Jamie: The wrong kind of love can fuck you up. [...] I don’t know why so many people mix up love and possession.
Dani: […] People do, don’t they. Mix up love and possession. I don’t think that should be possible. I mean they are opposites really, love and ownership.
At the end of The Haunting of Bly Manor, when Carla Gugino’s storyteller is revealed to be one of the main characters (if you hadn’t guessed, by the accent), looking back upon her time at Bly, telling the story to a party of wedding guests and a bride-to-be, the woman tells her that she introduced this tale incorrectly: It should not be called a ghost story, but a love story. The storyteller replies that perhaps she is correct, or else every love story is a ghost story if it is told the right way, from beginning to end.
Bly – house and grounds – is filled with ghosts created from the wrong kind of love. The thing about these specific haunted house stories is that they thrive on the idea of a place having a long history – this one goes way back, and we only learn about the origin story of Bly as a Haunted Manor in its penultimate episode, a gothic tale set in the 17th century. It will be interesting to see if Flanagan, in this anthology, will ever approach the more suburban idea of the haunted house story (like Poltergeist, or even Tana French’s Broken Harbour, a zombie subdivision horror story) – one in which the haunting hasn’t festered for quite so long, and acquired the patina of age. The conversation between Dani (Victoria Pedretti), the American au-pair to Bly’s two young children, Miles and Flora, and Jamie (Amelia Eve), the groundskeeper, sets the theme of the series. The wrong kind of love creates hungry ghosts, and they have haunted the inhabitants of Bly through the ages.
Possession – claiming ownership over someone, but also literal possession in the horror sense, taking over someone else’s body – features heavily. The anachronistic way in which The Haunting of Bly house unravels its own history is part of its beauty, but the seed of Bly’s ghosts is Viola (Kate Siegel), one of two sisters who take over Bly after the passing of their father. She marries, she gives birth to a daughter, and then she is struck by tuberculosis (“the lungs”, a plague doctor says), from which she proceeds to refuse to die for years. She holds on to life – furiously, raging against death, eventually becoming vengeful against her own sister just because she still has a full life to live. The possessive love in this tale isn’t really between Viola and her husband, or even Viola and her daughter – it’s between Viola and life, the thing she cannot let go. She holds on with sheer will, and continues to do so even after her own sister murders her (the storyteller reveals that the true motive isn’t mercy – but “enough”). Viola creates a “gravity well of will”, turning herself into the first ghost of Bly, a hungry ghost that takes life after life, including the sister who killed her. She possesses a chest of clothes and jewellery meant for her daughter, that her husband, horrified by the place and the way his life has turned out, sinks into Bly’s lake instead of taking it with him. It confines Viola to the grounds of Bly, and over the years, forgetting sets in (beautifully symbolised by Viola’s face becoming blurred, unrecognisable). She still vaguely, as a concept, suffers from the loss of her husband and child, the loneliness from the lack of their warmth when she was secluded from them before her death, but she no longer remembers them specifically. In the end, all that is left is rage against the living, and so many of them are met with murderous hands of the Lady in the Lake.
Told chronologically, the next love story that comes to an unhappy end is between Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) and his brother’s wife. Befitting the tropes of 19th century literature that The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on, the paternity of one of the two children in the story – Flora – becomes a festering wound in Henry’s relationship with his brother, once he realises that the timing doesn’t quite work out. To save his marriage, he banishes his brother from Bly and takes his wife to travel India (to repeat their honeymoon there). Tragically (and inexplicably – I am not sure if this is intended or not, but this leaves the idea open that a heartbroken and distraught Dominic Wingrave may have caused their deaths), they both die while overseas, leaving Henry alone in his grief and guilt, incapable to set foot in Bly. It’s interesting that he never does until the end of the story, almost as if his brother’s banishment held actual power, not just symbolical. This, like the question of whether the ghosts in Henry James’ novel are real or imagined, becomes a rather inconsequential distinction. Henry drowns his grief and his guilt in alcohol, and hires the first nanny for his niece and nephew – not yet Dani, but a young, ambitious law student named Rebecca Jessel.
And thus begins the second twisted love story. Rebecca falls in love with Henry’s assistant, Peter Quint, a man who deeply resents the class stratification that marks the difference between the staff of Bly and its owners. He rebels against it by stealing – or is forced to do so by a greedy mother blackmailing her son with his past. It’s a sordid tale, told in good part from other people’s perspectives so that it becomes difficult to comprehend Peter’s motives entirely. It’s not Bly’s greatest accomplishment, and at its worst reminds me of bit of how a different tale of manor-dwelling aristocrats dealt with the just-as-valid grievances of its lower class, Irish chauffeur. Peter wants to escape his life, into what he imagines to be a freer life across the sea, and he wants to take Rebecca with him, but they get tangled up in the rage of the lady of the lake, and ultimately doom each other. Rebecca understands the stratification as well as he does, and her becoming an au pair is an attempt to escape the fate that other female law students have suffered once working for older, sexist barristers – by forging a bond of mutual obligation with barrister Henry, she is building a career in an unconventional way. Unfortunately, she will never realise her dreams. Like Viola herself, even after his death Peter tries desperately to find a way out of the grounds of Bly that he hated so much he was alive. He finds that he can possess Miles, and he realises that the only way to be with Rebecca is if she dies too. He tricks her – literally possessing her to possess her, the very thing that Dani thought was so incomprehensible.
It serves as a cautionary tale as well, an act of violence that devalues any genuine love that may have existed between the two before this moment. Peter comes to regret it eventually, but in the context of the series, Peter’s and Rebecca’s love story turns into an example of what Dani and Jamie fear.
But before we get to them, and the unexpected love story that brightens this horrible year 2020, another sad one that I liked almost as much. It happens between Owen (a fantastic Rahul Kohli), Bly’s cook, and Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller, stunning), the housekeeper. Before we even know what is happening with Hannah, who often seems distant, like she isn’t all the way here, it is obvious that these two love each other, but haven’t had time yet to express their feelings to each other. Owen is caught up in his caring responsibilities for his mother, who has dementia. It’s the very reason why he has become the cook at Bly in the first place – a sous chef in France, he is now trying to stay close to her, and he never once complains about having lost his old life, instead seeing cooking for two fussy but lovely children as a challenge equal to that of haute cuisine. As much as Bly should be bleak, a dark place with a forbidden wing entirely too large for the few people who live there, Owen brightens the place, and consistently creates a family that contrasts with the darkness that looms at night. It is only later that we find out why Hannah appears so distant and lost – she is one of Bly’s ghosts herself, murdered by Peter Quint in Miles’ body for coming too close to the truth, now travelling again and again back to a moment in her life that she does not just relieve, but change each time she experiences it. In a different conversation with Owen, she tries to find a word that describes these foundational moments that life has, but fails. For Hannah, it is her interview when she hired Owen, a moment that when she goes back to it changes into discussions about deep fears, identity, and the theology of Thomas Merton – specifically, transcendence achieved through the loss of memory, which within the conversation is a concept that Owen applies to his own mother’s dementia, but in the context of the show, applies to the Lady of the Lake: who for now, as Viola, has remnants left of her love for her daughter and her rage against her sister, which causes all of the misery happening in Bly. The tragedy of Hannah’s and Owen’s love story is that it is over before it can begin, because once they are ready to leave together, to begin a life together, Hannah is already no longer able to create any kind of future for herself, is already bound to Bly just as Viola’s other victims are.
But then there is the love story that is nothing like any of these sad tales, and it stands out here because it so utterly unexpected. It is the story of Dani, the American au-pair, who is fleeing her own grief and guilt as far as she can, and is still haunted by it. The work that Victoria Pedretti does here – creating a character that is so loving and yet firm with the children, that is so cheerful and yet is dealing with her grief so quietly – is absolutely amazing. It takes the series a long time to reveal what the pair of broken glasses and the reflection of the man with the glowing lenses mean: a ghost story of a different sort, also told from beginning to end, except as per Emily Dickinson, one need not be a chamber or house to be haunted. Dani was engaged to be married to her childhood friend, who, and he even admits this in his speech, wore her down with repeated propositions. It all happens before Dani even has time to figure herself out, or to conceptualise herself outside of this relationship that she has been in literally since her childhood. While she becomes increasingly more agitated about the wedding preparations (and spends a moment to long pondering a woman fitting her dress on her), she finally decides to break off the engagement days before the wedding – in a car, after a dinner – and her fiancé steps outside, upset, right into incoming traffic. The glowing lenses are the headlights of the car, reflected in his glasses, right before it hit him. Maybe it’s worth considering that this is the exact thing that makes Henry Wingrave hire her in the end – their shared grief and guilt.
And then Jamie bursts right into that grief – a sarcastic, slouching gardener, who somehow knows exactly what to say, who understands her grief (it takes a long time to know her story), who loves living things so much because her father spent his whole life surrounded by the darkness and dead stone of a coal mine. Dani spends a lot of time hanging on to her guilt, materialising as her fiancé, appearing whenever she allows herself to want what she has always wanted – but then, Jamie helps her to let go. She lets go of the broken glasses in the same bonfire around which they – this made family – congregate after Owen’s mother’s death.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a ghost story because it is a love story – because it tells the tale from beginning to end. It almost ends there – with Dani dying in the same spot that so many others have, killed by the Lady in the Lake – but instead, she does what comes to her instinctually. She saves Flora, another girl that the Lady thinks may be the child she lost, that she may possess to fight against a loneliness that will never cease. She invites Viola – the Lady of the Lake – in – it’s not a violent possession, but a willing one, and it breaks Viola’s gravity well. It releases her ghosts, and ends the cycle of violence that has dominated Bly.
This is a selfless act, one that she later finds out only continues to exist in her and Dani’s memory. Miles and Flora, blissfully, have forgotten her sacrifice, and live a normal life, far away from what haunted their childhoods (Flora, perhaps is even getting married…). It is a hard truth to learn for Dani – because as much as this second part of the final episode is a beautiful love story (I think it is valid to call this a flowershop AU, to assume that Mike Flanagan was aware of what he was doing with this), it is also a fate that is now haunting her. She knows that one day, she will have to return to Bly for a final time, and take The Lady’s place in the lake. Jamie and her begin their life together – a happy life, a full one, filled with sunshine and plants in every single scene – and they are given years, enough for Jamie to think that they might be safe, as much as she insists that everyone really only gets to have one day at a time, if you think about it. They love fully, even though Dani begins to see the Lady in reflections, catches glimpses of her as a memento mori of what will eventually have to happen. But this also goes back to the conversation they had at the beginning – that true love should be the opposite of ownership, that a closed fist grasps nothing while an open hand has the entire world.
None of their togetherness is devalued by Dani having to go back, and taking the place. Jamie eventually rages, and if this story was hopeless, or circular, the cycle would begin anew – Dani would pull Jamie into the water with her to have her forever, and the ghosts of Bly would begin to accumulate again. Instead – because this is Dani – she never fulfils her wish. She never come through the doors which she leaves a crack open for her. She forgets – transcendence, memory and identity erased – and becomes a peaceful ghost instead of a hungry one. It’s still a ghost story, but not that kind of ghost story anymore – Dani walks the grounds, but she does not haunt, she does not stalk, she only exists in the memory of the woman who loved her.
2020, created by Mike Flanagan, starring Victoria Pedretti, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tahirah Sharif, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas, Carla Gugino, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker.