Spoilers for episode 5 of The Haunting of Bly Manor, “The Altar of the Dead,” below.
“You can’t count on the past,” says Owen (Rahul Kohli) early in episode 5 of The Haunting of Bly Manor, discussing his mother’s recent death from dementia. “We think we have it trapped in our memories, but our memories fade, or they’re wrong. Any of us could die at any moment, or we could forget our entire lives, which is like dying. We can’t count on our future, either.” This speech takes on a much bigger significance by the end of the episode, “The Altar of the Dead.” The nonlinear mindbender of an hour spotlights Bly Manor’s live-in housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller).
There’s a lot going on in this episode, which follows a disoriented Hannah through a series of disjointed scenes that take place across a timespan of several years. These scenes seem to be flashbacks, but are soon revealed to be memories—and yes, for the purposes of this episode, there is a big difference.
The Job Interview
This memory is the anchor of the episode, recurring four or five different times throughout in very different ways. This scene takes place in 1984, when Hannah is interviewing Owen for his position as Bly Manor’s cook. It’s a real event that took place, and the first time we see it, it’s roughly as it happened. But as the episode goes on, Hannah re-experiences increasingly distorted versions of this conversation with Owen, and it becomes clear she’s hiding inside the memory to avoid confronting a terrible reality.
The second time we see the job interview scene, Hannah gets an overwhelming sense of deja vu. “This is going to sound strange, but haven’t we already done this?” she asks. Owen confirms they have, but they have to do it again. When she asks why, he responds: “You tell me.” In other words, Hannah is the one in control. As they go back to talking about the job, Owen tries to steer the conversation around to Miles, the older of the two Wingrave children, who’s “not himself” and has become cruel and badly behaved. Hannah insists Miles is a good boy, to Owen’s frustration.
The next time we see the job interview, it takes a dark, weird turn. Owen promises he won’t abandon his position after his mother dies, because he’ll be stuck in “this glue trap of a town.” He refers to a conversation he and Hannah will have two years in the future, about a mouse caught in a glue trap. “That bottomless icy terror, realizing that we may be stuck forever,” he says. “Does a mouse know when it’s already over? Do we realize when the water around us is boiling, or do we sit there saying, ‘this is okay, I’ll be okay.’” Suddenly, he yells the word “DENIAL” at Hannah, who is rattled. She runs out of the room, telling him that this is “morbid.” But she is in denial—not only about Miles’s worrying personality change, but also about her own fate. She’s the mouse caught in the glue trap, refusing to accept that there is no escape. Which brings us to…
The Crack in the Wall
Several times throughout the episode, Hannah sees a distinctive crack appear in various walls. It always disappears. At one point, she opens a door which should lead to the outside, but finds it’s blocked off—there’s a damp, cracked brick wall where the outside world should be. And as the episode reaches its devastating climax, the last of Hannah’s denial ebbs away, and she realizes the truth: She is dead, at the bottom of Bly Manor’s well. Miles is the one who pushed her down there, which is why her mind—in the form of Owen at the job interview—has been trying so hard to make her remember the child’s cruelty. The crack in the wall is the last thing she ever saw, and she’s hiding in her memories to avoid facing it.
Okay. That’s a lot. To help you unpick the devastating puzzle that is “The Altar of the Dead,” here’s a chronological timeline of the events we see in this episode.
Hannah discovers her husband, Sam, is leaving her for someone else. She’s devastated, but insists he’s just “going through a phase” and he’ll be back (more denial). Charlotte Wingrave, her boss at Bly Manor, offers to make Hannah’s position a live-in one, so Hannah can sell her house and have some stability. The next time we see Hannah, she’s the live-in housekeeper at Bly, so she clearly took Charlotte up on the offer. It’s unclear exactly what year this happens in, but based on Miles and Flora’s appearances, it’s probably around 1983.
Hannah interviews Owen for his job at Bly Manor. He explains that he’s recently returned from a two-year stint in Paris, and he needs a job close to home so he can care for his ailing mother. Hannah tells him that in addition to the Wingraves, he’ll be cooking for two children—Flora, who is five, and Miles, who is seven.
Hannah catches the Wingraves’ valet, Peter Quint, trying to steal jewelry from Charlotte’s vanity. He claims he’s just collecting the jewelry for his boss, Dominic, but Hannah isn’t buying it.
Also at some point during this year, Dominic and Charlotte die mysteriously during a trip to India.
Rebecca Jessel is hired as Miles and Flora’s au pair, to take care of them in the wake of their parents’ deaths. She soon begins an affair with Peter, who wants her to run away to America with him.
Before they can leave, though, Peter is killed by a ghost—The Lady from the Lake. He reappears as a ghost immediately afterwards, and seems to have no memory of what happened. He soon figures it out, as he sees the ghost dragging his body into the lake. Peter possesses Miles for the first time in this scene, yelling at the ghost to let him go.
Nobody, except possibly the children, seems to remember what really happened to Peter, and he’s believed to be missing. Rebecca dies by suicide after he seemingly leaves.
Most of the series takes place in this year, and it’s summed up pretty well by Owen in one of the last repetitions of the job interview: “You are Hannah Grose. The year is 1987, you’re at Bly. Dominic is dead, Charlotte is dead. Rebecca is dead. Peter is missing, you think. Flora is 8. And Miles… something is wrong with Miles.”
Miles’s behavior is getting worse and worse during this year. Everybody thinks it’s because of his combined grief over his parents and Rebecca—but in fact, it’s because he’s being possessed by the vengeful ghost of Peter.
On one summer morning, Hannah is furious to find Miles smoking, using Peter’s lighter. She tells him off, but he just laughs at her, then runs away. When she catches up with him at the well and confronts him, Miles dismissively tells her she’s “a bore” who “doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone”—this is really Peter, airing his long-simmering frustration at Hannah.
Peter, through Miles, tells Hannah he wishes he could leave Bly, but he can’t because he’s dead. Just as Hannah realizes the truth, Miles/Peter growls, “It’s such a shame you had to go and find us. It was going so well.” Then he pushes her down the well to her death.
Hannah is standing above the well, looking down at her own body. She’s a ghost now, just like Peter—but before she has time to process what’s happened. Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) arrives for her first day of work at Bly. What timing! Though she seems discombobulated, Hannah snaps back to herself and greets Dani warmly, telling her: “Sorry, I was miles away!” Nobody has any idea that Hannah is dead, and Hannah’s denial is so powerful that she’s able to forget it too—at least for a while.
A few days later, Hannah sits by the fire with Owen. It’s shortly after his mother’s funeral. They talk about memory and death and dementia, and Owen invites Hannah to come to Paris with him. We saw this scene in episode 4, and Hannah said no. But when the scene replays at the end of episode 5, she finally says yes. However, nothing changes. Owen reacts the same way he did when she said no, and leaves for the night with Jamie.
Upset, Hannah tries to follow Owen, but he disappears into the shadows. She can’t go with him, because this is a memory. She can’t begin a new life with Owen, because her life has already ended. And she can’t ever leave the grounds of Bly, because she is dead.
No, I am not okay.
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