“Dead doesn’t mean gone.”
What makes Netflix’s new series The Haunting of Bly Manor absolutely petrifying is the way it handles death and loss. After unnerving the world with his 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan lives up to the expectations by taking it a notch higher in terms of complicating the human psyche and relationships with this new series. Set in a quaint fictional village named Bly and is focused on the various events that occur in Bly Manor over a certain period. Bly Manor, which stands majestic and proud amidst the lush greenery, silently witnessing the lives of the people residing there. The series follows the journey of a young American woman, Dani Clayton, nursing her wounds, travelling to Bly to look after two orphans, Miles and Flora Wingrave, and reside with them as their au-pair. As soon as Dani reaches Bly, the young and intriguing Flora mysteriously greets her by saying “you’re expected”, which is an unpleasant reminder of Olivia Crain’s ghost greeting Nellie before prompting her to commit suicide in The Haunting of the Hill House. It ominously predicts Dani’s fate, while preparing the audience for some spine-chilling, blood-curdling psychological rampage. Flanagan’s nearly perfect portrayal of the human mind grappling with the complex emotions of love and loss takes the audience for a rough rollercoaster ride that scars and heals them at the same time.
Bly Manor tackles the subject of grief and loss as well as love quite maturely and, at times, they cannot be distinguished from one another. The show is built on a series of flashbacks that give an insight into the life of the character in question, and the first pangs of love and loss are felt by the very first inmates of Bly with wealthy sisters, Viola and Perdita Willoughby, who are entwined in a triangle of love, jealousy and insecurity to win the fancies of the handsome Arthur. Although Viola gets married to Arthur, she is constantly threatened by her sister’s presence. Suffering from tuberculosis, she is separated from her husband and daughter, which fans her doubts even more. Viola’s fear of being replaced and forgotten, of becoming nothing but a story, in the end, is echoed by the other characters as well. Perdita liberates her sister by ‘mercy’ killing her, but ends up trapping Viola’s spirit in the silks she bequeathed to her daughter. Viola’s spirit is trapped in a vicious cycle of waking, walking and sleeping which portrays her unbridled anxiety. She cannot rest unless her inheritance is passed on to her daughter. Viola hopes to reunite with her someday, yet her hopes are shattered once the chest is thrown away into the Lake. Determined to bring back her daughter, Viola’s spirit roams the lonely corridors of Bly, taking captive all the people who are unfortunate enough to stand in her way.
A similar love triangle is noticed in the Wingrave’s, where Dominic and Charlotte are married to each other and have two beautiful children, Miles and Flora. Unbeknownst to the husband, Flora is the love-child of Charlotte and his brother, Henry, who tries their level best to keep it under wraps. To salvage their marriage and to rekindle the romance, Lord and Lady Wingrave take a trip to India, during which an accident causes their untimely death. Devastated, Henry is in denial, and his regrets take shape as his doppelganger who taunts and mocks him throughout. It prompts Henry to live and relive the moments that bring pain to him. It is a manifestation of the suppressed guilt and the desire to reunite with his estranged brother and take back Charlotte in his arms. He distances himself from the children as he feels responsible for their parents’ death. He submerges himself in work and whiskey, constantly drowning in lament and sorrow.
The trope of guilt and loss looms large throughout the film. Ghosts of the bygone times haunt the characters as they try and cope with their troubled past and overwhelming subconscious. Dani, who subconsciously holds herself accountable for Edmund, her fiancé’s death is haunted by his ghost wearing brightly illuminated glasses. Dani encounters him first during his funeral; funerals are more of a coping mechanism for the living than a tribute to the dead. Ridden with shame and guilt, as well as not having her sexuality, which is the elephant in the room, compels Dani to flee to the USA; Edmund’s ghost and her memories follow her. However, love conquers this fear. While kissing Jamie, Dani initially sees Edmund, however, he soon disappears. Loving Jamie gives Dani clarity, slowly removing the traces of regret and despair from her head.
“To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.”
Each character loves someone deeply and ends up losing in the process. The previous au-pair and Dani’s predecessor, Miss Rebecca Jessel, falls in love with the dashing Peter Quint, Henry Wingrave’s assistant, oblivious to his manipulative behaviour and sinister motives. She ends up losing her life in the process, where Peter promises to get united with her, yet ends up killing her, trapping her along with him at Bly Manor forever. Juxtaposed to his scheming self, Rebecca is kind and compassionate and wants to protect the residents of Bly Manor. She is quite an interesting character for at the start, she is extremely passionate and ambitious, which catches Quint’s interest. Her desire to succeed is misinterpreted by him as he thinks she, too, would be interested in duping her employers to start life afresh in the United States of America, loving him deeply costs Rebecca her reputation as well as her life- she is trapped at Bly Manor, slowly fading away, one day at a time.
“We can’t count on the past. We think we have it trapped in our memories, but memories fade. We could fade at any time.”
Owen gravely states this while they honour the dead by hosting a bonfire the night after his mother dies. This sombre utterance surely sends chills down one’s spine as they realise that in the end, the lives they live have no meaning as they turn mere stories and are, at times, forgotten, or worse, replaced. The opening credits of the series introduce the characters and slowly show their faces disappearing from the portraits, signifying the same. Memories keep the dead alive; once memories fade, the dead fade away as well. Hannah Grose, the housekeeper, who is probably the most interesting yet tragic characters, is later revealed to have died long before. Miles, possessed by the vengeful Peter Quint, pushes her into the well, causing her neck to break, killing her instantly. It is teased in the previous scenes where Hannah, absent-minded and lost in her thoughts, refuses to eat or drink; the art of eating somehow separates the living from the dead. Hannah is still visible as her spirit roams Bly Manor aimlessly, unaware of her death. The broken neck is again unique to Flanagan who had introduced the Bent-Neck Lady in Hill House, who haunted Nellie Crain and pushed her to the point of losing sanity. Hannah suffers the most- she loves the cook Owen, yet is never able to unite with him as they are kept apart by the threshold of life and death. From being his ‘anchor’, she slowly becomes his ‘burden’, her memories unbearably heavy yet fragile.
Loss of memory is quite significant as it is willingly adopted as a coping mechanism. Flora and Miles have no recollection of Bly as they grow up, which helps them process their grief and sorrow. The ghosts of the past no longer haunt them as they are replaced by the burdens of the new world they are brought to. Dani who sacrificed herself to save Flora ends up marrying Jamie, aware of her fate. Love helps her fight Viola’s ghost for quite a long time till it overpowers her completely. As Dani becomes the new Lady of the Lake, she liberates the spirits held captive at Bly. She remains alive in Jamie’s memories. Jamie is later revealed to be the narrator at the wedding, and though she promises the listeners a ghost story, it turns out to be a ‘love story’ as pointed out by Flora, now a young bride. Dani is Jamie’s ‘moonflower’; Jamie leaves her apartment door ajar, hoping that Dani would come back someday, despite knowing her beloved is dead.
The title promises the audience a ghost story, yet turns out to be a heart-wrenching story of love and loss- the ones who love you never really leave you. Loving indicates losing; as the audience plunge into the characters’ psyche, they are engulfed by inexplicable emotions that state that to love is to mourn the impending loss of the loved ones. The audience fears the past and is afraid of being ‘tucked away in memory’ after death where they shall live as a mere recollection of glorious times. All the characters are embroiled in the usual fiasco of love and loss. It is ‘perfectly splendid’ because it proves how every love story is a ghost story, how the memories of loved ones will haunt someone to the end of their lives. After nine episodes of tragic backstories and grieving characters, with a sweet love stint, the audience can feel their hearts bleed for Jamie’s unfaltering love, for Dani’s unwavering courage, for Hannah’s disastrous end, for Rebecca’s fateful love, for Viola’s shattered dreams, and Charlotte’s catastrophic choices. The women of Bly embody love in different forms- Viola is a possessive lover, Charlotte is an infidel, Hannah never confesses, Rebecca sacrifices herself being involved in a forbidden affair, while Dani and Jamie find solace in one another. They also showcase loss in different formats. In the end, the series conveys the concluding message quite convincingly- it was never about the ghosts, but about the fear of loving and being lonely, the ‘perfectly splendid’ terror of roaming the grounds of Bly aimlessly, mourning over the loss of loved ones, while being aware of one being lonely and forgotten.
“People do, don’t they? Mix up love and possession. I don’t think that should be possible. They’re opposites really: love and ownership.”