The year is 1987, and a young American woman named Dani (Victoria Pedretti) takes a job at as an au pair in the English countryside, looking after Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) Wingrave, two young children who have lost their parents.
It is all perfectly splendid. At least, that’s how Flora would describe it. To her, everything is perfectly splendid, a phrase she repeats with such frequency that it somehow becomes twisted and sinister in her little girl mouth. And indeed, there’s nothing splendid about Dani’s new life in Bly Manor, the titular haunted house that replaces Hill House from the anthology series’ first iteration. The Haunting Of Bly Manor—completely unconnected to Hill House despite sharing several cast members, a score, and a creator—promises a retelling of The Turn Of The Screw, Henry James’ gothic-horror novella. Creepy dolls, shadowy figures, and creaking hallways abound. It’s a classic, simple haunted house setup so far, and in its initial episode Bly Manor fills its unsettling world with just the right amount of disturbances.
Nothing is exactly as it seems, and Dani is so far an ideal horror protagonist in the sense that she isn’t entirely naive but rather rightfully skeptical of some of Bly Manor’s peculiarities. Right away in the first scene, Dani calls out the children’s uncle Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) when he suggests that she’s hiding something. She questions exactly what he’s hiding given that his posting for an au pair keeps going unfulfilled. It turns out she’s stepping into a dead woman’s shoes. Miles and Flora didn’t only lose their parents but soon after lost their previous au pair Rebecca Jessel, too.
Dani is hiding something. Her past remains vague, but it’s likely tragic. She covers mirrors; she’s running from something according to her phone conversation with her mother; a figure with burning eyes appears in reflections. She brings her own haunting to Bly, which brims so much with hauntings of its own that the house has to expand to hold it all. “The rooms were larger at night, as though the house itself had inhaled deeply,” the narrator muses. It’s brilliant imagery that settles us into Dani’s mind. She isn’t wholly scared of Bly. She’s brave in the face of some of the children’s creepiness, but she’s also on a mission for answers, an effective viewer surrogate as we’re dropped into this labyrinth.
Speaking of the narrator, Bly Manor’s narrative structure evokes the feeling of someone telling a ghost story in a group. The episode starts in the present with an unnamed character played by Carla Gugino (who deserved more accolades for her performance in Hill House) arriving at a wedding rehearsal dinner. She settles us into the past in 1987, occasionally popping in to add color and context to the story of Bly. She insists the story is not her own with such adamance that she no doubt plays some sort of role in it all. But that’s just one of Bly Manor’s many mysteries.
In the first episode, the hauntings stay relatively quiet. The monster Dani sees in reflections makes for the most overt jump-scares. The rest of the frights unsettle with subtlety. Flora fills her massive dollhouse—a replica of Bly—with strange beings and warns Dani against leaving her room at night. Even more disturbingly, she reacts to an unseen figure behind Dani while in the tub, possibly seeing and communicating with one of Bly’s ghosts. The housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) refuses food, which might not carry much significance in a different world, but in Bly Manor, anything slightly out of the ordinary, like the phantom who keeps prank calling the manor, could point to the supernatural.
A strange man appears on the terrace then suddenly disappears. Bly Manor undeniably has ghosts, but we’re not sure who they are yet. The first episode goes to great lengths to establish its tone and the overall conceit of a haunted house. It sets up its interconnected mysteries as Dani moves through Bly, providing just enough information to thrill without giving up too much right away.
In addition to Dani, the kids, and Hannah, there’s also the gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), who we don’t get much of, and the chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), who serves the function of the sort of nice, playful guy who seems completely unaware of the horrors around him. Ms. Jessel, despite being dead at the start of the season, is already a significant character, too. The most information we get about the past comes from Hannah, who tells Dani about Ms. Jessel’s downfall, which apparently hinges on a man she fell in love with who stole money from Henry.
So far that’s just some clunky exposition. What I’m more interested is Hannah’s reveal that Flora found Ms. Jessel dead in the lake. Flora and Miles have undeniably had traumatic experiences, and it’s unclear if they’re explicitly possessed children or if their odd behaviors are reactions to that trauma. Flora does not like that Dani is wearing Ms. Jessel’s hair clip, which is a perfectly normal reaction from a kid experiencing loss. But then she makes a sudden 180 about it, letting Dani know it’s okay, suggesting she might even be in contact with Ms. Jessel. She does spend time at the lake where she drowned. Almost like she’s called to it.
Much of Bly Manor’s first episode acts as a siren’s song, luring us into its dangers. In the end, Miles and Flora lock Dani in a closet, which could just be regular ol’ bad behaving kid stuff, but again, the premiere is so deft at constructing an overarching sense of doom and uncertainty that it’s safe to assume that everything that happens at Bly has an insidious underbelly.
- I’ll be posting one of these recaps a day for the next nine days. If you’re watching ahead, be sure to give spoiler warnings in comments that touch on future episodes.
- So far, this is a closer adaptation of the original work than Hill House started out.
- Despite the narration device, this series seems to prefer a linear approach to storytelling versus jumping around in time the way Hill House does right away.
- Okay, I promise that the Strays aren’t just going to be comparisons to Hill House every week, because I do understand that these are entirely separate stories, but Hill House is one of my favorite shows in recent years, and it will likely be on mind while watching this.
- Hannah says that the candles in the chapel represent the dead, and there are four lit. Two must be for Flora and Miles’ parents
- Something is off with Miles...he talks like he’s much older than he is. Do we have a possession on our hands?
- Miles might be possessed, and Flora’s also got something going on with those creepy ass dolls.