Two years after the critically acclaimed The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Mike Flanagan returned with follow up series The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). This new stand-alone story brought together many of the same cast to give us chills (and make us cry).
Like Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, Bly Manor takes literary inspiration, however loosely, from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. James’ novel has been adapted for film and television numerous times, but most famously with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) which chillingly detailed a psychosexual ghost story of a 19th century governess employed to look after some rather creepy children in a house she believes is haunted. While Bly Manor initially sticks to this premise, although changing the setting from the 1890s to 1980s, the series quickly takes own its own path.
The story actually begins in 2007 when a woman (played by Hill House’s Carla Gugino) arrives at a wedding rehearsal dinner. That evening, around the fire, the subject of ghost stories arises and the woman tells them she has one, and, thus, we are transported to 1987.
Dani Clayton, a young American school teacher, portrayed here by Victoria Pedretti, is hired by Henry Thomas’ Henry Wingrave, a cold London business man, who needs an au pair for his orphaned niece and nephew. Despite becoming aware that their previous au pair committed suicide on the grounds of Bly Manor, Dani agrees to the job but her motivations are perhaps not as simple as they seem as it becomes clear that she is haunted by something.
Upon arriving at Bly Manor, Dani is greeted by the children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), as well as their housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). Quickly, Dani notices things at Bly Manor aren’t what they seem. The children talk as if they’re 30 years older than they are; Dani spots a strange man on the parapets; and Flora speaks of a “Lady in the Lake”.
As the story progresses we learn more of the previous au pair, Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif) and her relationship with the manipulative Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) which aptly parallels Dani and Jamie’s blossoming romance. Hannah, Miles and Henry also have their secrets and we delve into the story of a certain Viola Willoughby-Lloyd, portrayed by Kate Siegel, a 18th Century heiress who becomes the Lady in the Lake.
It is inevitable that one will compare this series to its excellent predecessor, despite how fair or unfair that may be. Of course, this series does many things similarly to Hill House to just as good effect. The character focus and development is excellent. From Dani overcoming her trauma of a previous relationship and accepting her sexuality, to Henry facing his dark self every evening, to Hannah learning of a dreadful truth about herself – the strength is in the individual character stories.
Similarly, the cast shines, with T’Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli in episode 5 “The Altar of the Dead” being a particular highlight. The episode focuses on Hannah as she “dream jumps” through her own memories, unsure of how or why certain ones keep repeating and in such an order. Kohli’s Owen in this episode is a representation of Owen in Hannah’s mind and it really allows Kohli to showcase his skills in a dynamic way that is perhaps lacking in his character in other episodes.
After playing siblings in Hill House, Pedretti and Jackson-Cohen are also excellent to watch, with Pedretti really leading the show with her strong-willed yet traumatised Dani, while Jackson-Cohen couldn’t be much different from his character in Hill House as Peter Quint is hateful, slimy and manipulative. With all this acting strength, we can forgive Gugino’s attempts at a northern accent.
However, while the individual stories are done well, the series being so flashback heavy means it can be a little slow at times. Now this isn’t always true – one of my favourite things the series did was give us exactly the same episode ending cliff-hanger twice with the use of flashback which only serving amplify the tension. However, some episodes tend to drag. Despite initially seeming like a highlight of the series, episode 8 is perhaps most guilty of this. Focusing on the Lady of the Lake, Viola’s story begins with intrigue however by the end the repeated, “She slept. She woke. She walked.” gets slightly tiring.
Similarly, from episode 5 onwards, the concept of “dream hopping” or being “tucked away” is introduced, referring to the experience of certain people in the house repeatedly reliving their memories which occasionally teeters on the edge of becoming too convoluted – whether it seems too much would largely depend on an audience member’s patience.
While some of the characters’ stories are given depth and are beautifully portrayed, other characters perhaps get the short end of the stick. Jamie’s childhood is narrated by herself in short stop-y sentences to Dani in a dark forest. The story of young unfaithful parents and having to become a carer for siblings feels unoriginal but more importantly is given little conviction or heart and I felt unconvinced by it despite thoroughly liking Jamie as a character.
Hill House was noted for its tension, horror and jump scares, and many might be disappointed that Bly Manor is not scary in the same way. Granted the fear and horror is more psychological than jumpy, this latter series doesn’t create the same tension that permeated Hill House so much that I had to watch it from behind a cushion. I believe this is largely due to the absence of Mike Flanagan’s direction, as he only directs the first episode (which is by far the most reminiscent of Hill House). But don’t worry, there are still background ghosts aplenty for you to spot.
Now, despite these negative points, upon first watching Bly Manor, I believed it was as good a series as Hill House, if not better. And after re-watching, I don’t totally contest this belief – solely because of the last episode.
I have watched Bly Manor twice now and the ending is has made me sob (and I mean sob) both times. Dani and Jamie’s story, which is perhaps the thing that you’re rooting for the most throughout, is so beautifully told, so heartfelt and the tragedy of their ending is so heart-breaking. A normal, happy, domestic life shattered – the hand on the shoulder of the sleeping woman at the end is an image that evokes a violent surge of emotion. Echoing Hill House’s emotional depiction of trauma and grief, Bly Manor takes that mantle and runs with it. Like the bride tells the storyteller – this truly is not a ghost story but a love story.
The final episode is one of the most emotional pieces of television I’ve watched in a long time. While the rest of the series isn’t quite the same standard and maybe isn’t as scary or tense as Hill House, the story telling and characters are strong throughout. If you approach it with the expectation of being scared witless you may come out feeling disappointed, but if you go in with the mind-set of watching a great story, you’ll undoubtedly be satisfied. It’s a slow burn, but it pays off.
Drama, Horror, Mystery | USA, 2020 | 15 | Netflix Originals | Dir. Mike Flanagan | Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas