Content Warnings: Ambiguous conversations about child abuse/molestation; non-graphic murder; suicide
Genre: Sapphic Horror/Drama/Romance
Created and directed by Mike Flanagan.
RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain
6/10 haunted violets.
This review contains spoilers.
My wife and I first watched The Haunting of Bly Manor miniseries in 2020 because I was looking for a solid way to review Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) for my PhD general exams, and I heard it was a fairly faithful adaptation of the most-widely-adapted ghost story to ever be written in English. That, and we heard it was sapphic, which is always enough to get me to want to watch/read something. This was my first venture into creator/director Mike Flanagan’s “Flanaverse,” so I had no clue how big of a treat I was in for.
I was wary going into a series about lesbians written by a straight white man. As a rule, I don’t tend to trust them to write our stories. This, of course, was before I watched it and found that it was a remarkably sensitive and non-male-gazey love story (this isn’t to say it’s not delicious… because it is!). I, of course, attribute this to his wife and Bly Manor actress Kate Siegel, who came out as bisexual in 2008 and who has had a significant influence on the work Flanagan has created since the start of their relationship. So, thanks and Hi, Kate! if you’re reading. We see you.
As the IMDb blurb above states, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is hired as an au pair to two orphaned children, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). There, she meets the groundskeeper, Jamie Taylor (Amelia Eve), and they are almost immediately bonded together by a threatening ex-employee, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen), who stole a quarter-million pounds and tons of priceless jewelry from their employer and who has had a questionable influence upon the children. When the employees band together to protect Bly Manor and the children from Peter, Dani and Jamie find themselves getting closer than either of them anticipated.
Set in 1987, it’s no surprise that the two of them are not forthright with their advances. Moreover, Dani is inhibited by the specter of her past (the literal ghost of her fiancé who was struck and killed by a car moments after she admitted to him that she couldn’t force herself to marry him and “feel like I was supposed to”). The Haunting of Bly Manor is a coming out story in this way, for episode 4, “The Way It Came,” centers around Dani’s process of self-discovery in the middle of planning her wedding to her childhood best friend, Eddie, the man whom everyone felt she was “destined” to be with. But the miniseries is all not about the coming out process. In fact, Dani ran away from home in America to England just so she never would have to come out at all. Just just appears in England as her true self.
Jamie is there for Dani as she realizes the sinister influence both Peter and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the former au pair and Peter’s jilted lover who killed herself on Bly’s grounds. Jamie is also there the moment that Dani invites the Lady of the Lake to possess her in order to save Flora, who the angry ghost was attempting to bring back with her to the bottom of the lake. This ghost is the spirit of one of the earliest owners of Bly Manor, Viola Willoughby/Lloyd (Kate Siegel), a (queer-coded) strongminded woman trapped within the confines of close-minded mid-17th century society, who is robbed of her husband, her child, her power (because she’s a woman), and, later, her life when her sister/caretaker kills her. The pain Viola carries with her into the afterlife to destroy everyone who sets foot on her property is not just from the fact that her own sister took her life even when tuberculosis couldn’t, but it’s rooted in the fact that she, such a powerful woman, was forced by the confines of her time to marry a man who would foolishly run through all of her money simply because he was in charge of her money. For all her performance of power and will, convention required that she be robbed of her agency. Viola’s voracious, vengeful anger compels her to steal the lives of everyone who dares to cross her path on the manor that should’ve been rightfully hers. Thus, it’s no wonder that when somebody finally invites Viola to possess her, body and soul, that she jumps at the chance. She’s never been permitted to be in control of her own life, or anyone else’s for that matter.
Now for the pain.
The biggest issue I had with this lesbian ghost story, which is more of a “love story” as the Storyteller and bride discuss at the end of the series, is that Dani dies–that she and Jamie don’t get to live long, long lives together and die of natural causes. This death is not a she-was-brutally-killed-because-she’s-gay story, but the circumstances leading to Dani’s death are a direct result of her running away from home in America in order to discover herself in England.
It’s because she falls in love before inviting the Lady of the Lake into herself that she’s so terrified of what this haunting presence will do to their precious relationship. Although Dani’s ex-fiancé’s haunting presence is stamped out early in the miniseries, the experience of Bly and the Lady of the Lake’s overshadowing presence continually remind Dani of the social expectations that await her when she finally does return home to America.
The longer Dani lives with Viola/the Lady of the Lake inside of her, the less she feels like herself. She tells Jamie that she knows she’s present in the moment with her, but she feels like she can’t “feel it all the way.” This fear eventually comes to fruition at the end of their nine-year-old relationship after they leave Bly Manor when Dani wakes up to discover that the “beast” within her compelled her to grip Jamie’s throat in her sleep as if to strangle her.
While Dani inviting the Lady of the Lake into herself is an integral part of this ghost story’s conclusion, I initially couldn’t get over the fact that Flanagan would give us such a sumptuous love story of their life after Bly only to rip it all away from us within a span of a single episode. But I’ve watched it three times since my initial viewing (the most recent two times being review for the undergrad course I’m teaching on the Flanaverse), and there’s a metaphorical interpretation here that can, in fact, soften the blow of Dani’s death.
After Dani invites the Lady of the Lake into herself in order to save Flora’s life, Dani expresses her fear surrounding the ramifications of this selfless act, and whether she will ever lead a normal life. Jamie offers her “company” as she waits for her “beast in the jungle” (this phrase/concept is borrowed from yet another Henry James short story of the same name). While Dani is the one who invited the hellacious, gravity-bending ghost into her body, Jamie is the one who provides Dani with a place to rest her trauma. As Bly Manor teaches us, love is inviting someone else’s trauma into yourself so that you can wait for your “beasts in the jungle” together. And even though this trauma eventually claims Dani’s life, they were still able to share nine peaceful years together before that point. If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is.
So while Dani and Jamie’s love story technically “ends” with Dani’s death, don’t we all have to die sooner or later? I take comfort in the closing scenes where we see Jamie dutifully filling the sink and the bath every night, hoping to see her very own Lady of the Lake’s–Dani’s–reflection staring back up at her.