By the ninth and final episode of Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, there are some things that have been made clear. We know that Hannah Grose, the housekeeper at Bly, was actually a ghost. We know that both Peter Quint and Rebecca Jessel died and that their ghosts tried, unsuccessfully on purpose in Rebecca’s case, to be invited into the bodies of young Flora and Miles so they could remain a couple in a corporeal sense. Which, by the way, is pretty gross. (Peter: “I would like to be with you for all of eternity … in the body of a young boy while you are in the body of his little sister.” And here you thought it was creepy when Cher fell for her former stepbrother in Clueless.)
Thanks to the lengthy flashback in episode eight, we also know that the ghostly curse on Bly Manor emanates from Viola Willoughby, who owned the estate centuries earlier and suffered for years from a lung disease while quarantining (!) from the rest of her family. (Bly Manor really gets 2020). Long story super-short — you can read the episode eight recap for more details — Viola is the horrifying faceless Lady in the Lake who killed Peter. She’s the Casper-in-chief who haunts the place and, considering her willingness to drag Dani the au pair by the neck, she’s not up for resting in peace.
We know all this by the beginning of the finale, which delivers the showdown between the forces of life, represented primarily by Dani, and those of death, a.k.a. Viola, we’ve been primed to expect. That showdown comes to a head when Viola attempts to take young Flora down into the lake with her, a moment that frankly should have prompted a bit more kicking and thrashing from Flora. (The kid screams, sure. But I’ve seen more panicked squirming from little girls who don’t want to sit in the shopping cart at Target.)
Just when Flora’s perfectly splendid little head looks destined to sink, a desperate Dani shouts out the words she heard Peter and Rebecca say while trying to assume control of Flora and Miles: “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us.” Those words cast a spell that bonds Viola’s spirit to Dani, while breaking the spell that hangs over Bly Manor. Afterward, even though she and Jamie, the manor’s gardener and Dani’s girlfriend, leave Bly, move to a town in Vermont, and build a nice, peaceful life together, Dani never shakes the idea that Viola will eventually come to usher her to an early death.
This is the part of the Bly Manor conclusion that is the most measured, interesting, and heartbreaking. It is eerie and sad on a literal level, to watch Dani looking into filled bathtubs or water pitchers and seeing a reflection of the melted wax candle that is Viola’s ghostly face. But in a metaphorical sense, the agony of having that fate hang over her head, to come true at an unspecified date, is not so different from being someone with a debilitating physical or mental disease. Anyone who has been in that position may relate to Dani in these moments, since they, too, try to press on with life while knowing their time could be cut short.
Horror films and shows work on much deeper levels when, underneath all the gory, ghoulish stuff, there is suffering that resembles the actual human suffering of everyday existence. While most of us don’t have a Viola jumping out at us while we do the dishes, many people are haunted by the idea that death could come for them unexpectedly one day. That’s especially true right now, in the middle of a pandemic. Making those connections makes these scenes more chilling, especially once Dani decides to go back to Bly, end her life, and join Viola at the bottom of the lake.
Dani knew her own early demise was inevitable, that she was married to that fate. The fact that Dani is played by Victoria Pedretti, who was Nell in The Haunting of Hill House, drives home that inevitability, since Nell also ended her life with the assistance of a ghostly mother, and happened to be the sister of Theo, portrayed by Kate Siegel, who took on the role of Viola. The Haunting seasons tell separate stories, obviously. But just as it pays to search each frame of this series for hidden ghosts, once can find hints about this season’s events slyly planted in the previous one.
The very end of the Bly Manor finale brings us back to where it began, in the year 2007, where a mysterious woman played by another Hill House alum, Carla Gugino, has been narrating the lengthy story of Bly during the aftermath of a wedding rehearsal dinner. By the way, imagine sucking up an entire event by recapping the equivalent of an entire Netflix series! Who does this?
Anyway: If it isn’t already clear during that scene, the wedding visually confirms that Gugino is an older version of Jamie and the wedding is Flora’s, who is now all grown up and marrying Mark from The Room.
This is one of the details in this “aha!” of a twist that prevents it from landing as gracefully as it could have. During the wedding, a grown-up Miles is there, as is an aged Uncle Henry, uncle to Flora and Miles, and Owen, the cook at Bly Manor who also got the hell away from there and moved to Paris. All of them, like Jamie, are played by different actors than the ones who took on the characters earlier in the series. For a second, this may take you out of the story because, aside from the children, why couldn’t the same actors have played these parts, just in aging makeup? The obvious answer is that it would ruin the twist at the end because we would have already seen the actors in the very first scenes and immediately recognized their younger faces in the flashbacks to the 1980s.
On one hand, that makes sense. On the other, it feels like a bit of a cheat. There are other details that don’t quite ring true either, like the fact that Flora no longer has a trace of a British accent. Now she’s as American as Emily in Paris. Gugino’s accent doesn’t sound at all like Amelia Eve, who plays younger Jamie, which, again, only makes sense because if Gugino had tried to sound more like Eve, it would have risked ruining the reveal of the identities of the people at the wedding.
The only explanation that might bridge these inconsistencies a bit is this: that Dani’s return to the lake enabled Viola to more fully lay to rest and that, in turn, changed the people still on Earth whose lives she affected. In a previous scene, when Jamie and Dani connect with Owen at his restaurant, he mentions that Henry, Miles, and Flora, with whom he remains in touch, don’t talk about what happened at Bly Manor. Miles and Flora barely remember it, other than as a place where they spent summers as children. That explains why the grown Miles and Flora don’t seem to remember who Jamie is. One could also take that information and make a logical argument — or at least as logical as it’s possible to get when haunted houses are involved — that Dani’s “You, me, us” promise broke the curse around Bly, while Dani’s “reunion” with Viola completed the transformation of anyone who suffered trauma because of Bly, a transformation illustrated by the changes in everyone’s appearances and even accents. That is a bit of a long walk to take. But it’s a walk on a straightish line, at least.
Now let’s talk about the hand. The very final scene of the series finds Older Jamie, post-wedding, back in her hotel and preparing for bed. She turns a chair toward the door of her room and leaves that door open a bit, as she has done for years, on the off chance that Dani will somehow come back to her. Jamie curls up to sleep in the chair and in the very final frame, a hand, presumably Dani’s, is resting on her shoulder.
Some could take that imagery to mean that Dani actually has returned, but it seems more like a sign that the memory of Dani is always with Jamie. Which is still terribly sad, but at least the comfort of Dani’s ethereal, spiritual presence offers this poor bereaved woman something.
Honestly, though, it might have been better if the series had ended without the appearance of that hand. The idea that Jamie is still continuing to wait for her beloved, even contorting her body into a hotel chair so she won’t miss her potential reappearance, is so moving; the impact of that might have been greater if the last thing we saw was her curled up, waiting, with no reward. The Haunting of Bly Manor implies that dead people who interact with the living do so because they’re angry or still dealing with unresolved issues. Dani seems to have accepted her fate, so why would she still be hanging around?
Another interpretation, one that I favor, is that perhaps that hand isn’t a reflection of Dani in any real or spectral sense. Maybe it’s just what Jamie imagines as she tries to lull herself to sleep at night. That hand on her shoulder could be something that appears in her dreams. Or maybe it’s an apparition of another kind: a wish for something that she puts out into the universe again and again, knowing it will never come true.