Mike Flanagan’s groundbreaking horror series The Haunting of Hill House bent the rules of television, molding time and space and memory into something profound and picturesque. It used Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted house novel as a blueprint for a new fable: the story of a family undone by grief and trauma, suffering generationally in the absence of its troubled matriarch, their pain splayed about the decaying walls of their eponymous home. In just ten episodes, it laid bare the gnarliest truths of familial love, and how we hurt the people we care about most—intentionally or not—until we choose to break the cycle.
If Hill House was a puzzle box, its follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, is a music box: a twinkling, eerie revolution that is as lovely as it is tragic. Is it a ghost story or is it a love story? What’s the difference, really?
As with Hill House, Bly Manor dissects and remixes another famous piece of horror fiction, this time Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. As in that 1898 novella, it’s the story of a governess who comes to a remote English mansion to care for two young children. In Bly Manor, the governess is named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a nervous Midwesterner who finds herself in London in 1987. She’s running away from something, the specter of which haunts her in the form of two saucer-like glowing eyes that appear in mirrors. What is this past even that rattles her so? That’s one of the many clever mysteries tucked into the spine of The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Dani answers an ad placed by an English lawyer named Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) seeking a nanny for his recently orphaned niece and nephew, Flora (Amelie Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). At first, he seems hesitant to hire this fraught American girl, but after the interview (in a nearby bar) she wins him over. Dani isn’t the flighty, anxious former schoolteacher she appears to be at first glance. There is depth and gravity to her. She understands what these children have lost, and she knows she can be there for them. Maybe they can be there for her, too.
But this is a ghost show after all; big mansions don’t just sit on the edge of small towns without a story to tell. Bly Manor is a “perfectly splendid” place, as Flora would tell you, but it’s a place where bad things have happened, and bad things leave scars. Those scars infect the children. Flora leaves talismans about the house—creepy little dolls meant to ward off negative energy—and plays with her dollhouse, a replica of the mansion that hints at its ghostly secrets. And Miles, well, he seems the most affected by the loss of his parents; he’s prone to vicious mood swings, he creeps on Dani, and seems generally off. But what (or who) is making him act this way?
Fans of The Turn of the Screw may know some of the answers. The Haunting of Bly Manor borrows heavily from James’s story, way more so than Hill House did from Jackson’s work. (Bly Manor also weaves many of James’ short stories into the text of the series, from minor references to full episodes inspired by tales like “The Jolly Corner.”) There is the matter of the former governess, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and Mr. Wingrave’s chauffeur Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The ghostly visions and nightly temptations that lure Dani to odd corners of the house; dusty, forbidden corridors and doll-filled basements.
But unlike Hill House, Bly Manor is a rosier setting. The home is brighter, and hints of a merrier time. It is not a vestige of evil like many haunted houses, but a place that inspires love. Sometimes, love too powerful to hold, too terrible to navigate. And other times, love so tender and divine, it has the power to heal. It’s in these great love stories where Bly Manor finds its hook.
Bly Manor has a few more weaknesses than Hill House did. The show is at its best when it follows its own path, and at its worst when it relies too heavily on the storytelling devices that made the former season so distinct. One episode in particular is a little too reminiscent of one of Hill House’s standout hours. This season also uses the same score as the first, a bit of connective tissue that doesn’t feel quite right. Because of this likeness, Bly Manor feels less revolutionary than Hill House, never quite striking out on its own bold path. It also lacks powerhouse episodes like “The Bent-Neck Lady” and “Two Storms” to really elevate it to that next level.
But it’s still a great season of television. And its greatest strengths lie in the terrific performances. Pedretti, who played Nell in Hill House, is especially strong as the head-and-heart-strong Dani; she’s constantly revealing new layers to the character, whose accent and anxious energy could be detriments in the hands of a less gifted actress. And then there’s T’Nia Miller as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. She’s the show’s most mysterious character and also the most solid performer; there’s a gravitas to her performance that makes her heartbreakingly watchable. It’s a real tour-de-force.
The kids are also fantastic, never veering into obnoxious territory, but lending the perfect “creepy kid” vibe. The supporting cast is equally great; Rahul Kohli is delightful as the house cook Owen, and Amelia Eve is so fun as Jaime, the spunky gardener. The camaraderie between the house staff and the kids gives the whole series a special warmth.
Creator Mike Flanagan, known for his work on films like Oculus and Doctor Sleep, is one of the most exciting names in horror, and watching his Haunting series expand beyond Hill House is an utter delight. Bly Manor is strongest when he’s directly involved as a writer and director. Unlike Hill House, he did not direct every episode this time around. But the series is still markedly his brand even with other creatives in the fold.
Your mileage may vary on how good of a thing that is. Flanagan’s horror is the tender sort; his great big heart beats through the scarier fare. But that heart feels appropriate for Bly Manor. It’s a less dark place than Hill House. A great, good place, even. Just beware of the hallways at night.
Featured Image: Netflix