"The Haunting of Bly Manor" handles queer love and loss with compassion and challenges old tropes
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Warning: This article deals with major spoilers for Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor, so if you are not finished with the series, please consider bookmarking this article and coming back later.
Ok, seriously now, spoilers ahead.
Mike Flanagan has done something that many non-queer showrunners have managed to do: surprise the hell out of me. Flanagan, who was also behind 2018's queer-inclusive The Haunting of Hill House, is back with a sequel of sorts if in spirit and casting only. Bly Manor, which was released by Netflix over the weekend centers not only a queer woman, but a queer love story. To paraphrase the bride's commentary in the last episode, The Haunting of Bly Manor, isn't really a ghost story. It's a love story. And despite its tragedy, it's a damn good one too.
Dani Crawford (Victoria Pedretti, returning to the franchise now in the lead role) has been running from a ghost of her own making for years and ends up right in the middle of a literal haunted house with perfectly splendid (and strange) children to take care of. We don't learn Dani's secret right away, but it doesn't take forever and a million flashing lights to tell us. In the mid-80s, Dani was engaged to her childhood sweetheart but broke things off because she's gay. She never says it out loud, but we recognize that familiar fear in her eyes as she is trotted out at her engagement party. The tingles that run through her at her dress fitting when she attractive seamstress runs her hands along Dani's waist and flirts with her eyes. When she finally tries to tell her fiancé about her true feelings, tragedy strikes and pushes Dani further into herself. Dani's guilt and shame color her decisions and land her far from friends and family in rural England. While dealing with her dead fiancé's constant presence, she also allows herself to fall in love with a woman for the first time. Her love interest, Jaime (rising star Amelia Eve) couldn't be more different from the soft-spoken, heavy-hearted Dani. The manor's gardener, she's quick with retorts and has a sandpaper dry wit. Her compassion also has no end, and when the two women lock eyes for the first time, even Nikola Tesla would be jealous over the amount of electricity that crackles between them.
Since this is a haunting story, there are plenty of obstacles between Dani and Jaime, like murderous ghosts and nefarious plots, but we luckily get to skip the self-loathing aspects of queerness we all too often see in historical pieces. After initially backing away from Jaime, Dani quickly turns around and pursues her. Their romance is sweet and gentle, a far cry from the abusive and manipulative one between Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif), or the unspoken longing between Hannah (T'Nia Miller) and Owen (Rahul Kohil). No one bats an eye at the love between the women, instead actively encouraging and supporting them.
Now let's dive into the truly complicated part of this story. The Haunting of Bly Manor was always going to be about tragedy. No one is immune to pain in this story. Not the children, not the parents, and not even its lead, Dani. After one of the children, Flora, puts herself in harm's way (well, the Lady of the Lake's way) to save Dani, Dani in turn sacrifices her future to save Flora and lets the Lady in. The moment instantly changes Dani, who after years of carrying a figurative ghost around with her, now has an actual one to contend with. Jaime, in love and aware of Dani's sacrifice, dedicates whatever time they both have left to Dani.
And what a time they have. Years of love, laughter, and peace as our narrator (who we realize is Jaime near the end of the season) tells us. They travel, they build a life and business. They have over a decade of a truly beautiful life together. Then one day, the Lady of the Lake pushes through the veil and Dani knows that her time with Jaime has come to an end. Even as Jaime promised one day at a time, Dani knows she won't be able to let her go, so she leaves to fulfill the Lady's destiny at the bottom of the lake at Bly Manor. It's painful to see Jaime and Dani's anguish, but it doesn't feel like a case of Bury Your Gays. The story is Dani's. This is her sacrifice, her promise. Dani doesn't perish to help someone else's story along. She doesn't get one single moment of happiness before being brought down in a hail of bullets. She's not murdered by a man out of jealousy or rage. Her time was simply up.
It's never easy to reconcile the death of a queer character. We've been so burned, so maligned, so manipulated in the past, it's easy to write off any queer death as a bury your gays moment. But, I don't think that is what Dani's death was. Mike Flanagan, who is married to actress Kate Siegel, an out bisexual woman, managed to create a nuanced story about love and loss that, while sad and difficult, respects the pain that queer audiences have been subjected to. Our narrator, the one who controls the story, is a lesbian. Our heroine is also gay. This love story is queer and never tries to be anything different. Dani's death, Jaime's grief, and desire to keep Dani's memory alive, it's real and it's human, beautiful, and broken. Stories like this live in the deepest regions of all of our hearts. It's what makes Flanagan such a good storyteller. He doesn't take the easy way out and burying your gays is the easy way out. The point of rebelling against the carnage of so many queer characters wasn't that those characters could and should never die. It was that their lives were celebrated and their deaths made sense. Bly Manor celebrates Dani every moment she's on-screen. Her death, her sacrifice is not in vain.
The Haunting of Bly Manor isn't a ghost story. It's a love story.