Fall of the House of Usher's Most Controversial Element is Also its Greatest Strength
There’s nothing wrong with a good speech.
In the streaming era, attention is at a premium. It’s great that viewers have thousands of titles at their fingertips, but that means they’re less likely to invest in the one they’re watching. Streamers have even told directors that “something needs to happen” in the first 30 seconds or viewers won’t be interested.
Amid this cutthroat environment, Mike Flanagan has managed to keep the lost art of slow, deliberate storytelling alive. The Doctor Sleep director put Netflix horror television on the map with his slew of miniseries: The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club, and now The Fall of the House of Usher.
Flanagan’s signature style features drama against a horror background with rich, deep characters who often pause and deliver heart-wrenching monologues about their philosophy or history. Sheriff Hassan’s (Rahul Kohli) Midnight Mass monologue explaining what it’s like working in law enforcement as a Muslim is a quintessential example.
Flanagan told DiscussingFilm that bringing back monologues for The Fall of the House of Usher was a deliberate decision. “We were conditioned by a lot of entertainment, to go from thing, to thing, to thing, to thing, and faster and faster cuts, and less and less rewarding of patience,” he said. “I will always push back against that trend. That is the hill I’m willing to die on, and I may end up dying.”
Flanagan is still alive, but many of his characters aren’t. Monologues are everywhere in Usher, some pulled from the work of the show’s inspiration, Edgar Allan Poe, and others Flanagan originals. But these monologues differ from his previous work in one huge way: the Ushers are not good people.
Previous Flanalogues were a way for characters to explain their own perspectives on why they’re fighting to survive in an increasingly horrific world. There’s nothing like that in The Fall of the House of Usher. The two standout monologues are delivered by arguably the worst characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher, the siblings who cursed their own family.
Roderick explains his business philosophy by twisting a common phrase. “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade? No,” he says. “First you roll out a multi-media campaign to convince people lemons are incredibly scarce, which only works if you stockpile lemons, control the supply, then a media blitz. Lemon is the only way to say ‘I love you,’ the must-have accessory for engagements or anniversaries.”
In one of the finale’s most heartbreaking scenes, Madeline tries to convince her brother that their pharmaceutical empire isn’t truly at fault for killing thousands of people. “These people... They want an entire meal for five dollars in five minutes, and then they complain when it’s made of shit and plastic,” she says. “McDonald’s would serve nothing but kale salad all day and all night long if that’s what people fucking ate. It’s available, no one buys it.”
Flanagan is taking a new approach here. Instead of helping us relate to a character, these speeches inform us how the Ushers sleep at night. They’re not heroic soliloquies; they’re how the villains think of themselves as heroes.
Mike Flanagan’s monologues may be one of his more divisive stylistic choices, but they’re perfectly suited to his material and the roster of excellent actors he works with. The Fall of the House of Usher proves they’re worth the time. Thanks to these little speeches, even the worst people become fascinating.