The year is 2007, and a young couple is closing out a chapter of their lives and preparing to embark on a new one together as husband and wife. It’s the rehearsal dinner, the last moment where the two can enjoy themselves surrounded by family and friends before they’re swept up into the whirlwind of married life. Some of the guests know each other, and some don’t — and some don’t know that they know each other. But all of them are impressed, albeit a little creeped out, by the atmosphere of the gorgeous, supposedly haunted venue the couple has selected for their wedding ceremony. As they chat and drink into the evening, talking of ghosts and old stories, one guest offers to regale the room with a special ghost story of her own. And so, the narrator of our show begins to spin the most beautiful, haunting ghost story that I’ve ever heard or watched on television to date: “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”
The story begins like this:
Thirty years before the soon-to-be bride and groom sat down for their rehearsal dinner, Dani (Victoria Pedretti, “You”) is hired as the new au pair for the two young residents of Bly Manor, a historic family home located in the lush English countryside. Flora (Amelia Bea Smith, “Anatomy of a Scandal”) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, “Flora & Ulysses”) are the heirs of Bly Manor, haunted by the deaths of their parents Charlotte (Alex Essoe, “Starry Eyes”) and Dominic (Matthew Holness, “Bruiser”), as well as the recent suicide of their last governess and au pair, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif, “The Tower”). The effects of the tragedy that seems to follow these two children are clear, as many remark throughout the show that their pasts have made them more than a little strange. But Dani, a former teacher with her own sad past, takes it all in stride, despite Miles’s disturbing and aggressively flirtatious behaviors and Flora’s inexplicable fear of leaving her room after dark. Dani is helped by Bly Manor’s other staff members — the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli, “Midnight Mass”), the housekeeper, Hannah (T’Nia Miller, “Witless”) and the blunt but charming groundskeeper, Jamie (Amelia Eve, “The Haunting of Hill House”), who keeps Dani grounded throughout her tumultuous time at Bly. After more than a few hiccups, Dani is able to settle into her role as the children’s caretaker — that is, until the truth about Bly Manor and its residents, past and present, begins to unravel.
Once Dani’s role at the manor and her relationship with the children and staff are established, the show begins to deviate from her storyline, pulling the viewer along a weaving path of past events in order to give them a better perspective and understanding of the events that are to come. The tale of Bly Manor utilizes a non-linear storyline, relying heavily on flashbacks from different characters’ points of view. But the stories of the past are interwoven seamlessly with the present, allowing the viewer to slowly but surely piece together the intricate puzzles that compose the show’s characters. Oftentimes, rather than explaining the story to you, the show leaves you to come to your own conclusions and fill in the blanks yourself, keeping you hooked. These glimpses into the past allow the viewer to realize what about the manor is real, and what isn’t — or rather, who’s dead, and who isn’t. Through these episode-long insights into the characters in the background of Bly, the viewer discovers that some of the familiar faces our cast of characters see and interact with in the halls of the manor aren’t actually all among the living — a secret that we, the audience, get to hold onto, but that the show’s characters remain painfully unaware of. The dead who haunt Bly are stuck in the past, forced to relive their memories in an endless cycle, like a broken record, while simultaneously existing on the same mortal plane as the living, flitting in and out of the present like a flickering lightbulb about to go out. As the audience is allowed into the minds and memories of the dead, the chronology of the story begins to unravel, and it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish past from present, reality from dreams.
While most certainly a ghost story, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” does not fall back on the storytelling techniques that are typical of its genre. Portioned out in nine episodes, the story is told at a slow pace, void of any kinds of jump scares, corny effects or narrative cliches. Instead, the plot unfolds at an unhurried rate, producing a disturbing ambiance of mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The sedated pacing, partnered with a dark tone and visuals, makes the setting of the manor and its surrounding wooded land seem almost otherworldly. At first watch, the leisurely pace of the show’s first few episodes may leave you feeling bored — until some slight movement or shadow in the background of a scene catches your eye, drawing you back into the story and leaving you wondering what else you may have missed. “Bly Manor” is not the kind of show that can be watched casually while you scroll mindlessly on social media with one hand and eat a post-class snack with the other — look away for one moment, and the key to unlocking the essentials of the show will pass you by.
One of the most beautiful and heartwarming byproducts of this dark and captivating story is the close interpersonal relationships forged between the core adult characters of the show: Dani, Hannah, Owen and Jamie. The staff of Bly Manor are drawn together as an occupational hazard but grow close from the bond created by their love of Bly and the sweet, domestic moments they share in an otherwise gloomy home overshadowed by ghosts. Their compelling dynamic as a found family is what drives the audience’s personal love and attachment to the four characters, carrying our interest in the story over an occasional lull in the plot or dragging storyline in the slower-paced show. The purest thing to emerge from the story of Bly Manor is a tender romantic relationship between Dani and Jamie. Their romance progresses slowly but surely, balancing out the angst of the show’s central storyline. Understated, yet poignant, their relationship is an authentic portrayal of a sapphic romance — representation without any underlying tokenism or disingenuity. Their raw, intense and beautifully simple relationship is so meaningful to me, and it brought me so much joy to watch it unfold. The emotions that I felt watching Dani and Jamie’s story unfold are nearly impossible to describe, and I implore you to explore that story in “The Haunting of Bly Manor” so that you might feel the tiniest inkling of those emotions yourself.
With unique storytelling techniques, a gripping plot and a complex backstory that leaves you invested in each and every character’s outcome, the ghost story at the core of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is absolutely captivating. However, it’s not the climax of the tale that leaves the viewer the most shaken but rather the aftermath. Even 30 years after the haunted chapter of Bly Manor came to a close in the life of its residents, the ghost of those experiences still haunts them all. The audience is forced to watch the slow, painful heartbreak that overtakes Bly Manor’s former inhabitants, spreading like a disease and completely altering the trajectories of their lives. The events of Bly Manor haunt not only the characters but us, the audience, as well. The story we watch is like an earworm — an eerie melody you can’t seem to shake after you hear it for the very first time. The beauty of the show will never leave you. So, as the season creeps slowly from summer into fall, and you begin to feel that telltale chill in the air, indulge yourself in a fantastical story that will leave you haunted for a very, very long time.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.