Review: ‘Bly Manor’ is a romance story first, horror story second

"The Haunting of Bly Manor" was released Friday on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

By Madalyn Watson | Editor-in-Chief

Nearly two years after Mike Flanagan’s masterpiece “The Haunting of Hill House” was released, the follow-up series “The Haunting of Bly Manor” became available to stream Friday on Netflix. Fans of the series were left to wonder if comparison will be the death of the second series in the wake of its predecessor’s astounding success.

While “Hill House” was a modern-day retelling of the Shirley Jackson book of the same name, the backbone of “Bly Manor” is the Henry James 1898 novella “Turn of the Screw.” The series also references other stories by the same author such as “The Jolly Coroner” and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.”

“Bly Manor” is not a direct sequel to the popular “Hill House.” Even though fans asked for more, the finale of “Hill House” was a satisfying, natural ending, and it left no more room to further explore the beloved characters and setting. However, many actors returned to take on new roles such as Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino.

Without connecting the plot of the new season to the first, “Bly Manor” continued the theme, atmosphere and heart that characterized the esteemed original. Although “Bly Manor” fell short in comparison to the first season, it was still a beautiful story in its own way — that’s what made “Hill House” and now “Bly Manor” so unique: the beauty within the terror.

Since “Hill House” is about family trauma at its core, this means “Bly Manor” is a love story. This may sound surprising to those who have not watched the original, but “Hill House” was so much more than the psychological horror it seemed.

In several interviews about the Haunting series, Flanagan referenced a well-known quote from David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.”

Although hints of this theme could be found in “Hill House,” which focused on the relationships between siblings that grew up in a haunted house, “Bly Manor” focuses on what makes a ghost. Like many popular series and films in the horror genre today, the true horror is usually under the surface of a simple haunted house story.

New Haunt

“Bly Manor” begins with a wedding party celebrating at its rehearsal dinner. After discussing the ghost stories that take place in the wedding venue, an unnamed woman (Gugino) starts to tell a story. The story does not belong to her, but instead to someone she once knew.

The woman narrates the story of Dani Clayton (Pedretti), a young American woman who dropped everything and traveled to England to escape something she left behind in her past. Clayton, who has experience as a school teacher, takes a job tutoring and taking care of two orphans living in Bly Manor.

Clayton lives in the manor with the children, Miles and Flora Wingrave, as her responsibility along with help from:the spacey, live-in housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the punny cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), and the intense gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve).

Before Clayton entered the picture, the Wingrave children’s lives were full of loss. After losing their parents overseas, the first au pair to take care of the children, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), took her own life on the manor grounds after a whirlwind romance with the charming Peter Quint (Jackson-Cohen).

As Clayton begins to learn the stories behind the children’s devastation, she discovers that there is more to Bly Manor than what she can see, and there are more occupants than she was led to believe.

Another aspect of “Bly Manor” that I was really impressed with was the series’ overarching themes and how they were all able to connect. Like “Hill House,” the best part of the new season is the mystery.

Without giving away too much of the plot, a major theme in “Bly Manor” is memories and how we can become trapped in our own memories. Several characters — if not all — are unable to move on with their lives. These memories entrap them as well as the people in their memories.

Similar to the overarching theme of memory, “Bly Manor” is a tale analyzing the difference between love and possession. Several characters become so wrapped up in other people that they lose themselves. The characters, their memories and the manor are like a mouse trap and once these characters get stuck, they may even chew off their own leg or lose a part of themselves to escape.

Non-linear storytelling

“Bly Manor” takes a sharp turn from “Hill House” with its structure. One of my personal favorite aspects of “Hill House” was the fact that almost every episode was from the point-of-view of a family member. While some events would repeat in the series, the audience would get it from a different perspective that added to the puzzle of a show.

Although “Bly Manor” still had aspects of this unraveling structure, Clayton as the protagonist was more clear cut. Rather than having an episode dedicated to each character, it had a half episode for a character’s story and some main characters like Jamie didn’t get an episode at all.

In addition to this change in structure, “Bly Manor” had even less elements of traditional horror than the original. While “Hill House” was praised for how terrifying many fans found it, the series was still rooted in a drama with some — like myself — comparing it to the family drama “This is Us.”

“Bly Manor” still had many scary elements and a few mild jump scares, but it is clear that the creators put horror on the back burner in order to focus on the romance. Many fans may be disappointed with this lack of frights, but the series still had a creepy, overarching atmosphere.

Even though the series is a Gothic romance, the main plot line of the show takes place in the late-eighties with the brief wedding scenes with the narrator in 2007. Without making the show a modern-day retelling, “Bly Manor” is still able to capture the relatable horror that “Hill House” was so well-known for achieving.

“Bly Manor” versus “Hill House”

Even with a slow pace at the beginning of the series, “Bly Manor” is a puzzle box that leaves the audience dying to solve it. Although it was entertaining, the first five episodes of the series feel out of place especially for audiences familiar with the original. Once the audience reaches the sixth or seventh episode, that’s when it all starts to make sense. However, this is fairly disappointing.

In “Hill House,” the first one or two episodes were full of exposition, but they still included jaw-dropping realizations that forced the audience to keep watching. The first episode of the original, titled “Steven Sees a Ghost,” ends with a punch to the gut while the first episode of “Bly Manor,” called “The Great Good Place” ended with a whimper.

In addition, almost every single episode of “Hill House” ends with a mind-bending realization while all of the twists and turns of “Bly Manor” were saved for the last couple episodes. This may not seem like much, but with recent series consisting of only nine episodes — that’s one less than the first installment — it leaves a majority of the series in the dark.

As a dedicated fan of “Hill House,” I watched the entire series of “Bly Manor” on the night it was released on Netflix. But I wouldn’t put it past other casual watchers or die-hard fans to turn off the series after an episode or two. If you are thinking about watching “Bly Manor,” I would suggest trying to make it to episode five, “The Altar of the Dead,” which focuses on the housekeeper, Grose.

The Bent-Neck Lady,” episode five of “Hill House,” is quite possibly my favorite episode of television I have seen so far, and I watch a lot of television. Episode five of “Bly Manor” is the closest the series gets to the triumph of “The Bent-Neck Lady.”

Following the hype surrounding “Hill House,” the recent addition to the Haunting series, “Bly Manor” is an utter disappointment in many ways. It is not as cohesive or well thought out as the former and loses itself in a myriad of references and stories. But looking at “Bly Manor” as a stand alone series, as you should, the audience can really appreciate the supernatural romance for what it is: a love story before a ghost story.