Let’s see if it is all perfectly splendid.
I imagine many of you, like myself, were eager to see Flanagan’s follow up to The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep. Flanagan has proven himself to be able to develop emotive and powerful horror, but something simply goes wrong this time.
I have hemmed and hawed over whether to write a spoiler free review or one that analyzes the entire series. Opting for both, there will be a break later in this review to hide the spoiler analysis portion. I hate blogs that incessantly force another “click,” so please forgive me for this change in the usual format.
In Bly, we are told a story by a wedding guest (Carla Gugino-now with a British accent) who warns that the story is a long one. Through her narration, we meet Dani (Victoria Pedretti) who serves as the primary protagonist (mostly) for the series. Dani, an American living in London, takes a job as an au pair for a wealthy man’s niece and nephew. Henry (Henry Thomas—now with a British accent) is clearly a drunk and seems completely disconnected from the children of his late brother. His efforts to hire an au pair seems to be primarily done so he can cast any responsibility of the children onto someone else.
Motivations in this story are implied for the most part (that is until you are beaten over the head with exposition and a sort of hand-holding storytelling that insults the audience). We are shown that Henry is an alcoholic who cares not for his responsibilities. We are also shown that Dani is haunted by a glasses wearing dark specter. Further, we are introduced to Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), the niece, who seems to be looking at things behind people, and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), the nephew, who appears to be a sociopath. We’re also introduced to the cook, Owen (Rahil Kohli) and the housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) quickly. Through this shotgun blast of introductions in the first two episodes we’re given just enough information that something is wrong at the Bly manor.
Piecemeal mysteries are a hard thing to manage. Every gear in a story needs to be well-polished, and the more gears present the more polish is needed, let’s just say this one runs a bit squeakily. If you don’t like that analogy, try this one: this story tries to be stitched tightly together, but the stitches itch, and pulling at them tumbles the whole thing.
Aside from numerous subplots and characters that go nowhere, we’re introduced to a horror universe that has inconsistent rules. For horror, there are basically two options in world building: there are rules or there aren’t. Bly tries to straddle this line (and covers a lot of errors by having children be our primary source of information) but ultimately fails. Without a consistent grounding as to what haunting means in this context we are given a home that is wrong but not scary. Ghosts and ghouls linger about, but often do not interact with the characters in a meaningful way. The big bad reveal doesn’t come until far too late, and so much goodwill will be fried at that point there is little recovery.
You see, we have a haunted au pair going to a haunted house that is troubled because the previous au pair committed suicide. The children are troubled due their parents’ death, and the suicide, and the rest of the staff seems to be doing okay. They say they are troubled, but these troubles don’t manifest in a way that allows us to care.
In Hill House the children bring the past with them as they go out into the world. The manor represented in many ways the central character. The house was alive, and from it the children caried psychological and physical baggage. Here, our characters bring their baggage to an already troubled home. I suppose I’m analogy heavy in this one: the house becomes so crammed with baggage that there is a surplus of things to care about.
Our story becomes paradoxically overwritten and underdeveloped. A late series episode could have been its own season and presents more intrigue than our too-nice houseguests allow. There is little depth to the characters here. Hannah and Owen are seemingly perfect people. Lovely, yes—deep, no. Owen is perhaps the kindest soul in the universe and can do little more than make puns and dump information. Our fiery gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) indicates a troubled past, but rather than allowing this to develop we are simply given a lengthy monologue. With nearly ten hours these people should have been characterized more than fun, caring, stern, and loving (these are the terms I would assign the characters individually with little crossover. They are given one principal trait).
Ten hours and we don’t know much at the end. We’re told how to feel, and to their credit, all of the actors and actresses do well to derive as much emotion as they can from the scenes. However, we can’t ignore the fact that we are told what to feel rather than shown through storytelling. Characters disappear (sometimes inexplicably) for entire episodes. Plotlines are rushed, not finished, and dropped from the series.
For me, this season is too messy to be considered a true successor to Hill House. Flanagan is working on yet another Netflix series now, and perhaps he needs to slow down. With three series and Doctor Sleep in the last few years he is one busy individual. Perhaps this is simply a misstep, and I hope that is the case because he has shown that he can do better than this.
Seriously, don’t read unless you’ve watched the show.