If we can agree on something about Jordan Peele’s new movie Us, it’s that it successfully accomplishes two things. First of all, the movie is downright scary, a doppelgänger nightmare that also provides the best reason in recent memory for why one ought to avoid funhouses. Second, because it’s full of references, Easter eggs, and meaning, it begs further analysis and conversation.
The film’s final act unfurls with a series of shocking and big-picture revelations, culminating in a satisfying twist that makes you reconsider everything that came before it. With all of its ’80s references and sociopolitical allegories, Peele’s second film is riper for dissection than Get Out—it’s the kind of movie that rewards multiple viewings and is certainly open to several interpretations. So if you’ve seen Us and aren’t sure what to think—join the club!—here is an in-depth postgamer, asking the biggest questions, drawing conclusions, pointing out key references, and laying out the most pointed theories for Peele’s latest film.
How Much Does “Adelaide” Remember?
A quick refresher on the situation with the doppelgängers—known as the “Tethered”—as they pertain to the Wilson family and their vacation to Santa Cruz Beach gone terribly wrong. In the world of Us, the government created clones of all American citizens in some dystopian plot, but the effort was abandoned because the clones could only copy bodies, not “souls.” Wilson matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has a doppelgänger named Red; patriarch Gabe (Winston Duke) has Abraham; their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) has Umbrae; and Jason (Evan Alex) has Pluto.
Which leads us to Us’s game-changing twist. As Red is slowly dying after being impaled by Adelaide, Red whistles a familiar tune—one that both women recall from their fateful encounter in 1986, when a young Adelaide encountered her identical double in a hall of mirrors at the beach. We’re led to believe that this encounter (quite understandably) shook Adelaide to her core, but a final flashback through Adelaide’s memories of that evening reveals that the person we’ve believed to be Adelaide is actually Red. Basically, instead of running away, original Adelaide was attacked by Red in 1986, and the two switched places—Adelaide was trapped in the underground tunnel system inhabited by countless clones of actual human beings, while Red went to live among the regular humans.
Red-as-original-Adelaide is a terrifying revelation, and my favorite kind of narrative twist. It’s shocking but doesn’t feel unnecessary or unearned when you actually start to think about it. The reveal explains why, for starters, Red is the only Tethered in the movie who’s able to speak: She was a normal human being for the first years of her life, and therefore holds certain advantages over her Tethered peers. Red also becoming the leader of the Tethered makes sense from that point of view: She’s the one with trace memories of life above ground, and that becomes the impetus for a doppelgänger uprising.
The twist then raises the question: How much does “Adelaide” actually recall from her past? It’s clear in the final moments of the movie that she has an intuitive knowledge of who—and what—she really is, but it’s unclear just how much she knew from the onset of the film. My best guess: Fake Adelaide blocked out the specifics (and truth) of the event. We know that Adelaide underwent a lot of therapy and was diagnosed with PTSD after the incident, and as studies have shown, people sometimes block out traumatic memories from their childhood, which remain buried unless something triggers them—something like, say, a home invasion led by your creepy clone. Thus, while Adelaide has horrible memories of her childhood vacation to Santa Cruz Beach—and even recalls seeing another version of herself in a hall of mirrors—it seems most likely that she didn’t know the full extent of what happened until the end of the movie.
This is open to debate, though. If you want to read into the way Adelaide grins in flashbacks of her childhood—such as when she’s dancing—you could go so far as to argue that these are moments in which the fake Adelaide is reveling in the switch she was able to pull off. But again, this is why multiple viewings of Us would be rewarding.
How Far Does the Tethered Plot Spread?
Because Us keeps an intimate focus on the Wilson family during this clone uprising, we have a limited understanding of just how wide it spreads and how big the reverberative effects might have been across the United States. Peele’s movie does open with the tinfoil-ready factoid that there are thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels across America and that many of them have unclear purposes. Again, this is a fun horror movie with a Galaxy Brain sci-fi twist, so in the Us universe, the purpose of most of these abandoned tunnels is that they were being used by the government to store our secret, weirdo identical doubles. But given the breadth of abandoned tunnels, the fact that Red intimates that all Americans were being cloned until the program was canceled, and that Us ends with a bird’s-eye shot of the Tethered stretching beyond what we can see, there’s enough evidence to suggest this uprising covered much more than the California coast. Indeed, much of America was likely attacked in a murderous, ritualistic spin on the Hands Across America movement from 1986, an event that has surprisingly important resonance to Peele’s new movie.
For the uninitiated, here’s the TL;DR version of Hands Across America. It was a nationwide benefit campaign that took place over Memorial Day weekend in 1986. The event was organized by music organizer Ken Kragen—the dude behind the “We Are the World” song, which debuted the previous year—with the intent to raise money to combat poverty and homelessness. To participate, people would donate anywhere from $10 to $35, get a commemorative T-shirt—one that the original Adelaide was wearing before she was attacked by Red—and join hands. (America’s topography prevented an actual, unbroken chain of humans, unsurprisingly, but many people from several states nevertheless participated.) And of course, there was a theme song to go along with the event.
But the efforts of Hands Across America and its legacy became something of a punchline. The event was intended to raise between $50 million and $100 million, but in the end it mustered $34 million, only $15 million of which was actually distributed to charities, as the rest had to offset the costs of putting on this nationwide event. Hands Across America has, in retrospect, represented the type of empty gestures people make toward disadvantaged communities.
Obviously, for Us, the forgotten people aren’t the homeless; they’re the abandoned clones of a failed experiment by our own government. That Red (a.k.a. Original Adelaide) used Hands Across America as the inspiration for the uprising makes sense—it’s the last remaining vestige of her former life, something she can cling to. And the fact that the Tethered use that imagery after many of them slaughtered their human counterparts is a twisted inverse of the original movement: This time, those who were forgotten are sure to be remembered.
If that symbolism isn’t heavy-handed enough for you, consider the repeated visual references in the movie to the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, which reads: “Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” In the Bible, Jeremiah’s people are breaking their covenant with God, and that unfaithfulness will bring evil upon them. You can connect the dots there in Us, with the government playing God and abandoning the Tethered. (It’s also a nice touch that the verse 11:11 is itself a double.)
Uhh, but What If People Moved?
Time to be that guy and nitpick one of Us’s biggest potential plot holes. If we’re to believe the idea that doppelgängers all across the United States lived in tunnels directly beneath their counterparts, what happens when a person, quite simply, moves?
Adelaide might’ve encountered Red in Santa Cruz, but that was her family’s vacation getaway spot. Did Red only surface because Adelaide came to Santa Cruz specifically and was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was the Tethered uprising timed, knowing Adelaide and her family would be in Santa Cruz, ripe for murder? How much can the clones move around underground?
I am definitely overthinking this—and Us is a more entertaining movie if you avoid these kinds of questions—but there’s a pretty straightforward (if somewhat vague) explanation that the movie could lean back to: the tunnels. There are thousands of miles of tunnels across the country that the Tethered could probably use to follow humans wherever they went. There is an intrinsic, almost spiritual link between the Tethered and humans: They mimic the humans’ movements and are paired with the same human partners. Where a human goes, a Tethered counterpart would ostensibly follow, provided the tunnels led in the same direction. So even if a family moves across the country, their doppelgängers could follow them.
The only complication is if someone straight-up moved overseas or had been lucky enough to be taking a vacation when the Tethered attacked. (I would definitely extend a stay in Paris if I found out people in red jumpsuits holding scissors murdered their look-alikes and formed a creepy-ass chain link across the country.) These tunnels appear to be limited to the United States, so that would put a dent in complete Tethered domination. (I know, I must be really fun at parties.)
What’s Up With the Rabbits?
Another distinguishable characteristic of the Tethered’s underground world is the abundance of bunnies—highlighted most memorably by the film’s creepy opening credits, as the camera slowly pans out to reveal a sea of rabbits trapped in cages. The rabbits serve a crucial narrative purpose in Us: They’re what the Tethered ate to survive underground for decades.
But why rabbits? Well, there’s a reason rabbits are typically associated with mass breeding—they do, in fact, reproduce quite quickly. If you were trapped in an underground bunker, rabbits would be an effective, replenishable food source, given their propensity for mating. (Though you’d definitely get sick of the taste if all you ate was rabbits your whole life; also Red says they ate the rabbits raw. The first thing I’d do if I killed my human counterpart is hit up a Popeyes.)
Beyond that, rabbits have played a versatile role in cinema, from symbolizing wholesome good (Thumper in Bambi) to pure malevolence (Donnie Darko). As for Peele’s specific intent with the rabbits, he told press during the Us red carpet that he simply finds them terrifying and that, if you stare into their blank expressions, they’re total sociopaths. If the film’s director feels that way about rabbits, we can safely assume how Us wants us to feel about them.
As for the Scissors...
For their ritualistic murders, the Tethered used pairs of golden scissors to hack away at their human peers. It’s a creepy weapon, and one that is perfect for giving dramatic heft to dragged-out home-invasion scenes. It would be scary enough to be attacked by an intruder in your own home; imagine if they were also carrying around golden scissors and treating them with reverence. That’s a horrible way to go.
But scissors are also the perfect weapon of choice for the Tethered. As Peele explained in the lead-up to the film, the literal duality of scissors is the ideal thematic touchstone for a movie in which people are effectively being attacked by themselves. “There’s a duality to scissors—a whole made up of two parts, but also they lie in this territory between the mundane and the absolutely terrifying,” he told Entertainment Weekly on Wednesday. And like his use of rabbits, their creepiness is elevated by how they’re being used in the movie. “They’re both scary things to me, and both inane things, so I love subverting and bringing out the scariness in things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with that.”
Us and Them
Before filming on Us began, Peele gave Nyong’o a list of 10 horror movies to watch to prepare for the role: Dead Again, The Shining, The Babadook, It Follows, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Birds, Funny Games, Martyrs, Let the Right One In, and The Sixth Sense. These are [extremely movie critic voice] quite dank movies, but the one horror film that feels like the greatest inspiration for the basic premise of Us is Them!
Them! is a 1954 horror movie about a colony of irradiated ants in New Mexico that begin attacking people from underground tunnels. The movie ends with this foreboding coda, spoken by a scientist: “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”
Like Them!, Us posits that the hubris of Americans is the country’s biggest menace. Instead of threats from beyond our borders, the real terror comes from within. The real terror comes from, well, “us.”
Update: March 25, 1:10 p.m. ET
Us and the Prison Industrial Complex
The ambiguity of the Tethered, their true purpose, and how they were originally conceived allows viewers to have different readings for what the doppelgängers are supposed to represent. One idea is that the Tethered—beyond just representing marginalized groups—could be seen as representative of the ills of America’s prison industrial complex. The Tethered are the ones who are largely thrown under the bus or ignored. (How often do you think about the millions of Americans in prison for years due to simple drug offenses?) It’s also worth mentioning that the red jumpsuits the Tethered wear are analogous to prison attire.
But don’t take my word for it: Peele himself supports this notion, telling Essence that this is one way to interpret the film and its doppelgängers. “This movie is about all that we tuck down into the recesses of our society and fail to acknowledge; all of those that suffer on the other side of the privileges we have,” Peele said. “In many ways, as you know from Get Out, I feel that that applies to the prison industrial system. ... From where we get our sneakers, the person we pass on the street, the countries that we fail to support. There’s a lot to sift through, which is why it’s a fascinating topic for me.”
The Importance of the Tethereds’ Names
Though Red is the only Tethered who can speak, the names of other doppelgängers are either uttered by Red—i.e., when she’s introducing her creepy-ass family with that croaky voice—or revealed with a bloody red font during the end credits. While some of the names of Tethered characters are tricky to unpack—I can’t really think of why Red is called Red, other than the fact it sounds ominous and bloody—some of the names befit their characteristics, while serving as inverses of their human counterparts.
Adelaide’s daughter Zora, for instance, has a Tethered named Umbrae: The Slavic name Zora means dawn, and Umbrae means shadow in Latin. There’s a pretty obvious light versus dark contrast there. Zora’s little brother Jason, meanwhile, has a doppelgänger named Pluto: in Roman mythology, Pluto is the ruler of the underworld. I’m not sure why Jason would be named Jason as a contrast, but he does like to wear a Chewbacca mask—and he shares the same name as the Friday the 13th franchise villain, Jason Voorhees, who was partial to a hockey mask when he was slashing up teens at a summer camp.
Elsewhere, Wilson patriarch Gabe had a doppelgänger named Abraham: in the Bible, Abraham is asked by God to murder his own kid as a test of his faith (though God is like “lol jk” before he does it). Interestingly, Elisabeth Moss’s Kitty has a doppelgänger named Dahlia—which harkens to the infamous Black Dahlia murder. The name “Kitty” could be a reference to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, who was reportedly killed in front of 37 bystanders who didn’t help her. (In Us, Kitty tries to call the police using a faux-Amazon Echo, which instead plays “Fuck tha Police.”)
Jason’s Magic Trick
For the majority of the movie, Jason tries to execute a magic trick that he says he’s been able to do in the past, involving a little lighter attached to his hand. Well, since the Tethered are mimicking the movements of regular humans underground, it stands to reason that Jason’s magic trick could’ve had a much different effect on Pluto every time he executed it. Could Pluto’s partially burnt face be the result of Jason’s repeated attempts to pull off the lighter trick?
On Reddit, the user hoopsterben takes it a step further by suggesting that Jason and Pluto somehow switched places, and the knowing glance between Adelaide and Jason was a tacit acknowledgement that they’re both secretly Tethereds. (The redditor also mentions the fact Jason was making a tunnel on the beach in the beginning of the movie instead of a sand castle, which is admittedly strange.)
While it’s interesting to think that Pluto and Jason switched places, there’s not enough compelling evidence to suggest they somehow swapped places either before or during the movie. (Besides, if that happened, wouldn’t Red want to help Jason, since he would be her biological son?) But there was probably more to Jason’s magic trick, and how it affected his doppelgänger, than meets the eye.
This post will be updated as more theories emerge (read: as Reddit goes off).