Jordan Peele’s Us broke box office records this weekend with a $70 million start – which means a lot of people saw his terrifying mindf–k of a film and are probably right now going, “huh?” Because Us, unlike most mainstream horror movies, has a helluva lot on its mind. Here we’re going to try and answer a bunch of questions you might have about it, so if you haven’t seen Us, be warned: There is a ton of spoilers ahead.
Where do we even begin? With the big twist that Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) isn’t actually Adelaide but one of the Tethered? And that rather than protecting her family during the movie, she’s trying to keep her past secret? (Or both!). Or with a breakdown of why Peele chose Hands Across America as a pivotal theme? Maybe with a flick through the Good Book to Jeremiah 11:11?
Below, we’re diving into the movie’s big ideas, and big questions, and shedding some light. But be warned: The more we look, the more questions we find, so please join in this deep Us dissection in the comments, offering up new questions and ever more elaborate theories about Peele’s latest scary puzzler. We will update the piece with new information and theories as we find them, including the best stuff from the comments.
Who the Tethered are is explained, to some extent at least, in two key moments in the movie. There is the fireside chat, in which Red, Adelaide’s double/Tethered, answers Gabe’s (Winston Duke) question, “What are you people?” with a “Once upon a time…” tale that reveals that an entity called “they” created the doubles by cloning the population (with the glitch that they hadn’t quite worked out how to clone the soul as well as the body; the soul is split and shared). More is revealed towards the end of the movie when we see, in flashbacks, how the Tethered lived underground – first as bodies intended to control the above-ground population (though there is no explanation as to exactly how that works) and then, once the Tethered were abandoned there, seemingly forced to live a crude reflection of the lives lived by their doubles on the surface.
It’s never made explicitly clear who exactly created the Tethered, and the “why” – to control the above-ground population – is not really fleshed out. We only hear the creators referred to as “they.” Most theorists believe it’s the government. Not only does the below-ground facility we visit in the film’s climax look and feel government-y, but there are allusions to government control throughout the film, including the moment in the car when Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) mentions that the government adds fluoride to the water to brainwash the population. Peele said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that there is definitely a detailed explanation for how the Tethered came to be, and who made them, but he isn’t sharing anytime soon. “I have a pretty elaborate mythology and history of what’s going on in this film. And of course, the dilemma that comes up is how much of that do you tell?” he said. “When there are questions left, and you know there is more to the story, your imagination is left to run wild.” Mission: Accomplished. We’ll just have to wait for the sequel: Them.
It’s there in the title: us. The obvious point being made in Us is that we are our own worst enemy, so “watch yourself.” Peele said as much in a Q&A following the movie’s premiere at South by Southwest, and elaborated in an interview with the Guardian. “We are our own worst enemy, not just as individuals but more importantly as a group, as a family, as a society, as a country, as a world. We are afraid of the shadowy, mysterious ‘other’ that’s gonna come and kill us and take our jobs and do whatever, but what we’re really afraid of is the thing we’re suppressing: our sin, our guilt, our contribution to our own demise … No one’s taking responsibility for where we’re at. Owning up, blaming ourselves for our part in the problems of the world is something I’m not seeing.” Taking this further, and considering how your sympathies might change on a second viewing – if you’re like us, you may be rooting for Red, who was dragged into a life of servitude – we begin to see some greater truths being revealed in the movie. Is Peele making a point about America’s burying of its past – our collective putting-in-the-dark of the parts of the nation’s history we don’t want to face and, like Adelaide, are determined to keep it in the dark. In the Tethered, Peele seems to say that chance and circumstance are really the only things separating the privileged “us” from the “thems” we fear.
Bingo. When asked “What are you people?,” Red answers “We’re Americans” in a line that has been singled out by some critics as being perhaps a bit too on-the-nose. Multiple points seem to be being made here: That the Tethered are Americans, just like us; and that these are our “fellow Americans” who’ve been living this way (just like it’s your fellow Americans who live in poverty).
That remains to be seen, but there are suggestions throughout the film that this is a uniquely American phenomenon. There’s Red’s line, “We’re Americans,” and also the overarching theme of “Hands Across America.” Most tellingly, though, is that Adelaide’s plan of escape is to drive along the coast and get to Mexico. Does she know, as a former Tethered, that it’s safe across the border?
This weekend, Hands Across America is the most highly trafficked Wikipedia page in the world (we presume). But back in 1986, it was a charity event and campaign that was staged on Sunday May 25, that saw some 6.5 million people hold hands and form a human chain across the country (from sea to shining sea, as it says in the ad at the beginning of the film). The way it worked was simple: for a small donation, Americans got a place in the line, and proceeds went to local charities to help the homeless and impoverished. It’s reported that the stunt raised some $34 million.
Why did Peele make it a central theme in his movie? He’s not yet said, but the event has plenty of ties to the film’s themes. There’s the copying/cloning, symbolized by the hand-holding, and the fact that the charity was in support of helping the homeless and underprivileged, the “others” who materialize in Us as the terrifying Tethered. Then there is the fact that ultimately Hands Across America turned out to be something of an empty gesture, a way for those with means to make themselves feel good about themselves but ultimately do little to solve the problem of poverty in the country. After the event, Americans could go back to their everyday lives and forget about their fellow Americans who were suffering. But as the emergence of the Tethered shows, there were others who could not let go of the promise of a better, and equal life.
Paper dolls were a big deal around the time of Hands Across America – a few quick snips and you could create a optimistic little piece of craft that spoke to a unified country – and an idea that Adelaide held onto when she was dragged into the underground facility. We see her cutting paper dolls towards the end of the movie, standing by a blackboard, before she slices the paper figures apart. The use of scissors as a weapon in the Tethered attack seems a direct reference to these paper dolls, Hands Across America, and the way scissors can quickly separate two connected things.
UPDATE: Rotten Tomatoes user Danielle also makes an interesting point in the comments, about the duality captured in scissors: “Scissors are made of two blades joined by a single bolt which, when separated, mirror each other’s movements.” Not only then do scissors functionally separate things that are attached, but they also, of themselves, represent the way two like things work together and reflect each other. They’re some kind of physical, stabby, Rorschach Test.
This is pure speculation, as no one has come out and explained the significance of the jump suits or the gloves – or how the Tethered got a hold of so many suits, gloves, and gold scissors for that matter. (Amazon Prime is everywhere.) But a number of online theories suggest the influence of Michael Jackson in the costume choice. When Adelaide is kidnapped and taken down below during the opening sequence (though the actual facts are revealed at the end) she is wearing a “Thriller” t-shirt, which her doppelgänger steals from her before she returns to the surface. Like so many things she connected with before she was dragged below (Hands Across America being the main one), “Thriller” stuck with her. In the song’s famous music video, Jackson is wearing an all-red outfit. The choice to use a single glove on the right hand could also be a nod to Jackson, who often wore a single glove on stage on his right hand. On top of that, Peele could be referencing Freddy Krueger and his famous glove; the killer is one of Peele’s favorite slashers and a VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street is seen next to the TV in the movie’s opening.
If you, like us, Googled “Jeremiah 11:11” the moment the Us credits rolled, you, like us, probably thought: well, yep, that makes sense. The verse 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.” A terrifying evil unleashed and a God who won’t hear our prayers? Yep, that checks out. The verse comes from a passage that also alludes to a people’s past sins and how God’s people had forgotten their own history. The verse is referenced multiple times throughout the movie. First when Adelaide asks for prize number 11, as well as written out on the homeless man’s sign, and later carved into his forehead. (The numbers 11 and 11 appear even earlier, when Adelaide is watching TV, during an ad.) The numbers appear again on the alarm clock at 11:11pm, and on top of the ambulance at the end of the movie.
Update: Another 11:11 sighting comes via Kyle Davidson in the comments: “The Black Flag t-shirt. Their logo is 4 bars which look like IIII (or 1111). The shirt is worn by the employee working the Whack-a-Mole stand in the ’80s and then worn by one of the twins in the present.” Read through the comments section to see what else Kyle has to say about the symbolism of the shirt.
When we asked Peele about the rabbits at the Us premiere, he said it was simply that rabbits were scary: “You can tell in their eyes, they have the brain of a sociopath.” But there’s more going on here, we think. There is, of course, some serious Alice in Wonderland vibes – young girl follows white rabbit into another world. But then there is also the notion of rabbits as frequent subjects of scientific experiments. In the opening of the film, Peele cuts from a shot of young Adelaide silent-screaming to a close-up of a caged white rabbit as the credit sequence begins. It’s an obvious clue as to what happened to Adelaide (she was just caged), but also an introduction of the theme of multiplicity (rabbits, they multiply at speed!) and enslavement. Why do the Tethered eat the rabbits? Well, it looks like they have precious few options, and the quick-breeding rabbits make for a sustainable food source.
Spiders are another recurring animal motif. First, young Adelaide whistles “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in the hall of mirrors, before young Red takes over the tune; later, as she sits beaten and almost dead in the movie’s climax, real Adelaide attempts to whistle the tune again. It was the last song she heard before she was kidnapped. Why that song? Again: symbolism. The song is about a small spider who tries to climb out of a water spout but is washed back down; later, when the sun comes out and dries up the rain, the spider climbs back up. Kinda like the Tethered, right? Early on we see a kind of visualization of this, as Adelaide watches a small spider crawling out from beneath a big fake spider. The big, fat spider is fake; the little, vulnerable spider is real. Again: symbolism.
Update: We threw it out to the audience to tell us why they thought Peele chose to have a mechanical owl pop out in the house of mirrors, and they came through with some theories and ideas as to the symbolism. Danielle suggests it was all about foreboding (“Owls are common symbols in literature for evil”), while Gonzalo Lomeli wrote, “Owls are seen as death omens in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and in some Native American tribes. When the owl pops up and scares young Adelaide in the house of mirrors it symbolizes her inevitable fate. When Red (Adelaide’s copy) sees the same owl later, she smashes it to pieces foreshadowing that she will make it out alive.” Kayson Honda suggests, “this might be too on the nose but I was thinking it’s the standard symbol of wisdom, knowledge and truth. Explains why it scared Adelaide as a child but represents her being introduced to the ‘true’ nature of the Tethered. Would also explain why Adelaide symbolically destroys hit when she follows Red back down. Could be seen as a comical poke at how it scared her as a child, or it represents the truth she’s trying desperately to hide.” Whatever the meaning of the owl, it’s interesting to note that one version of Adelaide has a very different reaction to it than the other; the real Adelaide jumps while her doppelgänger has no fear of it.
We learn early on that young Jason (Evan Alex) is perceptive and curious (“What does I got five on it mean?”). It’s Jason who seems to work out that the Tethered are controlled by, or control, us, when he plays with his double, Pluto, in the closet; that comes in handy later when he walks Pluto into the fire. At the end of the film, sitting in the passenger seat, he gives his mom a look that suggests he knows something’s not quite right – that she could in fact be one of the Tethered and not the real Adelaide. It’s not 100% clear that he knows this, but there are reasons to believe he has pieced it together. It’s Jason, after all, who witnesses his mother killing one of the Tyler twins and letting out an almost animalistic (and very Tethered-y) sound as she does, and he is in the underground facility when the truth comes out between Adelaide and Red at the movie’s climax. Could he have overheard?
Biblical and mythological references abound in Peele’s choice of names. Gabriel and his doppelgänger Abraham both bear firmly biblical names, while Jason’s doppelgänger Pluto is named for the Greek god of the underworld and Zora’s Thethered, Umbrae, is named for shadow or darkness. The Tyler twins’ Tethereds’ names also come layered with meaning (Io was the first high priestess of Hera, Nix a Greek goddess of night) and one inventive Rotten Tomatoes staffer wonders if the choice of Adelaide, which is a city in South Australia, was a hint that the character was actually from the underground world (a.k.a., “down under”). This is not true, but we certainly want it to be.
UPDATE: Kitty’s doppelgänger is named Dahlia, which in Hebrew means “flowering branch” and which is also the name of a brightly colored Mexican flower from the daisy family. Interestingly, given the Tylers’ wealth, in Baltic mythology Dalia is the goddess of fate, and is connected with material wealth and its distribution – again a key theme of the movie. And, if you want to read even deeper, many Americans likely associate “Dahlia” with the case of the Black Dahlia, a.k.a. Elizabeth Short, who was found murdered in L.A. in the late 1940s. She had been brutally mutilated and… bisected.
That Red can talk is the biggest clue that she is in fact the original Adelaide: none of the other Tethered can talk – though they seem to have a language of grunts and shouts that is communicative, as when Abraham shouts to someone from the boat – so she must have been one of us at some point.
Why does she have such a strained, croaky voice? There are multiple possible explanations. Her trachea might have been broken as a child when her doppelgänger choked her. Her vocal patterns might have blended with the rough noises made by the Tethered with whom she lived. It might be a result of not having spoken for so many years. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Nyong’o refused to reveal the exact source of the character’s voice, but did explain how she achieved it: She based the voice on a real-life condition called spasmodic dysphonia, sometimes the result of trauma. “Your vocal chords involuntarily spasm, creating this odd airflow. I worked with my ENT and a vocal therapist to be able to do it but keep my voice safe, because it’s quite dangerous for a healthy vocal box to do that kind of thing. Then I built off of that.”
UPDATE: One of the questions we asked in our original post was why couldn’t Kitty’s doppelgänger kill Adelaide? Why did she have her tied to the bed when she could have just stabbed her? Some might argue that it was pure dramatic tension – having the villain looking in the mirror, creepily playing with her face, allowed Peele to get the kids into the room for Zora to put herself in danger, and then Jason to kill Kitty with that fist-pumping crystal attack. RT user mattman suggests two explanations in the comments: “She couldn’t kill Adelaide because if it wasn’t for her, the tethered never would have escaped. Adelaide was important to all the tethers [sic].” He also posts: “My other idea comes from Kitty and Adelaide’s conversation earlier in the movie. Kitty is jealous of Adelaide’s beauty. Maybe the tether[ed] also feels that way and was about to pull a Face Off with those scissors.” It’s worth noting that as Kitty’s doppelgänger, Dahlia would have had to endure a bastardized – and presumably quite horrific – reflection of the plastic surgery procedures Kitty had undergone; thus she starts to cut her face maybe in an act of rebellion. Also, containing some part of Kitty’s soul, she might have just been enjoying a moment of vanity with herself in the mirror.
And there are so many more questions. Like:
Think you know the answers? Think we got something wrong? Have more questions of your own? Let us know in the comments.
Thumbnail image courtesy @ Universal