In the aftermath of my second binge-watch of The Haunting of Bly Manor, I have taken to considering memories as a sort of anchor. An anchor to ourselves, our self-perceived identity and perhaps most importantly, to those we love. This sentiment, in the context of Flanagan’s Gothic love story, goes a long way in understanding the oftentimes perplexing behaviours of its cast.
Anchors by design, root things in position, but also by this same design, drag them down. This hybridity forms the basis of the plot of Bly Manor and implores the viewer to question their own recollections. Such as, how far can I trust my conscious mind to keep my memories ‘pure’ or accurate? And perhaps more poignantly, do our memories help or hinder us as individuals?
Traumatic or unpleasant memories are in their essence, difficult to relive. But there is often a cathartic experience in reconciling these. After all, the primary reason that ghosts are said to exist, as I have gathered, is a spirit’s inability to move on. The decidedly unsubtle link between this concept and the characters who work and live at Bly did not escape me – the ones who never leave are the ones who cannot reconcile their trauma. Yet, by stubbornly refusing to forgive themselves and others for their indiscretions, the manor fastens itself to them, forcing them to relive their memories forever.
Bly Manor is a gothic romance, based on The Turn of the Screw. This is interesting, because while Hill House took its namesake directly from the novel it was based on, Bly does not. This I can only assume was a ploy to draw in a more dedicated viewership, who enjoyed the unexpectedly successful Hill House.
Marketing strategy aside, the plot centres around Dani. A bumbling, Californian au pair, hired by Uncle Henry, (who has the plumiest accent I’ve ever heard) and quickly becomes unwittingly embroiled into the tragedy that befalls the characters. The two children, Flora and Miles, are orphans. Not only this, but rich orphans. And what do rich orphans have? Nannies.
Thus begins the exposition, wherein we learn that the old au pair, Rebecca Jessel, committed suicide by drowning herself in the lake. We are gradually shown the nature of why this happened alongside the events of the present plotline in a sort of ‘follow the breadcrumbs’ fashion. This style of narrative is primarily the reason that Bly has been criticised, in my opinion. But I’ll get to that later.
We learn that the children are acting strangely, with some creepy dolls for Flora and some aggressive masculinity from Miles. Yet, these instances come at the oddest of times, and the viewer is left to wonder what could possibly be causing these strange occurrences, and why they are at such irregular intervals.
There are many other subplots that lurk around the main storyline, such as the relationship between the housekeeper and the cook, which goes relatively nowhere throughout the series, for reasons not really worth mentioning.
The tension begins to pick up around the third episode, when we are shown the initial stages of Jessel and Quint’s relationship. He is clearly abusive, with some reviewers describing him as a ‘sociopath’, but I’m unsure how far that goes in understanding his behaviour, or how productive it is to shoehorn characters into labels when they aren’t officially given a diagnosis within the narrative.
Trauma is something Flanagan explores relentlessly throughout Bly Manor, especially in Quint’s character, who is trapped in the same manor, reliving the same memory, before the narrative we witness begins. The memory in question is that of a confrontation with his mother, regarding the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father during childhood.
I take issue with Quint at the level of character specifically. While it is clear that the residents of Bly consider him something of a self-serving vagabond, it feels as if someone told the writers at the last minute to make him two-dimensional. This is where the abuse storyline comes in. It’s a cop-out, and so unoriginally half-formed that it does little to absolve Quint’s subsequent emotional abuse of Rebecca. Even his Irish roots are unexplored beyond that of him stating that he’s ‘not in the club’, which in his case is the English upper class. I found myself thinking, why can’t evil just be evil sometimes?
Jamie and Dani, the saving grace
Back to Dani. She initially appears to be the classic American girl from a British perspective – bubbly, unassuming and blonde. While this is a rather outdated stereotype, being sexist and archaic, it does serve to fit the dreamy, 80’s aesthetic Flanagan appears to be going for.
Gradually, we realise she is haunted by her own reflection. At various intervals, a figure with orange spheres for eyes appears behind her, accompanied by jump-scare sound effects that really do push this narrative as spooky.
While these particular occurrences are perhaps the most recognisable of the genre, the ghosts of Bly are never that simple – the figure plaguing Dani is in fact her dead fiancé. Tortured by his death, Dani begins the series desperately covering mirrors, hell-bent on avoiding her reflection and the possibility that Eddie will force her to face eye to eye with her survivor’s guilt.
Cue Jamie, the (may I say) rather attractive lesbian gardener, who represents an antithetical ideology to that of the ghosts at the manor. She saves Dani metaphorically, by implementing this ideology within their own relationship. She does this by gradually allowing Dani to open up to her, while throwing in a speech here and there about the importance of letting go of guilt and trauma. There is also a great scene where Dani ever so subtly touches Jamie’s arm (this is tantamount to coming out in the context of the scene). Jamie responds with ‘Poppins, who knew?’ which did make me chuckle.
I have to say, the handling of these two characters and their sexualities is not only positive, but accurate and thoroughly well thought through for the time period they are existing in. Let’s not talk about the ending though, which many in the LGBT+ community have taken issue with – I don’t want to start a war.
Many reviewers have criticised Bly Manor; the series is accused of being slow, lengthy and over-casted. This is primarily due to the breadcrumb style narrative, which does get rather annoying at times. While these reviewers aren’t wrong, the general pace was not the thing that bothered me after the more introductory episodes. I think my biggest problem (other than the ridiculously plummy accents) is that while the themes of loss, grief and retrospection do create something of a thematic tapestry, there isn’t much to grab onto behind them.
I find myself wanting more. On many occasions, it feels as though the aesthetic atmosphere drives the narrative, rather than brilliant characters or plot. This is an unforgivable pitfall as it results in an attractive, sometimes spooky feel, with little substance beneath. This gets old pretty quickly too, as much of the series is based at Bly – you can only spend so long admiring the scenery while the actors float around doing relatively little.
Being that as it may, I would tentatively recommend Bly Manor, if my criticisms don’t turn you off entirely. Pedretti does a sterling job as Dani, and T’nia Miller as the housekeeper, in a perpetual state of denial, is sublime. There is a lot of good here, if you enjoy good WLW representation and some darn good mise en scène, go ahead and stream it.
The bottom line is, despite being somewhat jaded by the volume of dramas I consume, I watched Bly Manor again. And enjoyed it.