Two years after The Haunting of Hill House debuted, the passion for Mike Flanagan's Netflix anthology series hasn't waned, as viewers continue to revisit the devastating ghost story and theorize about what horrors the followup, The Haunting of Bly Manor, might hold. Still, it's unlikely that even the most studied Hill House fan could have predicted what Bly Manor (out Friday, Oct. 9) would turn out to be.
Based on the work of Victorian author Henry James, The Haunting of Bly Manor follows Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a spirited American running from a personal tragedy, who takes an au pair job in 1987 at a remote British estate looking after two young orphans, Miles (Benjamin Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Smith). The show's premise is taken straight from James' beloved gothic horror The Turn of the Screw -- which follows a governess fixated on saving her wards' souls from two sinister ghosts -- but the story soon goes in unexpected directions as Flanagan pulls inspiration from several of James' other stories, including The Jolly Corner, a tale of a man who is haunted by his own doppelgänger, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, which details a bitter rivalry between sisters that ends in an act of ghostly vengeance, and The Great Good Place, a fable about a famed writer who finds refuge from reality in a dream.
For the cast, Bly Manor pulls heavily from the anthology's established troupe of actors -- including Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Katie Parker. Jackson-Cohen is a particular standout this season as Peter Quint, an employee of Bly's absent owner Henry Wingrave (Thomas). One of the characters lifted straight from Turn of the Screw, Peter sows discord in the manor, poisoning all he touches in a magnetic performance from Jackson-Cohen that is a far cry from the vulnerable Luke Crain in The Haunting's freshmen outing. This is not the only instance in which it seems Flanagan purposefully gave a returning actor a role wholly different from what they did in Hill House, but no one meets the occasion quite like Jackson-Cohen does. (The season also sees several of these actors doing accents, a challenge that gets mixed, and in some cases inexplicable, results.)
In addition to these returning players, Bly Manor also welcomes several newcomers to the franchise. The infectiously charming Rahul Kohli and Amelia Eve take on original roles as Bly's lovably corny cook, Owen, and the swaggering groundskeeper, Jamie, respectively. T'Nia Miller plays the dedicated housekeeper, Hannah Grose, while Tahirah Sharif embodies the kind-hearted previous au pair, Rebecca Jessel, both figures from Turn of the Screw who are given refreshing depth and nuance in the series.
Flanagan blends James' stories in inventive ways, but fans who were hoping to see their favorite grim twists from The Turn of the Screw brought to screen may find themselves mourning the changes if they don't give themselves over to the delight of subverted expectations. The same is true for fans of Hill House, who won't find in Bly Manor the soul-curdling horror that shattered hearts and bent minds in the anthology's first go-round. That's because, while atmospheric, Bly Manor delivers few truly piercing scares. This season can't match the visceral, haunting imagery of Hill House,or even the psychological suspense of Turn of the Screw (for that, you're better off watching The InnocentsorThe Others). What Bly Manor succeeds at, though, is building a sense of grievous dread, exploring the ways in which we deliver ourselves to a doomed fate and make choices that follow us even into death. While the pensively tragic season may not be what many expect going into Bly Manor, Flanagan nurtures this dread with tender care throughout the nine episodes, building a story about love and heartbreak in which ghosts are as much embodiments of romance as obstacles to it.
As Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) said in Hill House, a ghost is a wish. This remains true in Bly Manor, but the wishes in this story are all driven by the same thing: love and longing. While society often expects people to get over or move on from a painful loss, whether that be a death or a breakup, the characters in Bly Manor embrace and cling to these absences, and each of the show's central romances examines a different way this desire manifests. For some, this impulse leads them down a dark path, where love mutates into compulsion or rage. But Bly Manor's ghostly world also captures the beauty in trying to maintain a connection to those who've been lost. Then there is the danger of those who have never experienced love at all, but have only mistaken it for possession. The show powerfully details how this toxic objectification can distort the sharpest minds and exploit the most empathetic souls.
Throughout it all is a core cast of resilient women navigating a world that isn't designed to recognize their talents, but who find ways to remake reality to fit their vision rather than bending to the world's. As much as Bly Manor is about romance, it's also how a person's identity can be made or unmade, but never fixed -- not even in death. The paranormal situations the characters are thrust into (the details of which we won't spoil here) inspire several of them to engage in a deeply melancholy self-evaluation. Through this introspection, they come to understand the choices that have defined them up until that point and are given the opportunity to reframe their stories. Not everyone welcomes this gift (and for some, it feels more like a curse), but Bly Manor takes pains to understand the hurt that drives someone to keep harmful cycles alive as much as it does the hope that inspires someone to find a better way forward.
While Bly Manor is a beautiful tale about broken hearts and faith in the face of uncertainty, it does lose some of the calculated ingenuity that made James' best ghost stories sing. "Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications," James wrote in the preface to The Turn of the Screw. But here, too many mysteries are solved, leaving little room for the imagination to devise horrors built from audiences' own fears.
There is so much potential in the works of Henry James that inspired this season -- particularly in those stories that have never before been adapted for screen -- and sadly this bar is not always met in Bly Manor, which would have been served better with a tighter focus. Whereas the Crains of Hill House were all coping with a shared source of trauma, the characters in Bly Manor are given unique struggles, which occasionally intersect but are largely battles each must face on their own. But while James never wasted a sentence, Bly Manor struggles to juggle its various arcs in effective and efficient ways, leading to several disparate storylines whose seams never quite fuse together. As a result, the layers of trauma and character-driven horror are thinner than in Hill House, and the show struggles to maintain momentum early on, getting stuck in repetitive cycles until a standout moment gets the series back on track. But for those who continue on, their patience will be rewarded in the back half of the season, which builds captivating momentum towards the show's emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Despite some struggles, there are enough touching moments of pathos and deeply disquieting turns in Bly Manor that remind you how great Flanagan can be when he's at his best, and many of these center around T'Nia Miller's Hannah Grose. No one brings as much humanity to the series as Miller, who nestles into your psyche as she portrays a self-determined woman who goes to great lengths to shield herself from the pains of life, but who, in the process, also shields herself from so much more. Although Dani is undeniably the show's heroine and Pedretti delivers an impressive and wrenching performance of her own, it's Hannah who captures the heart and mind, and whose journey lingers long after the season ends.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is an entertaining and evocative followup to Hill House, despite never quite reaching the heights of its predecessor. And ultimately, the biggest obstacle to the show is the incredibly high expectations most viewers will have for it -- ones that could easily morph into disappointment, not because the season isn't compelling, but simply because it's so utterly different from the first. The Haunting of Bly Manor isn't as dark and desolating as Hill House, nor is it as ambiguously unsettling as The Turn of the Screw. Bly Manor is a love story above all else, and if fans can shed their preconceptions and allow Bly Manor to be just what it is, they'll find a lot of value: a moody tale, great performances, tragic romances, and a reminder of how lucky we are to find love in this world where nothing -- not the past, and definitely not the future -- are ever guaranteed.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres Friday, Oct. 9 on Netflix.