In the run-up to the premiere of The Haunting of Bly Manor, showrunner Mike Flanagan has repeatedly described the series as a love story. Episode three is centered on the two young lovers whose doomed relationship, which has only been alluded to in hushed whispers, set the events of the entire series into motion: Rebecca Jessel and Peter Quint.
Sadly, this is the worst kind of love story: A twisted, toxic, abusive affair that led to the death of Miss Jessel (and possibly Quint as well — theories differ on where he ended up). The song happens to be appropriate for the period, but it’s not an accident that Peter Quint is introduced with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” playing on the soundtrack. Until now, we’ve only seen this man in glimpses—frowning on a balcony or grinning malevolently through a window.
Now we get him up close. In a series of flashbacks set a year before Dani Clayton was hired as Miss Jessel’s replacement, we see Peter Quint in London, serving as a right-hand man to Henry Wingrave. It’s a grim picture: Quint enters Henry’s office, finds him facedown on his own desk, and hands him a fresh shirt and a new bottle of whiskey to start the day.
Henry’s first meeting is with Rebecca Jessel, the bright and capable young woman who has applied to be the au pair for Miles and Flora. On paper, her credentials are as impressive as they are varied—from a stint at the London School of Economics to an independent study in Russian poetry. When the drunk Henry lies that he misplaced his reading glasses, Quint essentially takes over the interview, and it’s obvious that his interest in Miss Jessel is more than professional.
And make no mistake: Quint is laying the tracks for an abusive relationship long before he and Miss Jessel actually consummate their attraction. In the beginning, Quint’s methods are subtle but cutting. As Henry notes, Quint verbally misstates that Miss Jessel will be the “nanny” — a sly way of downgrading the nature and purpose of the role. Later, when Quint innocently calls it a mistake, Henry sneers in response: “We both know you don’t make mistakes.”
In the early days of Miss Jessel’s employment at Bly Manor, he romances her while quietly erecting walls between the two of them and the rest of the staff. And if his apparent warmth to Miss Jessel and the children is enough to disguise his inner emptiness, the show doles out symbolism to make sure we’re not fooled. Look at the way he puts Miss Jessel’s rose into it’s own separate vase — apart from the rest of the bouquet. He admires her beauty, but he also wants to isolate her.
Eventually, Quint earns Miss Jessel’s confidence, and she confesses the real reason she took the job: to forge a professional inroad with Henry Wingrave, who — despite his drunkenness — is a well-regarded and well-connected barrister. She explains that her young female colleagues, who took more conventional paths, found themselves diminished and sexually harassed by the old men who dominated the field. In a fair world, she’d be able to climb the ladder like a young man could; in this one, she’ll need to take care of a couple of kids to get her shot.
So that’s Miss Jessel’s plan. What does Peter Quint want? He gives Miss Jessel several answers — all of them so clearly rehearsed that it’s hard to regard them as sincere. But a candid conversation with Miles sheds some light on his manipulative life philosophy. “If you want someone to open a door, you have to try out different keys until you find the one that works,” Quint says. There’s nothing genuine about his interactions with others; every conversation is simply an attempt to figure out what they want — so he can manipulate them.
In the “The Pupil,” it was a little puzzling when Miles told Father Stack that he needed to “find the key.” But the real purpose behind that turn of phrase becomes clear here. Even in his absence, Quint’s influence has clearly warped Miles’s entire worldview. Miles may be a sociopath in the making. Peter Quint is absolutely a sociopath, though he’s adept enough at hiding it that he manages to snare Jessel before his mask slips. By then, they’ve slept together, and it’s already too late.
We don’t get the whole story, but there’s enough to gather what goes wrong, and it all happens quickly. Quint steals wine and furs from the house and offers them up to Jessel as lavish gifts. He is demanding of Miss Jessel’s time and attention, even when she’s supposed to be watching the kids. And he becomes psychotically jealous when he sees her goofing around in the kitchen with Owen. His manipulative mood swings are clearly devastating to Jessel. And while we haven’t actually seen the end of the story, we’ve heard the broad strokes of what happens.
Of course, that’s only one of many stories The Haunting of Bly Manor is telling, and we have no idea how the others will end. Like The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor is obsessed with the past and the way it reverberates in the present. There are numerous cuts in the episode that are explicitly engineered to blur the lines between Miss Jessel and Dani, like Dani rising from bed in the same room where Miss Jessel and Peter Quint had sex for the first time.
In short: There are bad vibes here. Which is why I’m a little worried about a romance I would otherwise be enthusiastically shipping: Dani and Jamie, whose flirtation accelerates to hand-holding at the end of the episode. Unlike Quint and Miss Jessel, there’s no obvious villain here — just a philosophy of love that they’re delighted to discover they share. In a cleverly written speech, Dani asserts that love and possession are opposites. (She’s talking about “possession” as controlling your partner, but it’s impossible not to think about ghostly possession.) And, hey, Hill House veered into sentimentality at the very end; maybe Bly Manor will assert, in the end, that true love is more powerful than possession after all.
But it hasn’t yet. And, based on the cliffhanger ending, it won’t be getting sentimental anytime soon. After Jamie drives off, Dani turns around and comes face to face with the flashlight-eyed specter that has been haunting her since the very first episode. Until now, we’ve only seen this guy in reflections — but here he is, standing just feet away from her. That is, until Bly Manor suddenly rips him back toward the door. Something tells me we’re about to learn exactly what’s been haunting Dani all along.
Bumps in the night:
• This episode at least teases the possibility that Peter Quint is alive and a regular (if not weirdly malevolent) dude who likes to make prank calls and creep along the windows and balconies at Bly Manor. I figured I’d at least nod at it here, but I’m not really taking this seriously. There certainly appear to be ghosts at Bly. Quint doesn’t really have a motive for messing with these people—instead of spending all the money he stole in the tropics or whatever. And in general, “Quint is messing with them!” doesn’t seem like a very satisfying solution to the show’s various mysteries.
• We get a little more of the Carla Gugino voiceover in this episode, but I’m still wondering why the show bothered with the framing device at all (apart from an homage to The Turn of the Screw). I’m assuming we’ll find out by the end of the season.
• The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, but I love the opening shot of Peter Quint, which is actually just a reflection of his face in a tailor’s window, superimposed over a fancy suit. In addition to the resonance with the mirror ghost that haunts Dani, it’s a reminder that Quint is ultimately empty — a man literally projecting himself into a suit that looks great but doesn’t quite fit him.
• Miles and Flora’s nighttime excursions (and the muddy footprints they leave behind) have been happening on a semi-weekly basis since Miss Jessel’s time — so if there’s a ghostly explanation, neither Miss Jessel nor Peter Quint can be blamed for it.
• Miles isn’t wrong when he tells Flora that mixing all of Miss Jessel’s favorite colors together will result in black, but it doesn’t make for the happiest-looking doll.
• In both the past and present, there are several references to Bly Manor burning down. Jamie half-jokingly says that Mrs. Grose’s candles in the chapels will start a fire, and Peter Quint warns Miles not to use his lighter to burn the house down. Bottom line: If you can find decent odds on Bly Manor burning down in the season finale, take that bet.
• Miss Jessel’s first name is never revealed in The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if Bly Manor used “Rebecca” in homage to the Daphne du Maurier novel, which also centers on a dead woman whose memory haunts her successor at an old county house. (And honestly: If there wasn’t already a new Netflix adaptation with Lily James and Armie Hammer on the way, The Haunting of Manderlay would probably be a prime contender for a third season of this show.)
• Back in the present, Flora and Miles make everyone watch while they perform a weird play in which Flora is a cat and Miles is a puppet. It looks like an absolute nightmare to sit through (and that’s before Miles goes off on a creepy tangent about hurting all the puppets).
• Miss Jessel’s promise that she will be a “perfectly splendid” au pair is immediately absorbed by Flora, who — Bly Manor reminds us a little too often — instantly adopts it as her catchphrase.
• Hannah Grose sees another crack that appears (and then disappears) in the wall of the chapel. Weird and inexplicable, but clearly fodder for a future episode.
• Another mystery I’m wondering about: Until now, Henry Wingrave’s absence from Bly Manor seemed attributable to a firm disinterest in his niece and nephew. But Hannah Grose’s description of just how emphatically Henry refuses to come near the country house makes me wonder if he had his own traumatic encounter — either supernatural or human — within Bly’s walls.
• Miles says he had a nightmare where he hurt Hannah Grose and then felt bad about it. Hannah, some friendly advice: Run!
• Hannah also whispers something to Owen as he drives off in grief. I rewound it a few times, and I don’t think we’re supposed to be able to hear what she says — but if you were able make anything out, leave a note in the comments below.
• “I’ve made some good cake in my day, but this one is batter!” Owen is the sweetest cornball in the world, and it absolutely breaks my heart to see him so sad at the end of the episode.