The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)

The Haunting of Hill House, released on Netflix in 2018, was regarded as both a commercial and critical success.  The series was a retelling of the novel by Shirley Jackson published in 1959.  While two movies based on the novel have been released (the 1963 being far superior to the 1999 version), the Netflix series felt fresh due to a new take on the material, one which retained the scary elements at its core, but moved the story to a modern setting and tweaked the plot in ways that defied expectations.

Hill House produced significant buzz and (presumably) new subscribers for Netflix, resulting in a second season announcement shortly after the premiere.  Series creator Mike Flanagan said that the show would be an anthology series, with each season focusing on a different story.  The second season, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor, would be based on The Turn of the Screw, a novella written by Henry James in 1898.  The second season would transport the story-line to the 1980’s, and would feature several actors from the first season.

The Haunting of Bly Manor (or Bly Manor) retains key elements from the plot of The Turning of the Screw.  (See Wikipedia for an excellent summary.)  Bly Manor gives the governess a name, Dani, and makes her an American.  As played by Victoria Pedretti, she is dressed up in 80’s fashions and 80’s hairstyles.  She accepts the position as governess after a bad experience as a grade-school teacher in the States.  She is haunted by the vision of a man with lights for his eyes, who we later learn was her fiance.  She called off their wedding the night before the ceremony because of self-doubt over her sexual orientation. After Dani explains her decision, her fiance suddenly gets out of his car without looking and is immediately run over by a truck.

While at Bly Manor, Dani sees a man around the house who is later identified as Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  He disappeared unexpectedly before Miss Jessell drowned herself in a lake on the grounds.  Flora is convinced there are ghosts on the estate, and leaves talisman figures around for protection.  Miles is expelled from school for killing a bird, an act we learn he did to get home to his sister.  She had previously sent him a letter asking him to come home in no uncertain terms.

Unlike the novella, the ghosts in Bly Manor are tangible.  Flora befriends a faceless child running around, and another ghost appears in the shadows wearing a strange hat and coat.  Then there is the lady in the lake.  The lady in the lake is the scariest element of the series, by far.  She appears regularly at night, rising from the lake, walking into the house, then up the main staircase and into a particular room.  Like the other ghosts on the estate, she has no face.  She kills anyone that comes between her and her route.  One night, her victim is an incredulous Peter Quint.

As in the novel, Flora and Miles behave strangely.  Bly Manor provides an explanation for their behavior.  Whenever Miles acts far older than his age, he is possessed by Peter Quint.  Similarly, whenever Flora is sleepwalking, she is possessed by Miss Jessell (Tahirah Sharif).  While possessed, the children are “tucked inside a memory”, reliving a cherished moment in their lives.  

For the recently departed Peter Quint and Miss Jessell, when they are not possessing the children, their afterlife is consumed by memory loops.  While in a memory loop, they relive  scenes from their lives, positive and negative.  Episode seven shows how Quint’s desperation at his afterlife existence leads him to find a way to break through to the present day and convince Miles to allow them to possess him.

Episode five is one of the best in Bly Manor, and is devoted to Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper.  In preceding episodes, we never see her eat or drink.  She often appears lost in a reverie, and tells the other characters she “was far off someplace”.  At the end of the episode, we learn that she is a ghost herself.  Before Dani arrived at the manor, she confronted Miles about his behavior. Miles killed her while possessed by Quint, and she never accepted her own death.  Like the other ghosts of Bly Manor, she is unable to pass over and is prevented from leaving the manor by the lady in the lake.

In the final episode, Dani rescues Flora from death at the hands of the lady in the lake, and the ghosts of Quint, Jessell and Grose are finally able to pass over.  Dani sacrifices her well being by letting the lady of the lake enter her consciousness, and she is able to live a happy existence with Jamie the gardener (Amelia Eve) for a while in America.  Eventually, the lady of the lake’s affect on Dani grows too strong, forcing Dani to drown herself in the lake at Bly Manor to forever put the evil spirit to rest.

As in the first season, Bly Manor’s production design is top-notch.  The set where the Bly Manor is filmed is amazing in its immensity and detail.  The estate of Bly Manor is also impressive, with meadows, streams, a lake and a forest. The cinematography of the season is also high quality, bringing dread to the sequences filmed at night.

The acting of the supporting characters is also exemplary.  Rahul Kohli shines as Owen Sharm, the cook with a love of puns who took the job so that he can care for his sick mother in town.  Henry Thomas also turns in a solid performance as Henry Wingrave (Uncle Henry).  He believably portrays a man so guilty of his actions that his mind has formed his own evil twin to torment him.  (Episode six focuses on Thomas’s character almost exclusively, and he delivers a tour de force.)  I found Thomas’ British accent credible and his performance sympathetic. T’Nia Miller’s performance as Grose is richly textured, revealing strength and loyalty.  When she learns that she is a ghost and can never be with Owen, her realization is heartbreaking.  

Unfortunately, Victoria Pedretti does not hold up well playing Dani.  In Hill House, she was a relatively minor character who mainly looked distraught and terrified until she was killed off in the first episode.  As the lead in Bly Manor, her acting deficiencies are obvious.  She is an attractive and empathic actress, but she doesn’t have the range needed for her character.

Bly Manor also has a bookend narrative that ultimately didn’t work for me.  The story is narrated by an unnamed character played by Carla Gugino.  Affecting an Irish accent, she tells the story of Bly Manor to a group at a wedding party.  In the end, we learn that she is actually Jamie, the gardener, and has been waiting for the return of Dani.  This structure seemed completely superfluous and somewhat implausible, as Gugino’s character has graying dark hair while Jamie has red hair.

Even at only nine episodes, Bly Manor feels padded.  The story gains narrative steam in episode seven, when the lady in the lake takes hold of Dani.  Unfortunately, episode eight is devoted entirely to the backstory of the lady in the lake.  While the explanation for the lady in the lake is plausible, diverting an entire episode to it eliminates all of the tension and anticipation created in the previous episode.  (An explanation is given for why the ghosts of Bly Manor have no face, but in my opinion that was a question that didn’t require an answer.)  Episode nine further subverts horror genre expectations by having Dani save Flora from the lady in the lake at the outset.  The remainder of the final episode deals with the fallout of Dani’s sacrifice, and how it affects the relationship between Dani and Jamie the gardener.

Bly Manor shows us how living with guilt and regret turn us into shadows of ourselves, or living  ghosts.  Instead of forgiving ourselves, we let guilt and regret keep us from being active participants in our lives.  Dani is guilty that her actions directly caused the death of her fiance, initially causing her to reject the affections by Jamie.  Uncle Henry is so entombed by guilt he stays in his London office, working long hours and drinking heavily.  While this narrative thread provides depth to the story, it does not compensate for a lackluster ending, which came off like a wet firecracker.

While I am perfectly OK with Dani coming to terms with her sexual orientation and allowing herself to love someone else, the narrative diversions of the last two episodes robbed the series of a dramatic peak.  Bly Manor’s messages of accepting yourself and forgiving yourself are welcome ones, but they eclipse the horror elements of the plot to the point where the overall impact of the series felt subdued.

Ultimately, Bly Manor is a love story masquerading as a ghost story.  Unfortunately, it isn’t completely effective being either.  While I still would recommend watching Bly Manor, it is not at the same level as Hill House.  If I had to assign between one and five stars to each season, I would give Hill House five stars but only three to Bly Manor.  Bly Manor is still good, just not great.  That is the problem with high expectations, though: they can haunt you.

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