What's Up With All The Weird Gender Politics In "The Haunting Of Bly Manor"?

Netflix’s second Haunting series features a beautiful queer love story — one that’s nearly botched by some questionable choices in the end. (Spoilers, obviously!)

By the end of The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second installment of Mike Flanagan’s Haunting anthology for Netflix, it finally becomes clear why this series wasn’t nearly as scary as its predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House: It isn’t so much a gothic horror after all, but a gothic romance. Less ghost story than love story. The show, which has been on Netflix’s top 10 most popular programs since its premiere earlier this month, has found a particularly passionate queer audience thanks to its heartbreaking central romance.

Loosely based on the work of Henry James, most prominently his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, Bly Manor follows Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a young American governess hired by an Englishman to look after his orphaned niece and nephew in their (obviously haunted) country house. Dani has been seeing ghosts long before her arrival at Bly, however; a dark figure with fire blazing out of his eyes turns out to be the spectral remains of her childhood sweetheart and fiancé, who died in a grisly car accident mere moments after she ended their engagement. Grieving and riddled with guilt and her own path toward the establishment of a nuclear family brutally severed, she absconds to the country to care for someone else’s children.

There, Dani meets a sweet family of circumstance, if not biology: The two kids, Flora and Miles Wingrave (Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), have been well cared for by their uncle’s employees before Dani’s arrival. A very handsome Rahul Kohli plays Owen, the cook, who’s temporarily left his Parisian restaurant to care for his ailing mother in Bly, and an equally handsome T'Nia Miller is Hannah Grose, the housekeeper, who’s been nursing a barely concealed and likely reciprocated crush on Owen for a while now. There’s a gardener, too, named Jamie (Amelia Eve), who’s got a wry sense of humor, great curls, and an incredibly gay way of sitting on chairs. It seems as though Dani might have actually had a good chance of being happy here, were it not for, you know, all the ghosts.

We’re left to believe that something about motherhood gone terribly wrong is to blame for all this death and pain.

We don’t learn until the series’ penultimate episode, Flanagan’s personal favorite (it’s material from the Hill House cutting room floor) why Bly Manor is occupied by so many of the undead. Shot entirely in black and white, the full 56 minutes of “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” — named after and based on the Henry James short story of the same name — introduces us to Viola and Perdita Willoughby (Kate Siegel and Catherine Parker), two sisters living in the 17th century. We learn that it’s Viola who, after being murdered by her sister and denied her dying wish regarding her daughter’s inheritance, becomes the Lady of the Lake. For centuries she’s been emerging from her watery slumber and wandering the grounds, killing anyone who crosses her path.

It’s a long story within a story within a story, one that dramatically interrupts the flow of the plotline we’ve all been watching unfold for the last seven episodes. Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya at AV Club wrote that it’s “an utter waste of an episode,” one that feels “like a stunt rather than a compelling origin story.” In an already narration- and exposition-heavy series, this late-in-the-game tale does indeed drag on to a needlessly indulgent degree — and for me, commits an even greater narrative sin of muddying the series’ confusing and sometimes competing themes regarding love, possession, obligation, and family.

Bly’s Big Bad is a woman, a mother, who refuses to go quietly into the good night — when a priest comes to call, she won’t say her last rites — and whose greatest and ultimately dashed hope was that her daughter would inherit her clothes and her jewelry. Now she’s a murdery ghost. What are we supposed to take away from this story when it comes to evil, or even, perhaps, original sin?

Because of its insistence on a long, random origin story, an attempt to jam one Henry James story together with another, we’re left to believe that something about motherhood gone terribly wrong is to blame for all this death and pain. And in the aftermath, it’s another woman — our beloved protagonist, Dani — who must make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of someone else’s children, who must atone for other mothers’ sins. And after finishing the show, I still have absolutely no idea why.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is trying to say some big, grand things about the nature of love, loss, and grief, and sometimes it does so quite affectingly. Ultimately, however, the show fails to really engage, artfully or otherwise, with its own retrograde gender politics.

The first episode tells us what Bly is fundamentally about when our unnamed narrator (Carla Gugino attempting a northern English accent) arrives in California for a wedding, and another stranger toasts the bride and groom at the rehearsal dinner with the advice that loving someone “is worth the pain of losing them.” (We learn, by the finale, who all these strangers are, in a rather goofy reveal — made all the goofier by the completely baffling presence of Greg Sestero from The Room.)

Despite that goofiness, however, Bly’s central story — of Dani growing comfortable enough with Jamie to share her trauma with her, and Jamie’s insistence that her trauma does not make her unlovable — is an incredibly moving one. Both actors’ performances are stellar; they have killer chemistry, and they just so happen to be stupidly, outrageously beautiful. Jamie calling Dani “Poppins” and, by the final episode, admitting "I'm actually pretty in love with you, it turns out,” warmed my cold gay heart. Plus, unlike Hill House — which completely missed the point of its queer source material’s portrayal of the ultimate horror of the nuclear family — Dani and Jamie’s queerness isn’t depicted as the source of their trauma. (That doesn’t mean they don’t face obstacles, however; I was very touched when Dani proposes to Jamie with a claddagh ring, telling her that even though they can’t technically get married — it’s the early ‘90s — the symbol would be more than enough for her.)

But at the heart of Jamie and Dani’s love story is the slow burn horror of impending loss. To save Flora from the Lady of the Lake, who, near the series’ end, attempts to take Flora down with her, as she’s done with another little boy in the past, Dani invites the shell of Viola’s former self into her own body, the way she’d seen other ghosts attempt to. With that, she breaks Viola’s spell over Bly, and all of its ghosts are finally free to move onto the afterlife.

But freeing Bly comes at a terrible cost. Dani can feel Viola crouched somewhere inside of her, quiet for now but full of rage, and knows that, eventually, Viola will consume her. But Jamie is undeterred, offering to wait out the last of Dani’s days, loving her, no matter how much longer they have left, as would a good and caring partner to someone with, say, a terminal illness. They strike up an adorable life in Vermont, running a plant shop, and things are good for a while.

But being haunted by a murderous ghost isn’t quite the same thing as waiting for a natural if untimely death. And here’s where Bly falls apart for me. I understand why Jamie would keep loving Dani, despite death looming, and I understand why, as an older woman, she keeps the doors to her rooms cracked and her bathtubs filled, hoping that one day Dani might come back to her. But I absolutely do not understand why Dani had to sacrifice herself to save the children — or what the show is trying to say, or else failing to say, about motherhood, the obligations of women, and what makes a good and loving family.

Perhaps, in more deft hands, this storyline could be a transgressive investigation of the ways in which women, and particularly mothers, are forced to carry terrible burdens.

Bly’s women are all about taking on each other’s pain: Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif) for Flora, when she offers to feel the worst of the child's death if she’d drowned; Jamie for Dani; and, most of all, Dani for the children. In breaking Viola’s spell, the children are freed from the threat of possession by ghosts, and even later, once they’ve grown, forget that all that scary shit ever happened to them at all. They’ve been reunited with their uncle Henry (Henry Thomas), who’d kept away from them for so long due to his own guilt involving their parents’ death (he’d been having an affair with the children’s mother, and is in fact Flora’s biological father — what’s with this show and people sleeping with their sisters-in-law??), and they now remember Bly only as a place where they spent summers as children. Nothing more.

When Henry wishes Jamie and Dani well upon their departure from Bly post-spell-breaking — I’m hoping he gave them a big fat sum of $$$ — Dani embraces him, telling him, “I’m so glad you have each other now.” Henry agrees. “It’s right,” he says. The days of the children’s nontraditional family with hired help is over; the true patriarch has been restored to his rightful place.

“I’m so goddamn lucky,” Henry says. “And so are you, Ms. Clayton. Where would we be, we wretched people, without the generosity of our betters?”

I’m sorry, but what the fuck? In what universe is Dani lucky for having been installed in a haunted mansion, where she cared for this guy’s neglected children, only to save their lives by dooming her own? I suppose “the generosity of our betters” here might apply to Jamie, who’s going to love Dani despite her haunting — but to me, that’s just what you do when you love someone; it’s not some huge, great sacrifice, especially when compared to sacrificing your own life to a rageful murder ghost.

Even Peter Quint, a dastardly sexist in both life and death, has a terrible mother of his own: His biggest nightmare, which he relives over and over again, is being confronted by his neglectful mom, who, in refusing to protect Peter from his abusive father, is apparently at fault for Peter later in life getting killed by a random ghost in a lake. And that isn’t metaphorical; he quite explicitly tells his mother that she has killed him. Jamie, too, has her own Bad Mom history. And of course, Flora and Miles’s mom was cheating with her husband’s brother. (All of these stories are relayed in long, long bouts of narrative exposition, during which even the strength of the actors’ performances couldn’t save me from zoning out half the time. I get that it’s a Henry James convention, but still.)

What are we to make of all this, of all these bad moms? Dani, the surrogate mother, the martyr and the saint, saved the Wingrave children — who’d grow up without the faintest memory of that sacrifice — and is still haunted and killed, in the end, by some other mother’s selfishness and rage. Perhaps, in more deft hands, this storyline could be a transgressive investigation of the ways in which women, and particularly mothers, are forced to carry terrible burdens, as well as, perhaps, provocative commentary on femme identity, queerness, and found family (all this trouble started with a bunch of pretty clothes, after all, and Dani, with her ‘90s-chic jeans, rocks a great blowout). But with all of these themes smushed together and spit out in a sometimes-great but mostly meandering series, Bly doesn’t have anything interesting to say about any of them. And it does Dani — and mothers, and just women, in general — a disservice. ●

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