Hello, and welcome to episodic recaps of The Fall of the House of Usher! What a wonderful way to spend the next eight days of the scariest month of the year together. That’s right; once a day for the next eight days, I’ll publish a recap of each installment of the new Mike Flanagan Netflix series The Fall of the House of Usher. You’re currently reading the recap for The Fall of the House of Usher episode one, titled “A Midnight Dreary” and written and directed by Flanagan himself.
These recaps will work a little differently than my Yellowjackets ones and other previous TV recaps I’ve done here, mainly because this series dropped all at once and won’t be released weekly. It’s possible you’ve already seen all the episodes as you’re reading this (though it would have required you getting up at an ungodly hour to do so…I’m impressed by your commitment to the Flanagan Horrorverse!). We’re all watching at our own paces. But when I got screeners for this series and promptly blew through them, I knew I wanted to recap it. There are just so many Edgar Allan Poe easter eggs, intertextualities, and fun themes and narrative devices to dissect about this show. This does mean I’ve seen all eight. However, I don’t endeavor to spoil future episodes in each of these recaps. One slight exception is the graphic found near the end of this first recap, which details who all’s gay here, but it’ll be easy to scroll past that if you don’t want to see it. If, for some reason, I feel compelled to spoil anything else in a recap, I’ll give you plenty of warning. I will sometimes flag instances of foreshadowing in certain episodes, which’ll be fun to revisit once you finish the series. I promise these won’t be spoilery! Just little wink winks.
And if you have already blown through the series, I still think you’ll find plenty to enjoy about following along with these recaps, which will provide deep dives on the literary references and other zoomed in details. As always, you’re encouraged to point out anything I may have missed — especially background details and additional Poe easter eggs! — in the comments. Let’s give this a spooky sleepover feel, shall we?
The Fall of the House of Usher is the latest Netflix horror series from Mike Flanagan that lifts gothic horror literature and spins it into a sprawling scary story about a family, ghosts, and everyday horrors. We’ve seen him do this before with the work of Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House, one of my favorite miniseries of all time. He did it again with the work of Henry James for The Haunting of Bly Manor, a series many loved and I thought was just okay (I’m sorry!). Now, Flanagan has taken the work of the very prolific Edgar Allan Poe and smashed several poems and stories into a Frankensteined adaptation full of references, nods, and overlapping texts. All episode titles are direct references, some of them even lifting the exact title of a Poe piece. But they all spin Poe’s stories into something entirely new. The series queers the works of Poe — both in the sense of injecting the stories with canonically queer characters but also in the more abstract sense of bending and reimagining.
At its surface, the story is simple: The Usher siblings, a family of billionaires, are killed off one by one under mysterious circumstances. Their father, the billionaire patriarch and CEO of a massive pharma corporation, recounts the events leading to each of their deaths to an old friend and rival…the man who has made it his life’s work to bring the Ushers down for their role in the global opioid epidemic and other unethical, illegal, and depraved side effects of the pharmaceutical capitalist hellscape the Usher fortune is built on. Each episode weaves between multiple timelines to reveal exactly how the Usher family came to power and all the harm they’ve caused to get there. Yes, it’s a horror story about the wickedness of billionaires. In many ways — which seem intentional — it’s like a horror-ified version of Succession.
Episode one opens with the song “Another Brick in the Wall” while a crowd counts down to zero. Remember this; it’s one of those foreshadowing moments. We also see a flash of the face of Carla Gugino, the most mysterious figure at the heart of this first episode. She is both hauntingly hot and just simply haunting.
Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood, who I recently saw and loved in the very fucked up Flanagan-helmed Stephen King film adaptation Gerald’s Game) sits in a mostly empty cathedral, attending a funeral. The priest reads a eulogy that’s a mashup of Poe texts: lines from the poems “For Annie”, “Spirits of the Dead”, and the short story “The Imp of the Perverse.” A Poe quote is also woven in:
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
That quote indeed applies to all of the Flanagan Netflix shows.
Roderick sees someone in a mask standing in the balcony of the chapter, but it’s made clear his granddaughter does not see her. Next, we cut to a line of reporters and photographers crowded outside the cathedral while a bouncy orchestral score kicks in. Again, the Succession vibes are undeniable and seem very much intentional. The score is composed by frequent Flanagan collaborators The Newton Brothers, and it really does seem like they’re doing their own take on a dramatic Nicholas Britell composition.
Next, we get an intro sequence showing a conspiracy board complete with notecards, post-its, and newspaper clippings. The board details the deaths of all of Roderick’s children, and you can pause on each one to read details if you want, though of course if you’d like to be more surprised by how each of them dies, just let the intro wash over you. Something I do enjoy about this series is that you often know what’s coming. It doesn’t matter that the deaths are somewhat spoiled in the newspaper clippings in this intro, because the emotional and interpersonal stakes as well as the layered themes of each death are so much more interesting than the exact details of how they died.
The board belongs to C. Auguste “Auggie” Dupin, the Assistant United States Attorney and aforementioned former friend, current rival of Roderick. He’s played by Carl Lumbly (who I’ve loved since Alias), and Poe created the character C. Auguste Dupin for the 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and eventually brought him back in 1842’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and 1844’s “The Purloined Letter.” He was a detective-like character before the term detective even existed, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered the first instance of detective fiction, C. Auguste Dupin paving the way for eventual iconic detective characters like Sherlock Holmes later in the 19th century.
Roderick summons Auggie to his rundown childhood home, where he’s casually pouring himself some cognac from a bottle that cost $4 million Euro. He rather rudely points out a single pour costs twice Auggie’s salary and asks if he wants a taste of what he’s worth. Right away, we have an understanding of Roderick Usher from this exchange. This is a man whose values are inextricable from his obscene wealth. This is a poisoned man.
Something is definitely very off about this house. It looks unlived in. Roderick makes a vague reference to his sister Madeline being downstairs in the basement. He also mentions he’s getting texts from his granddaughter Lenore (Kyliegh Curran, who was so good in the Flanagan Stephen King film adaptation Doctor Sleep), and her namesake makes me worried about her fate. Arguably Poe’s most known poem, “The Raven” hinges on a man’s grief over the death of a beautiful woman named Lenore. There’s also a lesser known Poe poem called “Lenore,” which is also about the death of a young woman (honestly, Poe loved to write dead women).
All this to say: This creepy ass house is the perfect setting for Roderick to begin telling his story, explaining to Auggie how all of his children have died in the past two weeks. Here, the show sets up its central narrative device of Roderick orating a long, winding story of death and destruction over the course of the series. He starts at what he deems the beginning, transporting Auggie and the viewers back to 1953, in the very room he and Auggie sit in.
“You cannot understand the things I’ve done unless you understand the life that Madeline and I were born into and the woman who would shape every choice we’d ever make, our mother Eliza,” Roderick says. Eliza is played by Annabeth Gish, who played Mrs. Dudley in The Haunting of Hill House, and like Mrs. Dudley she’s extremely religious. She’s the secretary to William Longfellow (Robert Longstreet, who played Mr. Dudley in Hill House), the CEO of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals. Pause for a Poe lesson! Eliza was the name of Poe’s actual mother. Longfellow’s name is likely a reference to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who Poe was in a longtime feud with and accused of plagiarism. Fortunato is one of the central characters in the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” about a man taking fatal revenge on his friend due to a perceived insult.
Roderick describes Longfellow as “a man of appetites” and “a man of business.” He indeed seems like a very bad man. Roderick and Madeline break their mother’s one rule of never stepping foot on Longfellow’s property, mostly orchestrated by Madeline, who hates him and seems to know something Roderick is slower to catch onto, which is that Longfellow is clearly their father.
In 1962, Eliza becomes very sick, and she refuses medicine and treatment due to her zealous religious convictions. Teen versions of Roderick (Graham Verchere) and Madeline (Lulu Wilson, young Shirley in Hill House) grapple with these choices, clearly concerned about their mother and without any other adults in their life to help. Madeline hatches a plan to enlist Longfellow to help, and here we see an initial glimpse of the shrewd and calculating Madeline we’ll meet in later years. Longfellow does not help.
The kids resolve to bury her, and any time anyone is going to bury someone in an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, you should be very concerned. Again, it’s easy to see what’s coming, but that somehow doesn’t detract from the overall storytelling. Live burials are featured in Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Indeed, a storm breaks out in the middle of the night, and teen Roderick and Madeline go outside to discover their mother has broken free of the tomb they’d sealed her into in the ground. An excellent horror sequence ensues as they look for her: We don’t see her at first but rather see Madeline seeing her, over the shoulder of Roderick, the horror in her eyes more evocative than if we were to see what she’s seeing initially. During a flash of lightning, we finally do see their mother, someone who looks like she exists in that shadowy and vague space between life and death.
Dead-ish Eliza storms out into the storm and kills Longfellow next door, finally dying on top of his lifeless body. Her final act in this life was to kill a bad man, and honestly? Good for her.
In the present, Roderick explains to Auggie the official story was that Longfellow died of a heart attack in his sleep.
Auggie: Why are you telling me this? Why are we talking about your mother?
Roderick: Oh, I assume that I’m supposed to because she’s here.
Auggie: What do you mean?
Roderick: She’s right behind you.
Auggie does not turn around. He says he read something about high stakes negotiation tactics used by businessmen, how they try to manipulate the other person, sometimes looking over their shoulder or speaking softly so someone has to lean in. As he’s saying this, a shadowy figure looms in the background. Maybe you don’t see her at first. But when Auggie says he’s not going to turn around, and Roderick says that’s fine with him, the figure walks away, and then there’s no missing her. Flanagan is always so good at these “background ghost” moments, at rendering these phantoms just barely there.
Roderick explains that the reason he treated all his kids the way he did was because he never wanted to be like Longfellow and his literally closed gate. He has — had — six children by five wives, and he considered them all his blood. The gates — aka the Usher fortune — were open to all of them.
Auggie is skeptical of Roderick’s commitment to his family, and Roderick tries to throw this back at him by saying he never saw Auggie’s husband in the courtroom. Yes, we have our first confirmed gay! Auggie has a husband and kids, and he extremely did not want them anywhere near the Usher family. Roderick reflects that the day in court when Auggie finally brought a litany of charges against the family was the last day he saw his entire family.
We flashback to this day of the trial and to Auggie’s opening arguments, in which he accuses Fortunato Pharmaceuticals of breaking the law in numerous ways and playing a huge role in the opioid crisis, especially via their drug Ligodone. Auggie alleges the Usher family did awful things to amass their wealth, and listen, you don’t need to convince me, buddy! To be the wealthy family behind a massive pharmaceutical empire is to be, well, evil!
The Ushers are sitting comfortably, like people who know the law can barely touch them. Madeline looks especially nonchalant. Madeline in the present, by the way, is played by the fantastic Mary McDonnell of Battlestar Galactica fame.
Auggie drops a bomb on the unsuspecting Ushers: There’s a secret witness, an informant with close access to the family who’s willing to come forward and testify against them. But out of concerns for safety, the witness wants to remain anonymous.
We see how each of the Usher siblings grapples with the news of this informant. Frederick Usher (Henry Thomas, who’s in both Hill House and Bly Manor) is casually bowling at his in-home bowling lane in the middle of his obscenely large kitchen which also appears to have a full on cocktail bar in the back? COMPUTER ENHANCE.
Frederick is Lenore’s father, and his wife…makes cakes that look like objects. Roderick has summoned the entire family to a dinner, but Frederick knows this isn’t just some nice family dinner, leading to this hilarious exchange:
Frederick: This is about one thing: the mole.
Lenore: Informant. A mole is one of them who infiltrated us, and an informant is one of us giving something to them.
Frederick: Okay, so a mole is like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, and an informant is like Jack Nicholson in The Departed. He was! Nicholson was talking to the Feds the whole time.
Lenore: No, no, I get it. It’s just there are other movies than The Departed, dad.
Frederick: Not as good as The Departed.
Lenore has some questions about the family and their morals and asks if someone broke the law, shouldn’t they be punished? Her mother (played by Crystal Balint) says that’s very brave of her to say…especially if she wants to be written out of the will. Sounds like Lenore might be the only member of this family thinking even a little bit about what it means to “do the right thing.” Now, a Poe lesson! Frederick’s name likely comes from the main character in the Poe short story “Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German,” about arson, obsession, and a rivalry between two wealthy families. His wife’s name is Morelle Usher, likely a reference to the short story “Morella,” about a woman who dies during childbirth but whose baby looks a lot like her and also dies after given the same name as her by the father.
The Usher siblings are all thrown into paranoia and speculation over who the informant could be. A lot of them seem to think it’s Perry, nickname for Prospero, the youngest sibling played by Sauriyan Sapkota. He borrows his name from “The Masque of the Red Death,” but we’ll spend the next recap talking about that story in much more depth.
Tamerlane Usher (played by Samantha Sloyan) and named for the poem “Tamerlane”, a fictionalized account of the life of the Turco-Mongol conqueror known as Tamerlane. Tamerlane is indeed a conqueror…of the wellness industry. She’s gearing up to launch Goldbug, a Goop-like company. “The Gold-Bug” is an 1843 Poe story that we’ll get into more during Tamerlane’s episode later in the series. Her husband is Bill T. Wilson, a fitness influencer whose BILLT Nation boasts 10 million subscribers. His name references the 1839 short story “William Wilson,” which concerns a doppelgänger. We’ll talk about this one more in future recaps as well.
It’s time to meet Victorine “Vic” LaFourcade, played by my favorite part of Bly Manor, T’Nia Miller. She works in the medical field, doing research on an experimental “heart mesh” we’ll learn more about soon. She conducts this research alongside her doctor WIFE, Dr. Alessandra “Al” Ruiz (Paola Nuñez). Dykes in the building! Dykes in the building! Victorine is the name of one of the women buried alive in “The Premature Burial,” and Alessandra is the name of a character in the only play ever written by Poe, the unfinished Politian. One of the deeper cuts, for sure. Alessandra has concerns about getting peer reviews for their research, because they’re using an experimental Fortunato paralytic to conduct the trials, and Vic seems not at all concerned by this. She’s an Usher after all, and we already have the sense Ushers don’t play by the rules.
Next, we meet Leo, short for Napoleon Usher. He’s played by Rahul Kohli (another Bly Manor highlight), and his name comes from one of Poe’s more humorous tales, “The Spectacles,” a short story about a young narrator named Napoleon Bonaparte Froissart. He has a boyfriend named Julius (Daniel Jun), who he’s talking to on the phone whilst playing video games when we first meet him. His name comes from The Journal of Julius Rodman, an unfinished novel by Poe. When Julius reveals he’s in the elevator almost home, Leo panics, which is when he learn there’s a woman between his legs sucking him off. He makes her hide on the balcony, and it’s made clear she’s one of his fangirls, obsessed with the idea of hooking up with Leo Usher. Julius and Leo do not seem to have any kind of open arrangement, so Leo is definitely on bad behavior here. Julius has a cat named Pluto, which is the name of the cat in the short story “The Black Cat,” another one we’ll get into more in the future.
Camille L’Espanaye is up next, and I am already very much in love with this bitch!!!! She’s played by Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegel, and her name comes from the same story as Dupin’s, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In the story, Camille ends up strangled to death and stuffed into a chimney. Yikes! Our Camille here is head of PR for Fortunato, and the Bad Bitch PR Girly energy Siegel is bringing to the role right of the bat is so good. She’s wearing an outfit I can only describe as Business Slut. She and Vic seem to have a rivalry, hinted at by Camille’s two assistants who say Vic knows Camille has been spying on her. (Vic, similarly, told Alessandra they all know the informant is Camille.)
Over at Roderick’s mansion, which is decidedly different than the falling apart house where he’s telling this tale to Auggie in, Roderick’s latest wife Juno (Ruth Codd) is freaking out about having to host everyone for dinner. The only time she has ever hosted was when she moderated an NA meeting once (and it was a disaster). Hmmm…someone who has been in NA being married to the man powering the opioid crisis seems a little troublesome! Also, it’s hilarious to watch Juno stress about hosting as she is simply doing nothing while a bunch of workers actually do the labor of preparing the table and house. All of Roderick’s children seem to hate Juno (Tamerlane doesn’t even want to acknowledge she exists), except for Frederick, but he’s just an ass kisser. I’ve not been able to ascertain any Poe references connected to Juno’s name, so let me know if you figure it out!
Roderick gets pulled away by his doctor for a private conversation, which surely means he’s dying, but we’re not let into whatever that’s about yet. Prospero has arrived to pitch a business idea to Roderick and Madeline, which is essentially franchised exclusive nightclubs named after him. Roderick and Madeline hate the pitch. “Being an Usher is about changing the world,” Roderick says. Not a blowjob whiskey bar, as he deems Prospero’s venture. Never mind the fact that it sounds like Ushers have mostly been changing the world for the worse!
Roderick has a vision of Carla Gugino’s character again, this time offering him a drink “for the road.” Who is this hot and mysterious woman!
Next, we’re treated to a hilarious scene of Morelle demonstrating her various trick cakes. There has been speculation that Flanagan, who is departing Netflix after this series after signing an overall deal with Prime, might be taking a dig at Netflix’s “Is It Cake” series. It’s delightful to watch just how annoyed the Usher siblings are by Morelle’s demonstration.
The gang all now receives paperwork from Arthur Pym, the family’s no-nonsense lawyer played by Mark Hamill, who I did not recognize at first! He doesn’t speak very often, and characters call him the “Pym Reaper,” which I think tells us everything we need to know. Multiple characters also make reference to the behemoth prenups he puts together for the family. Pym’s name comes from Poe’s only finished novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, about a man who stows away on a whaling ship called the Grampus (Lenore calls Roderick Grampus in the opening scene). The book is quite racist, and in fact, Toni Morrison wrote about it in her literary criticism book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
Madeline warns the family that once they discover who the informant is, they will be neutralized. Frederick asks if that means sued to hell, and Madeline helpfully clarifies: “neutralized like DEAD.” She says it in a manner that does not leave any room for ambiguity.
She tries the stick, and Roderick tries the carrot. He offers $50 million to whoever figures out who the informant is. Surely dangling this MASSIVE carrot will go fine and not lead to the entire family cannibalizing itself in pursuit of a massive no-strings-attached, tax-free cash prize!
In the present, Auggie hopes Roderick is not implying he’s in any way responsible for the deaths of his children due to introducing the mystery witness. Roderick assures him he is not. And then Roderick introduces us to our mystery woman played by Carla Gugino.
New Year’s Eve is Roderick’s favorite holiday (sorry, but that’s always a red flag to me!!!!). he loves resolutions. “Most people go their whole stupid lives without one minute of true resolution,” Roderick says. Not him though. Not Madeline. He takes us back to December 31, 1979. These young adult versions of twisted siblings Roderick and Madeline are played by Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen!) and Willa Fitzgerald (coach Colette French in the short-lived but wonderful queer thriller series Dare Me and perhaps the number one casting decision on a show where every casting decision is pretty much perfect).
Carla Gugino is the bartender at the bar Madeline and Roderick wander into. We soon realize they didn’t exactly wander here…they seem to have intentionally chosen it as some sort of cover-up. Madeline speaks in a hushed tone to Roderick about how if the cops don’t show up by midnight, it’s a good sign. She wants them to be seen. Clearly, the siblings have done something bad. We get let into their politics a bit, too, when Madeline switches topics to loudly talk about getting Carter out of the office and having high hopes for Reagan. The bartender tells them no politics talk at the bar. She introduces herself as Verna, an anagram for Raven, of course another reference to “The Raven.”
Verna tells the siblings they can buy their drinks now, pay later. But it also seems like she’s talking about something grander. She also waxes poetic on resolutions like Roderick in the present, saying they’re a deal you make with the future.
We only get the very beginning of the story of this night, a night Auggie says in the present was the night everything changed at Fortunato. Roderick looks at a raven on a shelf in the house. He reiterates once again that he has just buried three children, a week after burying the other three. We jump back just a bit to the funeral where the episode opens. When Roderick leaves the cathedral and emerges to that crowd of reporters and photographers, a security guard opens the car door for him. When he looks in, we get one of the episode’s best jump scares, a figure in a jester costume crouched in the backseat and peering at Roderick, whose nose promptly starts bleeding. He collapses, and when he looks up, he sees a raven. “It’s time,” he says.
It is indeed time!!!!! Time to hit play on the next episode, which I immediately did upon finishing the pilot for the first time. As you’ll see, the next six episodes will all follow a shared structure of focusing on each of Roderick’s children and showing us how they died, all while weaving between Roderick orating to Auggie, the timeline of those deaths, and Roderick and Madeline’s past leading up to New Year’s Eve and on that fateful night. The final episode will bring it all together. Episodes two through seven really do play out like short stories, a fitting form for a Poe-inspired series.
Overall, this first episode provides a thrilling introduction to the series central characters and themes. Episode one doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that we’re watching a story about the horrors of capitalism and the for-profit drug industry. All that’s very at the forefront. But we’re also watching a story about a family, about just how rotten and even deadly the concept of absolutely loyalty to one’s blood can be. These are some of the most depraved characters Flanagan has ever worked with, and we’re seeing a much darker (and mordantly funny) tale than Bly Manor and Hill House right off the bat. These are evil, evil people. And it might be more on-the-nose (and also supernatural) in its rendering of the characters as such than a series more grounded in realism like Succession, but that almost makes it paradoxically even more real. We’ll get into that more in future recaps as well.
But before we move onto the next recap, which will drop tomorrow, let’s answer the very important question of WHO ALL’S GAY HERE?
Flanagan has a history of making sure these Netflix literary adaptations have at least a couple queer characters involved, often queer women, often played by his wife and fellow horror freak Siegel. In the case of The Fall of the House of Usher, he outdoes himself in this regard, making so many of the characters queer that I took it upon myself to create an infographic detailing just exactly who all’s gay here. The graphic does make reference to episodes to come, though I believe the spoilers to be on the lighter side, but skip the following image if you don’t yet wish to know anything beyond this first episode:
That doesn’t account for additional side queer characters, like Vic’s wife, pretty much everyone Prospero hangs out with, Julius, etc. Basically, what I’m trying to say is there are A LOT OF GAYS. This might just be the queerest Flanagan project yet.
So tell me, what did you think of The Fall of the House of Usher episode one? Be sure to provide spoiler warnings in your comments if you wish to discuss future episodes.