Welcome back to Autostraddle’s daily episodic coverage of The Fall of the House of Usher. Shoutout to the commenter on my last recap who pointed out Camille’s outburst “Toby, damnit!” is a reference to the character Toby Dammit from Poe’s humorous short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” If you ever catch an Edgar Allan Poe reference I didn’t, please do bring it to the comments! I love all of these little easter eggs. You’re reading the recap for The Fall of the House of Usher episode four, “The Black Cat.”
So, let’s start by talking about “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. The 1843 short story is one of Poe’s often-taught pieces, usually paired with “The Tell-Tale Heart” as they deal with similar themes. The second we met Pluto, Leo’s boyfriend Julius’ black cat, I knew Leo’s deathisode would be tied to this tale. In the story, a man starts abusing his beloved pets as a pretty direct result of his increasing alcoholism. He’s particularly brutal to his big black cat Pluto, cutting out his eye and hanging him from a tree. The cat returns — or, at least, a cat that looks very much like Pluto, save for a white marking on his chest. The man becomes abusive toward this cat, too, and endeavors to kill him with an axe. His wife tries to stop him, so he murders her instead. To hide the evidence, he bricks her body behind a wall. When the police arrive, they hear a cry coming from the wall. He accidentally bricked the cat in with his wife, and the cat’s cry exposes his wrongdoing. It’s a story about guilt and the harm we inflict on others. It’s also very much about alcoholism.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Napoleon “Leo” Usher indeed seems to have a substance abuse problem, but even Julius enables this and rationalizes it as just part of Leo’s fast and loose lifestyle. It’s just seen as his rich, bad boy behavior.
The episode begins with Leo asking someone for pussy — a pussy cat, he clarifies. Apparently, his wild plan to cover up the fact that he murdered his boyfriend’s cat is to just replace it. He likely thinks he’ll get away with this, because all of the Ushers believe they can just buy themselves out of their problems. The woman he’s speaking to at the animal shelter, however, is everyone’s favorite dealer of death, Verna. I love how much Verna commits to these various roles she plays in each of the siblings lives, especially because we get to see just how versatile Carla Gugino, something I think Mike Flanagan understands more than most directors. Verna really gets into the cat lady role here (her delivery of “the’d hate that” when Leo says he can buy them all little hot tubs LOL). She attempts to show Leo other cats in more need of adoption, but he sets his sights on a black cat that looks eerily like Pluto. He’s willing to pay whatever for it.
At home, Leo gets a phone call from Roderick. We don’t hear what Roderick says, but we know from Leo’s reaction that he’s hearing of Camille’s death. He promptly enters a state of denial, which brings us to the house with Roderick and Auggie, where Roderick would like to espouse some thoughts on denial as a coping mechanism. Sometimes denial works as a placebo effect, he reasons. It makes you get over the thing you’re upset about because you stop acknowledging the thing exists in the first place. I don’t think that’s really what a placebo effect means, but I do think it’s kind of funny that the patriarch of a pharmaceutical company known for shoddy medical trials would misuse the term placebo effect.
Speaking of denial, it definitely seems like Roderick is in denial about whatever is going on downstairs with his sister Madeline. We hear some crashing sounds, and Auggie asks if she’s alright, if they should maybe ask her to come upstairs. Roderick just sort of brushes this aside.
Roderick resumes his story for Auggie. We’re back in another board room family meeting. This time, the Ushers don’t have Camille to count on for a comms plan. Roderick and Madeline have elected Leo to be the one to read a statement to the press, which makes no mention of how it really happened, because they don’t want this coming back to RUE or Vic’s heartmesh. Leo doesn’t want to read the statement. He’s appalled by his family’s obfuscation of the truth. Roderick responds to Leo’s disgust with a harsh monologue about how they need to close ranks, man their battle stations, using war language to describe the family’s plan for how to manage the tragedies that keep stacking up.
Leo says Tammy or Froderick can be the spokespeople. He’s out. Cut him out of the will for all he cares. He gets a dig in against Juno, who Tammy has been bullying throughout the meeting, too.
Pym has footage of Verna as the security guard at RUE, but it’s grainy. Roderick wants it enhanced the way he has seen on television, and a funny little meta exchange happens around that. While they can’t tell who the woman is, they know for sure she wasn’t supposed to be there, deepening their suspicions that these attacks on the family are coordinated.
At Leo and Julius’, Leo is freaking out because he doesn’t have anything to wear to a funeral. He doesn’t own a black suit. Oh wait, yes he does, it’s just fucking satin, and he can imagine what Camille would say: “Satin is silk for poor people.” Julius, making every effort to be a good partner, asks what he can do. When Leo doesn’t say anything, he just gives him space. He asks Leo if he has seen Pluto since he brought her back, and Leo says she’s probably just skittish, has some trauma. He’s pissed that “someone” “took” her Gucci collar. He’s really giving quite the performance about the whole I Killed the Cat and Replaced the Cat With Another Cat situation. The cat jumps out and squeals at Leo, but when he tries to point it out to Julius, she’s nowhere to be found, the first hint that this replacement cat might only exist in Leo’s mind, a physical manifestation of his guilt and something he can obsess over instead of processing the death of his siblings.
In the courtroom, Auggie and the judge are waiting for the Usher’s council to arrive. When Pym does finally show up late, he lets the court know Camille has died.
Roderick meets with Vic to try to get to the bottom of why Camille was in the lab, what she was looking for. Camille was queen of finding things out, and he wants to know if she indeed found something out. Vic makes him just ask it outright: Is she the informant? No, of course not, she insists. “I would bleed for this family.” Fine, then he wants to know what happened to the chimp and more importantly to the heartmesh inside her. We, of course, know that this particular chimp never had the heartmesh inside her because Vic has been swapping out chimps who died in the surgery with chimps who didn’t receive the surgery, opening up and sewing their chests to cover her own experiment’s failures. Vic doubles down on the lies about the heartmesh’s efficacy and tries to satisfy Roderick by saying they’re ready for human trials.
Meeting with Frederick, Pym notes that they’ve gone through Morella’s phone (Pym has everyone’s phone passwords, naturally) and nothing of note was on there. However, a second phone was found on her. The burner Prospero gave her. Frederick is immediately confused by this. Why would Morella have a second phone? He just wants to know if they ever found her wedding ring. Later, he tries to enlist Lenore’s help “hacking” into it, and she messes with him for thinking that’s something teens can just do.
Roderick got what he wanted: Pym was able to enhance the image of Verna. He texts the photo to Roderick and Madeline, and they both have strange reactions, like there’s a hazy sense of familiarity there. Whatever this sensation is, it leads Roderick to a basement somewhere, and he stares at a brick wall. There are a lot of brick walls in this show, but to be fair, Poe loved a brick wall, especially when he could put a body behind one. Madeline asks her driver to reroute and ends up standing in front of an abandoned building with a raven graffitied on its exterior.
Verna is keeping busy, next appearing again as the flustered heart patient in Vic’s office. She signs a ream of papers, observing that a lot of them look like consent forms. She rambles about how you hear about drugs being tested on lower income folks in other countries, wonders about some of the ethics of these trials, if people are properly informed about consent, being taken advantage of, less likely to report side effects, etc. Vic says the other side of that sword is that it gets medicine and procedures to folks who might otherwise not be able to afford them. Verna’s just glad the drug is being tested in the US of A, happy to be a part of it.
Leo can’t sleep. He thinks maybe a blowjob would help. But as Julius is going down on him, he looks into the darkness and sees the cat’s eyes glowing in the dark. When he pulls his hand out from under this pillow, it’s covered in blood. He has a literal kneejerk reaction, catching Julius’ nose with his knee. Julius goes to clean himself up, and Leo finds the source of the blood. A dead rat with its organs on the outside is under Leo’s pillow, a nice little gift from his possessed kitty. He tears off the sheets and balls everything up, and we never see if Julius sees what he sees.
Displacement, Roderick explains to Auggie, is another go-to coping mechanism in his family. It allows them to transfer their negative feelings onto someone or something else so they can be mean, violent, abusive with impunity. Leo lashes out at the cat and at Julius when he’s upset. In “The Black Cat,” the narrator doesn’t just get violent with his pets as he sinks deeper into his alcoholism but to his wife, too. “I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife,” the narrator explains in the story. “At length, I even offered her personal violence.”
Roderick says Leo is most like him in this way, employing denial, displacement, and projection. Then he talks of what’s considered a positive coping mechanism: sublimation, the channeling of negative emotions and impulses into a positive, productive activity. He’s interrupted, however, by a loud crash. Leo’s bloodied body appears to Roderick on the floor, and Roderick has an outburst of rage. Auggie, not being able to see the phantom Leo, thinks this rage is directed at him and shuts it down promptly. Roderick does not get to raise his voice at him. If he does it again, he’ll knock his fucking lights out. Roderick, you can tell, is not used to being spoken to like this, but he is contrite immediately, apologizing and still enveloped in the fear of just having been interrupted by yet another of his dead children’s ghosts.
“I saw the world different after we met,” Roderick tells Auggie. He wants to go back to when they met for the first time. We hear a doorbell in Roderick’s head, and then he reaches out his hand as if to take an invisible doorknow and twists, effectively transporting us back to the past when we see the younger Roderick opening his door to a younger Auggie. Auggie introduces himself as a Medicare fraud investigator, and Roderick almost closes the door on him. Please, Auggie insists, he has already had 30 doors closed on him. He’s not out to get Roderick; he just wants to talk. Annabel invites him in.
Auggie shows Annabel and Roderick a series of consent forms in clinical trials for a new Fortunato drug. He believes patients were coerced into signing them or otherwise unaware of the risks they’d be taking. Roderick’s signature is on a lot of these forms. It’s forged, Annabel concludes immediately, this isn’t Roderick’s signature. Roderick is a little more cagey though, perhaps fearing the consequences of speaking against Fortunato. He says he can’t recall if he signed the documents, and Annabel and Auggie both know he’s lying.
Auggie then uses his observation skills to determine just how much Roderick and Annabel are struggling. He sees evidence that their kid is sick, keeps them up at night. They’ve been using home remedies, because they can’t afford the medicine to treat him. Roderick works at a massive pharmaceutical company and still can’t afford medicine for his sick kid. It’s fucked up. He knows they can’t afford to say the wrong thing, to get into trouble. The injustice of them not being able to afford the meds is, ultimately, connected to the very injustice Auggie wants to fight, but Roderick and Annabel quite literally can’t afford to wage some war on Fortunato. They’re doing what they can to get by.
Roderick goes to Griswold the next day, and he says the case is bullshit. Sure, Roderick says, but what about those signatures? Griswold evades the question at first and then fires back that being a team player at Fortunato means being okay with his name being on those forms. Now, I feel like we’re giving Griswold a few too many monologues on the show, especially because the point of every monologue of his is essentially just the same note. But what I do find delightful about this particular one is how we hear Griswold say word for word the same lines about battle stations, forming a wall, and himself being the commanding officer that we hear Roderick repeat to his family in the boardroom at the beginning of the episode. None of it is original; it’s all cribbed from Griswold, a man Roderick claims to despite but who he has clearly molded himself from.
Back at their house, Annabel and Roderick are discussing his options. If he quits, Gris will destroy him. Maybe he could go to a competitor first. Or maybe he should just stay quiet. “This industry is ugly,” Annabel says. She wants him out of it. But then Madeline interjects. The Usher name is now in evidence of a crime because of those forms. And Gris just made Roderick eat shit; he’ll never get his respect now, not when he’s eaten his shit. The company is their birthright, Madeline insists to Roderick. Their father built it. And they have to do everything they can to make it theirs. She wants Roderick to go to work and keep eating the shit. Suck up to Gris as much as possible. Then, he’s going to call the number on the card Auggie left and become best friends with August Dupin. Madeline loves to play the long game.
Leo wakes up hungover after yet another bender, and Julius looks concerned but also doesn’t really say much, just makes a vague suggestion to maybe cut back a bit. Leo chugs an old Guinness, which has to be the most upsetting part of this episode TO ME. A warm leftover Guinness…harrowing.
Frederick comes by and needs drugs from Leo, because he isn’t sleeping. He’s stressed about Morella — but not really because she has suffered a great injury but rather because she was at Prospero’s orgy in the first place. It’s clear he’s paranoid, jealous even, desperate to break into that phone and get answers. Leo gives him cocaine, advises him to only take a few bumps a day. Pluto jumps out of Leo’s closet again and scratches him ON THE EYEBALL. Again, there’s no indication that Frederick sees the cat. He mostly just seems confused and just wants to take his coke and go. Leo looks at his scratched eye in the mirror. Okay, fine, this might be more disturbing than the warm Guinness.
Tamerlane is on the treadmill watching BILLT Nation when she notices something strange: One of the women in the exercise video is Candy, Verna’s sex worker persona. When Bill comes home later in the episode, he says he’s sorry and he should have seen her and asked her to leave. But he also thinks Tamerlane needs to get some sleep; she hasn’t been sleeping in the leadup to her Gold Bug launch. She says she’s going to email Lauren, the sex worker they usually work with, and tell her to have Candy give them a wide berth.
Pluto the demonic cat isn’t quite done with Leo. He leaves a little mouse in his shoe, and it’s enough to push Leo over the edge. He summons Verna as the cat lady, and when she arrives, he begs her to take the cat back. “Cats are predators,” she says. “It’s in their genes.” Their prey drive is still easily activated even when they’re domesticated, and she says leaving little gifts of dead animals is common. Leo shows her a bathtub full of dead animals: birds, rodents, all of them torn to pieces. This version of Verna, it should be noted, wears a collar-like necklace with a little bell on it. I thought she was a cat lady in the sense of a cat lover before. But what she really seems like is a cat-woman. We’ve seen her become part-animal before, when she channelled the chimp to threaten and eventually kill Camille.
“She’s in the walls,” Cat Verna concludes, tapping on the walls. They hear Pluto cry and run, and Leo follows the noise. Cats are apex predators, Cat Verna explains, detailing all the incredible physical feats cats are capable of that would perhaps make some people scared of them but made me say “cats are so cool.” She follows Leo in a manner that very much looks like stalking. She tells him cats eat animals to get taurine, which they don’t produce enough of on their own. “They’re predators because they’re deficient,” she says. She licks his ear, her physical embodiment of cat behaviors becoming more pronounced. Carla Gugino, it must be said, is nailing this!!!! Verna Cat compares this feline trait to Leo’s father. Roderick is a predator because he lacks something, she posits.
Leo captures Pluto and squeezes him until his eye pops out, perhaps taking an eye for an eye quite literally since the cat scratched his. The cat runs away, and when Verna turns, we see her eye is missing, too. She licks her hand like a cat, channeling the mutilated Pluto. There’s horror and humor to this performance as a cat. It’s so strange and surreal. Leo starts destroying the walls with, hilariously, a Mjölnir.
Frederick, freshly fueled by coke, is still desperately trying to get into Morella’s phone. He takes her finger sensor off of her bandaged hand and attempts to use her fingerprint. Even more violating, he unwraps her face bandages to try to use facial recognition. It’s all horribly cruel to do to his wife, who is in pain and likely experiencing intense trauma. He doesn’t seem to care about her as much as he cares about getting into the phone. If only he knew it was as simple as putting in 666999.
Over at the Roderick mansion, Juno casually floats the idea of going off of Ligodone to Roderick, and he shuts her down. She’s his “perfect proof.” She’s his evidence to his naysayers that Ligodone is safe and non-addictive. Okay, well if it’s so safe and non-addictive, what’s the harm in her tapering off, Rod? It’s clear he sees Juno only in this way, only as that perfect proof and not like a real woman with agency. She wants to cheer him up with some sexy time, but when he looks at her lingerie-clad body, he suddenly sees burning flesh. At first, I thought he was seeing her flesh as burnt, but the reveal is much more terrifying. Prospero’s burned corpse looms over her, an arm wrapped around her shoulders. He then moves closer to Roderick, lowering his face into his, Roderick frozen in fear.
Juno calls Madeline, who rushes to Roderick’s bedside where he finally tells her about the CADASIL. Madeline and Roderick’s co-dependent sibling relationship is one of my favorite dynamics on the show. Roderick says his illness is “same as mom,” and Madeline asks him to stop. She doesn’t want to think of that past.
Julius returns home from work and can hear banging from all the way outside. When he enters, he finds Leo has decimated the apartment with his Mjölnir. He’s ranting about the cat, about needing to find her and kill her. Julius likely thinks this is just a bad trip due to all of Leo’s drug use. It’s at this point that I also became very concerned about Julius due to how things transpire in the short story. I thought Leo might accidentally kill Julius in his reckless pursuit of the cat, who isn’t even real but rather a manifestation of his guilt, grief, and rage over what’s happening with his family.
Leo finds the cat and Verna dead behind the wall, but Julius sees nothing. There’s nothing there. Don’t you see it? Leo insists. But it’s too late to reel him back in from from delusion. When he sees Pluto on the balcony’s ledge, he runs and swings the hammer, the force of it throwing him off the balcony and crashing to his death. The camera glides through his apartment until situating over the bathtub, where there are no dead animals. It was all imagined. The episode ends with a black cat jumping onto Leo’s lifeless body before walking away.
So, we do twist away from the story’s ending. Julius gets to live. After all, Leo’s death is a punishment doled out by Verna, and so far the only death to have collateral damages was Prospero’s. Verna is cat like in her death dealings with the siblings, playing with her prey and doling out violence that mirrors their own behaviors. Leo was so desperate to hide his own violence and role in killing Pluto that she traps him in the delusions of a demon cat out to get him. Denial and displacement become hauntings. Rahul Kohli is fantastic throughout the episode, and it’s so fun to watch him play such a different character than he did in Bly Manor.
The thematic overlap between the episode and its original short story works well. In the story, the narrator treats his wife as just another one of his pets. It’s easy to see how Leo does the same to Julius, using him only in the specific ways he needs and not caring at all about what Julius needs or wants. He doesn’t even let Julius meet his family, and this doesn’t seem to stem from a place of wanting to protect Julius from them but rather to keep Julius confined to only him. We’ve watched him cheat on Julius, lie to him, avoid talking to him about what he’s really feeling by burying himself in drugs and alcohol. He isn’t violent toward Julius, but there’s still a sense he’s controlling him. Julius is ultimately spared Leo’s delusions, witnessing them when it’s far too late. He asked Leo what he needed from him, and Leo said nothing. His substance abuse and unwillingness to let anyone in isolates him, and Verna further isolates him, trapping him in his own mind, a horrifying place to be.
This marks the official halfway point of the series! We’ve got three more Usher siblings to kill off! What are you enjoying about the series up to this point?