In her review of Us for Slate, Dana Stevens called it “a movie you come out of on fire with questions.” It’s true. Jordan Peele’s new film will make you want to dissect it immediately with friends in the theater, with total strangers in line for the bathroom, and with co-workers the next morning. We’ve tried to answer a few of the most pressing ones below.
What is going on with that twist ending?
For the entire movie, we think we’re watching the Wilsons, a family of four—mom Adelaide, dad Gabe, daughter Zora, and son Jason—battle their doppelgängers, who are known as the Tethered. In a way, that’s true, except that in the final minutes of the movie, we learn that the woman we believed was Adelaide is actually one of the Tethered who escaped. The woman we believed was Adelaide’s Tethered doppelgänger was the original Adelaide all along.
For the sake of (relative) simplicity, we’ll refer to the original Adelaide, the one who spends most of the movie in a red jumpsuit, as Adelaide, and the doppelgänger, who spends most of the movie in regular clothing, as Red. It was Adelaide, who was forced to trade places with Red when the two were children, who was the mastermind behind the Untethering.
How exactly did the two trade places?
Throughout the movie, we see flashbacks to Adelaide’s childhood and the time that she encountered Red by chance while visiting Santa Cruz with her parents in 1986. Adelaide wandered away from her family into a hall of mirrors, where she came face to face with her Tethered doppelgänger. However, until the very end of the movie, we don’t see what actually happened when the two met, only the aftermath in which Adelaide seems traumatized by the encounter. Her parents fret that she won’t speak, and they bring her to a psychiatrist’s office.
However, the final flashback reveals that’s not Adelaide at the psychiatrist’s office. It’s Red.
When the two met that night, Red dragged Adelaide into the underground and handcuffed her to a bed, then took her place aboveground, reversing their roles. Red then continued to live aboveground and eventually married Gabe and had two children, with everyone believing she was the real Adelaide—and the movie seems to imply that Red repressed her origins as a childhood trauma and believed she was Adelaide too.
Because Red married Gabe, Adelaide was forced to pair up with Gabe’s belowground doppelgänger, Abraham, another one of the Tethered. Both couples had two children, also mirrors of each other. So before the Untethering even takes place, that leaves us with:
Red (freed Tethered doppelgänger)
Abraham (Tethered doppelgänger)
Umbrae (Tethered doppelgänger)
Pluto (Tethered doppelgänger)
What’s the deal with the Tethered? Who are they, exactly?
They’re a class of people who live below the surface, and each one of them is an identical mirror to someone who lives above the surface: two bodies sharing a single soul, as Adelaide explains it. When a person above the surface does something like, for instance, play whack-a-mole, her underground doppelgänger does a crude imitation of the action, like punching a wall. The Tethered don’t seem to forge emotional connections or have any free will over their shared actions with the people above. For example, when someone above the surface plays with soft toys, her doppelgänger below plays with scissors, one of the few items available to her.
What’s up with the scissors, jumpsuits, and only wearing one glove?
Some of this depends on your interpretation. It’s suggested that the Tethered were created for labor so that the people living aboveground could live in comfort, although it’s never really explained who created them or what happened to cause the experiment to fail. Producer Ian Cooper told the Hollywood Reporter that their outfits are meant to be “reminiscent of classical horror-movie villain iconography” while also evoking religious and cult vibes, but the jumpsuits are also reminiscent of prisoners, while the scissors recall sweatshop workers, two groups whose invisible suffering benefits the upper classes. The scissors also hint at the Untethering—the goal of the Tethered to sever the link and free themselves.
What about all the rabbits?
Adelaide mentions at the beginning of the movie that while her counterpart above the surface was eating nice food, she was eating cold rabbit flesh. On a literal level, this choice of diet could be because rabbits would appear to be a sustainable food source, given the rate at which they can reproduce. On a more figurative level, it could be an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, since they’re mostly white rabbits, and the movie finds them when a young girl travels almost literally down the rabbit hole and very literally through a looking glass. Peele has also pointed out that rabbit ears are scissorlike.
Does everyone have a Tethered doppelgänger?
Apparently so, at least in Santa Cruz. Shortly before we meet Adelaide and the Wilson family’s doppelgängers, we see a man standing on the beach, apparently the first doppelgänger to escape and kill his aboveground counterpart: In the flashbacks to 1986, we see a bearded, seemingly homeless man holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11 (more on that Bible verse here). In the present day, the family passes a corpse who’s being loaded into an ambulance holding the same sign. Shortly after, Jason sees the man standing alone on the beach, arms extended and dripping with blood. That’s the Jeremiah 11:11 guy’s Tethered doppelgänger, getting ready to clasp hands with his fellow Tethereds, though we don’t yet know that.
The Wilsons are friendly with another family, the Tylers, who are killed by their own doppelgängers. They offer some more insight into the psychology of the Tethered, who either share or imitate the characteristics of their aboveground counterparts. Kitty Tyler is insecure, so her doppelgänger cuts her own face in an imitation of plastic surgery. Josh Tyler is a sleazy jokester, so his doppelgänger pulls a grisly kind of prank on the dying Kitty. This tracks with what we see of the Wilsons’ doppelgängers: Abraham, like Gabe, can’t get the boat to work; Umbrae, like Zora, is a runner; and Pluto, like Jason, is hyperactive and interested in “tricks” involving fire (though his burned face suggests one of Jason’s tricks went awry belowground).
The real question is whether the doppelgängers are a uniquely American concept. I think that’s likely the case, given the double meaning of the movie’s title (us/U.S.) and the way Adelaide introduces her family (“We’re Americans”). In a panic, Red even suggests that her family flee the Tethered by going to Mexico, though whether she knows they’ll be safe there, she’s guessing, or that’s just a long-buried instinct, is unclear. And the opening title card reminds the audience that America, specifically, is full of forgotten underground tunnels. Finally, the real-life ritual they re-enact is “Hands Across America,” not “hands across the world”—more on that later.
How did the Tethered escape from the underground? And what exactly is it that they want?
The catalyst for their escape seems to be having Adelaide, a person from aboveground, among them. Remember, unlike the Tethered, she spent her childhood with free will and knew what she was missing out on. When she and Red were around 14 years old, there was a dance recital. (Red says something at the beginning about peaking at age 14.) We know that Adelaide’s parents encouraged Red to dance to express herself, since they believed she was really a traumatized Adelaide. When Red took to the stage, Adelaide also danced below, and her performance seems to have made her a kind of messiah or Moses figure among the Tethered, perhaps because they realized by the way she danced that she had some measure of control over her actions or a sense of self that they hadn’t seen before.
As for why they escaped, Adelaide and the Tethered doppelgängers want the Untethering, which involves killing their aboveground counterparts and possibly taking their places. But first, they want to make a statement by doing an imitation of a little-remembered charity campaign from the 1980s.
Why Hands Across America?
One of the first clips in the movie we see is an advertisement for Hands Across America on an old TV set surrounded by VHS tapes. Since Adelaide was taken as a child, it makes sense that her plan would involve one of the last impressions she had of life aboveground, especially one designed to bring awareness to the less fortunate. (Read more on all of this here.) Also, check out those lyrics:
Mothers and fathers (Mothers and fathers)
Daughters and sons (Daughters and sons)
Should be living together as one
And I can’t help thinking again and again
The heart of a stranger beats the same as a friend
So we must learn to love each other
See those people over there, they’re my sister and brother
And when they laugh (I laugh)
And when they cry (I cry)
And when they need me
I’ll be right there by their side
Why does Adelaide talk like that, if she’s from aboveground?
When Adelaide first speaks hoarsely, we still think she’s Red, so her delivery makes sense, at least in the context of the other doppelgängers, who communicate through grunts, shouts, and gestures. However, the twist at the end of the movie also explains why Adelaide, who did grow up with spoken language, would talk that way: Red injures her throat when she drags her underground, which may have permanently damaged her vocal chords. It’s also possible that with no one to understand her, she has hardly spoken in English since she was a child.
Jason gives Red a look as they’re driving away. Does he know his mother is one of the Tethered?
He probably suspects it. During the final confrontation between Adelaide and Red, Adelaide is poised and nimble, while the injured Red seems to be reverting to her Tethered self. This culminates with Red stabbing, then choking Adelaide, who whistles “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” the same song she was whistling when she met Red as a child. Jason, we learn later, had been hiding in a locker during their showdown. He heard and maybe even saw a great deal of what went down.
OK, but what does it all mean?
The movie leaves room for multiple interpretations, which is part of the fun. But if you’re craving some filmmaker-sanctioned guidance, here’s what Peele had to say about it:
In the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country. And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken by the fact that we are in a time where we fear the other. Whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is gonna come kill us and take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us … we’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.
Star Winston Duke (who plays Abraham and Gabe) shared some insights as well: “I hope moviegoers really take an introspective eye at themselves and really ponder their role in cultures of power: Who do you render speechless? Who do you render invisible? Who bears the burden of your privilege?” Among those individuals might be the aforementioned prisoners, sweatshop workers, and homeless people, all groups that Us’ imagery evokes.
Or maybe the lesson is just: Stay out of halls of mirrors.