“The Altar Of The Dead” is a remarkable chapter of The Haunting Of Bly Manor. At the heart of it rests a perfectly terrifying premise: What if you’re dead but you don’t know it?
That’s the dizzying predicament Hannah Grose finds herself in throughout the episode. Since the very first episode, there have been clues that something is wrong with Hannah. She doesn’t eat. She spaces out. She sees cracks in the wall that aren’t there. Bly Manor finally confirms that she’s a ghost. In fact, she died mere seconds before Dani showed up at Bly. But no one knows that—not even her.
That’s a premise rife with psychological horror. And “The Altar Of The Dead” is indeed a heady head-game, jumping chaotically through time to powerful effect. Hannah’s caught between two scenes in particular: the bonfire with Owen and the first time she interviewed him to work at Bly. T’Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli are absolute knockouts throughout, and there’s just enough of a whiff of unfulfilled romance between the two to add another layer to these interactions.
Hannah literally moves between times, having little control over where and when she ends up. It’s a little reminiscent of the stunning sixth episode of The Haunting Of Hill House. Though a bit less of a technical masterpiece, “The Altar Of The Dead” similarly glides between the past and the present, the camerawork fluid and immersive even while the plot becomes increasingly disorienting. Hannah opens a door in one time only to walk into another. In addition to the repeated scenes with Owen, which is where she finally pieces together that she’s not really seeing him but rather a memory of him overlaid with her own thoughts, she also revisits memories with Rebecca and also with Charlotte Wingrave.
It’s the first we get of Charlotte and her husband—Miles and Flora’s parents. Charlotte seems to have been close with Hannah. Her lines in particular capture Bly Manor’s skill at taking something ordinary—maybe even something lovely—and twisting it into something dark. “Stay here, as long as you live, forever if you need to,” Charlotte says to Hannah, and it’s intended as a kindness, but given the fact that Hannah is indeed trapped at Bly even after her death, the words take on a wickedness. Charlotte similarly makes a comment about how Hannah can catch her up on “how numbingly constant everything is.” Hannah’s life at Bly was repetitive and dull. Owen points out that she’s always consumed with taking care of others, doesn’t pay enough attention to her own wants. And even in death, Hannah is doomed to walk the halls of Bly, every day looking the same as the one before. Again, it’s a simple and straightforward horror premise, but that’s what makes it so affecting.
Watching “The Altar Of The Dead” feels like constant whiplash—in the best way. It’s more sci-fi-leaning than the rest of the series has been, given all the time looping. It actually works as a standalone psychological thriller but also advances the plot of the overall series by providing more answers than any other episode has so far. It’s very fun to watch Hannah put the pieces together as things become more and more uncanny and repetitive, and Miller absolutely deserves accolades for her performance throughout.
In addition to learning about Hannah’s fate, we learn once and for all that Miles really is being intermittently possessed by Peter. It’s Hannah who pieces together that something’s wrong with Miles, processing it by way of those interview scenes with Owen. She relives certain moments when Miles was acting weirdly, like when he was inappropriate with Jamie and when she caught him smoking. Before, she likely justified these behaviors by thinking they’re just manifestations of his grief and coping mechanisms. But the time-looping helps her realize that it’s something darker at play.
Hannah eventually finds herself in someone else’s memory, a strange but appealing twist in the final act of the episode. She’s not the only one time-looping it seems. Hannah stumbles upon Rebecca and Peter in bed together, Peter convincing Rebecca to run away with him to America. “This is one of my favorites,” Rebecca says when Peter leaves, adding that she doesn’t find herself in this memory often but likes when she does. Rebecca’s reliving memories, too, and her words suggest that no one can control exactly what they end up revisiting. “The Altar Of The Dead” disturbs deeply with these conventions. Hannah and Rebecca are caught in tragic loops, whipping around without any control. Even the happy memories become distorted, because none of it changes their fates.
Shortly after Rebecca’s favorite memory, Peter is killed by who Flora calls the lady in the lake. And while his death traps him at Bly (it seems like people can’t leave Bly if they die there), he figures out that he can enter Miles. Here again we encounter the terrifying predicament of not knowing that you’re dead. Peter watches in horror as the lady in the lake carries him away, unable to do anything about it.
And even though she finds answers, Hannah isn’t able to do anything to stop what happens to her. Miles, possessed by Peter, pushes her into a well where her last sight is of a crack in the foundation—the crack she keeps hallucinating. It’s quite impressive how Bly Manor manages to pull things together by the end of the episode, and while there are still plenty of lingering questions, it’s one of the most satisfying episodes so far, effective in its suspense but also delivering the payoff. There’s dark irony throughout, like Hannah warning Miles—possessed by Peter—that smoking cigarettes will lead to a choking death, which pretty accurately describes how Peter eventually dies. There’s a playfulness to the way Bly Manor constructs this episode—even if the game ends up being a tragic one.
During one of the iterations of her bonfire conversation with Owen, she remarks that memories are like markers. The markers Hannah moves through as she time loops are like markers the map of Bly Manor’s mystery. They all play some role in answering what the hell is going on, letting us piece some things together alongside Hannah. But the markers also act as character development, fleshing out who Hannah is. The scenes touch on the grief of her husband leaving her, her unheeded attempts to warn Rebecca against Peter, her closeness with Charlotte. There’s an overall feeling of being stuck at Bly. She only ends up taking the live-in position as a result of losing her husband, suggesting that she’s filling a hole in her life with Bly, which quickly becomes her entire life—even in death. She’s trapped here, Peter’s trapped here, Rebecca’s trapped here, and so are we. Bly Manor suffocates by keeping us on these grounds for the vast majority of scenes. We’re stuck in the glue traps. And it’s exactly how these characters feel. Like Hill House, the house itself plays an active role in the horror.
“We can’t count on the past,” Owen says, getting to the crux of the episode in his drunken bonfire ramble. He wants Hannah to live, to run away to Paris with him. It’s a markedly different proposal than Peter’s to Rebecca. One that is genuine and pure. And tragic. She finally agrees but then snaps out of it, realizing that she’s still stuck in the loop, realizing that she is indeed dead and unable to cross the threshold of Bly. “The Altar Of The Dead” devastates and disturbs in its nightmarish labyrinth of memories relived and reshaped.
- So yes, I was annoyed with Bly Manor last episode, but this one really won me back for now!
- Okay, so we do know that the muddy footprints come from the faceless lady in the lake, but due to the whole faceless thing, we still don’t really know who she is. Is it Charlotte? And if so, what made her so angry that she’s killing people in the afterlife?
- I’m still not totally sold on the characterization of Rebecca. She tells Hannah she’s scared of Peter—legitimate!—but then follows it up with…“in the best way.” Girl, what?! Why does she have such total blinders on when it comes to this dude?!
- Did I mention Miller deserves awards for this? Kohli is fantastic, too, oscillating between charming and haunting.
- Some of the beats of the episode remind me of Lost’s “Through the Looking Glass.”