The Haunting Of Bly Manor, On Netflix, Is Exquisite Storytelling

Mike Flanagan's follow up to The Haunting of Hill House proves how malleable the term 'horror' is
The Haunting Of Bly Manor, On Netflix, Is Exquisite Storytelling

Creator: Mike Flanagan
Directors: Ciarán Foy, Liam Gavin, Axelle Carolyn, Mike Flanagan, Ben Howling, E.L. Katz, Yolanda Ramke
Writers: Henry James, Diane Ademu-John, Julia Bicknell, Michael Clarkson, Paul Clarkson, James Flanagan, Leah Fong, Rebecca Klingel, Angela LaManna, Laurie Penny
Cast: Victoria Pedretti, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas, T'Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli

The first clue that The Haunting Of Bly Manor isn't so much about ghosts as it is about being haunted comes early on in the first episode. On her way to an interview, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) steps off the curb and narrowly misses being hit by a car. In the split second that the vehicle passes her by, she sees a figure with fiery eyes right behind her, reflected in its windows. The message is clear — Dani might be headed to a haunted house, but she's bringing her own ghosts along.

Set in 1987, the series borrows the broad brushstrokes of Henry James' classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, in which an au pair caring for two young orphans at a remote countryside manor begins to suspect that they're possessed. While the narrative tension in James' work, as well as its chilling 1961 adaptation The Innocents, stemmed from the ambiguity of whether the governess was right, The Haunting of Bly Manor charts its own course. By revealing that its ghosts are real, it chooses, instead, to invent its own mysteries. Who is the young Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) talking to when she makes eye contact with the space behind one's shoulder? Why is housekeeper Hannah Grose (a terrifically fragile T'Nia Miller) the only one who can see a recurring crack across the house's walls? The show takes its time with the answers, unspooling them gradually over the course of nine almost-hour-long episodes.

If Mike Flanagan's first installment of the series, The Haunting of Hill House, brought together an estranged family coping with grief, it's the crippling burden of guilt that hangs heavy over Bly Manor. Characters in the series run from themselves (more than one character covers up a mirror for fear of what they'll see in its reflection), from their past and from once-sweet memories that ensnare and embitter. Their (after)lives are the fallout of a defining choice each of them make — falling in love with the wrong person, not saying the one thing they really want to until it's too late, turning against someone they were meant to protect. Their shared guilt binds them to the glue trap that is Bly Manor and while the house remains pristine, it's the inhabitants who splinter over time. 

This is a series that rewards patient watching, dropping breadcrumbs that pay off as emotional bombshells. Each of its episodes picks a single character to focus on, jumping backwards and forwards in time to fill in their backstories. A standout is episode 5, which blitzes across timelines with urgency to piece together Hannah's story, collecting fragments that coalesce into a heartwrenching whole by the end. Its fractured nature is the polar opposite of Hill House's episode 6, which was shot entirely in one take. Another is episode 8, set in the 17th Century and shot almost entirely in black and white. The decision to pivot to a completely different narrative this late in the series is risky, but pays off by serving as the final puzzle piece of the manor's twisted history. 

As much as The Haunting Of Bly Manor is steeped in fears of how memories can fade and turn sour, its counter lies in how only the warmth of human connection can offset that

Weaving together the story's disparate strands is a voiceover from a wedding guest (Carla Gugino) recounting the story 20 years later. She adds context, clues us in to the characters' thoughts and her identity, once eventually revealed, is one of the show's most achingly sad moments. As she reaches the end of her tale, a listener offers some advice. "I think you set it up wrong," she says. "You said it was a ghost story. It isn't. It's a love story." She's right. As much as The Haunting Of Bly Manor is steeped in fears of how memories can fade and turn sour, its counter lies in how only the warmth of human connection can offset that. The show is an exquisite piece of storytelling, one that proves just how malleable the term 'horror' is and how astute a grasp on it director Mike Flanagan has. Its emotional core will elicit more tears than terror, but its hard-won catharsis makes the journey worthwhile.

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