Mike Flanagan does it again, combining low-key scares with poignancy in one of the most emotionally moving TV shows of 2020.
When we think of our own deaths (as many of us undoubtedly have in recent times), we don’t worry so much about not being here anymore. If anything, to some that may be a relief. We worry about being lost, a gradually fading figure in our loved one’s memories, the sounds of our voices, our faces, blurring into nothing. We become just a brief feeling, a sense, a vague figure in a forgotten dream. Mike Flanagan digs into the existential grief of that in The Haunting of Bly Manor, and it’s simply one of the most emotionally moving TV shows of the year. Stock up on Kleenex, because in addition to chills, mystery, and romance, the series, particularly in the second half of the season, offers several good, cleansing cries, in a way that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative.
Though much of the cast of 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House returns, Bly Manor is a wholly different story, loosely inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Victoria Pedretti (who may have the best “distressed” face on television right now) plays Dani Clayton, an American former teacher who’s come to England to seek work as a nanny. Henry Thomas, who is thankfully without the weird blue contact lenses he wore in Hill House that made him look like a vampire, is Henry Wingrave, a wealthy businessman who hires Dani to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Though he’s their legal guardian, Henry seems to want little to do with the day to day lives of the children, ordering Dani not to contact him unless there’s an emergency. That’s the least weirdest thing about this gig, as it turns out.
Though she’s prone to panic attacks, and has occasional visions of a shadowy man with glowing eyes, Dani takes the job, moving into Bly Manor, a place so far removed from the nearest town that it might as well be on the moon. “The whole town is one big gravity well, and it’s easy to get stuck here,” Bly Manor’s cook/chauffeur, Owen (Rahul Kohli) tells her, but despite that ominous warning, she’s greeted warmly by Owen, and the other two manor staff, housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), and gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). The children seem to welcome her too, and everything initially seems as normal as it possibly could be in an enormous house out in the middle of nowhere.
Nevertheless, a pall hangs over the entire house, thanks to the one-two punch of Flora and Miles’ parents dying, followed by the suicide of their last nanny, Miss Jessel (Tahira Sharif), who threw herself into a lake on the property after being abandoned by her lover. There’s also the matter of the children themselves — though their bizarrely mannered way of speaking (“How perfectly splendid!”) is admittedly kind of cute, Flora seems to lapse into fugue states and doesn’t remember what happens during them later. Miles sometimes just acts like a different person entirely, talking like an adult and staring unblinkingly at everyone with an unreadable (but not particularly pleasant) expression in his eyes.
When Flora makes Dani promise not to leave her room at night “So she doesn’t see you,” Dani initially attributes her and Miles’ strange behavior to trauma over the loss of their parents and Miss Jessel. It’s clear, however, given the frequent hang-up calls, mysterious muddy footprints, and the stranger (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) lurking around outside the house, that something else is going on, a spooky mystery bolstered by grief, longing, forbidden romance, and the cruelty of time.
The series, particularly in the second half of the season, offers several good, cleansing cries, in a way that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative.
Mike Flanagan may not be the Master of Suspense (not yet), but he’s a master, and more than anything else every single thing he sets up comes together with laser precision. Everything the characters experience, even the smallest detail, is eventually explained, in a way that’s so clever and satisfying that, like The Sixth Sense, it’ll make you want to go back and watch it again, just to see what you missed the first time. But where Flanagan could have simply dazzled the audience with twists and storytelling magic and left it at that, he takes it one step further and makes his characters fleshed out, human, the sum of their experiences, which is still something horror lacks far too often. We learn about their sorrows, their regrets, who they loved and who they’ve lost. Even the ostensible villain of the show is humanized, and even, at times, sympathetic. No monsters live in Bly Manor. It’s only people.
It helps that Flanagan’s cast is uniformly excellent, particularly T’Nia Miller as Hannah, warm, capable, and consumed with so much sadness it aches just to look at her. Everybody here is dealing with something, something that weighs heavily on them, and whereas in some TV shows it may come off as grim and plodding, here it just feels…right. Though we’re averse to admitting it, life is hard, and we cling to our losses, our betrayals and our sadness, perhaps more than we should, because to forget it means letting a little bit of ourselves go each time.
Because of the way everything eventually ties together, Bly Manor is best suited for binge watching. There’s not a single weak or superfluous episode – it starts out strong and only gets better from there. Episode 5 in particular is a real showstopper, and guaranteed to draw at least as much audience tears as when the tragic truth about the “Bent-Neck Lady” is revealed in Hill House. If that doesn’t do you in, then surely the last two episodes will offer the killing blow. What actually happens in the show is far less chilling than the questions it leaves you asking yourself, like what “gone” actually means. Whose memories will keep us from disappearing into the void forever?
An old-fashioned gothic horror-romance, with almost no gore, and no gratuitous sex or nudity, The Haunting of Bly Manor neatly checks off all the holiday viewing boxes. Like Hill House, it’s not terrifying, exactly, but it sets a chilling mood, one that makes looking at your own reflection a tense experience. It may also give you one heck of an existential crisis, particularly when you feel like you’ve been living the same day, and dreaming the same dream, over and over.
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres on Netflix October 9th.