I know Halloween was two weeks ago, but in the craziness of the U.S. presidential election — the second one I got to vote in (I unfortunately missed the 2012 election by about a year) — I never got around to reviewing “The Haunting of Bly Manor”, which is, in part, an excellent little psychological horror show, and part love story that reimagines Henry James’ “The Turning of the Screw.”
One thing you should know about me is that, despite the fact that I hold a bachelor’s degree in English/Communications with three concentrations, one of which is journalism, I absolutely hate “The Turning of the Screw” because of how it was taught to me in high school. I genuinely struggled with its long, meandering 19th-century writing and it was only exacerbated by the breakneck speed in which it was taught, where the almighty 5-paragraph essay format — which I absolutely hate — reigned supreme. It’s a big reason why I didn’t do that well in my English class freshman year of high school, despite the fact that I later would make it the focus of my studies in college.
So a modern retelling of “Turning” has to do a lot of extra work for me to like it, mostly because of this natural bias I have towards it. In fact, I tend to not like gothic horror in general, but the right story can sometimes override that dislike.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is one of those stories.
The show focuses on an au pair named Danie Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), who is a former school teacher from America, who lands a job at the titular Bly Manor in England, in which she is tasked with teaching and overseeing the orphaned Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) Wingrave, who are in the care of their busy Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas), who spends most of his time in London. Also at Bly is the gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve), the cook, Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli), and the housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller).
The primary cast is all excellent, and I really like their characters. Danie is cautious yet bold; strict when she needs to be, and nurturing when appropriate, and she meshes well with Ainsworth’s Miles, who is a troublemaker, and Smith’s Flora, whose orderly and kind demeanor are a direct foil to Miles. This is not a show with bad child actors, as Ainsworth and Smith keep up with the rest of the cast throughout the entire show.
Jamie is a gardener who prefers plants over people, because they are more likely to make the effort she puts into them worth it, and she eventually becomes Danie’s love interest, which I thought was done pretty well, as she slowly gains Danie’s trust by helping her with visions of her dead, ex-fiancé, which you could interpret as aftereffects of trauma rather than an actual ghost (he died right in front of her in an automobile accident).
Owen has been studying the culinary arts in France, but is using his job at Bly Manor to earn some money while he takes care of his mother, who has fallen ill. A native of Bly, he has a love for Hannah, whose home is the manor, though they both long for a life beyond its walls. The manor is haunted by Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), Danie’s predecessor who drowned in the lake on the property. And they are soon tormented by glimpses of Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the Wingraves’ former valet, who was dating Jessel.
Uncle Henry’s story is particularly well done in the show’s later episodes, but I can’t talk much about him without spoiling the show in a major way. So too are those of Jessel and Quint, but it’s impossible to talk about them properly without going into spoilers.
I will, however, spoil the show’s big bad, which comes in its second to last episode. *** So a big spoiler warning starts here. ***
Most of Bly Manor is a slow burn, dependent on crafting atmosphere with very few scares, mostly by ghosts that do little to nothing. That is, until Episode 7 “The Two Faces, Part Two” in which Danie is grabbed by the very deadly and faceless Lady in the Lake ghost, Viola Willoughby-Lloyd (Kate Siegel), who is a deceased 17th-century inhabitant of Bly Manor that refused to cross over, creating a gravity well that traps the spirits of everyone who dies on the property.
Shot in all black and white, the show’s penultimate episode, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” explored Viola’s tragic story. She is painted as a fiery, independent woman who, despite marrying a distant cousin named Arthur (Martin McCreadie), maintains Bly Manor as primarily her house. She has a daughter, but then is struck with a fatal lung disease, but she holds onto life years after she was supposed to pass away. Her sister, Perdita (Catherine Parker), grows jealous, and kills her in her sleep, marrying her husband, but Viola left a trunk of riches for her daughter before passing away, which her restless spirit gets trapped in.
However, hard times fell on Bly, prompting Perdita to open the trunk, in which an enraged Viola kills her. And then Viola slept, and forgot, while her husband sold the manor and dumped the trunk she is bound to into the lake at Bly, thinking it cursed. Of course, Viola never fully understood this, so she awakens to find her family gone, and she starts a vicious cycle in which she awakes to search for her daughter, only to find her long gone, and she kills anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in her path before sleeping once more.
** Spoilers end **
There is a sadness to knowing the backstory of the main ghost at Bly, and it gives deeper meaning to her degradation. I’ve seen some critics complain about how knowing the mechanics of how ghosts work in this world ruins the fear of the unknown, but it replaces it with a something we rarely see done well in horror: fear of the known. Knowing everything about Viola, the Lady in the Lake and Ghost 0 at Bly, makes it crystal clear that there is no way to physically best her or to reason with her because her mind is too far gone — she’s basically a faint echo of a person — and she’s been killing people for hundreds of years at Bly. Not even other ghosts can stop her. It makes her a villain whose routine we understand, but her mind remains fundamentally alien to us.
Though I do agree other ghost mechanics — like how they’re trapped in their own memories — didn’t quite do it for me.
Still, with a surprisingly strong villain, a great cast of characters, competent pacing, and a smart narrative, “Bly Manor” is a strong limited series that will grow on you. I watched this show before Halloween, and it’s still resonating with me, and it will probably be a long time before, like Viola, I forget it.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” gets a 9/10