The Haunting of Bly Manor follows American au pair Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she takes up a job as a governess in a manor in an English countryside. The story is based on Henry James’ brilliant gothic novella, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and borrows elements from his other notable works as well. The plot, albeit confusing at times, flows smoothly through nine episodes and is held together by unique and layered characters. Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth (the cutest kids in web series history, I’m convinced) are fabulous in the roles of Flora and Miles Wingrave, the two troubled children that Dani is meant to look after.
In the midst of a bone chilling story that meanders through the unsettling recent events at Bly Manor and its disturbing past, we find out that Dani is a lesbian. And so begins the inevitable romance between her and Jamie (Amelia Eve, I’m swooning just writing this), who works as a gardener at the house.
There is a big difference between portraying a queer love story for the sake of it and actually incorporating it into the plot in a meaningful manner. We are at a point where the former has happened time and time again, and is simply not acceptable. LGBTQ+ characters are not Christmas ornaments that’ll get you an easy ‘woke’ pass. The main challenge before creator Mike Flanagan was to weave the romance into the horror without making it look tokenistic. He had managed this comfortably with Theo Crain (Kate Siegel, more swooning) in the show’s precursor, The Haunting of Hill House, and with Bly Manor, he has once again hit the nail on the head. What distinguishes this from some of the tepid attempts at representation that may come to mind is that the story could have had multiple opportunities for a heterosexual romance to take precedence over Dani and Jamie’s story – and yet, that does not happen. While this by itself is not really a reason to celebrate, I did take some guilty pleasure in it.
After watching the powerful portrayal of Theo Crain in The Haunting of Hill House, my expectations for the lesbian romance in this new season were set extremely high – especially since it is now at the centre of the plot. But just as it did in more or less all other aspects, Bly Manor matches up fiercely to its precursor. Dani and Jamie’s story is one of love, loss, letting go of the past, and standing by the one you love no matter what the odds are (seriously, like life threatening, ‘the ghosts in this house won’t leave us alone’ odds).
Perhaps if there is one shortcoming that still hurts a little, weeks after finishing the show, it is with Jamie. Despite all the stereotypes that The Haunting of Bly Manor challenges, Jamie does not move past her status as Dani’s love interest and an outsider watching the events at Bly Manor unfold. Her backstory is restricted to a few minutes in one episode, while characters like Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) and Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli) are a lot more fleshed out. While Jamie’s separation from the crux of the story seems to be a planned and intentional move, it is a little disappointing, considering how fascinating she is as a character. Whatever little we get to know of her through the episodes leaves us wanting a deeper, more comprehensive dive into Bly Manor’s bold, yet soft hearted gardener.
As one of the characters (I won’t tell you who, that’s a secret worth keeping) themselves says, The Haunting of Bly Manor is not a ghost story, it is a love story. If you’re going into this series expecting meaningless gore, cheap scares, and an easy plot, I recommend you change your expectations and watch it anyway. The show grabs you by the heart, tightens its grip through each episode, and leaves you with a deep, ringing ache. Every cast member radiates their own unique brilliance, and Mike Flanagan brings them together with the grace of an orchestra conductor. If you want to invest all your emotions in one series this year, let it be The Haunting of Bly Manor.