NOTE: Mild spoilers for ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor.’
I remember two things about The Haunting of Hill House after watching it two years ago. One, the series wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined it would be. Two, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s performance as Luke Crain blew me away.
Admittedly, that isn’t much to work with heading into a follow-up series. Luckily for me and perhaps some others, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a wholly separate entity. The two shows share cast members and crew and a score by The Newton Brothers, but their stories aren’t connected. You could enter creator Mike Flanagan’s world of spooks and frights without missing a beat.
The Haunting of Bly Manor takes us back in time and across the pond to 1987 London, where a young teacher named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) has become the au pair to two young children, Flora and Miles, living on an expansive estate. The titular Bly Manor and its young charges have been marked by tragedy: the children lost their parents and their previous au pair within two years. Dani is greeted by a small staff: housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper (Amelia Eve). As the title suggests, other guests in the house are determined to make the lives of the living as difficult, or rather, confounding, as possible.
“Confounding” describes the first three-episode stretch of Bly Manor well. Like its predecessor, the show does a lot of table-setting before getting to the horror’s source, or what it means to reflect. Yes, the jump scares will make you jump, and that ominous score will send shivers up and down your spine. But when you’re trying to determine the haunted house’s rules and the roles the tenants play within it, it can make for some puzzling viewing at first.
One of the most significant sources of confusion early on is with the two children. The show tries to have it both ways, presenting Flora and especially Miles as either Children of the Corn prototypes or awkward-yet-harmless siblings, often with the same episode. The second episode deals with whether or not Miles is a sociopath in training. While the guessing game about their motives works in theory and raises the spooky stakes, it doesn’t truly define who these two kids are, and whether or not we should be afraid of them.
Bly Manor’s gears start moving when the spotlight shifts to the adults in the asylum, beginning with the fourth episode. Here, Flanagan starts to unveil the show’s emotional underpinnings, as he did with Hill House. This time around, the ugly conflation of loss, grief, and guilt – past and present – drives the characters and their individual stories.
Some stories are more affecting than others. Owen gives a heartrending speech about losing his mother to dementia in the fourth episode. Hannah’s dedication to the household is laid out beautifully and with shocking consequences in the fifth. Meanwhile, Dani’s reasons for abandoning her life in America to escape her ghost lack the same thorough consideration. What works better for her character is the sweet and tender romance she develops with Jamie, keeping her tethered as the house goes completely off the rails. Their relationship is far more consequential to the series than it initially appears, with an ending profoundly moving in its sweet melancholy.
Bly Manor finds its groove in later episodes. The frights and the plot mesh better once we understand why Bly Manor is the way it is, and there are some fascinating mechanics at play that explain past behaviors, especially “tucking in.” However, some things still don’t work. Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the roguish valet who runs away with the family’s money and the heart of Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the former au pair, is a disappointment. His motivations are murky, and while he is a monster by all accounts, the show insists on garnering him sympathy, with a horrifying childhood no less. Less despicable but more pointless is Henry (Henry Thomas), the children’s uncle and Peter’s boss. He also has a somewhat tragic backstory that explains his absence from their lives, and while it fits in thematically, it adds little to the plot itself.
Whatever the plot hiccups, Bly Manor has a uniformly strong cast to weather through them. Victoria Pedretti, who’s found a stable home on Netflix with Hill House and You, plays the part of Dani with dollops of skepticism and toughness that make her more formidable than the final girl archetype. Despite his challenging character, Oliver Jackson-Cohen is as brilliant as expected, finding wells of irresistible charisma even in Peter’s most despicable acts (of which there are plenty). The whole cast has affecting moments throughout, but Rahul Kohli and T’Nia Miller, in the fourth and fifth episodes respectively, give incredibly strong performances that feel particularly worthy of supporting awards attention.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a bit rougher around the edges compared to Hill House. It’s not quite as scary, and some plot and character work aren’t fully baked, but Mike Flanagan once again succeeds in pulling through the emotional threads for a resonant study of the ghosts that come with grief. It’s a beautiful construction, even if built on shakier ground.