One of the many tricky bits of constructing effective horror is determining how much to explain. Things go bump in the night, but why? Who are they? What happened? An origin story provides context, and context can deepen the horror experience, layering in more emotions than just fear, providing real-life touchstones for a haunting. But horror can also often get away without explaining everything. Because it’s scary to not know why something is happening. Uncertainty and fear go hand in hand, and The Haunting Of Bly Manor’s first few episodes harness that dynamic well, especially because these episodes cast doubt on what is truly a haunting and what might just be in characters’ heads. In its penultimate episode, The Haunting Of Bly Manor wants to answer everything. It dips into the past, centuries before, to tell the tale of Viola and Perdita, two sisters whose deaths provide the foundation for Bly’s perpetual haunting. And it’s an utter waste of an episode.
The first time I watched “The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes,” I was so perplexed by the tedium of this frankly unneeded origin story that I actually became a little angry. I already didn’t really think The Haunting Of Bly Manor was holding a candle to The Haunting Of Hill House, but this episode really drives home the vast gap between the two. I don’t think Hill House perfectly sticks its landing either, and there’s still one more episode of Bly Manor to maybe bring things back to being compelling horror again, but “The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes” is boring at best, a bizarrely huge misstep that sucks energy out of the show just ahead of its ending.
I watched it a second time, hoping that perhaps I was wrong in my first viewing and that this episode has more to offer than just being…a long story within a long story. But I still struggled to get anything substantial out of it. Sure, Bly’s origin story touches on some of the series’ broader themes. But the beats are predictable and uninspired. Viola and Perdita are sisters bonded by loss. They only have each other, until a man comes between them. Viola marries him, but Perdita harbors feelings for him. When Viola becomes gravely ill, Perdita eventually smothers her to death and gets to marry the man and raise the child Viola left behind. Viola, who refused to read her last rites, becomes trapped in her own chest of dresses and jewelry, and doesn’t reemerge until Perdita accidentally lets her out in attempt to use Viola’s daughter’s inheritance locked away in the chest to pay off debts. Viola gets her revenge, killing her sister. It could maybe be a decent standalone story, but it ends up feeling merely decorative rather than acting as a support bar for the story. Dramatic tension is there, but it’s rigid.
Yes, Viola is the lady in the lake. Her afterlife mimics her life in its monotony. She walks the same path every night, and she kills anyone who crosses that path. That’s what this story-within-a-story works overtime to establish. The jealousy between the sisters is drawn with broad strokes. All of it is drawn with pretty broad strokes, because we’re essentially being introduced to totally new characters, new relationships, new stakes all at once and confined to this one episode. The writing around Viola’s disease also plays into some ableist tropes. She becomes angry and bitter as a result of her illness, and it turns her into a monster. It all lacks nuance.
When people die at Bly Manor, they cannot leave. Their faces disappear as their memories fade. We know this information already, and frankly, it doesn’t need an explanation! This is maybe an instance where the old rule about showing versus telling should not have applied! I don’t need to be shown this origin story for Bly Manor’s haunting to work. It doesn’t make me any more or less scared. And on that note, perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that this episode is not scary at all not even a little bit. I don’t need every beat of Bly Manor to frighten me, but a long, winding episode just ahead of the finale that doesn’t make me afraid even once?! What are we doing here? And it doesn’t add depth either.
It also feels like a waste of the talents of Kate Siegel, who does give a fantastic performance as Viola, but she’s limited by that weak writing. Siegel is easily one of the best parts of Hill House’s incredibly stacked cast. The acting in Bly Manor has been fantastic, too, but acting can’t really save this episode. It’s the most narration-heavy episode, much of the story unfolding in Carla Gugino’s words, a choice that also makes the pacing lag.
I call “The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes” decorative, because it really does feel like a stunt rather than a compelling origin story. Hill House’s stunty episode—“Two Storms”—imbues its technical choices with meaning. The aesthetics and the story work together to masterful effect in “Two Storms.” “The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes” unfolds in black and white, you know, because it takes place a long time ago. The black-and-white visuals also somewhat mimic the end of Viola’s life as she fades away. But the episode isn’t all that visually immersive. The difference in look and feeling between this episode and the rest of the series is no doubt intentional. But it’s also, again, why it feels so much like a tangent. The episode’s structure and aesthetics are maybe meant to evoke a dream, but it’s a dream that distracts from the story at hand rather than contributing to it.
Time spent on this story means time taken away from developing characters and dynamics in the present. Bly Manor becomes obsessed with explaining every ghost. The plague doctor is Viola’s first victim. The boy Flora has seen is a child Viola found in her daughter’s old room during one of her nightly walks in purgatory. Viola haunts Bly in search of her daughter, becoming more and more monstrous as her memories and sense of self fade. Those who die at Bly are caught in her gravity. It’s not so much a scary story as it is sad one, and yes, grief and horror make excellent bedfellows. But the way the origin story unfolds isn’t as clever or lovely as it attempts to be. It’s like Bly Manor is tying a neat ribbon around its house of horrors. Bly’s haunted history doesn’t thrill. Sometimes not every thing that goes bump in the night needs a lengthy backstory.
- If Carla Gugino showed up the night before my wedding and told this long ass story that has a LONG ASS STORY/tangent at the end of it, I would ask her to leave and never return. And I say that as a HUGE Carla Gugino fan.
- It is certainly not a good sign that when I got to the end of this episode, I barely wanted to watch the next one! Burning out on story fuel right before the finale is not great!
- I feel like the whole origin story could have been told in less than half the time. Obviously, the impetus for giving it a whole episode than condensing it is to let viewers really sit with these characters so that we might be more invested in their stories, but one episode still isn’t quite enough time to make us care about Viola and Perdita. So the efforts come off as tedious rather than convincing or interesting.