Corporate greed, transhumanism, and the supernatural collide in Netflix’s latest limited series, the modern gory Faustian mystery horror: “The Fall of the House of Usher” (2023). It’s loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, so as you might imagine, it is really gory. If you hate gore like me, you may want to skip this one. On the other hand, it’s possible the satisfaction of justice served appeals to you enough to overlook it. I’ll leave that to you to decide. (Caution, spoilers ahead).
Our story begins with two orphaned children, Madeline and Roderick Usher who are cheated out of their birthright: ownership of corrupt pharmaceutical company ‘Fortunato Pharmaceuticals’. (The adult versions of Maddie and Roderick are played brilliantly by Mary McDonnell and Bruce Greenwood). The innovative and exceptionally talented siblings grow into ambitious and competent young adults. When their plan to rise in the company and reclaim it through legitimate means fails, Maddie and Roderick develop a classic, if unethical, corporate espionage strategy to appease the shareholders. As they enact their plans, they encounter a mysterious bartender named Verna (an anagram of ‘raven’) played in a complex and layered way by Carla Gugino, who offers them a Faustian deal that not only involves selling their souls, but subsequent generations of their family too.
Currently, there’s a great deal of debate online about who or what Verna actually is: demon, Satan, Mephistopheles, an otherworldly entity, or some representation of a form of karmic justice. Hints abound throughout the series that tease the audience about Verna’s origins and powers: she claims to be from an unknown location in a ‘hollow’ part of the earth, she states she’s neither male nor female (though she always appears as a beautiful woman), she has the ability to both shapeshift and create hallucinations for her victims/adversaries. But what is most intriguing about Verna is that before she metes out her version of justice upon the family of Usher, each member of the family is individually offered the opportunity to choose between a moral decision and an immoral one. This is where we find out how far the apple falls from the tree. Are the 6 children of Roderick their own people or do they inevitably choose a similar path to his? One can speculate further and ask if nature (genetics) or nurture (their brutal upbringing by Roderick) informs their decisions? In fairness, Verna warns: “All things have consequences”. Do they listen, or do they no longer even know the difference between good and evil? Remember, none of Roderick’s children are aware of the generational curse that condemned their souls even before they were born.
Speaking of curses, the first thing Maddie and Roderick do once they make a blood pact with Verna is to try to escape the consequences of their spiritual agreement through technology. How? By trying to create the technology to upload their consciousness to computers of course: the ultimate transhumanist quest. Remember: transhumanists want to live forever; they want to escape death. I have to admit that this is the first time in recent pop culture that I’ve seen this marriage of technology with spiritual consequence. Let’s take a moment to savor this idea. In my studies into transhumanism, I’ve come to the conclusion that transhumanism isn’t the atheistic ideology that’s often been portrayed by its adherents. In fact, I think it’s a deeply held religious belief. Doesn’t the idea of AI smack of a being with god-like powers? Doesn’t the uploading of consciousness (the soul) into a digital utopia remind you of the Christian ‘heaven’. What if transhumanists don’t want to die a bodily death because: (1) they do believe in the soul, (2) they fear retribution from God for their crimes/sins. If these things are true, then it makes sense that they would strive so fiercely to escape a spiritual judgement in this life by uploading their consciousness to live a digital one. However, that would presume that the God of this world would somehow be barred from or unable to access a digital world. Quite a presumption.
Regardless, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” the evils of Big Pharma are not circumvented (as the title boldly proclaims). There is no escape in this world or even a digital one for the Ushers who visit enormous pain and suffering onto humanity for their personal profit (there are thinly veiled hints that ‘Fortunato Pharmaceuticals’ may be the fictional version of real life ‘Purdue Pharma’, the culprits in the massive opioid scandal in the United States). While it’s not often that we get to witness the bad actors in disreputable pharmaceutical companies get their just desserts in real life, “The Fall of the House of Usher” provides the audience with a rather gory and bloodthirsty version of fictional justice. If that’s your thing, you’ll really enjoy this series.
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