastating ordeal?
Similar oversimplifications upend emotional connections to the other characters, as well. I can’t tell you a thing about Jamie, other than she’s tough and cool and loves plants, which makes it hard for you to invest in her love story with Dani. (Really, it’s hard to see what she sees in Dani, given how one-dimensional Dani can feel.) Owen (Rahul Kohli) is charming as hell and absolutely lives up to his early billing as the hot guy in a small town everyone wants to marry. But he’s also just a nice guy who makes amazing/awful dad jokes (depending on your tolerance for puns). The kids are, well, kids; Flora (Amelie Bea) is the cute one, and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is rightly creepy (given he’s inhabited by a ghost half the time).
Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas) gets the longest episode of the season, and while his backstory is essential to a predominant theme — how the living can replace the dead and erase them in the process — the literal “Shit-Grinning Monster” of a ghost that serves as the devil on his shoulder is painfully literal. (When Henry’s brother, Dominic, confronts him over sleeping with his wife, Charlotte, Dominic tells Henry that his ultimate punishment is living with the other side of himself — “and he’s a shit-grinning monster, isn’t he?”) Moments like these are so ridiculously on-the-nose that it makes you feel insane for struggling with earlier plot points. Miles’ time at school — where he’s mumbling about finding keys and Bible verses about suicidal pigs — makes no sense until much, much later, and that’s primarily because the writing team is holding back information. Why is Miles obsessed with keys? We’ll tell you an hour later. What about the pigs? It’ll make sense in Episode 8.
But the Ghosts Are Where It’s At
There are other perilous details that hold back a more intimate attachment to “Bly Manor” — oh, and I will never get over the finale, when Owen and Jamie pull up to the house just as the Lady in the Lake is dragging Flora to her doom and explain their nick-of-time entrance by saying they both had a bad dream — but it’s time to focus on how this season still earns its “Haunting” descriptor. So let’s talk about allegories.
Aside from Peter Quint and Rebecca Jessel (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Tahirah Sharif, respectively) — who are another unconvincing, undercooked couple who nevertheless suck up a lot of screen time explaining ghost logic, of all things — the ghosts are where “The Haunting of Bly Manor” comes to life, and it starts with the reveal that caretaker Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller) has been ~dead the whole time~ Is it surprising? No. Odds favored one of the main characters being a ghost, given they were all occupying a house filled with ghosts when Dani first arrived, and Hannah has been the one staring blankly off into space without any real explanation.
But Hannah’s unveiling (Episode 5, “The Altar of the Dead”) isn’t about surprising viewers with a “Sixth Sense”-style twist; it’s a tragic fable. The narrative kicks off with Owen asking Hannah to move to Paris with him, now that the ill mother he was caring for has passed. (Seriously, Owen, be more of a dreamboat.) It’s an exciting proposition for our favorite couple, until it’s clear she can’t go. She can’t leave Bly Manor. Not now, not ever — because she’s dead. Rather than emphasize this misfortune up top, the clever episode construction draws Hannah through a time-bending series of events where she has to explore her own hesitancy to accept Owen’s offer; ever since losing her husband, Hannah relies on rigorous repetition for comfort, and moving to France would be a big change. It’s only once she sees why a life lived in fear isn’t a life fully lived do we learn that it’s too late for her to act on that realization.
Therein lies the tragedy, the heartbreak, and the lesson. It would be easy to claim “The Haunting of Bly Manor” peaks with Hannah’s story, if not for the final two hours, but it’s worth mentioning that both Episode 5 and the penultimate episode could lift right out and be just as affecting; they both focus on a single character, they’re both formally ambitious, and they both drill down on clear, unfettered development. To me, this is more of a flag toward Flanagan’s approach to serialized storytelling; a signal that he’s still working to find the a balanced dispersal of character development, information, and narrative momentum — which is fine! Many filmmakers who have more experience making movies than TV have fared far worse while transitioning to long-form, and episodes like these emphasize the skill, vision, and focus required to make such concise, compelling ghost stories stand out.
But I digress. Episode 8, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” dives into the backstory of the mysterious Lady of the Lake. Up until then, we’ve seen her murder Peter Quint and drag his carcass into the water, but that’s about it. She’s a scary, central figure who, like her faceless fellow ghosts, goes unnamed for a reason. Her black-and-white standalone episode tells all — and not just about the woman formerly known as Viola (played by Kate Siegel, who “Hill House” fans will recognize as Theo from the original season).
Obviously, the episode explains where all those muddy footprints were coming from: Viola, the original resident of Bly Manor who was killed by her sister and forgotten by her daughter, has also lost her memories to time. So, through a kind of muscle memory, she regularly rises from the lake in the wee hours of the morning and walks into the house looking for her daughter, even though she doesn’t really remember who her daughter is or why she’s looking for her. The lingering shot of Viola’s name in the floor of the church also makes more sense now, as does Miles’ fixation with keys. Beyond Peter telling him that keys are the secret to getting people’s help (aka by blackmailing them), literal keys are needed to open the chest of jewelry and gowns Viola bestows to her daughter (aka mementos of Viola so her daughter remembers her, that are instead tossed in the lake thanks to her sister’s meddling). It’s also worth noting that the Bible verses discussed by Miles’ priest in Episode 2 — about Jesus casting a demon out of a man and into a herd of pigs, who promptly drown themselves — also connects to the main story, as it foreshadows Viola’s fate, as well as what happens to Rebecca and, eventually, Dani.
More importantly, Episode 8 really drives home the central thesis of “Bly Manor”: the significance of memories. After Viola learns she’s going to die, what matters more than anything is that her daughter remembers her. Viola slaps her sister, Perdita (Katie Parker, who was also in “Hill House”) when she thinks she’s being replaced, and Viola’s ghost kills Perdita when she opens the chest of mementos meant to keep Viola’s memory alive in her daughter. Similarly, Uncle Henry keeps his distance from Flora and Miles because his brother banished him; Henry was acting like their father — he was there for Flora’s birth, he was buying her presents, he was in love with Flora’s mother — and Dominic resented being pushed aside (among other things). Dominic even made sure to emphasize to Henry that he was Flora’s father, even if biologically, that wasn’t true.
Eike Schroter / Netflix
And Ending That Sticks
Dani’s final act is where things get a little trickier, though the comfort in her tragic demise comes from how Jamie honors her memories in the present day (aka 2007). Back in the ’80s, Dani saves Flora from drowning in the same lake that consumed Viola and Rebecca by inviting Viola’s ghost into herself. That frees the rest of the ghosts to rest peacefully, but it also becomes an increasingly heavy burden on Dani. Viola remains dormant for years, allowing Jamie and Dani to travel to the States, start a business, and live together. But soon, Dani starts seeing Viola in reflections, and her memories of the past prove too much for her. She returns to Bly Manor, drowns herself in the lake, and locks Viola’s spirit down there with her, in order to prevent any future tenants from similar problems.
The clearest allegory for Dani’s fate is depression, though there are other interpretations. One could argue the strain of her life thus far — with so much guilt and so much death — created an impermeable barrier to blissful joy, or one could simply see Dani as someone struggling with an untreated mental disorder; something that’s always been a part of her life, and these events only magnified it. Either way, what “The Haunting of Bly Manor” wants viewers to honor life as it’s happening, rather than merely trying to extend it at all costs. Dani’s choice is just that: her choice. Jamie is heartbroken and distraught, but she comes to understand the best way to value her partner is to remember her time on this planet and share those memories with others. (Hence the framing of “Bly Manor” as a story told at Flora’s wedding by an older, Carla Gugino-cast Jamie, though this is also a nod to Henry James’ writing.)
The same lesson applies to Uncle Henry, who stops avoiding his niece/daughter and nephew and starts telling them stories about their parents — so these children will remember who they were. Hannah is another, more tragic example, considering she wanted to make more memories before her time was up, but only realized as much after it was too late. Still, Owen honors her memory (with a shrine in his restaurant), and helps her find peace.
Reckoning with legacy as it pertains to individuals is a tall task for any story, and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” wrestles a fresh perspective into view. Most of us fear death, and many of us react to that fear by trying to ensure we’ll be remembered long after we’re gone. Seeing that goal get wiped away by time is hard to handle, and it magnifies the importance of memory, history, and identity — both while you’re alive and for your loved ones once you’re gone. No one wants to feel replaceable or insignificant to the people who matter most, but some, like Dani, don’t fear death. They welcome it as the only escape from a life that’s more painful than it’s worth. That “Bly Manor” is able to observe all of these positions speaks to its ambitious aims and shows how many managed to land. While it may not be as streamlined, scary, or satisfying as “Hill House,” there’s no doubt viewers should be looking forward to the series’ next ghost story.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is streaming now on Netflix.