The mystery at the center of Us is the nature of the “tethered” doppelgängers pursuing Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family. They look almost identical, save for distinctly more malevolent demeanors and uniform red jumpsuits, sandals, and gold scissors. For most of the movie, we wonder: Who are they, and what do they want?
Bit by bit, answers take shape, but even after the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled, director Jordan Peele isn’t done taking his audience for a ride. There’s more on his mind than making you question the plot.
[Ed. note: major spoilers for Us follow.]
For a blissful moment at the end of Us, the Wilson family seems to be totally out of the woods. Their doppelgängers have been defeated, and they’re in a car driving far, far away from the line of tethereds stretching across America. Adelaide’s young son Jason (Evan Alex), however, has sensed that something is wrong, and is staring suspiciously at his mother from across the car. Each time he’s been witness to her turn to violence, there’s been something unsettlingly raw about her behavior. A too-guttural breath here, an animalistic yell there; all is not as it seems.
Indeed, as Adelaide drives, the film flashes back once again to that fateful night on the boardwalk when she met her double. This time, we see that the “shadow” got the better of the “real” Adelaide, leaving her to live with the tethereds while assuming her life aboveground. The Adelaide driving the car — the Adelaide we’ve been rooting for — is the doppelgänger. The call has been coming from inside the house the whole time.
Peele is careful not to cast the tethered as outright villains, even though they’re out to murder the leads of the movie. In an early scene, Red, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, explains that her malice stems from the way her agency had been totally stripped away by the expectation that her life would exactly mirror Adelaide’s, and the inhumane conditions suffered by the tethered in their underground lab.
That final twist puts a whole new spin on that knowledge, in part because the tethered Adelaide had managed to escape that life, and known that, in doing so, she was condemning the real Adelaide to the nightmarish life she left behind. It drives home the film’s point about being our own worst enemy — the thing coming for who we thought was Adelaide was Adelaide all along.
On top of that, the Adelaide reveal makes a point about how poorly we treat people we perceive to be “other” in some way, even though, in reality, they are (only slightly less literally) just like us. Despite being a tethered, the Adelaide we follow throughout the movie is fiercely protective of her family, and seems to genuinely care for the wellbeing of the children of her double — she doesn’t behave any less like a horror movie hero, including having taken extreme measures to escape her former life.
The notion of such prejudice and turning a blind eye is given explicit context in contemporary American society; “This movie is about this country,” Peele said at the film’s premiere at SXSW, and one of Red’s first answers to Adelaide’s questioning who they are is to say, “We are Americans.” The use of the Hands Across America — a 1986 campaign to form a human chain across the nation to raise money to help those in poverty — as a plot device also places the film at a certain temporal zone, and adds to the film’s point about ignoring complicity in worsening circumstances for marginalized people. Hands Across America raised $34 million to fight hunger and homelessness. After operating costs, less than half ($15 million) was actually distributed to people in need.
On a more galaxy-brain level, the Bible verse reference within the movie (Jeremiah 11:11) could also be taken as significant beyond the numbers being doubles and the verse in question being sufficiently ominous. Its origin, the Book of Jeremiah, deals with the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, in what is perhaps a corollary to the circumstances of the tethered. (It’s more likely that Jeremiah 11:11 was just the most fitting 11:11 in any biblical text, but as Peele has repeatedly insisted that Us is stuffed with references and meaning, let us leave no stone unturned.)
The revelation as to Adelaide’s true nature also twists the horror trope of the monster reappearing at the end after supposedly being vanquished, as the question of exactly who the real monster is — if one exists at all — has been thrown into doubt. Throughout the film, Peele upends several horror tropes: the terror of a home invasion, which plays on fears of being attacked in the place one feels safest, is amplified by having the attackers be copies of the characters; the power of laughter to dispel fear is nullified and weaponized by Peele’s use of humor throughout; and daylight is made just as scary as the dark as Us’ final section takes place in broad daylight. It’s the last twist, however, that serves as the cherry on top of the cake, and the thing that ties the whole film together.
There will be viewers left frustrated that Us doesn’t entirely explain how the tethered came into being or survived underground, what the ultimate plan behind re-staging Hands Across America, or even where the Wilsons would go in the end. But that’s not quite what Peele is going for. Us makes it impossible to point fingers as to villains and heroes, and the filmmaker questions our instinct to do so. When the hero is revealed to be the supposed monster, the monster is revealed to be the hero we thought we were following, and both are justified in their actions, it forces further interrogation not of the story, but of ourselves.