This article contains spoilers for the first five episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Like The Haunting of Hill House before it, The Haunting of Bly Manor hinges on a fifth episode that casts everything we’ve seen in a different light and reframes the series for its second half. But where Hill House’s “The Bent-Neck Lady” revealed that one of the story’s core characters had effectively been haunting herself, traveling through time in a futile attempt to warn herself of her impending death, Bly Manor’s “The Altar of the Dead” reveals that the Gothic mansion’s housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), is already dead when the story starts. She has been a ghost all along.
The groundwork for the twist is laid from Hannah’s first appearance, although there’s no way to know it the first time through. At the end of “The Altar of the Dead,” Hannah is pushed into a well by 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), the haunted scion of Bly Manor’s late lord and lady. (In his defense, he’s possessed at the time by the ghost of Peter Quint, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, the seducer and scoundrel who was also the family’s chauffeur.) She’s staring into that well when we first see her, her shoulders unevenly hunched, and the first thing she does when she straightens up is place a hand to her neck, which has been snapped by the fall. Throughout the next four episodes, we’ll see Hannah refuse food and drink, supposedly due to a lack of appetite, and explain that she’s out of sorts because she hasn’t been sleeping well—her mind not yet having come to grips with the fact that she doesn’t need to sleep because she’s no longer alive.
Because the series’s first four episodes hop backward and forward in time, it’s easy to overlook the way it avoids having Hannah physically interact with the other characters. But there’s a subtle hint early on that Hannah is not among the house’s living. When Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti)—the American who’s been hired as governess to the two Wingrave children, Miles and his younger sister, Flora—first puts the girl to bed, Flora shows Dani her dollhouse, an elaborate replica of Bly Manor populated by handmade figurines. The newest of them, basically a remodeled Barbie, is Dani herself, but the rest will eventually be recognizable as representations of Bly’s ghosts: the Lady in the Lake, Peter, and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the children’s former governess and Peter’s doomed lover. (There are several other figures who won’t be introduced until the series’s penultimate episode, which finally reveals the tragic backstory of the house’s faceless big bad, the Lady in the Lake.) But there among them is a doll that clearly represents Hannah Grose, in the red sweater and green skirt she’s wearing when we meet her, the clothes that still adorn the body at the bottom of the well.
Bly Manor, like Hill House, uses its flashback-heavy early episodes to flesh out its major characters, so when “The Altar of the Dead” starts showing us pieces of Hannah’s previous life, it feels as if we’re in for more of the same. But it begins oddly, with a flashback that starts only a few minutes before the end of the previous episode. As she sits by a campfire with Bly’s cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), who’s just buried his mother, Hannah stares quizzically at an open bottle of wine, as if she’s not sure what to do with it, and the narrator (Carla Gugino), explains that when Hannah was troubled, “she would always find her way back to peace within her daily routine.” Hannah and Owen have been nursing a Remains of the Day–style crush on each other for years, and the idea that Owen, who only took a job in the country house to be near his ailing mother, might leave now that she’s dead fills Hannah with trepidation. It’s that anxiety that seems to cue her flashback to the moment she and Owen met, at his job interview in the manor’s homey kitchen. But Hannah isn’t just remembering her past. She’s inhabiting it.
In the kitchen, Hannah is wearing red again—a blouse this time instead of a sweater, but virtually the same color as the outfit she died in—and when Owen walks in, she seems confused, like an actor who’s lost her place in the script. The rest of the episode moves her through time as if she’s physically traversing it, the way the bravura long take in Hill House’s “Two Storms” moved seamlessly from a funeral home in the present to a haunted mansion decades past. But here, rather than smoothing over the transitions, the episode, which was directed by Liam Gavin, highlights them. Hannah might open a door in 1982 and walk through into 1984, her movements fluid but everything else jarringly abrupt. It’s nighttime in one shot and daytime in the next, as Hannah jumps from one side of the screen to the other, her orientation flip-flopping so that she’s almost face to face with herself. (Ken Blackwell and Jason Hellman’s editing is spectacular.) Eventually Hannah finds herself back in the kitchen, in the middle of interviewing Owen, and at that point she starts to catch on. “Haven’t we already done this?” she says in that English way that suggests she regrets even having to bring up the subject, and Owen takes a beat before looking at her sympathetically: “Yes. But we have to do it again.”
Like the episodes before it, “The Altar of the Dead” fills in its central character’s backstory, but unlike those, it never leaves the grounds of Bly Manor. We learn that Hannah had a husband who left her for another woman, but we don’t see him, and when Lady Wingrave (Alex Essoe) suggests that Hannah can sell her house and live with them instead, it doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, since we’ve never seen Hannah anywhere else. The narrator suggests that’s because Hannah is sticking closest to what she knows best, the “daily routine” that orders her life, even when she’s no longer living. But it’s also because she can’t leave. She’s stuck in a dual prison, unable to depart Bly’s grounds, and unable to stop reliving her own regrets—the moments she could have stood up to Peter and perhaps saved Rebecca, the times she could have told Owen how she felt.
The Haunting of Hill House was at heart a story about childhood trauma, and at its core Bly Manor is about regret. Hannah is haunted by the time she gave to a man who didn’t love her, and the time she never had with one who might have. Dani is haunted by the ghost of her fiancé, a childhood sweetheart to whom she ended up engaged before she had the courage to tell him she was gay. It’s also about people who’ve lost their families, whether through tragedy or other means, building new ones. Dani, whose father died when she was young and whose mother abandoned her after that, tells the Wingrave children that being an orphan is special, because you get to choose the adults who will be in your life. Bly Manor’s residents make those choices, sometimes wisely and sometimes with fatal miscalculation, but the key to moving forward is not letting their past hem in their future. Although the series quickly departs from the premise laid out by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw—the show is officially based on “the work of Henry James,” since it incorporates elements from his other ghost stories—it shares with that novella that it’s a story about the English authored by an American, premised on the idea that letting tradition stop you from reinventing yourself is a good way to end up in an early grave.
All through Bly Manor’s first half, we’ve seen Hannah lighting candles in Bly Manor’s chapel to honor the dead, although it’s not clear whom she’s meant to be honoring unless it’s a morbid joke about her still-living ex-husband. But we know by the end of the fifth episode that those candles are for Hannah herself. In a cruelly poignant twist, the end of the episode takes us back to the opening moment by the campfire, when a very tipsy Owen mulls returning to Paris to continue his culinary training, and just about works up the nerve to ask Hannah to come with him. This time, she seizes the moment and tells him—yes! But he can’t hear her, and then the moment is gone. It’s a story composed of circles, from the well where Hannah met her death to the moments that replay in the characters’ minds. But the living at least have a chance to bend those lines. (Without spoiling the very ending of Bly Manor, I can say that the last shot is very nearly the same as the first, but with one crucial difference.) The dead can only retrace their steps, hoping they’ve lived enough good moments to linger in.
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