Earlier this month, Netflix dropped its banner offering for the spooky season: The Haunting of Bly Manor, an embellished adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I looked forward to this show, and I watched it with wine. I never expected that could be a mistake. Like three-ish glasses and suddenly I am hopelessly tangled in the absurd web of ghost law that supposedly floats this whole production. Frankly, what the hell?
If you build your story around a house absolutely stuffed with ghosts, then you need to set some ground rules that govern what those spirits can and cannot do. This is necessary for plot progression purposes, and also to keep your mildly belligerent viewer from shouting at the screen about how do the ghosts work. Frustratingly, Bly Manor refuses to abide by any consistent ghost laws. Bly Manor is anarchist jurisdiction.
Bly spends its first few episodes checking the boxes for an acceptably scary, if familiar, story: A protagonist (Dani, the au pair) trying to bury her own demons in a new life; two creepy orphans (Flora and Miles) whose custodians have historically met tragic ends; and a sentient country estate with a sinister agenda. That Bly Manor is haunted is a given, baked into the show’s title. How it is haunted is another question entirely.
A big thing for Bly ghosts is the murky concept of getting “tucked away,” which basically means waking up from a lucid dream to find yourself trapped inside another one. For example, felonious cad Peter Quint and his girlfriend, former governess Rebecca Jessel, continually revisit a sexy-then-sad encounter in the master bedroom. They replay it ad nauseam until Rebecca finally grasps the reality of her situation, namely that ghost-Quint sold her out just before her death, dooming the pair of them to infinite parallel lives at Bly. The discovery process, repetition until the lesson is learned, unfolds basically the same way for every victim “tucked away” at Bly. Or, every one except Flora, a certifiably alive girl who spends a good portion of the next episode getting yanked back and forth through the past two years, asking other characters if she is “tucked away again.” Okay yes so this means Flora is also a ghost, you say as you pat yourself smugly on the brain. Somehow, it does not.
Possibly related to the “tucked away” confusion, there is the matter of possession: Certain among the Bly Manor phantoms can move into living human bodies like hermit crabs into empty shells. Peter Quint died at Bly; his shade subsequently colonizes Miles, at least occasionally. Sometimes Quint’s figure can be seen stalking the manor’s shrub line; sometimes his spirit retreats into this little boy. The entry and exit points are unclear, as is the duration of time he can comfortably hang out in there; this ambiguity creates all sorts of plot twists and turns, but mainly leads me to a series of unanswered questions: The ghosts can possess people? Does that account for Flora’s constant tucking? Can all the ghosts do possessions? Is it only the conspicuously hot ones central to the story, or could the random plague doctor do it, too? And if he did, then what would be the merits of this lifestyle?
Consider Hannah Grose, the housekeeper whose ghost status crystallizes when she starts skidding sideways through time. Despite her special connection with smoldering cook Owen (alive), and her friendship with groundskeeper Jamie (also alive), nobody realizes that Hannah has been dead for months if not years until Bly’s spell is broken and they find her corpse. Hannah’s specter continues attending house meals, disciplining the children, operating the vacuum cleaner, changing her outfits, flirting with her Earthly love interest, without anyone clocking the difference.
For Hannah, ghostly existence at Bly mirrors human existence, only unmoored from the typical timeline. Like the other phantoms on the estate, she cannot leave the grounds or advance her own narrative unless (presumably) she slips inside a breathing body — seemingly a temporary solution, if it is a solution at all. Also, her face would (again, presumably) eventually fade away … but whether or not that process takes a regular human life time, we do not know. Nor do we know why some living characters — such as Uncle Henry, who hires Dani to work at the manor — live alongside their own ghostly counterparts even in the outside world. Nor do we know why some spirits can see one another, communicate, and influence household objects, while others apparently can’t.
These are just a few of Bly’s mysteries, way too many for one sauced mind to absorb. Unfortunately sobriety does not make the maze easier to navigate: More than a week later, I’m still puzzling over the loopholes in this ghost law, falling through gaps in the plot, stuck in a TV glue trap. I’m sure the ghosts can relate.