Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for The Fall of the House of Usher.

The Big Picture

  • Director Mike Flanagan’s non-linear storytelling in The Fall of the House of Usher perfectly captures the essence of Edgar Allan Poe’s use of ambiguity and unreliable narration, creating a sense of confusion and distrust in the audience.
  • Non-linear storytelling is crucial to the integrity of the narrative in The Fall of the House of Usher as it allows for a deeper understanding of motivations and complex relationships between characters while maintaining suspense and eeriness.
  • The non-linear approach in The Fall of the House of Usher effectively weaves together various works by Poe into one storyline, creating a coherent and thematic narrative that highlights the essence of Poe’s writing and allows each major text to shine.

Since Pulp Fiction pushed non-linear narratives into mainstream media in the ’90s, the technique seems to have fallen out of favor, largely due to its status of being gimmicky at times. The Fall of the House of Usher, however, was the perfect story to house this technique. Director Mike Flanagan employs a three-pronged approach to the narrative’s timeline, weaving each period seamlessly around each other to create a cohesive tale drenched in suspense. Each timeline has its own distinct characteristics that complement the others, ensuring each aspect of the story is deliberate and earned. Arguably, non-linear storytelling is really the only method to successfully integrate every part of the Edgar Allan Poe universe and mimic the unique voice and essence of the macabre poet’s stories.

Mike Flanagan’s Non-Linear Approach Reflects Edgar Allan Poe’s Use of Ambiguity

Bruce Greenwood_the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher
Image via Netflix 

Poe’s writing is significantly marked by his exploration of the uncanny and his persistent use of unreliable narration. Many of his stories, including The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart, are littered with florid imagery and unsettling connotations that make us question what is real and what is not. There is often little to no explanation or clarity offered to us, placing the bulk of the story’s impact in its ambiguity. They are both also told through the lens of a character that lacks credibility. With this evoked mistrust, it is only natural that blatant confusion would ensue.

As such, by operating on three different timelines, the series perfectly evokes a sense of confusion and distrust in us. Played hauntingly by Bruce Greenwood in the framing narrative, Roderick Usher is racked by grotesque hallucinations of his disfigured children. As he recounts the misfortune and sin that plague his history, the show slips into different timelines, presenting events as told by him. But as Detective Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) aptly rebukes, how does he know the intimate details of his children’s deaths when they were often alone during it? The first layer of Roderick’s unreliability is revealed when he claims the ghosts of his children told him. Everything we see now needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially as the scenes constantly whip from one period of time to another. Hence, the framing narrative is the timeline that facilitates that vital layer of ambiguity while the two flashback timelines slowly unravel the events and secrets of the Usher past.

Employing a non-linear approach flawlessly encapsulates the essence of Poe storytelling. Ambiguity reigns supreme in his work, so approaching this narrative chronologically would remove the surrealistic and unreliable quality of his writing. An omniscient perspective would have to be employed to capture each of the children’s storylines and deaths, completely undermining the “Poe-like” atmosphere the show was striving for. As such, Flanagan’s strategy to adapting numerous works of this grim writer demonstrates a beautiful and thoughtful relationship between the show and the source material.

RELATED: The Best Part of Mike Flanagan’s TV Shows Isn’t the Horror or the Tragedy

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ Cannot Work Without Non-Linear Storytelling

A young Roderick (Zach Gilford) and Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald) Usher sit at a bar on New Year's Eve.
Image via Netflix

Often, non-linear storytelling is used as a means of slightly improving the viewing experience while not actually implementing anything worthwhile to the plot. However, in The Fall of the House of Usher’s case, non-linear storytelling is crucial to the integrity of the narrative — without it, the story would fall apart. A chronological telling of the story would result in many unanswered questions and possibly plot holes. The Roderick (Zach Gilford) and Madeleine (Willa Fitzgerald) in the ’80s were highly secretive characters, even in private. Many of the explanations and justifications for their actions were provided by the present Roderick, enabling us to understand how their twisted and desperate minds worked back then. Although we could discern this by ourselves, it would dangerously tread the line between ambiguity and just plain absence, completely taking away from the complexity of character motivations. As such, non-linear storytelling is an effective way to span over the Ushers’ whole lifespan and the systematic devolution of their legacy while maintaining the suspense and eeriness of the narrative.

Not only would the storyline suffer in a chronological telling of the story, but the complexity of the characters would ring hollow. Watching events in different timelines play out side-by-side increases how dynamic the characters themselves are, instead of having a rush of character development in one section of the story. This is particularly true with Roderick’s character. From the very first episode, we are presented with three different versions of him: the slightly naive young man who relies on his sister to make the harder decisions, the powerful one who helms an empire, and a raving old one who has lost everything. It’s a little jarring seeing these three representations of Roderick so early on, preparing us for his inevitable evolution.

Non-Linear Storytelling Is the Only Way To Weave Together the Poe Universe

Bruce Greenwood in The Fall of the House of Usher Episode 5
Image Via Netflix

The non-linear approach is also an effective way to amalgamate the myriad of works by Poe into one storyline. The Fall of the House of Usher presents an interwoven Poe universe where they combine many texts that don’t seem to naturally fit together at all. Poe’s 1839 short story was essentially a tale of a creepy house crumbling down onto a man who experienced hallucinations while poems like “Annabel Lee” and “Lenore” were about long-lost loves. Piecing in each of these references not only required a delicate hand but an approach that would make it believable, otherwise, the show may have come across as a segmented anthology instead. Non-linear storytelling allows all these components to fit together coherently while letting some of the major works shine in each episode. Each episode title and character name is derived from one of Poe’s short stories or poems and thus each episode pioneers the thematic and narrative essence of that specific text, while still being held together by the framing narrative: The Fall of the House of Usher.

Becoming a buzzword in the horror genre, Flanagan truly knows how to interact with his source material, from his adaptation of Stephen King‘s Gerald’s Game to Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House. So now when presented with an entire collection of works, he lets the non-linear narrative style stand out, giving each major text a podium to shine on while capturing the essence of a legendary writer’s voice.

All episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher are available to stream on Netflix.

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