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The Haunting Of Bly Manor misses the mark with Dani’s backstory

The Haunting Of Bly Manor
The Haunting Of Bly Manor
Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix
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I wish this were a more obvious statement, but good queer representation does not mean queer characters have to be good people. When queer critics talk about good queer representation, we’re talking about nuanced, complex writing that doesn’t reiterate tropes designed and perpetuated by the overculture. Theodora Crain from The Haunting Of Hill House is an excellent example of a fully realized, complex queer character. She contains contradictions. She’s a bit of a fuckboy despite being perfectly attuned to the feelings of others. She can be assertive and vulnerable. She’s desperate for boundaries with her siblings but also bad at boundaries in her sexual relationships. In short, she’s a very well-written character whose queerness is important to her identity but doesn’t solely define her. Given all that and the events of Bly Manor’s “The Way It Came,” Dani’s queerness feels like a step back for The Haunting universe’s queer representation.

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It’s another flashback-heavy episode, but instead of revisiting Rebecca and Peter’s doomed courtship, we’re plunged into Dani’s past, which has been alluded to a few times, most overtly by the fact that a haunting has followed her to Bly. We start with Dani as a child and her friend Edmund. He’s just gotten glasses, and she pulls them off his face and asks if having to wear them forever means he’ll have to wear them until he dies. Cut to Dani and Edmund’s engagement party years later. So in the first three minutes, it’s pretty clear where things are going to go: Dani’s got a dead ex haunting her from the other side.

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Despite that being the obvious direction things are heading in, we spend a lot of time getting there. And yet, Bly Manor spends time in these flashbacks on things that don’t matter a whole lot to the story. There’s immense pressure on Dani to go through with marrying her childhood sweetheart. Edmund’s speech at the engagement is meant to be sweet but comes off a little dark: He details their first failed engagement, which Dani had turned down on the account of them being too young. Then he essentially says that he wore her down until she said yes. She feels pressure from his mother, too, who’s thrilled to have a daughter-in-law. It’s also implied that she cares more about Dani than Dani’s own mother does. Dani’s hesitations are palpable from the start, and yet the flashbacks don’t do enough interior work to really make it all come together in a cogent and meaningful way.

It’s implied that part of Dani’s hesitation in marrying Edmund stems from her attraction to women, but this unfolds in such a subtextual way that it feels frustratingly dated. We basically get it from...one tiny moment between her and the woman fitting her for her wedding dress. So from one glance and a comment about shoulders, we’re supposed to glean that Dani’s relationship with Edmund is complicated by her latent queerness. I’m an expert in detecting queer subtext, and this isn’t exactly subtle. In fact, it’s almost too on-the-nose and yet entirely flat. There’s no emotional significance here. And hey, I don’t need Dani confessing her love for some woman in these flashbacks, but even Theodora Crain dancing in a club and picking up a rando has more depth to it than this moment. We return to the present for a bit but when we’re back in the flashbacks, we go from that one moment with the woman fitting the dress to Dani suddenly calling off the engagement.

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The breakup is presumably the first time Dani is acting on her own desires. And then she’s punished for it. Edmund is hit by a car mere minutes after Dani ends things with him. The fiery eyes she sees in reflections mimic the headlights in his glasses in the split second before he dies a violent death. And listen, I don’t think that Dani’s understanding of her own queerness shouldn’t be complicated. Given the time period and her situation, of course it isn’t going to be easy. Of course Edmund might react with anger the way he does. Of course she has reservations about coming out. But to follow this one crumb of a glimpse into her potential attraction to women with the immediate tragic death of her childhood-best-friend-turned-fiancé? It’s sadistic in a way that doesn’t really fit the story, and Bly Manor never grapples with any of it enough to make it work.

In the present, we get to see Dani’s clear attraction to Jamie, but that comes with caveats, too. Every time Dani gets physically close to Jamie, Edmund’s ghost shows up. But his ghost doesn’t really seem to cross any kind of threshold. He doesn’t do anything. He merely appears. So is this really a ghost from the other side or is it mostly in Dani’s head? It seems more like the latter. Like the real-life kind of haunting. A traumatic memory that enters uninterrupted. Dani’s essentially being haunted by her own shame about being queer and her guilt about what happened to Edmund, but Bly barely skims the surface on what that really means. Internalized homophobia is a powerful force, and using a haunting as a metaphor for it could be a compelling device, but Bly Manor doesn’t pull those threads all the way through, so instead the writing falls short and reiterates the trope of queer characters being punished for acting on their desires. The only times we get to see Dani contemplate or act on her own queerness, it’s either heavily coded (in the past) or interrupted by Edmund (in the present).

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The episode grapples with grief, with the scenes in the present revolving around the death of Owen’s mom. Owen’s loss prompts everything to contemplate the people they’ve lost, so it makes sense to revisit Dani’s backstory here, even if the flashbacks end up being somewhat lifeless. The adults of Bly have a drunken night of emo contemplation around a bonfire, and these moments touch on each of the character’s relationships to loss.

Bly Manor continues the excellent work of obscuring the children’s motives and behaviours. There’s a lovely moment between Owen and Flora in which she tries to comfort him about his dead mom. She says she felt dead after her parents died and that that feeling is the only way she knew she was alive. It’s gutting. “Dead doesn’t mean gone,” Flora tells him. It’s one of those sweet things on Bly Manor that could easily fun-house-mirror-swirl into something more sinister. Does she mean that we keep the dead alive in our memories or does she mean that the dead can return to haunt the living?

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On a similar note, Miles has an outburst at the dinner table after asking for a glass of wine, and while it could be another indication that he is being possessed by someone older—like Peter Quint—Dani recasts it as another side effect of his grief. She relates to him, saying she used to act older because she didn’t really have parents growing up either. “The kids like us, like you, and me, and Flora, we’re special,” she says. “We grow up faster than other kids.” Again, Bly Manor keeps both possibilities alive: There could be something supernaturally wrong with these kids or they could just be dealing with complex trauma. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two.

Dani has her fair share of experience with the dead returning to haunt the living. She’s desperate to forget her memories from before, but she finally talks to Jamie about her dead fiancé and even tells her that she sees him. She narrates everything we already know from the flashbacks: that she broke up with him right before he died. Redundancy does seem to be an issue in this episode, but a lot of the information also just feels unnecessary. “The Way It Came” spends a lot of time providing answers for just one small part of its sprawling web of questions, and those answers aren’t that satisfying. The flashbacks feel like a long tangent, and while some compelling stuff pops up, it all stays surface-level and lacks nuance and emotional depth. What started as a pretty simple and straightforward haunted house is quickly spiraling into overstuffed territory, and while layers to the story are welcome, they need time to bake. Otherwise, the whole narrative crumbles.

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Jamie and Dani finally kiss, but Edmund does interrupt. And when Dani reacts, Jamie says they can try a different night. That moment allows Narrator Carla Gugino to inform us that Dani has been holding herself back from her own desires for a very, very long time. She’s immensely repressed, and that repression has literally taken the form of a haunting. But Bly Manor doesn’t engage with that enough, and it instead becomes mired in weak writing, almost like it isn’t sure exactly what it wants to say about Dani’s queerness. Jamie and Dani’s romance doesn’t even carry much weight; it seems to be based more on proximity than genuine chemistry or care. Even the way these characters had been introduced in the first episode—as in, not at all—is strange. There’s supposedly this big pull between them, and yet that isn’t really felt in “The Way It Came.” Instead, queer desire is rendered flat and unspecific.


Stray observations

  • I didn’t want the whole review to turn too much into a diatribe about queer representation, but I’ll say a little more here in the Strays. I don’t know what would be better terms than “good” or “positive” queer representation, because unfortunately I think both words have too much of a value judgement attached to them. “Authentic” queer representation isn’t right either, because queer lived experience varies so much and is so broad that what’s authentic for one person might not be for another. “Strong” is imperfect, too, because just look at the way “strong female character” has become such a diluted term that it barely conveys any critical meaning. I don’t know what the answer is! Maybe it’s not the language that’s an issue. Maybe we need to just have ongoing conversations about what we mean when we talk about representation.
  • Hannah and Dani don’t go to the funeral, a detail that lends itself to my theory that Hannah can’t leave Bly and might be dead. Owen and Jamie are the only people who seem to be able to leave, so that could mean there’s something wrong with the kids, too.
  • Who do all these Lloyd tombstones belong to?
  • “We don’t let him in the house. That’s not how it works,” Flora says before looking over Dani’s shoulder at someone we can’t see. Flora and Miles definitely know more about what’s happening at Bly than they let on.
  • Dani says that she mentioned her fiancé earlier to Jamie, but I don’t remember that actually occurring in-scene?
  • Do you ever stop to think about the fact that Carla Gugino is telling this LONG ASS STORY to someone on the eve of their WEDDING DAY? I would be so annoyed. But also...who even is she to these people?
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