This discussion of Mike Flanagan’s latest horror series, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” contains spoilers.
The Fall of the House of Usher is a phenomenal accomplishment from showrunner Mike Flanagan, capping off his trilogy of horror miniseries for Netflix that began with The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, and which was supplemented by miniseries like Midnight Mass and The Midnight Club. The show marks the end of Flanagan’s fruitful relationship with Netflix, which also included the film Gerald’s Game. Flanagan is a horror auteur, and one of the best working today.
The Fall of the House of Usher is immediately recognizable within Flanagan’s oeuvre. The cast includes many of his previous collaborators, including Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Rahul Kohli, T’Nia Miller, Michael Trucco, Ruth Codd, and many more. As the title suggests, it is a miniseries built around the work of a great American horror author, in this case Edgar Allen Poe. It is also a story about family as a space defined by trauma and violence.
However, The Fall of the House of Usher also feels distinct from Flanagan’s previous miniseries. It’s undoubtedly gothic and atmospheric, but it exists in a different milieu. Like Alice Birch’s recent adaptation of Dead Ringers, it is a show that is very much in conversation with Jesse Armstrong’s Succession. This is the story about Roderick Usher (Greenwood), the patriarch of a vast financial empire who finds himself in his final days forced to confront the world he has made for his children.
The show wears its influences on its sleeve. The Newton Brothers’ score for The Fall of the House of Usher directly evokes Nicholas Britell’s work on Succession. There are shades of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) in Roderick’s eager-to-please son Frederick (Thomas), Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) in his publicity-manager-at-a-remove-from-the-family daughter Camille (Siegel), and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) in his hedonistic youngest son Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota). The description of his son Napoleon (Kohli) as an “Xbox Gatsby” even evokes Kendall’s self-description as “a fuckin’ techno Gatsby.”
Flanagan’s earlier work is largely built around humanism and empathy. This extends to his film work outside of Netflix, including movies like Oculus and Doctor Sleep. Flanagan’s protagonists tend to be broken and damaged people. Many of his characters are addicts, struggling and recovering. These are deeply personal works, informed by his own experiences with alcoholism. What’s interesting about The Fall of the House of Usher is how the miniseries inverts that dynamic.
The series humanizes its central characters, but it is rarely unwaveringly sympathetic to them.The story’s framing device finds Assistant District Attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) visiting Roderick in the decaying remains of his old family home to hear his confession. Roderick recounts his life and his self-justifications, and explains the deaths of each of his six children in turn. Roderick is by turns conciliatory and self-aggrandizing, candid and cynical.
Dupin records their extended conversation on a personal device. At the end of the series, after Roderick has passed, Dupin leaves that recording at his grave. It does not become part of the public record. “Didn’t know what to do with this,” he admits in his final conversation with the deceased billionaire. “Because it don’t matter in the end why you did any of it. I don’t fucking care why you did it. We don’t want your confession, or your rationale, or your explanation.”
This is a recurring theme throughout The Fall of the House of Usher, which acknowledges the way that its characters have been shaped by horrible deeds while refusing to let that trauma excuse their own actions. As Verna (Gugino) confides to Frederick in his final moments, he was shaped by his abusive father. “He did you wrong, Freddie,” Verna admits. “You only ever wanted to be loved by him. You only ever wanted his approval. And it’s still no fucking excuse.”
The Usher fortune is built on the miracle drug Ligodone, a massively addictive pain-relief medication. It’s an opioid, and The Fall of the House of Usher belongs to the wave of modern media grappling with that unimaginable tragedy, like Dopesick, Painkiller, and Pain Hustlers. Dupin has spent his career trying to hold Roderick to account for “the mountain of corpses” upon which the billionaire has built his empire. In the finale, Roderick sees that mountain, what Verna describes as his “true monument.”
However, this emphasis on an addictive painkiller is more than just a timely choice. It ties together two of Flanagan’s big recurring themes. This is a story about addiction, but it is also a story about the idea of deferring pain. Flanagan’s stories are often about how pain and trauma have to be confronted. When his characters receive happy – or even just redemptive – endings, they do so by working through their pain and their trauma. They confront what they’ve repressed and hidden.
Pitching Ligadone to Rufus Griswold (Trucco), the former CEO of Fortunato, Roderick boasts, “This whole industry has always been about pain management. This is about pain erasure.” The lure of Ligadone is the promise of “a world without pain,” something that most of Flanagan’s protagonists seem to be seeking. Years later, Roderick concedes that such a promise was unkeepable. “That’s the biggest lie we told,” he admits. “You can’t eliminate pain. There’s no such thing as a painkiller.” There is only “denial.”
Roderick is seduced by his own creation. The eldest of his illegitimate children, Victorine (Miller), is the daughter of a nurse. He met his second wife, Juno (Codd), while touring a hospital. She was hooked on Ligadone. “You are a miracle,” he tells Juno. “Your body just… soaks it up. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s like my drug is water and you are a flower. You are the most perfect and beautiful thing I have ever seen. You know, a huge part of you is Ligadone. How could I not marry you?”
This idea comes across most directly in his relationship with the mysterious Verna. As a younger man (Zach Gilford), Roderick met Verna at a dingy bar on New Year’s Eve, with his sister Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald). Verna offers the two siblings a deal. She promises them fortune and success beyond their wildest dreams. More than that, she assures them that there will be “no legal consequences. Guaranteed. For your whole life.” In other words, Verna promises a world without pain.
This idea of a life without consequences is a central pillar of the House of Usher. “They believe that people like them don’t go to prison,” Dupin explains to the jury during his indictment of Roderick Usher. “Ladies and gentlemen, they’re right.” Outlining the family’s history of greed and sin, Dupin laments, “Not one consequence has stuck to Roderick Usher.” Prospero even tries to fashion this into a lifestyle brand, opening a club “with killer music, few rules, fewer consequences.”
Prospero is the first of Roderick’s children to be visited by Verna at that club, in that “dark room.” She warns him, “Things like this – all things, in fact – have consequences.” Prospero insists, “Not this. I mean that’s the whole point. Didn’t you read the invite?” Verna simply replies, “There are always consequences.” She elaborates that Prospero himself, as Roderick’s son, was “the harmless consequence of a harmless choice made by someone in a moment when you didn’t exist. And that choice defined your whole life. You are consequence, Perry. And tonight you are consequential.”
Ultimately, Verna’s promise to Roderick was based on a lie. There is no such thing as a world without pain or consequence. They can only be deferred. “It won’t even go on your tab,” Verna assures Roderick and Madeline. “What if I said you get all that, the whole thing, and the price is deferred? Let the next generation foot the bill. So that’s the deal. You get the whole world, and when you’re done, at the end of it all, just before you would have died, Roderick, just before you would have died anyway… your bloodline dies with you.”
Flanagan’s stories have always been about generational trauma. The culmination of his work at Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher extrapolates it out to something more profound. This isn’t just a story about a dysfunctional family. This is a story about society. It tells the tale of an older generation who sacrificed their children’s future at the altar of prosperity, creating a world where those children face consequences like climate change, economic uncertainty, and political instability. These children foot the bill.
It is no coincidence that Roderick and Madeline make their deal with Verna on New Year’s Eve, 1979. The show isn’t shy in its political commentary. “I’m just excited that we get to kick Carter out of the White House this year,” Madeline boasts. Roderick replies, “You think Reagan’s going to run?” Madeline prophesizes, “I think if he does, it’ll be a landslide and great for business.” The Fall of the House of Usher suggests that the current generation faces the legacy of the 1980s.
As with Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in Succession, Roderick Usher’s empire falls apart because he cannot see beyond himself. Roderick and Madeline claim not to believe Verna’s deal, but they each try to cheat it in their own way. As an older woman, Madeline (Mary McDonnell) never has children. Reflecting real-life billionaires, Roderick and Madeline invest heavily in immortality to prolong their lives. They cannot imagine anything that might outlive them.
A life insulated from pain prevents growth. Roderick never has to change, because he never has to confront the consequences of his mistakes. The traumatic death of his mother (Annabeth Gish) shakes him to his core and informs his relationship to his own children, but he inherits a lot of his business acumen from Griswold, a man whom he hates and murders. Because neither Griswold nor Roderick never face any consequences for their actions, Roderick makes many of the same choices.
Just as Griswold falsified medical data and records, Roderick presses Victorine to manipulate the results of her own trials. Prospero dies because Roderick had been using a condemned company building to store hazardous materials, waiting to get conveniently “lost” during the demolition, the same trick that Griswold employed to get rid of incriminating documents. Indeed, Griswold’s corpse ends up walled up in the basement of Fortunato, a foundation stone of the Usher empire.
Throughout the series, Roderick and Madeline liken themselves to royalty and to gods. From the boardroom of his skyscraper, Roderick surveys his empire. Madeline obsesses over the burial rituals of the ancient Pharaohs. However, the show’s visual language implies this is ultimately self-delusion. It often looks down on the characters from above, fixating on instruments of their reckoning hanging just overhead: the poison-filled sprinklers over Prospero’s party, the wrecking ball on Roderick’s demolition site. Napoleon throws himself to his death from his balcony.
Gravity is a law of the universe and it cannot be cheated. There is always consequence. The bill comes due. The tab must be settled. In its own way, there is something humanist in this, in the idea that Roderick and Madeline will face some reckoning for the harm that they have caused. Still, that’s little comfort to Roderick’s innocent granddaughter Lenore (Kyliegh Curran) in her final moments. The Fall of the House of Usher suggests that consequence is its own inescapable form of generational trauma.