“Quoth the raven, nevermore,” a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” is one of the most well-known quotes in literature and poetry. A passionate and impactful writer, Poe’s works, which includes poems and short stories, often skew to the macabre, and this is precisely the direction The Fall of the House of Usher takes. The Netflix series weaves Poe’s works together in a non-linear fashion to create a modern-day tale of horror and capitalistic commentary.
The Fall of the House of Usher Plot Summary
The Fall of the House of Usher centres around the Usher family, including Roderick (played by Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood in present day and Zach Gilford in flashbacks) and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald) who together run a corrupt pharmaceutical company called Fortunato Pharmaceuticals.
Roderick has two grown children from his first marriage, Frederick (E.T. child actor Henry Thomas) and Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan) along with four illegitimate grown children, Camille (Kate Siegel), Napoleon “Leo” (Rahul Kohli), Victorine (T’Nia Miller), and Prospero “Perry” (Sauriyan Sapkota), all born from one-night stands with random women he met along the way.
We know from the get-go that all six Usher children die, and the story begins with Roderick confessing his sins and recalling the harrowing stories to Assistant U.S. Attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly in present day, Malcolm Goodwin in flashbacks.) Roderick and “Auggie,” as he calls him, go way back from the early days of Roderick’s rise to power. The billionaire CEO knows his time has come. He has dementia and he’s hallucinating from the illness. Based on the nature of his hallucinations, they’re probably driven by guilt as well. Auguste has desperately tried and failed to take down the Usher family through the decades. Now that Roderick is at his most troubled and vulnerable, it both pleases and pains him.
The series takes viewers through several timelines, including flashbacks of Roderick and Madeline growing up with their single mother to the events that led to him taking over the company. You learn that Fortunato is far from being a morally sound company: they sell a pain drug called Ligadone, claiming it isn’t addictive and doesn’t have terrible side effects when in fact, it has become a driver of the opioid epidemic. Roderick and Madeline convince themselves it’s not their fault. The public has a choice, and if they choose to misuse this supposedly safe drug, it’s on them.
At the heart of the story is the one-by-one deaths of the children. The manner each dies is horrifyingly fitting to their own sins. It’s evident this is no coincidence. In each case, a mysterious woman named Verna (Carla Gugino) inserts herself into their lives, like a tantalizing version of the Grim Reeper. One day, she’s a security guard, the next, she’s a patient. Keen-eyed fans will notice that Verna is an anagram of the word “raven.” She’s a symbol of death, but the how and the why is what keeps your interest piqued.
The children have all benefited from the familial riches and have strange proclivities. They’re also all inspired by different Poe characters. Eldest son Frederick, for example, is named after the main character in “Metzengerstein,” a short story about a man punished for cruelty while Leo is fashioned after a character from “The Spectacles,” a comedic short story about a man blinded by his own vanity. Their absent father showers them with money and power and uses every opportunity to slyly pit them against one another. Not surprisingly, then, all six children want nothing more than to prove themselves worthy and keep the gravy train coming. Their vices help them numb the excruciating internal pain cause by their messed up lives. They don’t have much regard for one another, or anyone else, for that matter.
Each episode focuses on a different child while continuing to build the story as Auguste listens intently to Roderick about what happened and why. Auguste isn’t sure what to believe and where the story is going. Roderick takes the narrative into strange directions at times, sometimes recollecting events that seem downright unbelievable. Intermittently, he hallucinates while being haunted in the final moments of telling this dark familial tale.
The Fall of the House of Usher Review
If you love the works of Poe, you’ll appreciate The Fall of the House of Usher and the creative ways it weaves his stories, poetry, and characters into a clever and thought-provoking allegory.
The series is a gothic horror, but beyond the jump scares (yes, there are several), there’s deep-seated commentary on capitalism. In one of the most talked about monologues, Roderick tells Auguste his take on what to do when life hands you lemons. Auguste’s view is the same as many of us: turn them into lemonade. But Roderick delivers a long-winded explanation about how to turn lemons into something no one can live without. Twist a narrative, make a massive profit, and prevent anyone else from capitalizing on the trend so you maintain a stronghold on it. Lemons are the biggest thing since sliced bread, everyone needs them, and you’re the only one who can offer them. It’s a terrifying commentary about big business, particularly big pharma. It’s also a realization that despite everything Roderick has said in defense of himself and his drug over the years, he knows all along what he has done. His attempt at self-absolution of guilt is inevitably his downfall.
The coldness of the characters, including every member of the Usher family as well as their skilled and ruthless attorney Arthur Gordon Pym (Mark Hamill) is as chilly as the brutal death scenes.
Speaking of those, a pattern emerges and you learn what to expect for each episode, led beautifully by Gugino as the captivatingly sinister Verna. Seeing it coming, however, doesn’t lighten the blow. These characters are downright awful human beings, and you find yourself drawn more to the mystery behind Verna than to their fateful ends.
With each death comes a lesson suggesting that the Ushers aren’t being taken from the world gleefully because of how awful they are. It’s more about how much better they could have been. Money makes the world go ‘round, but in the end, is it what truly makes you happy?
Created by Mike Flanagan, the man behind popular horror series like The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, and The Midnight Club, The Fall of the House of Usher is delivered in his signature style. The characters are fascinating and their deaths tragic, even if you feel little sympathy for them. Their experiences mirror a line from Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart:” “…because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim.” They are each enveloped by their own neuroses or negative actions that follow them through life. Sadly, there’s little hope of clarity and realization in their final moments.
Yes, The Fall of the House of Usher is an entertaining horror TV show, but it’s also a warning about absurd wealth and greed and, on the flip side, how powerfully damaging it can be. It’s also an introspective look at the human condition. In one monologue, Verna describes humans and how we can easily solve so many problems, or simply not create them in the first place, by relinquishing a little bit of wealth. But we simply don’t. It’s a choice we pretend really isn’t one.
Poe might have written his works in the 1800s but The Fall of the House of Usher beautifully uses modern-day context to bring them to life in an entirely new and still very relevant way. The themes of greed, lust, desire, indulgence, all find new homes with stories that involve drugs, hedonism, excess, narcissism, self-preservation, and insecurities.
The episodes are, in essence, compartmentalized short stories, just like Poe’s most famous works. Roderick’s conversation with Auguste in present day, along with the flashbacks for historical reference, create a sense of cohesiveness, however, that brings it all together.
Should You Watch The Fall of the House of Usher?
In a show that has very few, if any, likable characters, The Fall of the House of Usher is arguably one of the best of 2023. Perhaps the final line in Poe’s “The Raven,” which is actually spoken in the series, sums up The Fall of the House of Usher beautifully.
“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting; On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming; And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor; Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (Edgar Allan Poe)
The Raven is the true star of the story, but “The Fall of the House of Usher” is another short story from Poe that follows a similar trajectory to the series that bears its name. Poe’s short story version is about a man suffering from an illness and retelling his story to an unnamed narrator: in the series, this person becomes Auguste. Elements from these two stories are so seamlessly blended with nods to many of Poe’s other works that it’s like a love letter to the famous poet.
Consider this beautifully articulated prose from “The Tell-Tale Heart, which could easily describe some of Roderick’s anguish:”“If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.”
He knows his house is about to fall, regardless of how well he thinks he “concealed the bodies.” His actions, however direct or indirect, sealed the fate of his family lineage. Everything comes at a cost. And when it comes to the house of Usher, the cost is more tormenting than Roderick, or even Auguste, could ever have imagined.