*Full Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor*
There’s nothing in life harder than losing someone you love. In Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second season of his haunted house anthology series, the showrunner looks for horror in a totally different place, and I don’t just mean that real estate wise. The jump scares and chilling moments that textured the first season are present, but much less prominent. Instead, the series turns its gaze to deeper, more unfathomable horrors. The kind that leaves you staring at the ceiling hoping you never experience them first hand.
Bly Manor is a loose adaptation of Henry James’ works and is the story of an American au pair, Dani (Victoria Pedretti), and orphans Miles (Benjamin Evans Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), whom she is tasked with caring for after a tragic death befalls their previous caretaker. Their only surviving family member cannot face the traumas the children remind him of, so the cook, housekeeper, and gardener have stepped in as a makeshift family unit, all providing different levels of support to the children and each other. The first few episodes do the legwork to establish the creepy setting and back story of the characters and feel the most akin to Hill House. There are ghouls haunting almost every frame, silently watching the characters go about their business. Early on, we see Flora moving creepy figures around in her dollhouse, apparently tracking the movements of the various trapped spirits aimlessly wandering the halls. All the pieces are in place to set up another season full of spooky moments, but instead, the show’s lens turns towards tragedy.
Most of the ghosts are present to serve the drama more than to be scary, or if they seem scary at first, they ultimately reveal themselves to be collateral damage of characters dealing with (or not dealing with) their varying tragedies. As things play out, it becomes more and more clear this is a show about loss, missed opportunities, and mistakes that you can never quite shake. Early on, the family cook, Owen (played charmingly by Rahul Kohli), refers to the town of Bly as a “gravity well,” foreshadowing some literal plot points as well as one of the core themes: The harm we can impose on ourselves and others by being unable to let go. The show’s ghosts “dream hop” through memories, some pleasant, some otherwise, until ultimately losing themselves. They get so trapped in a specific moment that they lose touch with anything and everything else. They are left fumbling aimlessly, with no sense of self and only vague shreds of emotions crystallized in their final moments. Inversely, the main characters are often followed by specters of their past. The housekeeper, Hannah Gross (T’Nia Miller), is plagued by visions of a crack in the wall of the well she died in, a death she hasn’t yet accepted. Dani’s guilt about her ex-fiance’s fate prevents her from moving forward with her life because every time she looks in a mirror, she sees the image of her ex staring at her, a constant reminder of the guilt she feels about the circumstances of his death. This ghost is never quite as outright scary as season one’s Bent-Neck Lady, and in general, the show plays down the surface level scares in favor of big, soul-crushing concepts.
Bly Manor outshines Hill House in it’s characters and ideas, but it is rarely as memorable in it’s execution. There’s never anything as flashy and impressive as Hill House’s one take funeral episode. None of the ghosts will send a chill up your spine the way many did in the first season. But weighing Bly Manor’s value by the innate scariness of the ghosts misses the point. All of these spirits are victims in one way or another, and the deeply loveable main characters aren’t safe from similar fates. The ghosts are warnings of what could be in store for our main characters. As the show moves forward and more mysteries are solved, the true horrors of the story are revealed. The painful knowledge of missed opportunities in life, The oppressive dread of impending loss, and the desperate sadness of fighting that at every corner.
In the final episode of Bly Manor, a character tells the narrator (Carla Gugino) that her story isn’t a ghost story but a love story. That is the best way to approach Bly Manor. As a heart-rending story of love and connections that plays on the all too relatable fear of losing that love. Every character deals with this to some extent; Owen and Hannah, as lovers unknowingly trapped on opposite sides of mortality. Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who will do anything it takes to be reunited after being torn apart before they had a chance to start a life together. Most tragically, and at the core of the story, are Jamie (Amelia Eve) and Dani. In the finale, Dani has saved the children by allowing The Lady of the Lake (Kate Siegel) to enter her body. She saves the remainders of the Wingrave family and undoes the curse of Bly Manor, freeing all of the trapped spirits in the process. But she does so at a heavy cost, as the spirit of the Lady of the Lake lies in wait, hanging over the happiness Dani has found with Jamie by threatening to take over Dani’s body. Once again, a terror haunts her reflections, this time a phantom of her future rather than her past.
Jamie constantly encourages and supports Dani, who is slowly losing her grip on herself. It’s painfully reminiscent of someone struggling with a terminal illness and ultimately losing their desire to fight it, something that is foreshadowed by Owen’s struggle with his ailing mother. Jamie and Dani’s inevitable loss of each other hangs heavy over the finale, A finale that I watched mostly through a curtain of tears because of how much love all of these characters felt for each other and how hard that made it to watch them hurting. The show isn’t exclusively gloom; the moments of warmth spread through you like warm tea on an ice-cold day. But their ultimate purpose is to highlight the tragedies that are to come. Herein lies the true horror of The Haunting of Bly Manor: The all-encompassing dread of losing your partner.
Bly Manor does something few anthologies have managed to do. It was able to provide a wholly different experience than the first season while never abandoning the core values of the series. It’s a brilliant and harrowing story that operates as a compelling adaptation to the source material while never feeling overly indebted to it because its interests lie in such a different place. While it doesn’t bring the same polished scares as the first season, Bly Manor offers up a truly special ghost story filled with wisdom and the kind of horror usually reserved for your most sleepless nights. It’s an incredibly affecting second outing and one that only further solidifies Mike Flanagan as one of the great horror storytellers of our time. It doesn’t always hit the stylistic highs of the first season, but it will haunt you long after the credits have rolled for the last time.