The Haunting of Bly Manor
The Haunting of Bly Manor may be telling its own story, but it seems like it’s going to echo The Haunting of Hill House’s structure. For everything we learn about the present, the show is primed to double back to the past, showing us the events that led each of these very haunted characters to this very haunted house. Having spent the premiere episode introducing us to everyone, Bly Manor uses its second episode to zoom in on one of the story’s most mysterious and unsettling characters: 10-year-old Miles Wingrave.
We knew at the outset of the story that Miles had been expelled from his boarding school, but we didn’t know why. This episode spends much of its runtime filling in that gap. Bly Manor picks up the story six months earlier, as Miles sits in class at the school. Even then, he was marked as requiring special attention. Between the deaths of Miles’s parents and the suicide of his previous au pair, Miss Jessel, it’s clear that Father Stack (Jim Piddock), a priest who works at the school, aims to take the troubled young boy under his wing. And there are signs that Miles really could flourish under the right tutor: His genuine curiosity about the Bible, and his intelligent, probing questions about it, indicate a sharpness of mind unusual for any boy his age.
But there are darker signs, too. Much of this extended flashback plays like a cross between The Omen and We Need to Talk About Kevin, with Miles sadistically lashing out at anyone who dares to show him warmth or kindness. When he “falls” from a tree (though it’s heavily implied he jumped), his roommate offers to be there if he needs anything. Miles responds by strangling him into unconsciousness. When Father Stack attempts to intervene with forgiveness, Miles releases Stack’s beloved pet bird from its cage, kills it, and leaves its body on the church altar. And when the school’s headmaster insists on an apology, Miles expresses remorse that he didn’t do worse: cutting off the bird’s head, or ripping out its insides.
What’s the explanation behind so much violence and cruelty? Like so much of Bly Manor, it’s not entirely clear whether Miles is just a budding sociopath, or whether there’s an actual, calculated plan behind his ugly behavior. When pressed, all Miles will tell the school’s leadership is that he “needed to find the key” — a strange turn of phrase that the episode never really explains. After his expulsion, we get the closest thing to a sympathetic, comprehensible motive for Miles’ behavior: A letter from Flora, begging him to come home. The enclosed drawing depicts Flora sobbing, Miss Jessel frowning, and Peter Quint — the sinister man from the balcony in the previous episode — smiling.
What message did Miles derive from that strange, cryptic message from his little sister — and what did it unlock in him? We get an unpleasant glimpse of what might be haunting Miles as Bly Manor returns to the present day. As a reward for good behavior, Dani agrees to let the children choose any game they’ll like to play before bed. They choose hide and seek, and Dani (who apparently hasn’t watched enough horror movies) happily agrees.
The “game” that follows is a legitimate horror-show, with some unnerving hints about what’s yet to come. Dani finds a polaroid of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, even as the ghostly Miss Jessel stalks around behind her. Flora sits next to some sort of horrifying doll-ghost hybrid, and apparently has some power over it — at the very least, it listens when she tells it to be quiet. And Miles repeats his attack on his classmate, strangling Dani in a headlock and letting her go before he suddenly announces he feels sick and collapses.
As Dani looks to the front of the house, she sees the face of Peter Quint in the window, staring right back at her with a menacing grin. And given that a mere crayon drawing of Quint’s smiling face was enough to make Miles do pretty much anything to get back home to his sister, it’s not a good sign that Dani has come face-to-face with the real thing.
I have a couple more thoughts on this episode — but if you want to watch this show without knowing anything about The Turn of the Screw, skip the next few paragraphs and pick up again at the “Bumps in the night” section:
Spoiler space for The Turn of the Screw (which was published in 1898 and is pretty different than Bly Manor so far, but you can’t be too careful):
So two episodes into the season, I’m wondering: Is there any plausible reading of Bly Manor in which the ghosts aren’t real? The Turn of the Screw is — very famously! — a story with a potentially unreliable narrator, in which it’s entirely possible the governess simply imagines the “ghosts” that are bedeviling Miles and Flora.
But while it was never guaranteed that Mike Flanagan’s freewheeling adaptation would keep that part of the story intact, this episode has a couple of scenes that make that viewpoint much harder to support. Flora has an independent interaction with that horrifying doll/monster/whatever, so whatever’s happening, it’s not just in Dani’s head. Both Dani and Miles seem, independently, to see the ghost of Peter Quint in the window. And then there’s the ghosts that are just there for us: The doll that turns its head after Dani leaves the basement, or all the hidden ghosts we can spot that the characters themselves miss.
That said: Bly Manor has not yet had a scene where two characters see the same ghost at the same time. It’s possible that Flanagan’s interpretation of the “haunting” is that the ghosts show themselves at different times, to different people, in an effort to isolate them and/or make them feel like they’re crazy. It’s also possible that some of the ghosts are real, and some are hallucinations from the minds of individual characters. (Dani’s flashlight-eyed mirror ghost seems like a prime contender for the latter.) In any case, it’ll be very interesting to see how Bly Manor teases this out over the course of the season.
Bumps in the night:
• Hidden Ghosts: At 6:25, check the background on the left side of the screen to see what looks like a little girl in a white dress blocking a door. And I’m pretty sure the plague doctor from episode 1 pops up again during the hide and seek game at 36:59, standing next to a well-lit window.
• At the beginning of the boarding school flashback, we learn that a boy named Brian Duncan is missing because he “fell.” We don’t get any more information on this, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to learn that Miles had pushed him.
• The full text of John 16:22, the verse Father Stack tells Miles to read: “So: Now you indeed have sorrow, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and your joy no man will take from you.” Given Miles’ concern that only bad people come back from the dead, I don’t think that verse is as comforting as Father Stack intended it to be.
• When Flora puts on the broken eyeglasses — innocently or not — Dani has a full-blown breakdown. We don’t have a lot of context for what’s happening here, but my best guess is that it involves the death of one of Dani’s old students, which would explain the weird flashlight-bulb eyes on the ghosts Dani sees in reflections.
• There’s a transgressive, unnerving moment when Miles is flirting with Dani in a way that seems much older than his actual age. “It’s such a draining thing, dealing with children,” he whispers as he plays with a lock of her hair. As in Turn of the Screw, there are several ways to read what’s happening here, and all of them are disturbing in their own way.
• It’s not clear what’s going on with Jamie, but her pained reaction to Miles picking some flowers before they were “ready to be cut” feels all out of proportion. (That said, it’s entirely possible that Miles did it specifically because he knew it would upset her so much.)
• One thing I’m still trying to wrap my head around: What’s going on with Hannah Grose and eating/drinking? In both of the first two episodes, Bly Manor has gone out of its way to show us that Hannah accepts food and drink, but doesn’t actually eat or drink anything. There are plausible explanations both human and supernatural, so I guess we’ll need to wait and see.
• More weirdness to be resolved: Hannah sees a crack in the kitchen wall. When Jamie goes to fix it, the crack is gone.
• I couldn’t get a good enough look at the children’s drawings on the fridge, but they looked kind of weird. If you could make out anything specific, leave a note in the comments below.
• How is Carla Gugino narrating this story, anyway? “And then Dani went into a dark room. And then she went into another dark room. And then she went into a third dark room, and when she left she didn’t notice that a doll turned its head toward her a little bit.”
• Miles’ bedroom has posters for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Monster Squad. Seems like a cool kid to me!
• In Flora’s world, everything is either perfectly splendid or perfectly dreadful.