“The Fall of the House of Usher” Looks Into the Mirror

I’m writing daily episodic recaps of the very queer, very wicked new Mike Flanagan series The Fall of the House of Usher. We’re in the home stretch of the final three episodes! You’re reading the recap for The Fall of the House of Usher episode six, “Goldbug,” which serves as Tamerlane Usher’s deathisode.


Truth be told, “Goldbug” was the first episode title of the series I was unfamiliar with. Of course I haven’t read all of Edgar Allan Poe’s massive body of work; I won’t pretend to be an expert. But the episode titles up to this point have largely referred to his most known works, many of which I was taught in high school lit classes. “The Gold-Bug,” I’ve since learned in my research, is an 1843 story about a man named William Legrand who becomes obsessed (Poe loves to write a man overcome by obsession) with a, well, gold bug. The unnamed narrator of the tale is a friend of Legrand, who Legrand’s servant Jupiter summons upon fearing Legrand has gone mad. Legrand is convinced this bug holds the key to getting back his family’s fortune, which he lost. There’s a cipher/cryptogram element to the story. It’s basically Poe’s Da Vinci Code (jk). It’s also one of Poe’s more overtly racist stories: The depiction of the Black servant Jupiter is riddled with racist stereotypes.

(I haven’t been able to satisfyingly break down what Poe reference Juno’s name in the series is attempting to make. Others have suggested it could be reference to the eight asteroids named in the prose poem “Eureka,” but I also found myself thinking about how in Roman mythology, Juno is the wife of Jupiter, but that seems like a stretch, too.)

This is hands down my favorite opening of the entire series. The horror of it is so effective, and it’s almost its own short story in and of itself. We’re confined to Tamerlane’s apartment for it, as she wanders around its empty halls preparing for the launch of Goldbug, her health and wellness brand that’s essentially a souped-up version of Goop. She hasn’t been sleeping; we already know this. But she has essentially become stuck in a time loop of exhaustion and fractured memory as she continues to nod off at odd times. We’re introduced to one of the central motifs of the episode, too: reflective surfaces and mirrors. It’s fitting for Tamerlane, whose life is built around voyeurism, both in the outward sense of her brand but also when it comes to her inner most desires of watching sex workers pretend to be her with her husband.

We see Tamerlane see her own reflection in a framed photo of her and Bill. She looks in a mirror and slams her head against it, as if falling asleep standing up. She sets a kettle on the stove, stares at it, and then wakes up to its whistle, but the kettle is on the counter now. She nods off with a full mug of coffee in her lap, wakes up to it empty, wakes up to notes she has scribbled all over her Goldbug launch speak, including erratic scribblings that say things like FUCK BILL. Then, the disorientation deepens. She sees a body that looks very much like her own, in the hallway, walking slowly around a corner but lingering just long enough to unsettle. She moves through her empty apartment, and the camera moves ahead of her, settling on the kitchen, where there’s no one. A Goldbug subscription box sits on the counter, and when she opens it, it’s full of rot, decay, actual bugs. She concludes she needs to sleep, so she takes a bunch of pills to help. Then she lays in bed, wide eyed, her own reflection staring back at her in the mirror on her ceiling. “Tamerlane, you’ve got to sleep.” It’s a harrowing sequence for anyone who has ever struggled with acute insomnia. Again, it’s my favorite opening of the series. So compact and affecting in its horror without needing to rely on much spectacle. Just insomnia and some mirrors. They’re doing a lot.

Auggie interrupts the horror sequence to ask Roderick a question that hadn’t even occurred to me: How could Roderick be the one telling this story? I had honestly just accepted the narratorial device of the series unfolding via Roderick’s telling without getting caught up on the impossibility of him being able to recall moments that aren’t memories of his own. Sometimes there’s just a suspension of disbelief that comes with certain narrative choices. It also gives things an air of unreliability — are we getting the full story or are we getting the story the way Roderick wants to frame it? But I find it super interesting (and scary!) that The Fall of the House of Usher actually decides to interrogate its point of view: Roderick tells Auggie his children told him everything that happened. “Before they died?” Auggie asks. “No, not before.” Such a simple exchange that conveys something impossible, something disturbing. We know as viewers that Roderick’s children appear to him, but Auggie is just starting to put those pieces together, or perhaps believes the explanation that this is all just a side effect of Roderick’s CADASIL. Roderick continues with his story.

After Vic’s violent death in front of him, Roderick is in his office, covered in blood, talking about Queen Twosret of Ancient Egypt, whose eyes were replaced with large sapphires upon her death. He monologues to an empty office, explaining how he used his money and power to acquire the stones. “I reached through time and ripped the eyes out of a goddess with my pocketbook and some patience. Does that make me a god?” he says. It’s all a rather overt display of the tendency for the ultra rich to love pilfering from other cultures and histories. They’ve all got these wild god complexes. There’s nothing that can’t be bought. He got these sapphires for Madeline for her birthday. She’s obsessed with immortality after all.

It’s also at this point where it becomes clear Roderick is talking to someone. His sightline suggests he isn’t just rambling to no one. Sure enough, his four dead children, bloodied and ghostly stand before him.

The dead versions of Prospero, Camille, Napoleon, and Victorine in The Fall of the House of Usher

Madeline arrives to the office, interrupting this haunting. She thinks Roderick needs to take a shower at least, even if he has to be holed up in the office overnight at Pym’s orders. Madeline wonders how the mysterious woman (meaning Verna) could have possibly gotten into Vic’s home with the security guard there, and Roderick tells her she wasn’t there, that he saw Vic stab herself with his own eyes. Madeline is insistent the family is under attack and, most importantly to her, Vic had a board seat. Roderick could lose not just his family but his company, too, if the board turns on them. There isn’t an ounce of emotion behind Madeline’s words as she says this. Madeline and Roderick don’t care about family; they care about legacy. And that’s different.

Juno wakes up in the mansion alone, worried about Roderick not coming home overnight. She tries to leave a message for him, and she counts out her daily dose of Ligodone. Good god, it’s so many pills. On the news, Vic and Alessandra’s death is reported.

Frederick and Lenore are watching the news, too. Lenore is concerned, but Frederick also has zero emotional reaction to the news. He tells his daughter Vic was a very ambitious woman, as if that’s somehow an explanation for her death. He tells her his dead siblings weren’t right, and they weren’t really Ushers anyway. It’s beyond callous; it’s rotten. Lenore knows it, too. “It just shows to go you, you can never really know anyone. Do you? Do you honey?” Frederick says to Morrie, looming over her. It’s safe to say he’s still obsessing over what he perceives as Morrie’s betrayal. Lenore says she wants to stay home with her mother, but he insists she go to school.

Bill returns home to ask Tamerlane if she’s okay, and of course Tamerlane is very not okay, but it doesn’t have to do with yet another dead sibling so much as with the pressure of the Goldbug launch. She wants to prove to the world that the family business can be more than just the pill-pushing Fortunato. She really believes she’s doing something positive, something that’ll change the world for the better. There’s that super-inflated Roderick ego and delusion again. She isn’t making Goldbug to help her family’s reputation; she’s doing it to try to crawl out of the shadow of Roderick and Madeline.

Roderick is looking awfully chipper for someone whose children keep dying and appearing to him as horrific ghosts, doing calls with board members and insisting he’s immortal. Lenore arrives and tells him she’s worried about her dad, and Roderick recites lines from the Poe poem “A Dream Within a Dream.” Oh, he’s losing it losing it. I love how sparingly the ghosts of the siblings are used. It makes it much scarier that we see them only in quick flashes or violent bursts than if they were a more persistent haunting. These are jumpscares that actually have texture and layers to them.

The dead versions of Prospero, Camille, Napoleon, and Victorine standing behind the alive Lenore in The Fall of the House of Usher

At Vic’s, Pym is collecting most evidence from the crime scene, claiming them to be property of Fortunato. Pym makes a brief reference to having someone over for dinner named Richard Parker. Richard Parker is a character in the Poe novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a tale that features cannibalism and other horrors.

Tamerlane, spiraling out, goes to Roderick’s mansion to try to talk to him, but she finds only Juno. Tamerlane hates Juno perhaps the most of all the siblings, but what follows is a quiet and rather heartbreaking scene of Juno telling Tamerlane she feels so alone in this house and that she’s happy to be a part of this big family because she never had much of a family before. It’s an interesting shift of perspectives. The Ushers all hate each other, are always scheming against one another. But to an outsider like Juno who hasn’t had family, she still sees them as a group, as something she longs to be a part of.

In the present, Roderick asks Auggie how well he knows Arthur Pym. We lean into the character’s Poe origins, Roderick explaining that Pym went on the Transglobe Expedition between 1979 and 1982 when ht was just 25-years-old, traveling the entire globe. He says Pym would tell stories of this time to the kids growing up but would never finish. “I like to think he killed someone,” Roderick says. “I like to think he’s eaten human flesh.” Pym told a young Tammy that the earth was hollow and that he found an island at the top of the world he called Ultima Thule, a realm of beings who lived beneath us out of time and space. Ultima Thule is the name of a daguerreotype of Poe, given by the writer, spiritualist, and paramour of Poe Sarah Helen Whitman, based on these lines from Poe’s poem “Dream-Land”:

“I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime
Out of SPACE — out of TIME.”

Ultima Thule indeed refers to a place beyond the known world. This little tangent to the story about Pym’s background is a bit random but also evocative. Pym himself seems to exist outside the known world, regular rules not applying to him, not really a person on his own but rather an essential cog in the machine that is the Usher family, the cog that keeps it running.

Auggie remembers hearing about the expedition and watching on television when it concluded in England in 1982. He remembers it well, because he was unemployed, which he blames on Roderick, who begins to say that’s water under the bridge but is sharply interrupted by the window behind him bursting. The blast sends Roderick to the floor, and bloody feet start making their way slowly through the glass toward him. When he looks up, we see Tamerlane’s punctured face. Her neck snaps to the side. Mike Flanagan does love a bent-neck lady. She reaches down to offer Roderick a hand, but then we hear Auggie’s voice.

We snap out of the haunting and see Roderick is cowering on the ground, but there is no glass. Auggie is offering his hand to him, and when he takes it, we’re transported back to the past as Auggie and Roderick shake hands in the little house where he, Annabel, and Madeline live.

They’re hatching the next stage of their plan to bring down Griswold and Fortunato. Roderick will have to sneak into the Fortunato basement and make copies of any documents he finds. It’ll be risky. Annabel is nervous. In bed later, she makes Roderick promise he isn’t doing this just as a vendetta against his awful boss. If he’s going to take a risk this big, she wants him to be doing it for the right reasons. “This is worth the risk,” Roderick says. “Then I’m proud of you,” Annabel responds.

He indeed does sneak into the basement undetected, makes his copies in the dark.

In a conference room, Pym shows Madeline and Roderick images of Verna again. Madeline tells Roderick he cannot deny his own eyes. They met this woman before, on that New Years. Pym deepens the mystery though by telling them the bar they remember doesn’t exist. The location Madeline gave was never a bar. And, in fact, he looked into every bar in a five mile radius of Fortunato, and there simply were no female bartenders at any bars that year within walking distance of Fortunato, despite Madeline and Roderick saying they walked there from the company.

Then it gets weirder. Pym used facial recognition technology along with one of Madeline’s fancy research algorithms and found dozens of images throughout history featuring Verna alongside ultra powerful, ultra rich people. The Koch brothers, who Roderick laughingly calls the toxic twins and says he always got along with. Mark Zuckerberg, who Roderick affectionately calls “Zuckie.” Gina Rinehart. DONALD TRUMP. But the pictures keep going back in time, too. Verna with Nizon, Prescott Bush, Randolph Hearst, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, even John Francis Queeny who founded Monsanto in 1901. Throughout history, Verna has been seen sidled up next to billionaires. Roderick rejects this, calls it a prank. But the metadata speaks for itself. The images can’t be faked, at least not without some massive deep cover black ops digital manipulation, according to Pym. Madeline urges Roderick to recall New Years, to recall the conversation they had with that bartender. Did all of these billionaires make deals with the devil to get where they are? It’s definitely seeming so.

Lenore is watching movies with her mother (correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they might be watching 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum, based on the Poe short story, which is definitely a moment of foreshadowing if so). The movie ends, and Lenore scrolls for another, scrolling past the Flanagan Netflix movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. Cross-promotion! (The movie is indeed very good.)

Morrie says the word “movie,” and Lenore is ecstatic. She goes to her father to tell him she’s talking, and he doesn’t seem all that enthused. He’s just bowling at this stupid little in-home bowling lane. Lenore asks if the doctor came today. He keeps promising specialists. Frederick snaps at her. Yikes!

And then things truly get so much scarier when Frederick goes into Morrie’s room alone. He has set up a framed photo from their wedding on the table in front of her, forcing her to look at it. That experimental Fortunato paralytic Vic was using in her trials? Frederick has been using it on Morrie. He wants to render her unable to talk, unable to move, forced to look at him. He has become her abusive caretaker. “If you’re talking, you’re lying,” he says. He asks her how long she was fucking his brother. He doesn’t want her to get better; he wants to punish her. Slowly. Torture her into submission. And he wants her to watch it all happen.

Madeline finds Roderick drinking in the basement, is shocked to learn he has been spending so much time down here. I love that this bitch pulls up an office chair to sit in next to him; she simply wouldn’t be caught dead sitting on the floor. She urges him upstairs. The Goldbug launch is about to begin. He remains downstairs.

This is upsetting to Tamerlane, who tells Madeline backstage before the launch she wishes Roderick and Bill were there. She misses Bill, she confesses. Madeline urges her to just keep going forward with the launch. Fortunato needs something positive in the news. And besides, men are just stupid losers, she essentially says. Hating men really is a huge part of Aunt Mad’s personality.

Madeline leaves, and Tamerlane seems to begin to nod off, snapped back to reality when she hears her name being announced. As she starts to walk out, she sees Verna as Candy from behind, pretending to be her and giving a speech. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she asks, but then the woman just becomes the woman introducing her. It’s in Tamerlane’s head. She awkwardly tries to recover, and what follows is a disaster of a speech, Tamerlane consistently distracted by seeing Verna as Candy in the crowd, sitting just behind Juno, which makes it look like she’s staring at Juno. Tamerlane is bombing in a huge way, and Madeline gets squirmy, no one really sure what’s going on.

Then Tamerlane’s delusions really ramp up. She sees the photos on the screens behind her as being of Bill with Verna/Candy instead of herself. There’s a complete collapse between herself and this perceived doppelganger. Then, the screen behind her changes to video footage of Tamerlane directing Bill and a sex worker in the bedroom. Tamerlane freaks out, but it’s clear the audience is reacting not to what’s on the screen — which is all in Tamerlane’s head — but to her reaction to it. She grabs the mic stand and breaks the screens with it. She throws it at Verna in the crowd, but she hits Juno, knocking her out.

Madeline sees Verna now, too, but she appears to her differently. She stands at the edge of the crowd, taking the form of the bartender from New Years. Madeline rushes to her, but when she goes to grab her, Verna disappears in a poof of smoke.

Tamerlane goes home from her disastrous launch, and when her cell rings, she sees it’s a call from Bill. She throws the phone into the next room, and when she looks up, she sees Verna as Candy, wearing the same green dress as her, talking to Bill on the phone like another version of herself. Tamerlane grabs a fire poker and swings it at her, hitting nothing but emptiness and crashing to the floor. Verna’s on the other side of the room now, urging Tamerlane to apologize to Bill. There’s still time to call him back, to tell him she’s sorry for using him all these years. Tamerlane isn’t listening though; she is only focused on this intruder, on this doppelganger. Like so many Poe characters, she becomes obsessive, recklessly pursuing a threat that only exists in her mind. Verna taunts her, appearing in mirrors, all the little camera tricks here so fun. Tamerlane swings at a mirror, and a shard of glass wedges itself into her cheek. She pulls it out slowly.

Tamerlane spins around to look in the mirror at Verna

Verna remarks that Tamerlane absorbed her twin in the womb, suggests maybe she’s the manifestation of that twin, showed in the corner of Tamerlane’s skull and now driving her insane. The lighting becomes green, and I wonder if the use of colored lighting here and in Vic’s death (red) are further references to the solid colored rooms in “The Masque of the Red Death” by Poe.

Tamerlane screams “fuck you” at Verna, who turns it into a sex joke. “I thought you preferred to watch,” she teases. She teases her for being so self-loathing, too. But she also warns her that this is her last chance to be perfectly still, to breathe before the inevitable. “This part has nothing to do with you,” Verna says. Tamerlane has been so desperate to make a name for herself, but even her death is not hers to claim, even her death is — it’s safe to say at this point, even if we don’t have all the puzzle pieces yet — due to choices made by Roderick and Madeline. The Usher siblings don’t own anything; it’s all Roderick’s and Madeline’s.

“I fucked it all up,” Tamerlane says, standing on the bed. She’s still seemingly fixated on the failure of Goldbug than on what’s about to happen to her. Those Ushers never have the right priorities. The business, the money really, is all they care about.

“I just want,” she says. “Some sleep?” Verna finishes. Tamerlane looks up and sees her in the ceiling mirror. She jumps, and the camera pulls back, showing us a slow motion stylized shot of Tamerlane’s body flying through the air with the poker. She shatters the mirror and falls in slow motion then. We come crashing into real time the second a large shard plunges directly into her neck, killing her. Cut to title card.

As bookends, the mirror-filled opening and ending scenes of this episode are just such immersive, thematically rich horror. Tamerlane’s life is all about performance, voyeurism, manipulations of the self. The philosophy of Goldbug is personalized wellness to make you live that everlasting life the Ushers are obsessed with. It’s about serums and potions that obscure realities like aging. Tamerlane is killed by a mirror, by the thing that’s supposed to show you who you really are. All the little mirror tricks that heighten the horror visually are so effective. The collapse of self Tamerlane experiences delights and disturbs in equal measure.

Only one Usher sibling remains, and his recent sadistic turn makes me hope Verna has something special in store for him.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. “Pym makes a brief reference to having someone over for dinner named Richard Parker. Richard Parker is a character in the Poe novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a tale that features cannibalism and other horrors.”

    I love this information! If I remember correctly, Pym says “I’m having Richard Parker for dinner”, to which the info above definitely adds another layer.

  2. Tamerlane calls the bodyguard “Costner”, an obvious reference to “The Bodyguard”.

    Mary McDonnell was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Dances with Wolves”, directed by and starring Costner.

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