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In the final minutes of The Haunting of Bly Manor, a character remarks that the story we've just seen isn't really a ghost story at all, but a love story. It might be both, but even if you arrived at Bly Manor after the success of The Haunting of Hill House hoping for nothing more than a good scare, it's hard to deny the emotional impact of the multiple love stories running through the entire narrative. According to Hill House and Bly Manor creator Mike Flanagan, that was always part of the plan, as he and his writing team set out to craft layers of original story, using Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw as a catalyst.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor ahead.**
"[In] The Turn of the Screw, short of what seems to be a brief flirtation between the governess and the children's uncle, there's really nothing about it that lends itself to a love story. So, that immediately gives us a lot of room to move," Flanagan told SYFY WIRE and other members of the press at an event a week before Bly Manor launched. "And, looking for real estate is one of the first things we have to do approaching a story like this because, much like The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of the Screw lends itself perfectly to a feature film adaptation. There's just enough material there to make a great movie. To stretch it out over a season is going to require a lot of invention. So looking for ways that we know can kind of create that real estate is very important. The idea of doing a true Gothic romance, and of focusing on the love story above all else, that was baked into the original pitch for this. And the question became how to take the other Henry James sources, how to fold them together. And our goal was to basically use this ghost story as an excuse to tell a tragic love story, to see a relationship be born, kind of peak, and then to die and to live in the echo of that loss."
The "other Henry James sources" Flanagan refers to are not just the author's most beloved ghost stories, but fiction in a rather broad variety of subgenres that all deal with a certain sense of being haunted, whether it's by ones own surroundings ("The Great Good Place"), the life one might have led ("The Jolly Corner"), the life of a sibling ("The Romance of Certain Old Clothes"), or a sense of fatalism that looms over daily life (The Beast in the Jungle). Through all of that, and through conversations in the Bly Manor writers' room, Flanagan and company arrived at the idea of a love story between Dani (Victoria Pedretti), the governess who arrives at Bly Manor to care for the two children living there, and Jamie (Amelia Eve), the gardener more comfortable with plants than people.
That a love story would be at the core of Bly Manor's nine-episode season was never in doubt, and according to Flanagan, it was also never in doubt that it would be a love story between two women.
"It seemed like a chance to make the world a little bit better, conversationally at least," Flanagan says. "And, if we were going to tell a ghost story, you know, that's one thing. But, if we're going to tell a love story, if we're really going to tell a love story, then it was important to all of us to tell a love story — when you talk about things that have been done over and over and things that are too familiar — what's a love story that hasn't had as much representation out there in popular media? What's something that younger viewers, since we were aware we get a lot of younger viewers [after The Haunting of Hill House], what's something that might help them? What's something that might inspire them?
"And so, we decided, kind of before we broke the season, that the love story that we would focus on was going to be between Dani and Jamie, not between Dani and Owen [played by Rahul Kohli], which is kind of what seemed to be the boring way to do it," he continues. "That decision was part of the original pitch out for the season. And, as we populated the writers' room, the degree to which it was important to some of our writers, on a personal level, was something that was really exciting. Julia Bicknell, who wrote the finale of this season, she and her wife, who also works in the industry, this was something that she put to us. This was the kind of story that she wished she had seen when she was growing up."
Dani and Jamie's love story begins so gradually that barely any sparks seem to exist between them at all — because it's not about sparks but a sense of deep comfort. As the narrator (later revealed to be an older Jamie, played by Carla Gugino) explains when they first meet in Bly's kitchen, they don't introduce themselves to one another because they don't feel they need to, because they feel as though they've already known each other for some time. What follows is a journey of using that comfort and the love it breeds to overcome fear, as Dani struggles to escape the darkness of her past and Jamie struggles to let another human — one of the rare ones, as she explains in the fourth episode, worth taking time for — into her rather isolated life. For Pedretti, the sense of gradually piecing the love story together went hand-in-hand with the slow way in which she and Eve came to work together on the set.
"It was really incredible to be able to build the relationship in a realistic way, time-wise," Pedretti told SYFY WIRE and other members of the press at a roundtable event. "You know, we were developing a relationship personally, bit by bit, as we were able to spend that time together. Early on in shooting it was just so demanding, I didn't actually have the ability to spend that much time [with Eve]. But then we were talking about it and we were like 'But that works.' You know, we don't have an established relationship [in the beginning]. So, that level of mystery is actually feeding the way we were interacting with each other, I think, in a great way. And then, we got to get to know each other as we were exploring the characters' relationship over time."
Most of Bly Manor's runtime is devoted to the human characters struggling against the haunting of the title, grappling with the darkness of the manor as it threatens to consume the children, Miles and Flora. Dani and Jamie's life together beyond the manor is really only explored in the final minutes of the series finale, as it is revealed that Dani went on to live with the ghost of Lady Viola — who was the source of all the darkness at Bly to begin with — inside her for years after leaving the manor, staving off the darkness as she and Jamie built a life together and were, spiritually at least, living as wives by the end. Even after the darkness of Lady Viola finally claimed Dani, and made her into Bly's final and perpetual lady of the lake, Flanagan signaled to the audience that her spirit is always with Jamie, who fills up tubs and sinks with water just for a chance to glimpse her beloved on lonely nights.
"In the pilot, it was meant to be the very first shot you ever saw, was over Carla's shoulder, and then we were going to end the series on the exact same shot, but there would be a hand there. That was one of the very first things that was pitched for it. So, in my mind, yes. I'm a bit of sap with this stuff, but I think Dani is absolutely with her," Flanagan says when asked about the closing of the series. "And, I think that's the thing, for me, about a great love story, is that even if you can't see that person anymore, even if they're gone — any kind of love, romantic love, familial love, deep friendship — even if you can't see them anymore, the idea that you're looking for them puts them with you, whether you can feel it or not. So, that was the kind of beginning and ending image that we really, always, always wanted for this season."
Though the romance at the core of Bly Manor sets it apart from the more generational, grief-based terrors of Hill House, Flanagan doesn't see the love story in the series as something that contradicts the ghost story. For him, the two go hand-in-hand because the most effective horror is often the kind that aims itself directly at the thing you're most afraid of losing.
"In Season 1, we talked an awful lot about the different things a ghost could be, and we talked about a ghost being a wish the most," he explains. "And that question of, I have found someone I love more than anything else in the world, one of us has to die first, more likely than not... what happens to my life after they're gone? That's one of the most uncomfortable, upsetting, and haunting questions that I've ever wrestled with internally. When [Bly Manor co-star Kate Siegel] and I got married, it's a question that became crystallized in my mind. I'll never have a good answer to it. I'll always be scared of the various answers to it. And what else is horror? You know, it’s the things we're scared to look at."
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.