The Haunting of Bly Manor is not very good.
That’s partially because the source material itself is unremarkable, but the creative team behind Bly is not blameless. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a baffling text to parse, let alone adapt for television, but we expected Mike Flanagan, creator of the mesmerizing Haunting of Hill House, to deliver something less overwhelming than the cluttered yet listless Bly.
While Netflix’s take on The Haunting of Hill House looked almost nothing like the original text (indeed, wild departures are a rite of passage for Hill House adaptations), Bly and Screw have much more in common. Our central character is the new governess at Bly Manor, and her charges Miles and Flora, with their deceased parents and absent uncle. Mrs. Grose, Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint all appear in the novella, portrayed similarly on screen as they are on the page. There are a handful of other unnamed employees in the novella, which likely gave rise to characters like Owen and Jamie in the show.
So much of this season is pulled straight from a bucket of Horror 101 tropes that Flanagan seemed to be above.
It’s a tough predicament to be in, with enough characters for a show to get off the ground but very little known about them. Bly tries to build out Screw‘s painfully flat characters with clunky backstory, which only underscores how two-dimensional they were to begin with and remain after a season’s worth of writing. While the 19th-century ink-and-paper version of Miles and Flora read as appropriately precocious for their station at the time, putting their words and actions feel wildly discordant set in the 1980s and come off creepier than any ghost we see in the whole season.
The writers build out Dani, Mrs. Grose, and the children, but to what end? Is there a point to the affection between Owen and Mrs. Grose, or did we spend a whole hour on their shallow backstory only to hint that there is something supernatural at work, after six episodes of nonevents? There is no big revelation about Rebecca and Peter’s relationship either, other than that they probably had amazing sex in every room of the house and the ghosts were totally chill about it.
Worst of all, the show gives the least attention to Jamie, who ends up being our narrator and the emotional anchor of the story. This is the show that gave us the magnificent Theo Crain, now returning to spit on her grave with a queer character whose only traits are being a working class Northern English gardener and the romantic partner in whom she places all faith.
A ghostly-thin story
In Mashable’s review of Bly Manor, entertainment reporter Ali Foreman describes the season as bloated by the weight of its premise and predecessors. And this is true, because ultimately that barrage of backstory is meaningless. We meet the Wingrave parents, but they are no more three-dimensional than anyone else, nor even sanctified with as much commitment as the mother in Season 1. None of the added detail drives Bly‘s characters or story. Think of Dani’s flashback episode, for instance, an utter yawn and now the third instance of Pedretti playing a tragic widow in a Netflix thriller — we forget it as soon as the episode ends, and it never comes back.
Episode eight is devoted entirely to divulging the mysteries of the Manor, which are similarly incredibly mundane; the house is stalked by a Victorian ghost after some family and boy drama, and even that is somehow presented as boringly as possible. Viola is a murderous murderee seeking revenge and reunion with her daughter, but the version of her haunting the grounds actually couldn’t give less of a shit! She’s forgotten her life and walks around apropos of nothing, and people are getting murdered I guess. Like so much else this season, it’s a storyline pulled straight from a bucket of Horror 101 tropes that Flanagan seemed to be above — and viewers certainly deserve more.
This is why Bly‘s finale is so deflating. Where Hill House gave us characters and story to actually invest in, Bly mucks up the pacing of its emotional beats, often leaving untapped potential. Hill House is surely less haunting with a rewatch, when you know that the ghosts can’t hurt you, but Bly tries to pull the same “it’s-fine-now” ending without building the same stakes. All the big reveals happen within minutes of each other; even Dani’s life-saving “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us” is woefully anticlimactic, because the phrase was introduced all of 12 minutes previously as was the villain against whom she deploys it.
Flanagan showed a flare for nonlinear storytelling in Hill House, but even that timeline wasn’t always straightforward. In Bly, the jumps between the present and barely-distant past are near impossible to follow. For a time we can count on the presence of either Rebecca or Dani to tell us when we are, but even that anchor disappears eventually. Grose recites Flora and Miles’ ages like they mean anything at all, as if she herself isn’t untethered in time and space (the first mildly interesting revelation in the season, which occurs beyond the halfway point).
Both show and novel begin with the events at Bly being recounted to an unfamiliar audience years later, and in this aspect the series does slightly improve upon its source. Turn of the Screw never returns to its unnamed narrator or the group ingesting this story in their time — the novel simply ends, so abruptly that you wonder if James didn’t find the rest lying around his home some years later and simply decide to die with the secret.
Bly comes back to the story circle, but in a fairly pedestrian fashion. The fact that Jamie is our narrator is obvious from the first episode thanks to Carla Gugino’s attempt at a Northern English accent (something which indicates that she is above a dialect coach but not above watching Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey). As a result, the finale’s character reveals don’t hit at all. Gugino’s narration weighs down the entire season and often garners sympathy for the party guests who have surely dozed off listening to her tell her life story. There was a middle ground here, somewhere between the Henry James and Mike Flanagan approaches, and it will remain another mild mystery of the house until someone returns to this text in the future.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.