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7 questions about Us that we can’t stop thinking about

Why isn’t Adelaide clapping on the beat?

A scene from Jordan Peele’s Us.
A scene from Jordan Peele’s Us.
Universal Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Warning: There are spoilers regarding the plot of Us in this post.

Us is a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it in theaters.

Understandably so. Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performances are astonishing. The imagery will never have you looking at scissors or bunnies in the same way. Director Jordan Peele’s references are so meticulously placed throughout the movie that you will want to scroll back through your memory and try to remember what you saw.

And then there’s that mind-melting twist of our hero Adelaide and her Tether, Red’s (both played by Nyong’o) switcheroo.

While that twist explains the strangeness of Adelaide’s origin, it simultaneously unspools everything we thought we knew about the movie and creates even more questions about what we just saw. Here are some that I’ve been thinking about after seeing Us (and no doubt, I want to see it again):

1) Did Jason swap with his Tether at some point?

This question has been rolling around because of Us’s ambiguous ending. After her son Jason (Evan Alex) is taken during a standoff against her family’s remaining Tethers, Adelaide finds him in a locker once she’s killed Red. We find out just before that Red is actually the real Adelaide who was swapped decades years ago — a story that Jason might have heard too. They return to the above world, where Adelaide drives her family to safety, and Jason gives her a suspicious look before he puts on his mask.

That look might be interpreted as Pluto, Jason’s Tether, and Jason switching places earlier in the movie, and Pluto knowing Adelaide’s secret. Thus, the Pluto could actually have been Jason all along. But there’s no indication that Tethers have the ability to switch souls — Adelaide and Red switch places physically — and Pluto has a clear scar on his face. Jason does not have a scar at the end of the movie.

Another, clearer explanation is that Jason knows about Adelaide’s true nature, as he heard the final fight between her and Red. He knows that she’s still his mom, but also knows that she may have done something terrible in her past. And it’s not like Red was his “real” mom, considering Red had a completely different and separate life, and Red wanted to kill his family. But he’s still wary of his mother now, and him putting on his mask is both a way to signal that he doesn’t trust her and allegorically point to the fact that Adelaide is wearing a facade of sorts, too.

2) What does the frisbee scene have to do with the movie?

When Adelaide and her family go to the beach early in the film, there’s a scene where she and family friend Kitty are talking, but are interrupted by a wayward frisbee. The frisbee lands perfectly on top of a polka dot patterned beach towel — it covers a blue dot. Adelaide moves the frisbee off the dot, then stares at the dot looking worried.

The scene happens pretty early in the movie, which is why it may catch audiences off guard and not make sense until the Tethers enter the scene.

You see, the base of the frisbee is red with a gold star, a pattern that matches the red jumpsuits and gold shears that the Tethers hold. And when it lands, the frisbee perfectly covers one of the dots on the blanket — perhaps signifying how the Tethers will kill and take the place of their counterparts or how Adelaide, a Tether, fits in with the world above ground. One thing to keep in mind is that, at this point, Adelaide doesn’t seem to know about the red-gold color scheme of the Tethers’ clothing, but rather sees the frisbee covering (replacing) the dot as one of the things about the beach that gives her the creeps.

3) Why do the Tethers have names? Are they significant?

Each of the Tethers, including the Tether versions of Kitty’s (Elisabeth Moss) family, have names in the credits. Adelaide’s Tether is Red. Adelaide’s husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke) is Abraham. Jason’s Tether is Pluto. And her daughter Zora’s (Shahadi Wright Joseph) Tether is Umbrae.

One of my interpretations is that the Tethers are named because of the theme of forgotten people — which is present from the opening title card about the forgotten tunnels and how the Tethers are forgotten people.

By giving the Tethers names, Peele is also giving them the humanity that the country does not afford them. He also drives home that the Tethers are living, breathing “Americans,” as Red describes herself, just like Adelaide and her family. The only difference between the Tethers and the above-ground Americans is that the Tethers were just used, tossed aside, and forgotten by the government.

On a more symbolic level, the names Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto have significant meaning in mythology and religion. In the Bible, Abraham is a patriarchal figure who, in his most well-known story, is tested by God, who asks him to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys God, and God is pleased with Abraham’s devotion and faith, tells him to disregard that order, and rewards him for his obedience. That Abraham is Gabe’s Tether, and the father figure in Red’s family, seems to parallel that biblical significance.

Meanwhile, Pluto in Roman mythology is the god of the Underworld, and Umbra or Umbrae in Greek mythology refers to a shade or shadow, ghost, or dweller of the underworld. And in astronomy, umbrae refers to the dark shadow cast by a planet or body during an eclipse — a meaning that could easily apply to Zora (representing the planet or heavenly body) and her Tether (the shadow).

4) The government shut down the Tether experiment. How did the Tethers stay alive?

It’s not totally clear when the Tethers experiment was abandoned, but it seems like there’s at least a few generations of Tethers that were living down there and continuing to give birth to new Tethers, like Red did with Umbrae and Pluto. I’d argue that the Tethers’ continued existence goes back to the theme of America’s glossed-over past, and the idea that just because things are buried and dropped out of sight doesn’t mean that everything ceases to exist. The damage done to the Tethers, like that which has been done to neglected Americans, has grown exponentially and has affected and been inherited by everyone down the line.

The Tethers’ forgotten existence — leading them to spend their lives underground with no sunlight, inescapable dreariness, and all those gross rabbits — is key to making clear the allegory of how messed up America can be.

In terms of sustenance, Red says they were given rabbit when their counterparts ate meals. Rabbits, when left unattended, are known to reproduce at an alarming rate. One would assume that the Tethers had a steady diet of gross raw rabbit while they were down there — again driving home the hellish idea of living in the shadows.

5) Why is Adelaide off-beat when she snaps to “I Got 5 on It”?

In the scene where Adelaide and her family listen to “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz, she tells Jason to get into the song and rhythm. She starts snapping to help him out. The strange thing, though, is that anyone with a sense of the beat should notice that she’s not hitting the downbeat (beats 2 and 4) with her snaps.

That scene works when you’ve seen the whole movie, because it indicates that something is off. It’s made especially dubious when we find out that Adelaide has a dance background and should be able to pick up a beat.

I do wonder if there’s a parallel between Adelaide’s snaps and Jason’s inability to create fire with his lighter. Pluto, Jason’s Tether, has no problem starting fires, as we are led to believe with his facial scar, and his actions feel like the inverse to Jason’s. Do Adelaide and Red work in the same way? Perhaps Red can find the beat and snap accordingly, and Adelaide, since she was originally Red’s Tether, hits the opposite beats.

6) What is the significance of the rabbits?

Jordan Peele dislikes rabbits. In an interview, he says their eyes are unnerving, and if they were humans, they would be sociopaths:

So, according to Peele, their inherent creepiness may justify their presence enough. Another thing that you can draw from Peele’s aversion is that rabbits may be seen as soulless beings, and no one wants to be around those things all day, right?

But there are other parallels too. The rabbits seem like a reference to “Rabbit Island,” a Japanese island inhabited by feral rabbits that were initially used for government testing. The rabbits are caged, and seemingly abandoned — just like the Tethers. They’re pets too (in both the underground and above ground worlds), but pets bred by the government to feed and sustain the Tethers.

And they’re supposed to be disgusting — the imagery of eating raw rabbit as the only form of sustenance is quite gross. Doubly disgusting when you consider the seeming infinite supply of it, and how the rabbits keep on reproducing.

7) Why didn’t Red escape sooner?

From what we see in the movie, Red says a couple of things that explain why she seemed to wait before she hit adulthood to escape. In one of the final scenes, Red explains to Adelaide that she didn’t know where she was when she woke up after Adelaide strangled and switched places with her. She says she didn’t really understand until she “found God” when Adelaide started dancing, and that is when the Tethers appointed her their leader. As their leader, she wanted to make a statement and not be forgotten the way she had been for all these years — the way she knew how was the “Hands Across America” gesture she saw as a kid.

The simple answer seems to be that she didn’t realize she could break free until the dance.

But there could be a commentary on class here too. The movie has several moments where Kitty and Josh’s materialism has blinded them to their own callousness and selfishness, and there’s an ongoing theme about forgotten Americans — the poor who are in need of help. Red’s inability to break free speaks to the idea that you can’t break out of a system of inequality until you recognize that you’re a cog in that machine.

The system, as the movie paints it, is the underground — a series of one-way escalators down to the basement and a labyrinth full of cages and empty rooms. Red delivers her final speech to Adelaide in a classroom down there, suggesting that the Tethers had some kind of educational arrangement, or that Red needed to educate her fellow Tethers in order for them to revolt.

As Red shows, recognizing that the system is using you is one step, but it requires more than just one person to break institutional inequality. It also requires hard work, hence the staircases but lack of upward moving escalators.

When it comes to her statement, Red just getting revenge on Adelaide wouldn’t have broken the system. It would’ve just been one kill — when it’s all the other Tethers banding together and killing their counterparts that changed the country.