The penultimate episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor is unusual for a couple of obvious reasons: it’s told predominantly in black and white, for one, and it takes place a few centuries earlier than the rest of the show. There’s a lot to absorb; the hour explores the harrowing backstory of the show’s Big Bad, the Lady in the Lake. Though her faceless presence now terrorizes the modern-day inhabitants of the manor, she didn’t begin as a monster, and—just like most of the ghosts in the show—her eerie power is rooted in trauma, loss, and rage.
Here’s what you need to know about episode 8, “The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes.”
What happens in Bly Manor episode 8?
Viola (Kate Siegel) and Perdita (Catherine Parke) Willoughby are two beautiful sisters who come of age in 17th-century Hampshire. When their father dies, it becomes essential that one of the sisters marry as soon as possible in order to avoid losing control of their father’s wealth and estate (because, you know, the patriarchy). Both Viola and Perdita set their sights on the same wealthy suitor, Arthur Lloyd… who also happens to be their distant cousin. Sure.
“Women in that time had nothing—no present, no future—without a tie to a man,” the Narrator explains as we watch Viola and Perdita’s low-key feud begin. Arthur chooses Viola, who’s the older and more fashionable of the sisters, always wearing “the finest of dresses.” Perdita resigns herself to life as an old maid but continues to pine after Arthur.
After giving birth to daughter Isobel, Viola falls ill with a disease called “the lung,” which is most likely tuberculosis. Though she’s given only months to live, she stubbornly refuses to die and ends up surviving for five years. She becomes a monstrous shell of herself, consumed by bitterness and rage as she’s separated from her family and forced to watch Perdita and Arthur grow closer. Before her death, she makes Arthur promise to keep her precious dresses locked away in a trunk and not allow anyone but Isobel, once she’s grown, to open them.
Perdita, finally exhausted by Viola’s abuse, smothers her to death. But even in death, Viola refuses to accept her own fate, which is how she becomes the first of many ghosts to haunt Bly Manor. After waking up unable to leave her bedroom, it gradually becomes clear that Viola is “tucked away”—like many of the show’s ghosts—in a safe space in her own mind, which for her is her trunk of beloved dresses. She waits for years, hoping that the adult Isobel will finally open the trunk and let her out, but instead it’s Perdita who opens the trunk. Viola—through one of her dresses—immediately strangles her sister.
But killing Perdita doesn’t sate Viola’s rage and agony at losing her daughter, so she continues to haunt Bly, killing a number of unsuspecting people who cross her path over the years. Everyone she kills is doomed to share her fate: Their souls are trapped in a state of denial that’s described hauntingly as a “gravity pit.” They wander the manor, unable to accept that their lives are over.
What is episode 8 based on?
The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, and each episode of the show is named after one of James’s short stories. Many of the episodes bear only a passing resemblance to their source material, but episode 8 hews very close to the short story “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.”
The episode is almost a straight adaptation of the short story, up until the moment Perdita is killed by Viola’s ghost. Intriguingly, the series flips the two sisters’ names; on the page it’s Perdita who dies young, and Viola who is subsequently murdered by her sister’s jealous ghost. Just like in the show, it’s because she goes against her sister’s dying wishes and opens the trunk containing her most treasured clothes. Everything that happens after Perdita’s death onscreen is an invention of series creator Mike Flanagan and his writing team.
How does episode 8 connect to the rest of the show?
There are a lot of “aha” moments throughout the episode, as the season’s question marks are gradually addressed. The various faceless ghosts who’ve been haunting Bly Manor throughout the season are all identified as people who got on the wrong side of Viola over the years: the faceless woman in the forbidden wing of the attic is Perdita, the man in a plague mask is a doctor who stayed at the manor while it was a quarantine zone, and the faceless little boy in Flora’s bedroom is some poor kid who had the misfortune of sleeping in Viola’s bed once.
Crucially, the episode also explains why Viola ended up tethered to the lake in particular. After Perdita’s death, Arthur (quite correctly) gets the feeling that something’s very, very wrong at the manor, and specifically that Viola’s precious clothes might be cursed. Accordingly, he has her trunk of beloved dresses removed from the house and disposed of at the bottom of the lake—which is where Viola’s spirit dwells for all of eternity. Or at least, until the season finale.
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