Those looking to “solve” Jordan Peele’s Us are in for a difficult time. In contrast to Get Out, which was both concise and direct in its storytelling, Us is a more abstract piece of filmmaking. Peele has opted to be intentionally opaque at times, pulling together his ideas and influences and trusting his audience to unpack meaning for themselves. But while the ending of Us might point to a somewhat ambiguous future for its main characters, it does reveal some of the essential themes and concept that Peele has been playing with throughout the movie.
First, let’s have a quick refresher of the film’s ending. Spoilers will follow from here on out.
After making their way to the Santa Cruz beach — and watching the tragic death of Pluto, who steps back into a fire he created — Adelaide descends into the depths of the city in search of her missing son. There she is confronted by Red and the narrative of how our world became overrun by our subterranean copies. The Untethered, you see, were meant to be complete copies of the men and women who move above the surface world, but something went wrong; the minds and bodies were divided, but the soul of each person was split in two. Brandishing her scissors, Red then fights Adelaide as the film cuts between her assaults and the ballet performed by both Wilson women in their respective childhoods. Adelaide finally kills Red with her shackles, freeing Jason but revealing in the process that she forced Red to switch places with her as a child. Adelaide is the Untethered and Red, now deceased, was the human.
This description leaves out a critical moment: once the Wilsons fight their way to the Santa Cruz beach, they are confronted by Untethered — hundreds and thousands of them — forming a human chain across the entire city. This scene is shocking, a little absurd, and an obvious throwback to the movie’s opening, where a commercial for Hands Across America plays on a vintage television. Those too young to remember the Hands Across America campaign can find the historical context they need in several articles published this past week, including in-depth analyses by both Vulture and Vanity Fair. Then again, perhaps the best explanation of the event comes from Jordan Peele himself: “Hands Across America was this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands,” Peele told Vanity Fair during this year’s SXSW film festival. “It’s a great gesture — but you can’t actually cure hunger and all that.”
Expanding on that idea in an interview with Uproxx, Peele describes the commercial as indicative of the duality of the era. The 1980s were an era of unbridled commercial optimism that also happened to coincide with a huge step back for the gains of the civil rights movement. In 2011, The Nation tackled the not-so-complicated legacy of Ronald Reagan in advance of what would’ve been his 100th birthday:
As President, Reagan supported tax breaks for schools that discriminated on the basis of race, opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act and decimated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When you combine Reagan’s political record with his symbolic stance on race issues — his deriding welfare recipients as “welfare queens,” his employing “states rights” rhetoric in the same county where in 1964 three of the most infamous murders of civil rights workers occurred, his initial opposition to establish a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. — the Reagan legacy begins to lose much of its luster.
For Peele, the Hands Across America movement was the perfect encapsulation of a period in American history where our narratives of prosperity and equality were far outpaced by the horror of the real world. Some grew affluent, countless others suffered, but the idyllic stories of America flourished amidst all this civil unrest. This sets the stage for the duality of Us, where humans and their doppelgangers are forced into violent conflict across the streets of America. Our instinct is to side with the people most like us — the families living in beautiful houses and driving nice cars — but as the final scenes unfold and we realize that it is Red, not Adelaide, who belongs to this world, we are forced to question what it was about these two families that drew our affection in the first place. Why is one scary and the other familiar? It might come across as a Shyamalan-esque twist, but that presupposes that Peele was ever particularly coy with where his film was headed. This “twist” was always lurking in the background.
There’s also an idea floated by Peele in the Vanity Fair interview that humanity’s relationship with the Untethered is indeed a zero-sum game. For the Wilsons to enjoy the creature comforts of their lives — a vacation home on the water, a brand new boat, etc. — their counterparts must remain hidden below in the tunnels and trenches of the planet. For us to remain on the surface, the Tethered must stay below, and this concept — that privilege comes at a price, even if it’s one we never see — is integral to the ending of the film. Again, our sympathy lies with Adelaide because she acts like us, but the final battle between her and her counterpart reveals elements of grace and pathos in Red that Adelaide could never hope to accomplish.
As for the final battle between Adelaide and Red? Much has been made of Peele’s bold step forward as a visual filmmaker in Us, and on one level, the climax can be viewed as Peele flexing his directorial muscles and paying homage to some of his influences (such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan). Again, there are also parallels to be drawn between the two performances of Lupita Nyong’o. Adelaide is brute force, Red is elegance; if the two do indeed share a single soul, you are left to draw your inferences as to which side possesses the soul of the artist — and how that plays into the broader themes of the film.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind during Peele’s Us, though, is that there are likely no easy answers or single interpretations. In interviews, Peele often hints that this film is more a collection of thematically linked concepts and visual ideas than a singular pat narrative. “Parable is the most effective form of communication,” the director recently told iO9, and this, perhaps, is the best way to understand Us. For his second horror film, Peele has created an allegory on America that is obscured by several winding roads. The particular route you take may be different than that of your neighbor, but odds are you will both end up in the same place.