Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is, by its own overt declaration, a love story rather than a ghost story. That’s not true, of course: there are plenty of ghosts in The Haunting of Bly Manor – even more than its predecessor, if we’re being honest with each other, to varying degrees of success. It’s a strange, mixed affair, and one the show’s self-proclaimed premise doesn’t exactly fit – The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s ghost stories are far and away, its most satisfying, offering a complexity of character and thought the rest of the second season often lacks in critical moments.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a fascinating remix… It doesn’t all work, but there’s beauty to be found in the aspiration.
It is a byproduct of the show’s relative freedom; where The Haunting of Hill House remixed and expanded on a single story, The Haunting of Bly Manor takes elements from The Turn of the Screw, but offers itself much more freedom in terms of creating characters and plots whole cloth. This often gives the season – which follows Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a young teacher, as she runs from personal tragedy to a strange house in England – a much larger feel, for better or worse (it also helps the story takes place across a 200-year period, rather than the 30 or so years Hill House focuses on).
This widening of the lens gives Bly Manor (of which Flanagan only wrote/directed the first episode) a much different scope, in turn transforming the show’s emotional rhythms. At times, it is overcrowded to a fault; the third episode, “The Two Faces, Part One” concerns a character from Dani’s past who is never revisited, despite being a critical part of her character’s arc, both in terms of narrative and character.
There’s just not a lot of time to dig into a single concept: from weird children to petty thieves and misguided young hearts, to broken families and a single woman’s personal plight, The Haunting of Bly Manor is extraordinarily busy at times, which leads to a lot of plot points and characters messily banging into each other as the season inevitably begins racing towards its conclusion (the piss-poor pacing plaguing the Too Much TV era rears its head, even in the most prestige-iest of Netflix’s series).
In those moments, The Haunting‘s emotional tenor is kind of fascinating; the ancillary relationships are so much more realized in this season, finding space between the archetypal characters both seasons have made their bedrocks. Stories of lost love, or a victim of a selfish fate, ultimately have a lot more emotional weight than the stories of the Wingrave children, who kind of sputter along until the final episode, filling in the spaces between The Haunting of Bly Manor getting in its obligatory “shock” scares and marketably ‘spooky’ moments in early hours. When The Haunting of Bly Manor is focused on those stories – or, in the finale, an affecting whiplash through 30 years of Dani’s life – it fulfills its promise as a haunting love story, rather than the shlocky, ghost-filled affair that strangely became the reputation of its fantastic first season.
Unfortunately, The Haunting of Bly Manor never finds a way to put it all together; there are fantastic individual elements throughout, but there’s never a neat harmony found between the many different threads weaved into the narrative – a problem that could’ve neatly been solved by centering the season on a different character (*cough* Hannah Grose should’ve been the main character *cough*). Without giving away the goose for those who haven’t seen it, Dani’s story is only interesting in fits and coughs; Hannah’s story forms the entire emotional foundation of the season, no more apparent than the surge in quality once her story becomes a fulcrum for Dani’s character (it helps T’Nia Miller is absolutely phenomenal in the role, catalyzing on the momentum built by her few brief, intriguing appearances on Sex Education).
There’s also the ending, which requires a few too many sleights of hand to feel be either satisfying or deeply poignant. Credit where credit is due; Carla Gugino and The Haunting of Bly Manor both go for it in the final hour, but those last reveals are eye-rollingly obvious, and overtly concealed from the audience in ways that are equally goofy and embarrassing. It’s not even a bad ending, really; but considering the emotional roller coaster of the first eight hours (WHY DID THIS HAVE TO BE NINE HOURS), the melancholic “surprise” it aims for in “The Beast in the Jungle” doesn’t really hit, outside of the deeply unsettling metaphor Dani embodies in the final hour.
The Haunting of Bly Manor, conceptually, is a fascinating remix of what The Haunting of Hill House tried to achieve (both in terms of content and the wildly different performances it asks from returning actors); that alone makes this second season worth viewing as a creative exercise (especially episode eight, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes”). It doesn’t all work, but there’s beauty to be found in the aspiration – and when it does, it arguably hits more poignant emotional notes than the OG series did, which is what makes The Haunting of Bly Manor a worthwhile watch for audiences, and not just broken-brain academics like myself.