Once The Haunting of Bly Manor’s narrator (Carla Gugino) has finished her long, spooky story, a listener approaches her with some edits.
“I liked your story,” she says. “But I think you set it up wrong. You said it was a ghost story. It isn’t. It’s a love story.”
It’s a moment that reads as a wink from creator Mike Flanagan to fans of his first horror-anthology installment, 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House. That series used Shirley Jackson’s novel as a springboard for exploring familial grief, aided by a healthy dose of gothic horror—it’s set at a creepy mansion and filled to the brim with ghostly manifestations of trauma.
While those gothic elements are just as present in Bly Manor, fans of the original season may be surprised to find that scares are largely traded for romantic melodrama. Here, Flanagan is much more interested in using the genre to illustrate how the specter of a lost love is something that often hangs over you for life. But the most welcome surprise is how the series’ central romance between Victoria Pedretti’s Dani and Amelia Eve’s Jamie successfully brings a lesbian gothic romance to mainstream TV.
Loosely inspired by various Henry James tales—particularly The Turn of the Screw—the show primarily follows Dani, a young American who takes a job as a governess for two parentless children at an English country manor with more than a few skeletons in its closet. As if the notion of a woman moving across the ocean and being willing to give up years of her life for creepy kids wasn’t enough of a clue, an ominous phone call to her mother and the glowing-eyed phantom that trails her reflection make it clear that Dani’s running from something.
Episode four reveals that the spirit haunting her is not only a representation of grief, but of her guilt and repression of her sexuality. A flashback informs us that not long before Bly Manor begins, Dani was engaged to her childhood best friend Edmund (Roby Attal).
On the surface, a scene where she listens to her fiancé fondly describe his proposal at the couple’s engagement party is much lighter fare than the rest of Bly Manor—the setting is not a dreary estate, but a sunny suburban home full of smiling faces. The only person who doesn’t seem thrilled? Dani herself, who only offers a stiff, forced grin.
She gets drawn into a shuffle of wedding-planning activities, but there’s a sense that these things are happening to her rather than for her.
Given the easy flirtations that we’ve seen her strike up with Bly Manor’s sardonic gardener, Jamie, it becomes clear that even if she may want to want this marriage, Dani is a closeted lesbian.
“I just thought I was being selfish,” she tearfully tells Edmund. “That I could just stick it out, and eventually I would feel how I was supposed to.”
Their argument accidentally costs him his life, turning him into the specter that’s been haunting Dani ever since.
Although coming-out narratives have saturated queer media as it’s become increasingly mainstream, there are still few stories about the terrors of compulsory heterosexuality. For many queer people, it’s ultimately fear of hurting our friends and families that keep us in the closet. If the people around us easily slip into straight relationships, why disrupt their perceptions of us when we might eventually feel what they feel?
It’s a topic that’s even rarer in horror, where queer characters have often been cast as the “other,” threatening a story’s good guys as much as a stereotypical monster would.
Luckily, Bly Manor doesn’t include trite scenes of Dani having to explain her sexuality to the kids, or begging the house’s other residents to accept her. The only person who she has to make peace with is herself, and supernatural elements only reinforce that.
Edmund’s ghost appears for the last time while Dani kisses Jamie for the first time; by the time she fully admits her feelings and throws Edmund’s old glasses in the fire, he vanishes completely.
The show’s focus on Dani and Jamie feels particularly subversive given how lesbians in classic gothic stories like Rebecca and Dracula’s Daughter have historically been painted as possessive predators.
Bly Manor takes its own stab at gothic obsession through the relationship between the children’s former governess, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and the family’s shifty valet, Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
“I don’t think that should be possible. I mean, they’re opposites, really. Love and ownership.”
The pair quickly become lovers, and when Peter becomes a ghost trapped on the manor’s grounds, he’s desperate to keep Jessel with him. He eventually convinces her to allow him to temporarily possess her body so that they can leave Bly together, but when she wakes up, Jessel finds her body drowned in the estate’s lake. She’s doomed to stay there as a ghost forever, with a man more interested in coveting her than meeting her on equal ground.
“I don’t think that should be possible,” Dani muses after Jamie tells her about the ill-fated romance. “I mean, they’re opposites, really. Love and ownership.”
Her views are reinforced in the series finale, which highlights the necessities of remembering people we’ve lost with an ending that’s as heart-wrenching as it is cathartic.
Within the episode’s first 10 minutes, Dani allows the house’s vengeful main ghost, Viola, to enter her body. It effectively breaks the curse trapping ghosts at Bly, allowing Dani and Jamie to start a new life together.
Still, Dani can feel Viola’s spirit, and it’s only a matter of time before it takes over her body entirely. Even so, the couple gets almost a decade together, as indicated by an achingly sweet domestic montage complete with a flower shop and engagement rings buried in soil. Then Dani sees Viola’s reflection in water, and wakes up one night to find her hand around Jamie’s throat.
It would be easy to take Peter’s lead and let Viola take over, drowning both of them in the afterlife forever. But Dani knows the difference between love and possession, and Jamie wakes to find that her partner has drowned herself at Bly.
Although Dani’s tragic fate could be a textbook example of the infamous “bury your gays” trope in another show, every romance in Bly Manor is bookended by loss. After all, this is a show that opens with the words, “To truly love another person is to accept that the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.”
That sentiment takes on new meaning when we finally learn that the narrator is an older Jamie, who still sleeps with an unlocked door and stares at bath water in hopes of seeing Dani’s ghost.
In Bly Manor’s final moments, her wish is unknowingly answered. Jamie’s grey hair briefly turns brown again, as Dani’s hand—ring still intact—appears on her shoulder. It’s bittersweet, but after decades of queer people being painted as monsterous “others,” Flanagan’s choice to center a lesbian couple in his ghostly but deeply human love story feels right.