Can Ghosts Buy Drugs? The Haunting of Hill House (Eps. 6-10)

By Jane Hu, Phillip MaciakNovember 7, 2018

Can Ghosts Buy Drugs? The Haunting of Hill House (Eps. 6-10)
Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Dear TV, and whatever walked there walked VERY FAST AWAY FROM THE FINALE OF THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE ON NETFLIX!

Jane Hu and Phil Maciak are back to finish their conversation about the second half of Netflix’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel (see the first part of their conversation here). There will be spoilers, so, if you haven’t finished the series, turn off the Paula Abdul videos, and get streaming!

Phil Maciak: Jane, welcome back to that gas station in Amherst, MA, where we’ve come together to buy all the gasoline we need to burn Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House to the ground. I’m only kind of kidding. To begin with my general take, I think the sixth episode of the series (the one with all the long tracking shots in the funeral home) is a god-level TV episode, I thought the rollout and tease of the reveal about Abigail was pitch-perfect, haunting, and entirely effective, and I love what the show did with a lot of the questions we (and it) had about the relative reality of the ghosts to the members of the Crain family over the last five installments of the show. But that finale. Jane. That was about as bad as it gets on your TV screen. What are your initial thoughts?

Jane Hu: I’m not entirely sure where to begin, Phil, except to point out that that finale was seventy-one minutes long, and when your finale is seventy ! one ! minutes ! long !, it is cruel to have it be that bad. Full disclosure, but I watched Flanagan’s Hill House finale at the end of a long night of TV binging, and might have drifted off around the 50-minute mark. But I did wake up in time to catch getting back together?? Phil, this finale seems to answer our earlier thesis about the show’s generic messiness—and then some. Everything happens in this finale! From the proliferation of the Minor Character Ghost, to the tender family reunion inside the red room, topped off with the “ghosts are just our internal demons” cop-out ending. My cup of stars spilleth over. But it’s all so…boring? Hokey? Bad horror?

I have so many questions, Phil, like when did fucking Steve become the narrative voice of reason in this series? And how did Flanagan manage to adapt Jackson’s novel into a twisted moral tale about the couple form? And how exactly does time work again in this show? And is Olivia crazy? And who greenlit the soundtrack on this thing?? Help!

PM: More questions: When did Steve become a good writer? And when did the sign of being a good writer become very specifically and deliberately ruining the Shirley Jackson novel the series is pretending he wrote? (WALKED TOGETHER—WHUTTTT) And since when does finishing two whole pages in an afternoon constitute writers’ block? Is Steve secretly Jill Lepore?  

More importantly, how did that flapper ghost get the heroin to make Luke overdose? Did she take the PVTA bus to a Hampshire College house party and ask random white dudes with dreadlocks where she can score? And back to Steve: do you have any idea the physical toll that three vasectomies have on a person? SNIP SNAP SNIP SNAP SNIP SNAP!

JH: Oh my god, was it really three? I lost count tbh.

PM: Nah, I was just contorting it for the Office reference. (That said, youth vasectomy as a dramatic plot reveal probably wasn’t on anybody’s TV bingo card this year.) I cannot agree more with your feelings about this finale—it wasn’t scary, it flooded us with the sorts of monologues that only worked in this show because of their pointed scarcity, and it turns Hill House into, like, actually not that bad after all? If Hugh and the Dudleys are perfectly happy to stay in the house, if the scary sinister red room BOO! turns into a loving and inviting white room, what was the point of all of this? Are we forgetting that the house used Olivia as an avatar to KILL AN ACTUAL CHILD?

I don’t want to nit-pick—though, for real, I would like an answer about the heroin—and we should come back to the transcendent badness of the finale, but I think the thing that made this episode stand out so much is that the series, after the fifth episode was really gaining momentum and doing kind of thrilling work. Let’s talk about “Two Storms,” that badass funeral home episode.

JH: Yes, Phil! The funeral home episode was all sorts of things—Hitchcockian, naturalistic, experimental—but, perhaps most surprisingly, I found it actually funny. I don’t think I’ve ever liked Steve more? The transitions between past and present—between the “two storms”—were deftly done, and worked to deepen our understanding of the show’s main characters. The build-up was dynamite, and I loved the almost Fellini-esque argument scene toward the end, where everyone takes turns venting their own triumphant monologue. And that ending!!! Nellie’s bent-neck lady alone by her corpse. It was genuinely poignant. What did you think, Phil?

PM: Ordinarily, I’d be suspicious of this kind of film-jock magic trick on TV. I didn’t care about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s long-take in True Detective, and, as is evidenced by my long record on the Mad Men beat, the bottle episodes I like tend to be fairly mundane. But this episode is maybe the best episode of television I’ve seen all year, and that’s because it did something wild (Rope set in a horror film) and pulled it off in a way that enhanced absolutely everything about the series around it. It’s a kind of aspirationally cinematic move, but what was so surprisingly great about it was how it paid off in a very televisual way—this fake long take is an inflection point for Hill House, the series. It’s an entirely structural piece of pyrotechnics, and, rather than making the episode feel hemmed in or overly choreographed, it made everything feel looser and more at home. It was tense, yeah, but the Hitchcockian funniness that you point to, I think, is possible because of these generative constraints.  

JH: Wow, Phil, I love this observation—the idea that the single-take isn’t a constraint here, but a formal mechanism that opens up the episode to looser experimentation!

PM: Flanagan recently tweeted that, when he pitched the series to Netflix, the idea of a (seemingly) single-take episode set in the funeral home in the present and Hill House in the past was a central selling point. And that makes sense to me in two ways: the first is that it’s really the moment, after the aforementioned time-based reveal of who the bent-neck lady actually is, where the conceptual premise of the show begins to be more than a narrative gimmick. In other words, this episode’s tricky, transtemporal camera work uses the reveal of the bent-neck lady to begin to suggest that the two timelines are not as far apart as they seem. Second, though, it’s the one episode of the series that takes up Flanagan’s strongest and most exciting idea, which is a camera or a narrative perspective that moves freely across time and does not fundamentally discriminate between periods (or visible realties). The formal thrill of this whipping, gliding camera, combined with the ghost-standing-out-of-focus-in-the-shot trickery of the rest of the series suggests that the show takes the mental aspect of haunting more seriously than merely using ghosts as figurative representations of a traumatic past. Maybe it would have been too much to handle if the series had essentially fractured at this middle-point and carried this aesthetic through to the end, but there was something so magnetic, so clear about the visual storytelling in this episode. It was a bit of a letdown to have to leave this hypnotic style behind. I guess what I’m saying is that the series kind of peaks here—emotionally, narratively, stylistically—and part of what was disappointing about the fairly conventional horror and grinding ghost-exposition of the finale was that it took advantage of virtually none of the spookily moving aesthetic gambits of this episode.

JH: Yeah, I’m sorry, but we’re not leaving until we return to the profound badness that was the finale. Your reading of the funeral home episode is helpful for reminding me how much I was digging the show, because honestly, after that finale, all I could think about is how wildly uneven serial TV can be. Within the span of 10 episodes! That’s not that many episodes to be, well, consistent? It’s not even that the rest of Flanagan’s Hill House lacked the clarity of episode 6, it’s that it fell so very off the mark—so far away from what I thought were the central driving themes of the series.

PM: It was confused and confusing in the very particular way that only a piece of storytelling obsessed with *explaining* something to us can be. I’m all in favor of tying up loose ends, but, you’re right, Jane, that, when the package was all tied up, it looked like something fundamentally different than what we’d been seeing. And that’s not a cool, twisty, surprise. Instead, in the finale, it felt like the show—which had been building such terrific momentum—planted a foot and did a hard pivot away from itself.

JH: I still can’t get over the fact that it’s Steve who gets the last line? Steve!! The patriarch of the siblings. The one who doesn’t believe that ghosts and haunting are real is...the arbiter of Truth by the end of the series? It seems so deeply wrong-headed. But even more than that, I think the show simply goes off the rails. The crazy generic maximalism that we discussed as characterizing the first half of Hill House kind of goes to its logical conclusion in its second?

PM: Yeah, it’s a mess. And it’s a shame because one of the most economical, patient, shrewdly affecting threads of the show lands right before the finale and gives us the illusion that we’re headed somewhere really strange and gnarly. We’d been aware of Abigail, even seen her, from the first beginning—this little girl in a little bob—but she existed at the level of all of those ghosts and clockmakers we couldn’t really trust our eyes to confirm. She was just under the radar enough for us to assume that she made up part of the gauzy layer of ghostliness that would eventually be acknowledged—like the boy in the wheelchair or the tall floating man—but that we were just bookmarking for later.

But she was real the whole time! And Flanagan even dared us to look directly at her, twice, in both Dudleys’ monologues. (Mr. Dudley doesn’t mention her, but he refers to their stillborn child as their “first” child. And Mrs. Dudley introduces the idea that they’re hiding a secret child even as it’s easy for us to hear her revelation as the coping logic of someone who’s gone through terrible trauma.) It’s so subtly staged that, by the time Abigail drinks the poisoned tea—so sweetly and so trustingly—and dies, it’s a shock that she was ever alive in the first place. That moment was absolutely chilling, such smart and brutal stagecraft. Like the scenes that made the “Bent Neck Lady” episode so good, it reflected this show’s signature horror philosophy: the scariest moments are also the saddest moments.

JH: By the finale, it does almost feel like the show is too full of madness—or, indeed, sadness—to conclude any way but by exorcising its ghosts through the sheer collective will of the living. Jackson’s novel is one of the best things ever written about the death drive—a theory that crucially necessitates both life and death. This is the twinned dialectic, Freud argues, that we cannot do without. Instead of ending with Nell’s car “accident,” the final scenes of Flanagan’s Hill House enact a rapid series of forgetting, of sobering up, of waking up. It’s the cop-out ending none of us want or deserve!

PM: That’s such a great point, Jane, and it gives a very specific texture to the complaints about this show so faithlessly adapting Jackson’s novel. The finale’s happy ending—its yada yada’ing of the central problem that THIS HOUSE KILLS PEOPLE—seemed, again, confused and confusing. The careful architectural reading of Jackson’s novel that you suggested might be at the center of this adaptation last time we talked turns out to be a parasitic misreading after all. It’s as if, at the last moment, Mike Flanagan tells Shirley Jackson, “You know, Hill House isn’t all that bad. You just have to get to know it!”

JH: I think what makes Jackson so therapeutic to read is how she embraces an unflinchingly pessimistic view of what it means to be a woman moving alone in this world. In this way, she’s a deeply paranoid writer. So to give the Hill House finale such a reparative reading of the house felt like the final erasure of the woman who gave life to it. Some ghosts we should keep around.

LARB Contributors

Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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