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Mike Flanagan’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ Harnesses Poe to Address the US’s Opioid Crisis

A modern tribute to Edgar Allan Poe’s body of work, the Netflix series delivers a murderous yet somewhat cathartic fall of a pharmaceutical empire.
A still from 'The Fall of the House of Usher'.

This review contains spoilers.

Mike Flanagan’s latest and final Netflix ‘Flanaverse’ series before he moves to Amazon Prime, The Fall of the House of Usher, is a macabre reinterpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of the same name.

Much like his previous well-received series like The Haunting of Hill House (based on the novel by Shirley Jackson) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (based on Henry James’s gothic novella The Turn of the Screw), the horror auteur uses several of Poe’s stories as a foundation to weave together a Succession meets Final Destination-style Gothic series with a piercing commentary on several modern ills – particularly unbridled corporate greed.

Over the course of eight episodes, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals CEO Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) explains to Assistant US Attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) how and why each of his six adult children died in the last two weeks.

A deal with the devil

In 1979, we learn that Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline (Mary McDonnell), made a Faustian deal at a bar with a devilish and ageless figure named Verna (played to perfection by Carla Gugino) to secure a powerful and affluent future.

The catch? When it’s time for Roderick and Madeline to die, their entire family goes before them. The whole bloodline – nevermore.

In a post-murder haze from killing Fortunato boss Rufus Griswold, the siblings (the younger versions played by Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald) consent to these terms. The series reveals that Verna struck similar deals with Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, John Francis Queeny (founder of Monsanto) the Koch family, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, and more.

Over the years that follow that fateful New Years’ night, the two siblings go on to make billions on the back of a ‘painkiller’ called Ligodone – a highly addictive pill that is at the heart of the opioid crisis.

The made-up substance parallels Oxycodone, the actual pain reliever more than 13 million Americans are addicted to, according to the United States Department of Justice.

The ‘consequence’? Millions addicted and dead from overuse. The House of Usher heavily underscores the ethical abyss that some pharmaceutical corporations venture into, where profit sometimes takes precedence over patients’ well-being, prompting viewers to contemplate the harrowing repercussions of corporate ambition at the cost of real lives.

“There’s no such thing as a painkiller. Imagine if we put that on the bottle. I bet I could’ve still sold it,” Roderick says towards the end.

When death comes knocking

Each Usher (barring Lenore, the granddaughter) is amoral, cruel and selfish, so much so that watching their consecutive gruesome deaths leaves one wincing over the brutality without necessarily feeling sympathy.

The kids – immature manchild Frederick (Henry Thomas), wannabe-GOOP health guru Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), unethical surgeon Victorine (T’Nia Miller), drug-addicted and philandering Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), PR maven Camille (Kate Siegel), and hedonistic Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota) – are named after characters from Poe’s works. They all receive an individual episode that loosely aligns with a renowned tale. These include ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Black Cat’, among others.

The clock begins to tick early for Prospero, the youngest. Desperate to prove his worth to his father, the 20-something throws an exclusive masquerade-style orgy at one of his father’s company’s abandoned facilities which was meant to be demolished as it was a storage site for illegal toxic waste.

It is here that we witness the first very grisly – and most brutal – consequence of the deal with Verna, who arrives at the scene of debauchery to warn the youngest Usher about his plans for the evening of having a rain-soaked night to remember. One gut-churning scene later, Verna finally leaves the site after placing a white mask on the chemically-melted face of Prospero in a room full of over 70 fused and melted bodies.

The comeuppances continue with a murderous black cat, a descent to madness, a lab animal hitting back, a paralysed bisection and more. The true horror stems from the reactions of the Ushers to the deaths, as they continue to march towards their foreshadowed fates.

In comparison, while Verna may be the one dealing the death cards – and may just be the devil herself – there is still a humaneness to her as she goes about collecting souls. The biggest evidence of this is her care for Lenore, who she puts to sleep after telling her that her mother changes millions of lives for the better in the future through a foundation in Lenore’s name.

‘It’s time’

But who exactly is Verna? An anagram for ‘Raven’, Gugino’s mysterious character is Flanagan’s nod to Poe’s famous poem, ‘The Raven’. As Poe writes, “[the raven’s] eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,” a line that links to Verna’s own demonic nature. In the grand tapestry of the narrative, Verna serves as both an observer and a catalyst.

In the end, even Roderick and Madeline’s time is up. After Roderick confesses to Dupin that he knowingly climbed mountains of bodies to gain wealth and power, he and Madeline are crushed to death as their childhood home caves in – as it did in Poe’s original story.

The ruthlessness of the family also spills over into the character played by Mark Hamill (known as the ‘Pym Reaper’), an unscrupulous lawyer and general all-purpose fixer for the Ushers. Arthur Pym eventually even turns down a deal with Verna. “I have no collateral. Collateral is leverage, and I won’t be leveraged,” he tells her. It’s delightful to see Hamill taking on an atypical part, the first of hopefully many such roles.

Flanagan has undisputedly won himself a loyal fanbase. He also co-created 2022’s The Midnight Club, and adapted two different Stephen King novels into films: 2017’s Gerald’s Game and 2019’s Doctor Sleep. The coming months will see him tackle King’s towering Dark Tower series, which has yet to see a decent adaptation.

There’s no doubt Netflix, with its falling subscription numbers, is losing a big name that brought regular eyeballs to the streaming site. But as the show makes it clear, “The real world is Darwinian. Survival, chaos, power.”

Aleesha Matharu has worked in journalism for 10 years, with time at the desk at The Indian ExpressThe Wire and Catch News.

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