Mike Flanagan, the showrunner and writer of Netflix’s new limited series The Haunting of Bly Manor, has always loved hope more than fear. This trait makes his prolific work in the horror genre, including Bly Manor’s predecessor The Haunting of Hill House, initially baffling.
Over the years, however, I’ve come to realize that playing Flanagan’s game means approaching his horror stories not as horror but as literary family sagas that just happen to be lovingly crafted over the bones of ghost stories.
That approach definitely worked well for Hill House, which was excellent as a family drama but less successful as a horror tale. And minus a few caveats, it works for Bly Manor, which, like its predecessor, is a modern-ish tale (now set in 1987) based on — or, more accurately, loosely scaffolded over — a famous 20th-century ghost story. Like Hill House, the series is gently obsessed with families — this time including found families as well as nuclear — and with death.
In many ways, Bly Manor’s storyline feels more complete than that of Hill House. The basic premise is immediately hooky: A governess moves to a huge, isolated mansion in the English countryside to look after a pair of creepy children and immediately begins encountering what may or may not be a pair of malevolent spirits. The show’s casting, especially of said creepy children, is excellent; Bly Manor reunites with several of Hill House’s cast, recasting them as new characters in a new story (a la American Horror Story) — a conceit that turns them into familiar strangers, which works well for this story. Best of all, Flanagan’s writing, typically the weakest part of his storytelling, is more polished and self-assured than ever, more naturalistic than showy.
But perhaps Bly Manor’s biggest selling point is that while it’s still lightly philosophical and still primarily thematic rather than conceptual in the vein of Hill House, it’s also fun. Its haunted house feels less fraught, less burdensome, than the intense grief-stricken emptiness of Hill House; its ghosts are subtler and less frustrating than, say, those abiding in the nonsensically deranged house of Flanagan’s ridiculous 2016 film Ouija 2: Origin of Evil.
Bly Manor’s ghosts are even relatable, to which Flanagan draws repeated attention. After all, he reminds us again and again, soon the ghosts will all be us.
Bly Manor builds on its turn-of-the-century inspiration before veering off in new directions
The Haunting of Bly Manor ostensibly works off of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a novella I love so much that I make it a point to re-read it on Halloween, sometimes in the dark by candlelight. James was heavily influenced by the emergent theories of Sigmund Freud and, in Turn of the Screw, was one of the first authors to consciously imbue the inherently dark subtexts of the gothic novel with overt psychosexual terror and subtly unreliable narration.
The novella’s 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, deftly brings James’s version of the story to life. But there’s little more to say about it here, because Flanagan pretty much jettisons everything that James’s novel is known for: the psychological terror, the elements of madness, the disturbing sexual overtones, and for the most part the unreliable narration. Crucially, the implied “turn of the screw” in James’s novel pivots around the question of whether the ghosts are real or not. In Bly Manor’s take, it’s a given that ghosts are real and lingering in the day-to-day lives of the living. This approach flattens James’s story for me, but it rapidly becomes clear that Flanagan seems uninterested in re-litigating Henry James. After the initial elements are introduced, the story wanders away in its own direction.
The initial elements are thus: there’s the frame story, told by a mysterious wedding attendee (Hill House’s Carla Gugino) to a group of rapt listeners (including a cameo from The Room’s Greg Sestero!). The story she tells involves Dani, a governess with a dubious past (Hill House’s Victoria Pedretti), escaping from America to London, where a distant, taciturn uncle (Hill House’s Henry Thomas) hires her to work in a foreboding mansion as caretaker to two children.
Before she’s barely settled, Dani begins seeing a malevolent spirit she quickly identifies as Peter Quint (Hill House’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen, sporting a pitch-perfect Scottish brogue). The children, meanwhile — creeptastic 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and sunny but eerily prescient 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) — seem to be haunted by the ghosts of both Quint and their former governess Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who died by suicide not long after Quint’s disappearance.
So far, most of this builds on the novel, except that our governess, Dani, has a guilt-ridden history revealed early on — she keeps seeing the ghost of her dead ex-fiancee. Meanwhile, while most of the characters are positioned in accurate roles, their motivations are far different, as are those of the additional cast members: Jamie the gardener (Amelia Eve), whose slow-burn romance with Dani is both sweetly charming and well-earned; Owen the affable chef (Rahul Kohli); and pure-hearted housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller).
This is a big cast to work with, and Bly Manor’s storytelling feels appropriately ambitious, as characters spin off in all directions, with new backstories, flashbacks, futures, and in-betweens arising from episode to episode. It’s always interesting and well-directed, even when we’re fed horror cliches galore, from spooky dollhouses to things lurking in the basement. The show maintains enough suspense and tension to spur things along, at least for the first few episodes. Pedretti, who was great in Hill House, disappointingly seems to have only two registers in this series, as she seesaws back and forth between raw terror and embodying the emoji (uwu). But the rest of the cast is fantastic, with Miller and Kohli turning in especially stellar performances.
As things progress, however, the series loses its focus. Even as the story builds, filling you in on Peter Quint’s whole deal and how that impacts the current residents of Bly, the story keeps getting sidetracked and dangling ideas that it seems uninterested in properly following after their initial introduction. “People mistake love and possession,” Jamie tells Dani early on, and this is a clear theme of the story — both possessive behavior and ghostly possession — but in the end, Bly Manor does nothing meaningful with it.
The show does employ a few neat storytelling tricks to disguise this narrative wandering. These include the aforementioned frame narration, which casts a hypnotic spell over the proceedings that Flanagan uses to pull us along through the rocky bits where his plot is all over the map. Some pointed and strategic tonal shifts throughout the series’ nine episodes also help keep the pace from flagging, though I’d argue that nine episodes was a few too many. Conversely, given proper attention, the series’ climax could have been significantly expanded and dramatized. Instead, Bly Manor ultimately seems to jettison all its carefully built characterizations in favor of a plot resolution that essentially happens completely offstage, to usher in an ending that feels hand-waved and trite.
This is also exactly what happened, even more egregiously, at the end of Hill House — and just as with Hill House, viewers likely won’t care, because they’ll be too invested in the emotional resonance of the moment. Flanagan seems to rely on emotional catharsis to divert audiences from the way his plots tend to collapse onto themselves in the finale. But I see you, Mike Flanagan, I see you.