We’re now in the second half of the series The Fall of the House of Usher, which I’ve been recapping episodically every day! You’re reading the recap for The Fall of the House of Usher episode five, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Let’s dig in.
Here is another one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most known and often-taught short stories. But in case you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, the 1843 short story is about an unnamed narrator detailing a murder he has committed. Poe doesn’t give us much by way of motive or even really any specific details about the relationship between the narrator and the murdered, who is only described as an old man with a strange pale blue eye the narrator likens to that of a vulture. The narrator insists the old man never did anything wrong to the narrator (I’m avoiding pronouns because Poe doesn’t even specify the gender of the narrator). The narrator, instead, seems mainly focused on executing the perfect crime rather than murdering for any other reason. The narrator chops up the man’s body and hides parts in the bathtub and under floorboards. But a thumping sound haunts the narrator, who interprets it as the victim’s beating heart. The sound eventually drives the narrator to confess to the crime.
It’s a strange and simple little tale, a very early iteration of an unreliable narrator in fiction. It begins in media res, and while all episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher jump around in time, Victorine’s deathisode indeed plays with time and memory even more explicitly as we watch Vic gradually unravel.
But before we get to that, the episode opens on that fated New Year’s Eve we’ve only seen little pieces of so far. Roderick looks up at the raven looming over Verna’s bar and remarks his mother called them satan’s birds. Verna insists they aren’t a bad omen in every culture, sometimes they can arrive to tell you your fortune. She takes Roderick’s hand and says: “Your life will take a complete change of course. Tonight.”
A cop car pulls up outside the bar, and Roderick and Madeline, who is talking to a man on the dance floor, stiffen. It pulls away, and Madeline joins Roderick at the bar and tells him it’s his turn on the dance flood. He doesn’t really want to dance right now, but it isn’t about dancing, she explains. It’s about being seen. She instructs him to find a woman to kiss when the ball drops and make sure he remembers it. Madeline is determined to make sure they have a flawless cover story for whatever crime they committed — the perfect murder, perhaps? Madeline’s exacting use of language does call to mind the first person narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Roderick goes to the dance floor, leaving Madeline alone with Verna, who says it’s good he has her to call the shots. Madeline remarks Roderick would forget to eat cake at his own birthday if she didn’t eat it first. Verna asks Madeline what her resolution is, and Madeline reminds her she already asked this. To change the world. But that was Roderick’s answer not Madeline’s. Verna starts to ask if Madeline would rather be rich or famous, but Madeline cuts her short by simply saying rich. Alright, Verna continues the hypothetical, say you you’re super wealthy and don’t have to work anymore, what do you do? Madeline says she’d never let a man have power of her and figure out how to live forever. The ball drops, and Madeline looks to see Roderick kissing some woman (Annabel Lee is presumably home with the children!!!! Poor Annabel Lee!). When Madeline turns back, Verna’s face is right in front of hers. It seems menacing at first, but then Madeline leans in, and they kiss. “Cheers to you, Cleopatra.”
Cheers to ME as well. Queer Madeline: CONFIRMED.
In the house with Roderick in the present, Auggie says: “What did you do Roderick? You and Madeline. You said this is your confession. Confess.” Roderick says he’s getting to that. All in due time. I wonder if he’s stalling with this story and if so — for what.
We’re back at a funeral. It’s not the one the series opens with but rather the funeral for the first set of three Rodericks to die. There are attendees for this one at least. The priest reads lines from Poe’s “The Spirits of the Dead.” “The mothers” are all in attendance: Prospero’s, Napoleon’s, Camille’s. They sit on a bench by themselves, calling to mind the image of Logan Roy’s ex-wives at his funeral in Succession. Roderick sees Prospero’s burned body in phantom form before him. He looks up into the balcony and sees the jester from a previous episode, too. We don’t yet know who this particular specter is though.
Pym coaches Julius on how to talk to the press. Roderick makes eye contact with the grieving mothers, his line of exes, and they definitely look at him with disdain, so he collects Juno and starts to leave. But when he looks back at the front of the church, there are his three children as ghosts, their bodies still bearing all the violent injuries that led to their deaths. It’s quite the image.
After the funeral, Tamerlane bought out an entire bar so she can have a private conversation with her remaining siblings. It isn’t perfectly private though: They all have their own individual security guards now, courtesy of Aunt Mads. Tamerlane says she hopes the guards’ NDAs are airtight, and Frederick is like oh right because of the sex workers. I guess there are no secrets between the original two Usher siblings.
Vic suggests they all need to pull together now. She asks if they remember when the other siblings showed up. Tamerlane looks and speaks to her as if to remind her she’s one of the bastards, too. She was just the first bastard to crop up. Vic says the others were so young, and it was painful to watch them try to fill the holes inside them. Tamerlane interjects and says sure, yeah, Camille filled her “dad hole” (Frederick finds this terminology exceptionally gross) with information, Perry filled his with just about anything, and Napoleon filled it with his fans. But Tamerlane tells Vic she has that same hole, too. She’s just perhaps better at hiding it. Verna said something similar to Camille about how she and Vic were ultimately the same, and Camille hated her for hiding it better. Vic gets to say she’s a scientist; she gets to say she’s working to save lives. It sounds good, noble. Vic says Tamerlane and Frederick always had it easy, growing up in the same house as their father and their mother, Annabel. Vic’s mother was a nurse, a single nurse. Vic speaks as if this harder background somehow puts her on a moral high ground above Tamerlane and Frederick. But they’re all bad people. Vic is fooling herself. These arguments about who had it worse or whose attempts to fill the hole are worse are pointless.
Tamerlane says for all they know, three more children of Roderick’s will show up to take their place. What with his open gate policy and everything. Vic articulates something I wrote a few recaps back about how Roderick thinks he’s better than his father for keeping the gate open to his children, but that isn’t real love. He keeps it open and then plays games with them once they’re inside. “He throws us the food and watches us fight for it,” Vic says.
Sure enough, this gathering quickly devolves into all of them fighting, like they’ve been primed to do by Roderick. Vic mocks Tamerlane for being a knock-off Goop. She calls them Froderick and Maderlane, saays they’re “just like dad and Mads,” little carbon copies of the family’s patriarch and matriarch. Okay, Tamerlane WISHES she had Madeline’s icy cold bad bitch vibe. But go off, Vic.
At the hospital, Morrie is able to respond to Lenore’s questions by blinking her responses. Lenore is thrilled her mother is conscious and on the road to recovery. Frederick seems…less thrilled. He doesn’t respond to the news of her organs functioning better than expected with glee so much as frustration. He wants to bring Morrie home, to care for her there, which the doctor swiftly advises against. But Frederick plays the “industry royalty” card, throwing his money and status at the situation, as Ushers are apt to do. He wants her home. Why exactly? I’m sure so he can monitor her and be in control. Worried for Morrie!
At Vic and Alessandra’s house, hilariously, arguing while “Total Eclipse of the Heart” plays in the background. Alessandra is appalled that Vic has booked her for surgery next week, especially because they’re nowhere close to being ready for human trials. Vic tries to appeal to her emotions at first, showing her the prototype of the heartmesh, saying it’s their beginning. When that doesn’t quite work, Vic tries the daddy card, says they have a $200 million investment from Roderick Usher, and if he wants it now, they have to go for it. But Daddy Usher doesn’t have the same sort of hold on Alessandra as he does over his children.
Alessandra wonders how Vic could have even gotten approval to move forward…and realizes she must have forged her signature on documents to do it. It’s a huge betrayal, one these two don’t even realize is a repetition of the past. Roderick Usher once had his signature forged on forms by Griswold, putting him and his family at risk all for the good of Fortunato. Here now is is daughter Vic, forging her wife’s signature on medical documents that will put people at risk and that prove she cares more about the trials than about her relationship. “Shit, how do you think this industry works?” Vic says. She honestly sounds like Griswold talking to Roderick in his office all those years ago. Roderick has instilled in his children a belief that the medical industry is fucked up because it has to be. And they’re unquestioning in their approaches to medicine and science, built around an emphasis on profit and power rather than on saving lives.
Vic is trying every card in the deck here. She even tries to make this about #Feminism, saying Al should know it’s harder for them as women. Yeah, babe, I still don’t think that’s a great defense for forging your beloved’s signature on medical forms. As she gets increasingly angry, Vic throws her money — Roderick’s money, really — in Alessandra’s face. That’s her breaking point. She says she’s out. Vic wants to know if she means out of the trials or out of the relationship.
But Vic doesn’t seem all that concerned about the relationship; instead, she’s worried Alessandra might tell on her. The NDA doesn’t cover illegal activities, Alessandra says, and Vic retorts that it very much does. That’s the Pym special. Alessandra can’t expose what Vic has done without great personal cost, because the Usher family will destroy her. “I am telling you,” Vic says. She corrects herself: “I am asking you.” But the damage is already done. Vic has shown her true colors, as controlling in her personal relationships as the rest of the Ushers are. “You’re not who I thought you were,” Alessandra says, and it cuts like a knife. All the while “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is still playing. It’s a long song after all.
“You Ushers, I really didn’t want to think it, but you’re all fucking monsters,” Alessandra says. Vic shouts and throws a heavy book end in her direction, but we don’t see where it lands. We cut away.
Vic is in her office, trying to leave a message for someone, presumably Al. We’re meant to believe they’d merely fought and Vic is trying to apologize, trying to get a second chance. She hears a mechanical chirping sound. There it is, the show’s take on the thumping heart. Only in this case, we’re hearing the sounds of a beating heartmesh. It sounds a bit like a smoke detector low on batteries, which is indeed what Vic assumes, taking the detector off her office wall. Madeline enters in this moment, says she’s checking on all her little ducklings. Vic asks if she hears the sound, and it’s clear she doesn’t, much like other characters didn’t seem to see Pluto the replacement cat in Leo’s deathisode.
Auggie and Pym are in the judge’s barracks waiting for the judge to arrive. Pym is doing a crossword, and Auggie says he understands why people call him the Pym Reaper. All they need, Auggie jokes, is a chessboard and a beach, making reference to Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal about a knight confronted by the embodiment of death. “Love Bergman,” Pym says. This one’s for the film girlies. Auggie asks him why he works for the Ushers, and Pym replies that he wouldn’t be where he is today without Roderick Usher, and neither would Auggie for that matter. The judge arrives with his lunch, and Pym asks for a continuance, which he receives even though Auggies tries to push back on it. Auggie remarks that the Ushers have almost a supernatural ability to evade the law and consequences. There’s some fun physical comedy to the scene, as the judge is eating soup during this serious conversation. People will simply always look silly while eating soup!
In the present, Roderick asks Auggie to finally tell him who the informant was. It doesn’t matter now anyway. Auggie confesses there never was an informant, and Roderick is impressed. No really, he insists, it was a great move and he wishes they could have played it out until the end. Auggie defends his choice, saying he had to use Roderick’s methods to finally get Roderick. The Ushers always got to break the rules, and Auggie was expected to play by the book? Auggie admits his strategy had been to point at the kids, to pressure the fault lines. “You might eat each other alive,” he says. He didn’t imagine they’d start dying.
Roderick sees Auggie’s shirt darken with blood and hears a pounding heart. Sure enough, we’re about to meet ghost Vic. Auggie looks up at the ceiling, and when his head snaps back down, he’s Vic, whose chest is bleeding and who screams unlike the silence of her ghost siblings. Roderick eventually snaps out of this haunting, and he tells Auggie he shouldn’t blame himself for the kids dying. Carl Lumbly is so good at looking confounded and afraid in these sequences, unsure of Roderick’s motives and intent.
We’re back in the past again, with a young Madeline pitching Griswold on digitizing Fortunato’s records and embracing computers. Gris has only one question for her: How do you take your coffee?
“In solitude,” Madeline says, not giving him the satisfaction of taking his gross question seriously. Gris keeps trying to humiliate her by sexualizing her, calling her a smart and pretty girl. Madeline doesn’t let this faze her. She shoots back zingers like:
We get YET ANOTHER Griswold monologue, and I truly am quite sick of these! We get it! He’s a bad man who likes to be verbose about his nonsense! I would have rather heard more from Madeline, even though of course, that’s not the point of the scene. The point of the scene is how he doesn’t want to let her talk. He only wants one thing from her, and he makes that very clear. She can fuck him, but she can’t fuck with him. He thinks it’s very interesting that after Roderick was in his office complaining about his signature being forged on forms, now here’s his sister offering to dig those forms up from the basement and digitize them. Gris is a certified asshole, but he isn’t stupid.
But he isn’t as smart as he thinks either. After all, he let slip that those forms do indeed still exist as hard copy records in the basement of Fortunato. Dupin is sitting in the Ushers’ kitchen, Madeline’s plan to work with him coming to fruition. Annabel doesn’t like any of this; it seems to risky. Dupin agrees: It is dangerous to go up against a company like Fortunato, and once they make their next move, there’ll be no going back. “Well we’re doing it,” Roderick says.
We cut to Pym presenting Roderick and Madeline multiple photos of Verna in disguises: in the mask and cloak at Perry’s party, as the security guard at RUE, and in a photo found of Leo’s phone in which she’s holding a dead rat, looking very much like a human cat. Madeline says she knows that face, and Roderick knows it, too. “New Year’s Eve 1980,” Madeline says, and Roderick tries to shut it down, because they don’t have a lot of rules between them, but never talking about New Year’s Eve 1980 was one of Mads’. When she doesn’t let it go, he says he’ll indulge this wild ride she’s on. But it’s impossible, isn’t it? For the same woman to surface looking exactly the same, 40 years later? Madeline wants to know if he happened to fuck that pretty bartender all those years ago, wonders if this could be another one of his heirs. Only this one is killing off the others to be first in line.
Pym says he’ll handle it and wants authorization to approach the suspect aggressively. Basically, it sounds like he’s going to have her killed. He says he’ll return with a receipt of the transaction, and Madeline says she wants her eyes. Quite literally, she wants him to extract this woman’s eyes out and bring them to her. Madeline doesn’t really beat around the bush when it comes to her lethal approach to negotiations. It echoes of when she said she’d have whoever the informant was killed. Roderick uses his money to control; Madeline uses brute force, outsourced to Pym.
After Aunt Mads calls for Verna’s eyes, we transition to a close-up shot of, well, Verna’s eyes. She sits before Vic in her heart patient disguise. We get a really great two-hander horror scene here, Carla Gugino slipping in and out of the nervous, jittery patient persona Verna has adopted and Verna’s true colors. She openly messes with Vic’s head, which is also full of that chirping sound. “What’s more important to you?” Verna asks “Being famous or saving lives. You’ve always dreamed about one of those. Not so much the other. Ever think the balance was off in that equation? As a scientist, I mean.” Vic says “excuse me?” but then Verna slips back into the patient’s voice.
As Vic gets up, desperately trying to find the source of the chirping, Verna slips into her real self again:
“Do you know the term operant conditioning? It’s what a horse has that lets them know a rider might be hesitant or nervous. They read erratic behavior. Not fear, not exactly. But animals learn real quick to avoid that person. That’s you. In a nutshell. You’re so out of touch with your human side you can’t even listen to anything outside your own head.”
As she’s speaking, the lights in the office lower, turn reddish. And when Verna switches gears again back to patient mode, the lights come back up as if on a dimmer. We’re going deeper and deeper into the recesses of Vic’s one-track mind. She was hyperfixated on the human trials before, leading to the destruction of her relationship. Now, she’s hyperfixated on this incessant sound. If Dr. Ruiz gives Patient Verna a call, she’ll gladly go through with the surgery, no questions asked.
Vic tries to leave another message for Al. I don’t think Al is going to answer the phone, babe.
But we move away from Vic’s descent to check in on the other few remaining Usher siblings. Frederick has constructed a hospital-grade room in his home. Lenore asks if the press will swarm them when her mother comes home, and he says they probably will but just to say as Pym tells her to say. “That feels so gross,” she says, and Frederick sits her down for a classic father-daughter conversation about the importance of listening to the family lawyer. Frederick talks about how he has received 11 death threats since he turned 30. “That man protects us,” he tells her. Rich people really do have such extreme victim complexes. Lenore tells him she’s just happy her mother is coming home so they can all start to heal. As she’s walking out, Frederick whispers to himself “we almost got her.” It’s frightening to say the least.
Over in Casa Goldbug, Tamerlane is working on her laptop and hears distant chatter coming from the hall outside her apartment. She goes out, and we see the briefest flash of a woman who looks a lot like Verna as Candy slipping away. Tamerlane accuses her security guard of talking to someone, and he insists he wasn’t. We cut suddenly to Tamerlane waking up in bed, Bill asking if she just fell asleep mid-sentence. Oh no, insomnia-fueled horror definitely gets me good. Indeed, Bill says he hasn’t seen her sleep in a very long time — “like horror movie long.” He wants to postpone the brand launch. She’s adamant about moving forward. This escalates to the point of Tamerlane telling him he was head hunted to be her partner. They met at VidCon, and she had a list, still might have the original spreadsheet in fact of potential partners who would be good for her to build a brand with. It was all very calculated. It’s easy to see a correlation between these two and Shiv and Tom in Succession.
Tamerlane is cruel to Bill, cutting him down, and then she accuses him of fucking Candy behind her back. She keeps seeing her on the streams. The security guard saw them walking in the park together, too. “That was YOU, you psycho!” Bill shouts. It seems the lines between Tamerlane and her hired doppelgangers are collapsing in Tamerlane’s own mind. Not sleeping will really do a number on you. Bill says he always hated those evenings with the sex workers; it was all for Tamerlane’s own pleasure, not his. “I walk out that door, and I’m not coming back,” he says. “Fucking great,” she replies.
Roderick is back in the basement where he wandered off to last episode after being sent the first photo of Verna. He’s having a whiskey and talking to a wall. He says he never touched the bartended any more than Mads did. Maybe, if what he thinks is happening is really happening, then he knows how to stop it.
He goes up to his penthouse office and grabs a bottle of Ligodone. He can kill himself by taking a handful of pills, slip away. That wouldn’t really be great for the brand though, he reasons. He goes through a series of other possible ways to kill himself and finds a reason not to do each one. He can go out like a warrior with his khopesh, but this proves more physically difficult to do in practice. He can jump out his window and fall 70 floors. Just 10 seconds to save them all, he says. When he strikes the window with the khopesh, it doesn’t break, and instead we slip into a rather artful fantasy sequence of the entire building falling, eventually Roderick’s body falling through the air. He can’t do it though.
We snap back to reality, with Roderick showing up at Vic’s doorstep. She’s blasting music to drown out the chirping sound, and he asks her to turn it down. He sits her down and delivers a much too late apology for his approach to parenting. He treated her and her siblings like lion cubs, turning them against one another in an effort to make them stronger. “I was wrong,” he says. He also admits he has not strong, is not brave.
It’s too late for a number of reasons — namely that Vic can barely hear him due to her distraction over the chirping sound. He asks her to turn the music all the way off, and she says she would rather not. “There’s a problem,” she says. In this case though, Roderick hears what she hears, too. It isn’t just in her head. A steady mechanical thumping sound echoes through her house.
She rushes to the entryway and seems to recall something she was repressing. We watch the scene of Alessandra calling the Ushers monsters again. This time, the scene continues. We see the bookend hit her in the back of her head, Al’s body falling to the ground. Vic is immediately appalled and runs to her, but it’s clear she’s going to bleed out. In a horrifying sequence, she gently closes the door Al had just been about to walk out of. When her security guard asks if everything is alright, Vic insists the brutal sounds emanating from Al’s convulsing body are in ecstasy, claims to be having sex when really she’s letting her beloved bleed out on the floor slowly in front of her.
“I remember now,” Vic says, snapping out of the flashback. Roderick knows something is very wrong now. He wants to know what the sound is but also what he’s smelling. That’s when he finds Alessandra’s body stuffed in a room, her chest open, the heartmesh clenching at her lifeless heart. Vic barges in, too, and proceeds to talk to Alessandra as if she were alive. It’s an effective choice to not show us these delusions she’s having. We watch her carry on a conversation with a corpse. Roderick’s face is completely broken. He’s overcome with fear and grief, realizing how gone his daughter is, realizing what she has done. Vic wants Al to apologize. “She’s quite dead, isn’t she?” Roderick says. It’s rare to see this much genuine emotion from him.
Vic finally realizes the truth. T’Nia Miller is ACTING!!!!!! There’s a stage performance quality to her work here. I’ve watched this particular scene three times how, and it might just be the most haunting moment of the entire series, due in large part to her performance. Vic says she can fix this, and then she starts talking in a manner that suggests Verna is speaking through her, even though this is the only death so far where we don’t see Verna in physical form. “I wish you’d just jumped, maybe then I wouldn’t have to do this. Who am I kidding, of course I would,” Verna-as-Vic says. “Success is everything.” Isn’t that the Usher way?
Vic stabs herself in the chest in front of Roderick. “Daddy?” she asks, returned to herself and no longer channeling Verna. He shakes in fear.
WHAT AN EPISODE! Especially for Miller, whose full-throttled in her portrayal of Vic’s mental anguish and obsession over the repeated sound. (In case you didn’t know, Miller is a lesbian by the way! Queer brilliance!)
I knew Alessandra was going to die the first time I watched the episode, because I caught the MURDER-SUICIDE headline on the news story about their deaths that flashes in the first episode. But the way in which she dies is so brutal — perhaps even more so because she isn’t actually collateral damage of Verna’s like the folks at Perry’s party. Vic is solely responsible for killing Alessandra; it isn’t fated like the siblings deaths seem to be. Verna, again, finds another reason to dole out death in an especially horrific manner, fating Vic to die at her own hands, to die the same way all those experimented on animals did, to die with an open chest that contains a heart, sure, but that is ultimately heartless.
We obviously have a play on “The Tell-Tale Heart” in the episode, but I also have been thinking about Victorine’s namesake. She’s named for a character in Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” and in that story, she’s a wealthy woman buried alive by her abusive husband. Here, we have almost an inversion of that story in the sense that Victorine very much does kill her wife and pretends as if she is alive instead of in the story when the husband pretends his wife has died. The Fall of the House of Usher is indeed cheeky and clever in the ways it mines Poe’s tales for thematic elements and horror but then twists them into something new. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator is obsessively trying to execute the perfect crime. In this episode of the same name, Vic is obsessively trying to prove the heartmesh works, carefully calculating a plan that is so myopic she can’t even see her wife is dead. Roderick did say his children were experts at denial.