The final notion of Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor is that there is sometimes no real difference between a love story and a ghost story, that to love someone is to risk them imprinting so deeply on your soul that even though they are gone, the person they were and the feelings you had for them linger on into forever. Over its nine episodes, the series had quite a lot to say about love, about the way it affects and changes people, but perhaps its deepest message about love is that there is no one perfect way to love another person, but there is certainly a wrong way.
Early in the series, after new au pair Dani is introduced to the denizens of Bly Manor, her new friends tell their side of the story of her predecessor, Rebecca, and the way she was, in their minds, torn asunder by the vile and manipulative Peter Quint. As gardener Jamie tells it, Peter did what so many do. He mixed up love and possession. In that short, quiet exchange, Dani and Jamie get right to the heart of Bly Manor's core message — that love and possession, though sometimes easy to confuse, are in truth polar opposites. As they and we discover over the course of the story, one is beautiful and painful and freeing, while the other is dark, and poisonous, and traps you and those you claim to love in its web.
For Peter and Rebecca, mixing up love and possession was simple and quick, just as their relationship was. Their short-lived affair was passionate and exciting, but hidden beneath that passion was desperation, namely Peter's desperation to hold onto something that made him feel good, feel powerful, feel like the man he sometimes didn't see himself being. Even before his untimely death at the hands of the Lady of the Lake, Peter exerted control over Rebecca, denigrating her career, insulting her choices, lashing out in anger but following all his negative behavior with gifts and apologies, a classic abuser. His death is just another in what he sees as a long line of unfair circumstances thrust upon his life.
The fact that Peter died at Bly and is therefore forced to haunt its grounds for eternity is possibly the worst thing that could have happened to someone like him. His dreams and plans stolen from him in life are stolen from him again in death. And so, unable to live the life he planned with Rebecca, and unwilling to allow her to live that life and those dreams without him, he commits the ultimate selfish act, dooming her to the same eternity he now inhabits.
Peter and Rebecca's doomed romance is not the only example of this mix-up between love and possession. That mix-up, in fact, can be said to be the reason for Bly's haunting in the first place. Centuries before, the lady of Bly, Viola, was the first to allow her anger and spite and desire for ownership to erode her humanity. She competed with her sister for the affections of the man who would eventually become her husband. Struck with a deadly disease, she was unwilling to allow it to take her away from her life and was so stubborn that it is said Death just stopped coming to Bly at all. When she believed her death imminent, she made her husband vow, not to move on or to find happiness, but to store away her most valued possessions and give them only to their daughter when she came of age. After she died, her love for those possessions trapped her with them in a trunk in the attic until the day it was opened, not by her daughter, but by her sister who had taken her place in the family. Her sister became her first victim and from that point forward her rage and her belief in the unfairness of her circumstance trapped not only her but all those who died on the grounds at Bly, including Peter and Rebecca.
Anger and spite and possession and selfishness and the way we convince ourselves that those emotions are actually manifestations of love may be what traps souls at Bly, but their opposite, real love and the self-sacrifice that comes with it, are what free them. That is particularly and most obviously the case with Dani, who, in an attempt to save one of the children in her care, offers herself instead, inadvertently taking on Viola's ghost, her rage and spite. A single act of selflessness quite literally absorbs the hate and anger that infests Bly and releases all the souls it has trapped within its grounds. Even when that poisonous spirit finally overpowers Dani's will to keep her at bay, Dani's goodness and selflessness and love allow her just enough control to only let it destroy herself rather than drag another person down with her.
Dani's love is the antidote to what ails Bly but as with Peter and Viola, the obvious example is far from the only. Even the romantic relationships between the staff of Bly Manor are varied in the way they express that emotion. Owen, for example, shows his love through acts of care, whether in the way he cares for his ailing mother or in the way he crafts meals for his friends and charges. Even his penchant for puns is a kind of literal love language, entertaining those he cares for. Owen takes his gentle approach to love a step further in his feelings for Hannah, the housekeeper. She knows he loves her, he's basically said as much, but she is unable to reciprocate in the way he wants. No matter, though, because Owen, while not content to live a life unrequited, is also not willing to push too hard. He takes what he can get and nothing more.
And then there is Jamie, the manifestation of the opposite of Peter and his so-called love for Rebecca. She believes that some people, like Dani, are worth the long and difficult investment of loving them even if that love has a time limit, even if the person they love might not be able to return those feelings the same way at the same time. When they leave Bly, Jamie promises Dani only what she will accept: some company while she waits for her beast in the jungle, waits for Viola's ghost to consume her. And she expects of Dani only what she is able to give: one day at a time. One day at a time until she no longer has days to give.
Jamie loves Dani in the hardest way it is possible to love another person, in a way that is not about her own feelings or her own fears. Jamie's love for Dani is predicated on a single promise to respect Dani's limitations even when it causes her pain, even when it destroys her from the inside out. And Dani, for her part, loves Jamie enough to leave rather than risk destroying them both for even a single day longer in the arms of the person who loves her most.
The story is tragic and gut-wrenching and beautiful and sad but it is also refreshing in a media landscape that has embraced the anti-hero and the toxic romance. Too often we are presented with stories in which the great romances are one in which two people cannot stop hurting each other, in which they make terrible choices because they just cannot bear to be without the person they love. But that's not love, reminds Bly Manor. That's possession, and mixing up the two will destroy you.