The Haunting of Bly Manor
One of the most intriguing moments in The Haunting of Bly Manor comes in the opening minutes of the premiere episode, when Dani Clayton spots a menacing ghost in a window long before she comes anywhere near Bly Manor. Whatever ghosts are already haunting the estate, the show said, our protagonist is dragging a new one through the door with her.
But who is this ghost, and why won’t he leave Dani alone? Bly Manor’s fourth episode is largely devoted to answering that question and showing the effect this particular haunting has had on Dani’s psyche. It explains why she was so desperate to stay in England, so ready to take a job that would isolate her from anyone she knew in the United States, and so uneasy about going all in on her promising new relationship with Jamie.
In a series of flashbacks, we learn the big secret from Dani’s past: a doomed engagement to a shaggy-haired, bespectacled man named Edmund. They were playmates from adolescence and eventually teenage sweethearts; in a toast to their families, Edmund recounts how he and Dani became each other’s first kiss. He describes proposing over and over until she finally said yes.
That probably should have been Edmund’s first clue that Dani wasn’t quite as invested in their romance as he was. But despite her obvious discomfort with the impending wedding (and her obvious attraction to a woman at her dress fitting), Dani soldiers along, hoping against hope that — because she “wants to want it” — she’ll eventually realize she just wants it after all.
That realization never comes, and with their wedding just days away, Dani finally confesses to Edmund that she doesn’t want to get married. Edmund is understandably crushed. “What did I do? What didn’t I do?” he begs. And when she can’t give an answer that makes sense to him, he curses at her and storms out into the street.
And then he gets run over by a speeding car and dies.
This, at last, is the explanation for several previously unexplained images that keep popping up in Bly Manor. The gold watch on the ghostly arm that reaches over Dani in bed belonged to Edmund. The flashlight-bulb eyes are the reflection in his glasses from the headlights of the car that hit him. Those same glasses, which Edmund’s mother entrusted to her after his death, are the ones that startle and horrify Dani so much when Flora finds them and puts them on.
But as much as I love a good visual Easter egg, the real takeaway from this episode is our understanding of what this experience did to Dani. She’s not just inadvertently responsible for Edmund’s death; she knows their breakup made him spend his final moments in heartbreak and agony. And since no one knows she called off the wedding, she dutifully plays the part of the grieving fiancée, crushed under the weight of her guilt as she stands alongside his family. At his funeral, she sees Edmund in a mirror for the first time. It’s still not entirely clear whether Edmund is an actual ghost or just a hallucinatory side effect of Dani’s guilt over his death, but I’m betting on the latter.
But maybe the real answer to “Is Edmund actually haunting Dani or not?” is: “Does it matter?” The end result is the same. After Dani tells Jamie the truth about her dead fiancé, they finally kiss, and Jamie asks her if she’s sure she feels ready. Dani insists she is — but seconds into the kiss, she opens her eyes and sees Edmund staring at her, ruining the moment. Later, when she stomps outside to burn his glasses in a bonfire (and perhaps exorcize him for good), she finds him waiting for her.
Bly Manor isn’t interested in ghosts just as things that go bump in the night; it’s interested in the effect that being haunted by a ghost, either metaphorically or literally, may have on the living. For all the mysteries that get checked off in this episode, the best scene is almost purely emotional: when Dani, Jamie, Owen, and Hannah gather at a bonfire to toast the dead. In a moving speech, Owen describes his late mother as an “anchor.” It’s a word that gets at the complexity of grief, how a person can simultaneously be the thing that keeps you solidly grounded and the thing that weighs you down. Losing someone just isn’t a thing that happens; it’s a process you need to engage with, striking the balance between keeping their memory alive and learning how to move forward without them.
And that brings us to the matter of Miles and Flora. In their young lives, they’ve endured more loss than most. Their parents died in a horrifying accident. Their au pair — who was specifically hired to bring some stability to their unstable lives — died by suicide, and Flora is the one who found her body. Even the living have, on the whole, turned out to be letdowns. Their uncle Henry’s indifference to them is so obvious that a 10-year-old has noted it. And Peter Quint’s roguish influence on Miles, which manifests in this episode when the child sourly demands a glass of wine, didn’t stop Quint from stealing a sizable chunk of money and abandoning the family.
So who is there for these children? In a late-night conversation with Miles, Dani preaches the value of a family you choose, and Dani, Jamie, Owen, and Hannah have each turned out to play a positive and vital role in Miles and Flora’s young lives.
But it may be too late, because the episode’s chilling ending implies that the children have already chosen a different kind of guardian. There have been troubling hints that Miles and Flora are in league with the ghosts at Bly Manor, but the extent of their deception hasn’t really become clear until now. As Flora distracts Dani with a (likely invented) story about a nightmare she had, the children ensure that a mysterious specter can stalk around the house unimpeded. Whatever these ghosts are trying to accomplish, they have at least two accomplices inside the house.
I have one more thought on this episode — but if you want to watch this show without knowing anything about The Turn of the Screw, skip the next paragraph and pick up again at the “Bumps in the Night” section.
Spoiler for The Turn of the Screw (which was published in 1898 and is pretty different from Bly Manor so far, but you can’t be too careful):
Many psychoanalytic readings of The Turn of the Screw focus on the idea that the governess is sexually repressed. Bly Manor’s loose adaptation of this seems to be Dani’s reluctance to accept that she is attracted to women, though it looks as though she’s making some headway in her relationship with Jamie.
Bumps in the night:
• Showrunner Mike Flanagan has suggested that Flora’s dollhouse is the key to unlocking some of Bly Manor’s biggest secrets, but I’ll confess: I studied that last scene pretty closely, and I’m still at a loss. If you saw anything worth clocking, leave a note in the comments below.
• One question I’m kicking around: If there really are ghosts at Bly Manor, do we have any evidence that they’re malevolent? Yeah, they’re creepy, but so far the worst thing you can blame a ghost for is leaving wet footprints in the foyer.
• And while Miles’s and Flora’s behavior at the end of the episode is definitely creepy, it’s entirely possible that they’re keeping Dani from seeing the ghost not because they’re working against her but because they want to protect her from it.
• We’re almost halfway through the season, and I’m still not sure what to make of the eyes disappearing in the portraits in the opening credits. It would seem to indicate that everybody is blind to something — and it’s true that some people keep missing the ghosts right under their noses — but Miles and Flora, at the very least, seem to know exactly what’s going on.
• Like The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor does an uncommonly good job of sketching in even minor supporting characters we’re not likely to see again. We don’t spend a lot of time with Edmund’s mom, Judy, but this episode nevertheless manages to paint a fairly textured portrait of a woman who desperately wanted a daughter and is doing her best to keep Dani in the family even after Edmund’s death.
• At two points, the camera lingers on a pair of graves on the estate: Ambrose and Viola Lloyd’s, a reference to the Henry James short story “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.”
• “We don’t let him in the house. That’s not how it works,” says Flora when Dani asks if she has seen Peter Quint. Dani, next time why don’t you ask her how it does work?
• I love our little band of heroes, but it does seem a little irresponsible that everybody goes outside to get drunk at a bonfire, leaving Miles and Flora alone in a house where Dani thinks she saw Peter Quint, like, I don’t know, one day earlier.
• Bly Manor doesn’t have much comic relief, but Dani’s inability to make a decent pot of tea is a reliable laugh.
• The secret to Owen’s mom’s shepherd’s-pie recipe is a little Marmite in the gravy, which I will absolutely be stealing.
• “All Through the Night” and “Higher Love”? Bly Manor’s ’80s soundtrack cues are reliably on point.
• Another episode, another A+ pun from Owen: “Al-co-hol you later,” he promises, holding up a bottle of wine like it’s a phone.