By Mathew Tomlinson
On October 9, Netflix premiered The Haunting of Bly Manor, the much-awaited sequel to 2018’s smash hit The Haunting of Hill House by creator/director Mike Flanagan. Season one’s Hill House, inspired by author Shirley Jacksons 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name, followed the Crain’s, a family of seven who moved into an old mansion in Massachusetts called Hill House in 1992. The family was soon beset by a ghostly phenomenon and tragedies that reverberated through their lives, culminating in another tragedy in 2018, which forced them to return and face the demons of their past. The show was praised for its character development, tone, and deep underlying themes, and made stars of some of its cast, many of whom return for the second iteration, albeit in different roles.
Bly Manor, Hills spiritual successor rather than a direct sequel,isloosely based on the works of Henry James, particularly his 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw. Flanagan takes us across the Atlantic and back in time to England in 1987. Dani Clayton (portrayed by Hill House star Victoria Pedretti) is a troubled American teacher who takes a job as an au pair for two children in a charming manor in the English countryside. The catch? The young children, Miles and Flora Wingrave are orphans, and their most recent au pair Rebecca Jessel recently died in tragic and mysterious circumstances.
Upon entering the grounds of Bly Dani is introduced to the Manors inhabitants. There’s Hannah, the housekeeper. Owen, the witty cook. The pretty but abrasive gardener Jaime. And the children. Flora, the younger, is kind and quaint. Miles, the elder sibling, appears well mannered but quickly starts to show fickle behavior. Bly stays true to season one’s format with each episode focusing on different characters and their points of view as events unfold. But while season one focused on the siblings and elements of family, suicide, and addiction as the characters coped, seasons two brings a varied but charming group of characters with their own trials. Owen quips and makes puns, Flora pronounces in an English accent that things here and there are “perfectly splendid”, and Dani gets to know the house. The dark aspects of the house begin to appear quite quickly and give the characters something to rally around.
There are also some stylistic differences in Bly. Season one was often frightening and at times terrifying. Bly is certainly frightening and disturbing at points, but not as relentless and trauma inducing as the first season. In season one we are quickly enmeshed in a family unit that feels immediately close, whereas in Bly, we must get to know a group of strangers as unfamiliar with each other as we are. For some, this might give Bly Manor less immediate appeal and excitement, but there are big payoffs as the season continues. Pedretti’s character, Nel in Hill House, was a thoroughly tragic character who often felt like a victim. Dani, by contrast, is timid at times and haunted by her past. She struggles with her own identity, but is also driven and shows immense bravery as she struggles to uncover the mysteries of Bly Manor and protect the children while more and more cryptic figures emerge. Pedretti portrays her struggles beautifully with emotion and tact. The supporting characters are interesting and effective, and by midseason form a coherent nucleus.
Each of the characters deals with their own traumas. There are recurring themes of lost love and letting go which force the viewer to reconcile with their own losses and mortality, which tie intrinsically into the nature of the ghosts and specters of Bly. One character remarks that every ghost story is a love story, which is in step with many of the great gothic horrors and romances. In this way, Bly Manor captures the feel of its source materials.
Bly Manor might ring as slow and unexciting, but for those who enjoyed Hill Houses rich underlying messages and character development, Bly Manor is a poignant tale that strikes deeply while still offering its share of scares.