This contemporary adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has as many layered characters as spooky notes.
“You said it was a ghost story. It isn’t. It’s a love story,” says the bride-to-be at the close of The Haunting of Bly Manor. “Same thing, really,” the narrator rebuts. This closing interaction in the final episode of Mike Flanagan’s latest addition to his “ghost story” anthology explains the season more concisely than I can.
In 2007, a lone woman (Carla Gugino) tells a ghost story, not hers she insists, but one that she knows very well: the story of Dani (Victoria Pedretti), who becomes an au pair for two wealthy orphans at the Bly Manor estate. For those who have read Turn of the Screw, you may already know how this situation goes awry; but for those of you who have not: the children are weird (and really annoyingly posh, but trust me, you’ll feel bad for thinking that as the show goes on).
Bly Manor doesn’t follow the precise outline of Henry James’ classic ghost story, but it certainly maintains the skeleton and overall tone of the novel, and if it has the skeleton of Turn of the Screw, it most certainly has the soul of The Haunting of Hill House. Though not nearly as terrifying as the first season, The Haunting of Bly Manor has its moments – any appearance of the famed Lady in the Lake (Kate Siegel), with her featureless face and drenched clothes, left me a bit spooked, not to mention the hidden background ghosts in each episode (keep an eye out, they’re everywhere!). Of course, it is not the manor itself that is haunted; as we learned in the first season, a ghost can be anything: a wish, a memory, a grievance – and Dani’s own personal ghost, although a little frightening, is the remains of a traumatic experience.
The way the series deals with grief and trauma is beautiful, and accurate – Dani is often triggered by the sight of her late fiancé’s glasses, and her possession of them (and the subsequent destruction of them) represent her grief, and the process of acceptance. His presence in the first few episodes is chilling: a silhouette with car headlights for eyes, but as Dani throws his glasses in a bonfire, as an act of remembrance and progression, we see his ghost for what he really is: a bespectacled young man. It’s not only the living that suffer through this grief either – as mentioned previously, the Lady in the Lake lingers on the estate “through stubbornness alone”. The Lady, named Viola, is simply a mother and wife, who longs to hold her daughter in her arms. Not so creepy after all, huh?
It’s so satisfying to watch a show in which all of the characters are so deeply layered, even the ghosts that only appear briefly. The season’s villain, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), even has an upsetting backstory, tastefully and effortlessly explained in about three minutes. Every single character, even the worst ones, gained my sympathy at some point or another. For most, this wasn’t hard. The other employees in the manor are just incredibly likeable, and all of the actors (Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, and Rahul Kohli) deliver such beautiful performances. As a side note, Dani and Jamie’s relationship is beautiful, and not at all male-gazey, which is rare for lesbian relationships in TV.
If you’ve read up until this point, I’m going to assume you don’t particularly care about spoilers, so here’s a big one: Hannah’s death is heart-breaking; discovering that she has been a ghost throughout the series is heart-breaking; watching Owen, her love interest who asks her to flee to Paris with him, realise the truth about this in the final episode is heart-breaking. T’Nia Miller’s portrayal of Hannah is perhaps my favourite performance in this season: her love for all who live in the house, and her confusion in the journey towards accepting her own death are so brilliantly shown – if you watch for nowt else, watch it for T’Nia Miller.
There’s far too much about this show that I want to talk about, but it quite simply can’t fit into a short review; as I finish writing this, I’m remembering a bunch of stuff I haven’t even touched on, but you’ll just have to watch and see for yourself. It’s a brilliant follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, and a lovely contemporary adaptation of Turn of the Screw. The literary tone of the whole show, complemented by the familiar descending piano scale from the first season, and the experimentation with time, duality of character, and, of course, that funny little place between life and death, make The Haunting of Bly Manor so special, and I highly recommend you give it a watch.