[Ed. note: This essay contains significant spoilers for the movies The Hole in the Ground, Us, and Gemini Man, and for the Netflix series Living With Yourself.]
“For us to have our privilege, someone suffers,” Jordan Peele says in “The Duality of Us: Privilege,” one of the bonus features of the digital and Blu-ray release for his sophomore horror movie Us. “Those who suffer and those who prosper are two sides of the same coin.” Red (Lupita Nyong’o), the picture’s vengeful antagonist, acts on Peele’s sentiment by revolting: She leads the Tethered, a collective of underworld doppelgängers, in rebellion against their surface-world analogues, indiscriminately slaying every hapless soul on Santa Cruz’s boardwalks.
The people killed in the massacre aren’t guilty of creating the Tethered, or trapping them in the winding tunnels under their city. But they aren’t exactly innocent, either. Peele’s argument, that Red and the Tethered have a just claim to the world above (even if they support it through unjust action), makes real-world sense of Us’ meticulously performed violence. People who enjoy the comforts of a privileged life often enjoy them at other people’s expense, even if they don’t condone or realize it. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the homes we lay our heads in, the wondrous devices we all use as information IV drips — nearly every element of our cushy existence can be sourced to hardships endured by those less fortunate. Everybody wants to live a grammable life, but somebody has to work in the sweatshops and scrub the toilets.
That message is surprisingly resonant through the rest of pop culture. The last decade of movies and television has seen double, reaching as far back as 2013 and exploding in 2019, when movies like The Hole in the Ground, Asako I & II, Us, and Gemini Man, plus TV series like Netflix’s Living With Yourself, ballooned the doppelgänger theme into a trend. Under the high-profile umbrella of Peele’s vision, each of these stories takes on a revolutionary spirit. The basic conceit of Us, a film about people being brutally killed and replaced by their counterparts from a literal underclass, invites its audience to reckon with their privilege. And its genre storytelling peers are doing similar work. Scrubbed of their particulars, these narratives all come down to have-nots attempting to overthrow haves, even when the distinction isn’t explicitly made.
Take Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground, a tale of parental terror where single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) suspects her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey), has been replaced by a changeling imposter. As with Us, the changelings dwell underground, hidden from our world, except to their victims’ families. No one but a parent would suspect the perfect double in their house. Noreen (Kati Outinen), the neighborhood basket case, apparently lost her marbles years earlier and killed her own son, claiming he’d been replaced by something inhuman. As the movie unfolds, Chris shows signs that something about him is similarly off. (He eats spiders, for one thing.)
When Sarah submits to her paranoia and proves her worst fear is real, she heads to the changeling burrow to retrieve the real Chris, and runs into more changelings. Face to face with these monsters, Sarah sees them for what they are: Blank slates made flesh. They have no identifiable features of their own. When one roars at her, it’s a standard horror-movie beat, but couched in the privilege motif, the roar sounds nearly plaintive, as if the creature is screaming, “How dare you?” at Sarah for denying not-Chris the same freedoms as Chris. The creature even adopts Sarah’s shape while chasing her from its home, a threatening, desperate, ultimately pleading gesture. The changelings are void of their own character, and per the film’s title, they live in a hole in the ground. They want a piece of the aboveground.
They’re malevolent, but their empathetic motives make them more compelling. Miles, the bewildered hero of the Netflix miniseries Living With Yourself, in which Paul Rudd experiences an existential crisis right out of Calvin and Hobbes, is a sympathetic figure without the same monstrousness. He’s just a rumpled, directionless sad-sack with minimal zest for his life. Anyone who’s worked an unfulfilling job while navigating marriage’s evolving needs can appreciate Miles’ lassitude. So when his asshole coworker, Dan (Desmin Borges), boasts about his newfound vitality following a recent invigorating spa treatment, Miles decides to try it for himself. He wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later, buried in dirt and left for dead.
The spa’s secret to physical and mental refreshment: It clones its clients, and sends a fresh copy into the world, braced, cheery, and ready to carpe that diem. Then it dumps the original client in a shallow grave in the woods. Miles 1 isn’t thrilled with the arrangement. Neither is Miles 2, who for one glorious day gets to be Miles and relish everything Miles 1 took for granted, most of all his marriage to his witty, wonderful wife, Kate (Aisling Bea), who likes Miles for his better qualities, but loves him for his flaws. Faced with the crushing revelation that his existence is bullshit, and furious that a clone is better at living his own life, Miles 1 begins an escalating war of mutual petty jealousies with Miles 2 that peaks with a murder attempt. Both men want what the other has, or so they think. Miles 2 wants Miles 1’s home, marriage, and career. Miles 1 wants a clean slate.
Both of them ultimately acknowledge the futility of their wants. Miles 2 looks and sounds like the original Miles, but he hasn’t been in a relationship with Kate for most of his life. He has Miles 1’s memories — he wouldn’t be a very convincing Miles otherwise — but he lacks Miles 1’s familiarity and experience with Kate. Try as he might, he can’t be what she wants. For Miles 1’s part, his childish impulses to start anew remind him of how much he loves Kate, so he cleans his slate by recommitting to her — especially when she tells both versions of Miles that she’s pregnant. Who’s the dad? They don’t know, and because they have the same DNA, they never will. But who cares? They’re all ecstatic, one unconventional but happy family.
Perhaps against expectations, that’s where Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, at long last released from 23 years in development hell, ends as well, with Defense Intelligence Agency assassin Henry (Will Smith) counseling his younger clone, Jackson (also Will Smith, digitally de-aged), on his future, which now includes college enrollment. Jackson was tasked with knocking off Henry and surpassing him, and like Miles, he’s heartbroken to learn he’s a science experiment, not a real boy. Unlike Miles 2, though, Jackson reacts to the knowledge by dropping his mission and teaming up with Henry against the shady government agents who want him dead. In that respect, Gemini Man feels like wish-fulfillment compared to recent doppelgänger fare, but the seed of privilege remains intact — more or less. Jackson wants to kill Henry not so he can become Henry, but so he can surpass Henry as the superior version.
Maybe that’s why Jackson eventually agrees to fight alongside Henry rather than against him: Henry is willing to help him carve out a life of his own. He’s willing to share his privilege. Miles 1 does, too. Maybe this is why Living With Yourself and Gemini Man have the happiest endings of their doppelgänger cousins — convincing the Tethered or the changelings that they can live as happily as their originals is a big ask. They’re the ones killing people and replacing them in their homes, after all, and Us and The Hole in the Ground are told from the perspective of the people being killed and replaced. Our empathy lies with them. But Gemini Man and Living With Yourself respectively tell Jackson and Miles 2’s side of their stories. They do want their original selves’ lives, but they can at least be bargained with.
The doppelgängers in these stories, and others like them — in Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, or Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, three other significant films predating the past year of dead-ringer drama — crave the same contentments as the rest of us. They’re willing to kill for them, too. The imposters in some of these films and TV shows are only mollified by taking other people’s lives for their own. But the great horror at play here isn’t simply the thought of death by duplicate. Instead, it’s the sobering realization that Peele is right: Our capitalist system creates inequality, and that inequality is so staggering that people are driven to desperate action to close the gap. It’s important to acknowledge that the gap exists. It’s more important to fear it.