Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor
I have so many mixed feelings about this show…
For those who haven’t yet watched all of it, you might want to steer clear.
Here be spoilers.
Bly Manor is the follow up to The Haunting of Hill House and it takes the form of Henry James’s classic story The Turn of The Screw. There are also a number of nods to the black-and-white adaptation, The Innocents, both in the cinematography and certain words and phrases used. So, there’s a lot of material to work with here, although it’s not exactly an adaptation as I would define it. I would say that it used the original material as a springboard, which is something I often enjoy. However, there were weak moments and, from my perspective, they all cropped up when the show steered away from the original material.
It begins with Dani, a young American woman who is fleeing her life in the US and applies for the au pair position at Bly Manor. The children she’s to take care of and tutor are Miles and Flora, ten and eight respectively. They are peculiar and have suffered the loss of both their parents and their former au pair. The house and its grounds are filled with strange presences. Even the housekeeper, Hannah Grose, has an odd way about her. And Dani has her own ghost. A figure who appears behind her in reflections.
The set-up of the series is fantastic. I truly can’t fault it. The background supernatural appearances that Hill House was so praised for are reprised here in a subtle way that allows the tension to build wonderfully. The children are sinister as well as adorable and they fully convey the sense of always knowing more than they are telling. There is a sense of foreboding that refuses to let up.
And then… to my great dismay, I just didn’t think Bly Manor delivered on all that it had promised in the early episodes. The different strands of narrative that had been promised to conclude in the final episode just didn’t mesh together. Some of them didn’t conclude satisfactorily and the pace that had kept me up late so I could watch ‘just one more episode’ suddenly disappeared.
Dani’s ghost – who we discover is the ghost of her ex-fiancé, for whose death she blames herself – is quickly resolved in order to get him out of the way before the main drama. As soon as she finds herself in love with Jamie – the Yorkshire gardener – he disappears with very little trouble. Not quite what I was hoping for.
Hannah Grose, a character I adored and the star of the most talked-about episode of the show, was a bit hard done by. She is revealed to actually be a ghost herself and moves between real events in the house and her own distorted memories. For a character in whom the audience has invested so much time, energy, and emotion, I fully expected her to have a significant moment that would make her presence as a ghost more than a mere tragedy. Given that it is Quint while possessing Miles who killed her, I would have loved to see her play a pivotal moment in Miles’s rescue in the final episode. But sadly, she ultimately doesn’t do much of significance.
Poor Owen. He has a really bad time of things. His mum dies and the woman he loves turns out to be a ghost. Other than that, he doesn’t have any plot significance. Which kind of sucks.
Dani’s saviour moment when she invites Viola, the Lady in the Lake, to possess her in order to save Flora. To start with, the repeated utterance of ‘It’s you. It’s me. It’s us’ felt a bit too contrived in the moment. The fact that this is what Viola said to her infant daughter before they were separated is appealing on the surface, but on closer inspection doesn’t quite hold up. Dani got this phrase from Quint, who got it from… where? Unclear. And her instinct to say it at that moment is explained away in the voiceover as an ineffable kind of knowledge, which to me suggests that nobody could think of a compelling justification for it. Furthermore, I’m unsure why Viola would even accept Dani’s invitation. It’s clear why Quint and Miss Jessel are looking for possession, but why Viola? Possession just doesn’t seem to be her bag. Killing? Sure. But it strikes me that possession should take more agency and coherent thought than Viola had at that moment, it already having been established that she’d faded away to nothing more than a few driving emotions.
Finally, there’s the pacing. The first seven episodes absolutely flew by. They were fast-paced, they were gripping, and they promised so much in terms of future drama. And then the penultimate episode told the story of the Lady in the Lake. It was an episode I really enjoyed, but it cut away from all the drama happening in the present. It sapped away a great deal of the tension. And then to make matters worse, the entire story was quickly wrapped up in the first fifteen minutes of the final episode. There was then thirty-five minutes of epilogue to go over Dani’s life with Jamie and how her possession by Viola inevitably ended with Dani herself at the bottom of the lake. Now, I don’t object to the schmaltz, but I do think it could have been wrapped up far more neatly and concisely. The storytelling structure, where it is ultimately revealed that it is Jamie telling the story to the grown up Flora the night before her wedding, feels too sparse in places, too prominent in others, and overall a little too inconsistent. Personally, I would have avoided it entirely.
While I thought the show did pretty well in terms of representation, I also found myself a little concerned by how all the characters played by people of colour were ultimately side-lined when it came to the conclusion. Neither Rebecca Jessel, nor Hannah Grose, nor Owen have any kind of role to play during the final showdown with the Lady in the Lake. True, the same can be said of everyone but Dani, but it still struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m overanalysing, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
So, there are some big flaws there that I wasn’t wild about. And they were almost all in the final two episodes. But there were some great parts too. The cast is amazing. There isn’t a single weak link in the entire cast, they all performed beautifully. Especially Benjamin Evan Ainsworth in the role of Miles. For someone so young, he impressively managed the feat of creating a strong distinction between the real Miles and the possession by Quint. And T'Nia Miller as Hannah Grose was the most compelling person throughout. I just adored her.
The ghosts, the tension, and the foreshadowing of the early episodes is brilliant. I would say it’s worth watching just for that. But Bly Manor fell into the same trap as Hill House; an exquisite set-up with a weaker follow-through. That said, I would absolutely watch any follow up season they care to create, although I would like to see how the writing team handles a season of original material rather than springboarding from an existing story.
What did you think of The Haunting of Bly Manor? Did it measure up to The Haunting of Hill House?