The Haunting of Bly Manor is certainly a different beast from its predecessor, and it’s entirely by design. Creator Mike Flanagan is back, but in a reduced capacity, directing only one episode out of nine, and handing the reins to a number of emerging directors in order to prod the boundaries of reality and dreams, to take risks and tell a new story. Above all, though, Bly Manor endeavours to explore another dimension to the fundamental question that was the heart of the first season: what is a ghost?
It’s 1987, and bright-eyed Dani (Victoria Pedretti) is hired by Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, with a valiant attempt at an English accent) to look after his niece and nephew (a delightful and scene-stealing pair, Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) at the remote Bly Manor. The children are orphans, cared for by the estate’s chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve), and housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller, particularly excellent). But the manor is shadowed by its dark history, which goes back centuries and most recently witnessed the eerie death of the previous au pair.
Filming wrapped in late February, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit and shuttered dozens of production sets around the United States, the series explores where blood ties end and found family begins. Each character comes to Bly for different reasons, but comes to trust and confide in one another, even as the house’s curse begins to take effect. Bly Manor also delves deep into how a toxic relationship can fester and poison the environment around it, using a light hand to sketch a portrait of doomed love’s diminishing returns. It’s as Flanagan says: “A great love story is a great ghost story. Falling in love is creating a ghost that will follow you for the rest of your life.”
Because of the subgenre switch, from Gothic horror to Gothic romance, it’s a sinister atmosphere, rather than an overtly frightening one, that pervades the season. But the manor, and the living denizens within, are bright, warm, and welcoming. The children, though a little strange in the way that kids in ghost stories often are, are winsome and whimsical. The characters often gather in the kitchen to cheerily cook dinner, and drink together around a sparking bonfire afterwards. It’s a far cry from the muted palette that coloured the menacing Hill House. But creator Mike Flanagan and producing partner Trevor Macy intended it that way. “We wanted it to be as open and inviting as possible,” Flanagan says, “so that it closes like a flytrap, very slowly.”
Bly Manor, like many anthology series before it, brings back several of last season’s standout troupers in entirely new roles. Pedretti, who played youngest sibling Nell Crain in Season 1, is back in shining form as Dani Clayton. How did she approach playing a new character in the same show? “Well, we dyed my hair,” she laughs, adding later that the two stories are so different that, “I did work kind of intuitively.” Thomas and Kate Siegel also return, as does a standout Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
This roving band of players are well-equipped to handle even the more convoluted of the narrative’s twists and turns. Their return, Thomas suggests, is based on a bond not unlike the one shared by the inhabitants of Bly Manor. “[Flanagan] is so well-prepared and lays everything out to you, as a performer… You feel safe, and there’s a trust that builds between the director and the actor in that case,” he says.
Whereas the first season left many of its mysteries unsolved, never explaining what drove the haunting at Hill House, Flanagan and his writers’ room chose this season to dive more into the lore of the new house, lending backstories and arcs to the spirits that lurk about Bly Manor. Those answered questions, ironically, can sometimes make things murkier, as the narrative occasionally spins itself out trying to explain the muddled rules of its own internal logic.
The haphazardly tangled world-building issues are occasionally compounded by characters operating on completely different wavelengths from one another. Whereas in Hill House the root of each character’s trauma was shared, at Bly Manor everyone has different goals, backgrounds, and struggles, and juggling these disparate storylines without intersection sometimes seems to overwhelm the writers.
Although the story can sometimes feel grasping rather than gripping, The Haunting of Bly Manor still takes you by the throat. There’s a reason that reading one of Henry James’ stories still elicits a tingle of fear today. The “haunted house” genre still has much to say to audiences, according to Flanagan.
“Houses have lives… and so there is this idea that they’re going to carry echoes of what’s coming there before [them],” he says. The unease of a set of dark stairs at three in the morning is universal and eternal, and it’s well worth taking a few hours to take a stroll down the winding staircase that is The Haunting of Bly Manor.
‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ will be available on Netflix from 9 October