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Why the series needed to end on a message of hope
Over the course of the season, The Haunting of Hill House put the Crain family -- and viewers -- through the wringer. Mike Flanagan's reimagining of Shirley Jackson's novel of the same name is one of the most delicate, personal and penetrating explorations of family trauma and grief ever put on screen. Throughout the 10 episodes, we saw the ways the Crain family's fear and guilt festered and spread, spilling out of each individual to take on a life of its own. But as the Crains tried to protect themselves -- by building walls between themselves and their demons -- they unwittingly just trapped their nightmares inside with them while locking everyone else out.
If this sounds relentlessly dark, it's because it is. And Jackson's novel brings this theme to its furthest conclusion -- with the isolation of her tragic heroine becoming so complete that she chooses to take her own life in exchange for the dubious promise Hill House offers of finally having a home. While Flanagan initially toyed with an equally cynical ending, ultimately, he wound up going in a different direction, ending the series on the biggest shock of the season: a happy ending. Or, at least as happy an ending as a show like this could get.
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Trapped inside the Red Room in the show's final hour, the Crain siblings -- Steven (Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Kate Siegel) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) -- have the opportunity to unburden themselves to the ghost of their sister, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), whom they each believe they failed in various ways. But Nell assuages their guilt, helping free her siblings to forgive themselves for the past and believe in the hope for a better future. But sadly, in order to secure that future, their father Hugh (Timothy Hutton) chooses to sacrifice himself to the house and to his late wife Olivia (Carla Gugino). Afterward, the surviving Crains tear down their isolating walls and rebuild their lives, bolstered by each other and free of guilt at last.
It's an ending of unexpected optimism, and it would be insufferably saccharine if it weren't so well done -- and if it didn't come after 10 of the most emotionally wrenching episodes of television in recent years. TV Guide spoke with Mike Flanagan about why he felt the show needed this message of hope, his reaction to the divisive response and how these few moments of happiness allowed the show to get as dark as it did.
The show lives in a dark space of grief, guilt and trauma for the majority of the season, but then it has this surprisingly optimistic ending. What was your thought process behind crafting this ending and why was it important to change it from Shirley Jackson's ending, which was so cynical, to something imbued with hope?
Mike Flanagan: The short answer is that I thought the characters had earned it. I assumed it would be a bit polarizing, but that's the ending I thought was appropriate for the story I wanted to tell. We live in a cynical world, and we'd just been through almost 10 hours of darkness, I needed just a whisper of hope. This is a show about family and processing trauma. If we didn't leave them with just a hint of forgiveness, peace, and love, what is the point? The world is dark enough. I knew it wouldn't land for everyone, but that's the world I want to inhabit. We could use some hope, especially these days. It does make me chuckle, though, to read some of the dissenting opinions... hearing people complain that three minutes -- THREE MINUTES -- of suggested peace, forgiveness, and hope has somehow "ruined" the ten hours of despair they've been through. Man, that's a sad thing to say.
The show is emotionally taxing because of how immersed viewers become in the Crains' trauma and tragedy. Did knowing there was a cathartic release of healing at the end enable you to go darker throughout the season?
Flanagan: Absolutely. The show was also emotionally taxing to write, and to shoot. Having some kind of cathartic release was necessary, but the thought of a light at the end of the tunnel definitely lets us be darker earlier on. We had toyed with a darker ending as well, but it didn't feel appropriate when we get closer to it. I'd grown to love these characters so much, I actually needed to remember them with just a little bit of hope. Without that hope, this show has far less to say.
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When I spoke to some of the cast members, they were divided about whether the ending had notes of hope or not. Did you want or expect it to be divisive?
Flanagan: I knew it would be divisive. Ultimately, I figured that the people who responded to [the] message of hope would be my priority. That's the story I wanted to tell, and that's what I wish for, not only for these characters but for my own family. I've received a lot of messages from viewers who were in tears at the end and found comfort in the message of the show. Many of them had recently lost loved ones and talked about how much it meant to them that we went in that direction, and how even specific lines of dialog -- especially Nell's moment about being "scattered on your life like new snow" -- moved and comforted them. Those are the reactions that make it worthwhile. If people truly wanted a more cynical ending, there is no short supply of stories out there that will give it to them.
There is a finality to the novel's ending, most famously evidenced in the lines "Journeys end in lovers meeting" and "Whatever walked there, walked alone." Can you talk about taking Jackson's words and repurposing them to fit with the show's message that journeys don't necessarily end, at least not when you love someone?
Flanagan: We tried to remain true to Jackson's spirit throughout the show. It was very important to us, even knowing that we were telling a different story. Because we were telling a different story, I knew our ending -- and our message -- would be a little different as well. Jackson's meaning is also represented in the show -- many times, from the start. Her story and our story can coexist... We weren't trying to say it wasn't true that journeys end in lovers meeting. In our show, it is true... but that isn't the end of it. Journeys end... and yet they don't. Those in Hill House walk alone... and yet they don't. Death is final... and yet it isn't. Both can be true, and that was something we really enjoyed in the writing process. Contradictions and nuance were a major part of Shirley Jackson's work. I hope that allowing them to be part of ours is effective as well.
What were the challenges, if any, in honoring and paying homage to Jackson's work while still flipping the book's final message on its head?
Flanagan: We knew there would be reactions from the fans. But the great thing about adaptations, as my good friend Scott Derrickson recently said, is that it doesn't erase the original material. The original is still there, and it hasn't changed. Ours was always a reimagining, done with great love for the source material... knowing there would be reactions no matter what we did was a little freeing. I'd argue that we didn't flip the book's message on its head, we simply looked at elements of it through a slightly different perspective in places. Those perspectives came from the men and women in our writers' room, who all shared their reactions to Jackson's novel and loved it for a variety of different reasons. It was about how her ideas spoke to all of us, how those ideas reflected our own lives, and what new thoughts they inspired. While it may rile some Jackson purists, for us this speaks to what the very process of adaptation -- especially adaptation that requires expansion -- actually is.
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In the book, Eleanor's isolation is total and that ultimately is what drives her to take her own life. But while the show grapples with themes of isolation, ultimately it shows that the Crains can only heal when they open themselves up to life and to others, letting in both the good and the bad. Why did you want to instill this idea of healing through togetherness and the support of others?
Flanagan: We live in a world that is no short supply of isolationism, and it can have the same fatal consequences that Eleanor experiences in the novel. Opening ourselves up to life, and to the others, the good and the bad, to find healing... why on earth would we want to put a different message out there? Every show, every movie, every book is also a product of its time, and its world. This is a message I believe in.
Horror is often a means through which we see society's fears or unrest reflected back at us, like how the novel explored the claustrophobic female experience in the midcentury. What about Hill House do you see as being of this moment in time?
Flanagan: Unfortunately for us as a society, a lot of the female experience that Jackson wrote about is still here. We tried very hard to honor those themes throughout the show, particularly in our portrayal of Nell, Theodora and Olivia. To fully answer your question might take an essay! There's much to mine about confinement, belonging, identity, independence... all of these just as potent in this moment as they were in Jackson's time. I think Jackson's ideas apply far beyond her moment in time, and I think that's why her work endures. It touches so deep, it can be seen even as the world changes drastically. That's what makes her timeless, I'd argue.
The house is a selfish, ravenous thing that wreaks destruction on the Crains and Dudleys, but it also becomes a source of comfort in the end for the Dudleys, who are able to reunite with their deceased children. How do you feel about this juxtaposition and the idea that something that causes such harm can also be a gift?
Flanagan: I believe in that contradiction. Death and loss are awful things, but can also have elements that help us grow, teach us, help us value our loved ones. The trials of our life, even the hardest, can be gifts in their own right... and sometimes parsing out how beauty can exist even in our darkest moments is one of the most complex, difficult things for us to grasp. For the Dudleys, is it a gift? Their choice at the end of the show also flies directly in their well-established faith in Christianity. In the end, they aren't content to leave their children to God -- they take actions to keep them in their lives. And I think that choice is painfully understandable. Yes, they're all together again... but at what cost? Their desire to keep their deceased children in their lives indirectly led to every other death in Hill House after Olivia. And that's [the] complexity of life, as far as I see it... the dark and the light come together, in equal measure. You can't separate them. The best and worst parts of life are double-edged swords.
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How much of the horror that happens in the house is a result of the house's own inherent evilness and how much is spawned from the fears, guilt and anger of the people inside it, whether wittingly or not?
Flanagan: We really responded to how Jackson decided to describe the house... "not sane." The House itself is insane, and so it can't be held to a rational logic or to a relatable "evil." It simply isn't sane. It simply consumes. It acts as a prism, in a way, that refracts elements of people's personalities that could put them in great danger, as it did with Eleanor in the novel. To apply a sense of order and reason to that mechanism is impossible, and different individuals will react in completely different ways to its effects.
Why was it Olivia whom the house originally latched onto so strongly? Was the house merely picking up on and amplifying the emotions that were already inside her until it drowned everything else out?
Flanagan: In the same way that the house latched onto Eleanor in the novel, it found fertile ground in Olivia. We even gave Olivia the "rain of stones" backstory that Eleanor had in the book. There's something about those characters, some energy that the house finds truly appealing. They are more susceptible to its influence.
Not all the victims of Hill House are corrupted or overcome by its twisted influence, such as Nell. Why are people affected by the house so differently?
Flanagan: In the same way that not all people are corrupted, overcome, or devastated by loss and grief... we all process these things very differently. Some people are just more vulnerable. Or more special. There are more ways in, and darkness can infiltrate and take root in their lives in different ways. But there are no characters in our show who are immune. The symptoms might be harder to see overtly in some, but I'd argue that the house works on the family in equal measure.
Olivia's worst acts were done in the misguided attempt to protect her children. Hugh sacrificed his own relationships with his children in an attempt to protect them. The Dudleys chose to continue to center their lives around Hill House to ensure Abigail wasn't left there alone. What is the show saying about the burdens and limitations of trying to protect those you love, particularly for parents?
Flanagan: I'll let the show speak for itself as far as what it is saying about those ideas... those are at the core of our story, and it took us 10 hours to fully articulate those questions. As a parent, that question hangs over my life in a profound way... how do you protect these innocent people, who are now your responsibility? When is it too much? When does your protection actually hurt them? When do you let them go, or when do you let them fall? How can you ever really know? The instinct is perhaps the most potent, powerful instinct we have as human beings. To protect our children, to love them. And the world we are sending them into is so, so dangerous. It's so scary. How do we find the balance? I don't know the answer to that question, but I know that the question itself stirs so much in all of us.
The Haunting of Hill House is available to stream on Netflix.
Craving more The Haunting of Hill House content? Check out our explainer for the entire series and our roundup of all the best Easter eggs from Shirley' Jackson's original novel! Or just watch the entire series all over again on Netflix. We won't blame you.
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