[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor finale.]
“One day at a time is all we’ve got. It’s what everybody’s got when you come down to it.”
The Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor ends almost exactly as it begins – with a shot of our Narrator (played by Carla Gugino) having fallen asleep in a chair in a hotel room, waiting patiently for someone to come through the cracked door. They’re very nearly the same shot save for one key difference: in the finale, at the end of our story, there appears to be a hand on the Narrator’s shoulder. And of course, in the finale, we know the Narrator is in fact The Gardener aka Jamie, played with spunk and an aching heart by Amelia Eve.
Whose hand is that and if it’s real are questions that were posed to Bly Manor showrunner Mike Flanagan during a roundtable interview with a group of reporters recently (at which Collider was in attendance), and the Haunting of Hill House creator was more than happy to oblige.
But of course the Haunting of Bly Manor is much more than an ambiguous image, and to understand how the ending of the series ties thematically to the show as a whole we must first look at the finale episode itself, titled “The Beast in the Jungle.”
The episode begins with The Lady in the Lake – now understood to be Viola (Kate Siegel), a 17th-century woman who was betrayed and forgotten at the bottom of the lake leading to her unending haunting that itself traps all who die at Bly there forever. Having first grabbed Dani (Victoria Pedretti) who she then swapped for young Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) mistaking her for her long-dead daughter, the Lady in the Lake appears to be hell-bent on dragging Flora into the lake and trapping her at Bly forever. But six simple words uttered by Dani save Flora’s life and forever change hers: “It’s you. It’s me. It’s us.”
A variation of this phrase appears throughout The Haunting of Bly Manor and is said most often between two lovers. Indeed, in contrast to the terror of Hill House, Bly Manor is a Gothic romance at heart, examining love in its many forms. With this one act of bravery from Dani, the curse is seemingly lifted. Flora is saved, Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is booted out of Miles’ (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) body, and all the ghosts at Bly Manor are finally allowed to move on, no longer trapped in Viola’s gravity.
The very next day, however, Dani knows something’s not right. With her action, she invited Viola into herself, and Dani confesses to Jamie (Eve) her fear:
“I feel her in here. So quiet, so quiet. She’s in here, and the part of her that’s in here isn’t peaceful. It’s quiet, but it isn’t peaceful. It’s rage. And I have this feeling like I’m walking through this dense, overgrown jungle and I can’t really see anything except the path in front of me. But I know there’s this thing hidden. This angry, empty lonely beast that’s watching me, matching my movements, just out of sight but I can feel it. I know it’s there. It’s waiting. She’s waiting. At some point, she’s gonna take me.”
Without missing a beat, Jamie responds, “Do you want company while you wait for your beast in the jungle?” The love story between Dani – who before Bly is understood to be queer but closeted – and Jamie is at the heart of The Haunting of Bly Manor, and it’s in this final episode that their relationship truly flourishes and the story’s themes become devastatingly clear.
That “beast in the jungle” as Dani describes it is a feeling that’s not altogether foreign to many people. You don’t have to invite a ghost into your body to know the feeling of being consumed by quiet, angry, empty rage. Or depression. Or sadness. And the fear that follows. But in Jamie, Dani finds what we all long for – a person to share your life with, through good and bad. A companion to tell you everything’s going to be alright.
And it is, for a time at least. As the Bly Manor finale episode continues, Dani and Jamie lead a pretty happy life together. At least five years go by and, as the Narrator tells us, they are quiet, peaceful years. But then one day, with no warning, the Lady in the Lake returns. Just as a reflection, just for a moment. But Dani knows what it means. She doesn’t tell Jamie, but instead proposes marriage noting, “I don’t know how much time we have left.” One day at a time.
The Lady in the Lake beings appearing more frequently. The beast in the jungle getting closer and closer. Dani finally tells Jamie, likening the feeling to disappearing completely:
“It’s like every day I feel myself fading away, but I’m still here… It’s like I see you right in front of me and I feel you touching me, and every day we’re living our lives, and I’m aware of that, but it’s like I don’t feel it all the way. I’m not even scared of her anymore. I just stare at her and it’s getting harder and harder to see me. Maybe I should just accept that. Maybe I should just accept that and go.”
The beast in the jungle knows no reason or practicality, only sadness and pain and grief. Jamie tries to calm Dani’s fears by saying she’ll feel enough for the both of them, but a breaking point arrives when Dani awakes from a bad dream to find her hand around Jamie’s neck. She knows it’s time to go. She leaves a note on the nightstand and is gone before Jamie wakes up.
Jamie of course returns to Bly Manor (“one last time,” the Narrator notes) and finds Dani has now taken Viola’s place as Lady in the Lake. Jamie begs and pleads with Dani to take her with her, but she refuses. “The Lady in the Lake was different now,” the Narrator explains. “The Lady in the Lake was also Dani, and Dani wouldn’t. Dani would never. In fact, no one would ever be taken again. And no one has been taken to this day.” Dani would begin to fade just as Viola did, but not into a nightmare. The Narrator elaborated on Dani’s haunting:
“Years would go by and as she slept underneath the water, the au pair’s memories would fade. Like Viola before her, like the children, she too would forget her past. She would know nothin’ of the gardener, nothin’ of their life together. The details, the specific moments would all fade away. More time would pass, the water will wash away the delicate features of her. Like her beautiful perfect face. But she won’t be hollow or empty. And she won’t pull others to her fate. She will merely walk the grounds of Bly, harmless as a dove, for all of her days. Leaving the only trace of who she once was in the memory of the woman who loved her most.”
It’s here where we meet up with the Narrator’s story that opened the series at the very beginning, and we understand the Narrator is the Gardener. The Narrator is Jamie. And she’s been telling this story to a young bride who we now understand is Flora all grown up, flanked by an aging Henry and Owen, still ready with a pun at a moment’s notice.
Earlier in the episode, when Owen met up with Dani and Jamie years after the events of Bly, he explained that Flora and Miles now had no memory of what happened there when they were children. They didn’t even remember Hannah (T’Nia Miller). “Bly was their summer home. They used to live there when they were children,” Owen said, explaining that their specific memories had faded away, and all that was left was the shape of it.
And so now, with the Narrator’s story finished on the eve of Flora’s wedding, does she remember? Has the story conjured those memories of Dani’s sacrifice at last? It appears for a moment it might have – The Narrator/Jamie reveals that if you went to England looking for Bly Manor, you wouldn’t find such a place, revealing that she’s changed the names around in the story. But while Flora is not this young bride’s first name, it is her middle name. There’s a bit of a wink towards the end of their conversation, but – and this is probably a good thing – the bride appears to still have none of these horrible memories from her time at Bly Manor.
But that’s not really what this episode – indeed this show – is about. It’s about love, and the fear of losing that loved one. At the end of the Narrator’s story, the bride privately confesses her fears about her impending nuptials, and they are devastatingly relatable:
“I just keep thinking about that silly gorgeous insane man I’m marrying tomorrow. I love him more than I ever thought I could love anybody. And the crazy thing is he loves me the same exact amount. We got lucky. Sometimes when I’m sitting next to him in that easy silence you only get with your forever person who loves you as much as you love them, I start getting really terrified that he’s gonna [die] before I do and then what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to just live a life that he’s not in?”
Jamie, having just recounted what we understand to be a true story about her own “forever person” who she lost way too soon, responds:
“You shouldn’t be thinking of losing each other at all. Don’t let that hang over your happiness right now. Enjoy that easy silence with him. ‘Tis rare, what you’ve got. But when the time does come, years and years from now, mind you, it will be hard every day and it won’t get easier. But eventually after some time, you’ll find little moments, little pieces of your life that remind you of him. And they’ll be silly and dumb or they’ll be sad and you’ll cry for hours, but there will still be a piece of him and you’ll hold him tight. It’ll be like he’s here with you, even though he’s gone.”
Absolutely crushing. Which brings us to the closing shot of the series. Jamie fills the tub and sink with water and cracks the door, waiting, hoping that someday Dani might return. And as she falls asleep, we see a hand on her shoulder. Assured. Peaceful. With her, even though Dani’s gone.
During the roundtable interview, Flanagan – who is the creator and showrunner of Bly Manor and wrote and directed the first episode – revealed that the beginning and ending of the series was something he conceived of very early on. And yes, in his mind, Dani is there with Jamie:
“The bracketed imagery of starting with Jamie asleep on the chair. In the pilot, it was meant to be that the very first shot you ever saw was over Carla [Gugino’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 a sap with this stuff, but I think Dani’s absolutely with her. 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.”
Flanagan went on to note that the heart of the series – at least to him – was going to be Jamie’s speech to adult Flora by the fireplace, at the very end of the finale:
“For me, the whole season was always about what Carla says to Flora at the end at the fireplace. That couple of paragraphs about the biggest question. When you talk about ghosts and loss, and 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, 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.”
Indeed, the Doctor Sleep filmmaker went on to relate how this idea of losing a romantic partner – or the fear of losing a romantic partner – is something he’s personally wrestled with quite a lot:
“When Kate 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, to the point that we talk all the time about — well not all the time, because we’d have a really fucked up life if we did it all the time. We talked a lot about is there any ideal order to that? Is it better that I die first or she dies first? These are the weird things we’ve discussed. It’s too uncomfortable to look at. What else is horror? It’s the things we’re scared to look at. In this case, because we dealt in the first season with one of the other most horrific things I can imagine, just the death of a child, something else I can’t even let into my imagination. This time to talk about the death of someone you truly love. It took kind of the whole season’s worth of work in on all of the episodes to crystallize that last couple of little paragraphs. They were always just meant to be if there’s one point to the damn thing, it’s that.”
Flanagan went on to reveal that the Sheryl Crow song “I Shall Believe” is one he’s loved since he saw the movie The Pallbearer in college, adding that the entirety of this devastating Haunting of Bly Manor ending was the reason to make the show in the first place:
“The song, the Sheryl Crow song I’ve been obsessed with since I was in college. I saw it in this very little remembered movie called The Pallbearer with David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow. It plays over their last dance in that story and I don’t know why that song’s never left my head, but to go off of that last little speech into that particular song and let us carry it out to that last image of a hand on someone’s shoulder that they don’t know is there. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me want to make these things. That’s the thing that separates it for me from the somewhat unfair perception that horror gets, because that’s the kind of stuff that makes me look at my wife a little differently and my kids a little differently. What you’ve identified there is what was always the reason to make this season. I hope that it lands with people the way it landed with us in the room and in the way it clearly landed with Carla, who played that moment as only she could.”
Twice now Flanagan and his collaborators have given us a “horror show” that has turned us into an emotional mess by the end (and at various points during). And he’s right, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor are perfect examples of how the horror genre contains multitudes. Creepy dolls and masked killers are scary to be sure, but even more terrifying is the prospect of losing the love of your life. Even just thinking about it turns my gut. But that doesn’t mean the time spent together was in vain, and it’s all the more reason to cherish the time we have.
We can’t waste our lives worrying about some inevitable tragedy, lest we miss the love and joy and memories happening right in front of our faces. Falling around us like confetti. Focus too much on the past or future and you’ll miss your life — and, if you’re lucky, a life shared with your forever person.
“One day at a time is all we’ve got.”
For more from our interview with Flanagan, click on the links below. Look for the full interview on Collider soon.
Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. You can follow him on Twitter @adamchitwood.