Mike Flanagan’s Netflix shows have always been interested in pain. Not the physical kind—though, as horror stories, that’s plenty of that present—but the abstract concept of suffering, as well as the ways we try to avoid it. His latest, The Fall of the House of Usher, explores those themes in perhaps their most bitter form yet.
The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor explored family trauma, regret, and being truly present with those we love. Midnight Mass considered our responses to perceived personal failings, whether from choices made, the betrayal of our bodies, or injustice visited upon us. In all instances, Flanagan’s response has been that we cannot avoid bad things in life. When we try, we risk making the consequences worse for ourselves and others.
The Fall of the House of Usher, which debuts Oct. 12, uses the work of Edgar Allan Poe as a framework for the decades-spanning tale of a cursed family of pharmaceutical magnates. The Usher family and Fortunato, their pharmaceutical company, made millions on the back of Ligodone, a painkiller that, in the world of the series, created the opioid crisis. For years the Ushers escaped public and personal reckoning. Soon they will bear the weight of every consequence they’ve tried to avoid.
When Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) summons Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), a crusading lawyer who’s pursued Fortunato his whole career, to Usher’s home, Dupin is surprised by the invitation. More surprising: Usher has invited Dupin not to his mansion, but to his moldering, condemned childhood home. It’s an early indicator that we’re seeing not the shell of comfort Roderick has built around himself—complete with its ornate furnishings, fine clothes, and expensive wines—but the rot lying within.
Roderick tells Dupin he wants to confess his sins—not his corporate wrongdoing, but the choices he and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) made that ultimately led to the deaths of Roderick’s heirs. On New Year’s Eve 1980, the then-young Ushers (Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald) made a fateful deal with a mysterious woman, Verna (Carla Gugino), that secured their wealth and success. It came with a hefty price tag that has finally come due.
Mike Flanagan’s Netflix shows have always been interested in pain.
The episodes that follow detail the selfish adult Usher children’s gruesome deaths, all aided by Verna. Each mirrors a Poe story: “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and others. We also learn about Roderick and Madeline’s personal histories. We witness their beginnings as the illegitimate children of Fortunato’s founder, Mr. Longfellow (Robert Longstreet), as well as Roderick’s rise up Fortunato’s ranks aided by Madeline, first by selling his boss Rufus Griswold (Michael Trucco) on Ligodone, then thwarting a legal investigation led by Dupin (played as a younger man by Malcolm Goodwin), and finally working with Madeline to dethrone Griswold in Poe-appropriate fashion.
Roderick and Madeline’s lives are defined by perceived injustice. They grow up with a cold mother; after her death, they struggle through foster care, always knowing their lives could be different had Longfellow acknowledged them as his children. As adults, rather than appreciate what they have—family, careers, each other—the siblings feed their grudges. It’s no wonder Roderick’s golden goose is a painkiller that can help anything from a headache to recovering from surgery. His view of suffering of any kind is that it must end as fast as possible. Anything that helps that happen is a tool worth having, regardless of consequence.
Roderick and Madeline exemplify what happens when we pursue instant-fix comfort rather than sitting with the inevitable pain of life. Such panaceas can destroy our lives in other ways, through addiction, self-interest, or the mindless pursuit of worldly possessions. As Soong-Chan Rah writes in his book Prophetic Lament, “Shalom (here meaning an active pursuit of peace and justice in the world) requires lament.” The book of Lamentations—which details Israel’s humiliation and suffering at the hands of Babylon—is an account of prayerfully processing pain. The book of Job works similarly, with Job suffering loss after loss, but turning to God every time, even when his community tells him to give up. Job regains twice what he lost as a result of his faithfulness.
Biblical lament typically carries with it a sense of hope—hope for restoration, justice, and victory over enemies, no matter how unlikely that may seem in the moment. In Usher, this comes in the form of Dupin, who, like Roderick, claims that “the world needs changing.” Dupin means this to a different degree. Roderick wants to reshape the world to suit his needs. Dupin, who works on behalf of patients who have been wronged by Fortunato, seeks justice for others. This proves to be an almost impossible task for human justice systems, but as Dupin witnesses in his final encounter with Roderick, there are courts beyond the one he knows on earth.
As humans and as Christians, we aren’t meant to paper over the bad things that happen to us or the people around us. We’re supposed to pray, process, mourn, be grateful for what we still have, and sit with others when they’re hurting—all while placing our hope in God’s promise of restoration. To pursue this is to build up treasures in heaven, as well as a community on earth among people who can help us when the world lets us down. If we don’t, The Fall of the House of Usher warns us, the immediate rewards may seem like exactly what we want—a life free from suffering (at least for us, never mind everyone else). But the long-term consequences may cost you your soul.