Guess what? Spoilers follow!
First things first: I’m going to give this article a headline that’s something like, “Us’s ending, explained” or “Us’s ending, dissected,” and I should tell you upfront that I’m not going to explain Us’s ending. I can’t.
Jordan Peele’s second film has an ending that dares you to bring what you think to it. Where the ending of his first film, Get Out (for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), was a series of puzzle pieces snapping into place, Us ends in a way that causes the film’s structure to sprawl endlessly. It’s five different puzzles mixed up in the same box, and you only have about 75 percent of the pieces for any of them at best.
But I found that approach incredibly engaging. The audience leaving my screening the other night seemed sharply divided on the film — and its last-minute twist — but I plunged deeper and deeper into it because of that messy, glorious ending.
So let’s talk first about what happens in that ending and how we could read that ending, and then try to find a way to synthesize all of these ideas.
What happens at the end of Us
Us breaks evenly into a classic three-act structure. The first act is all unsettling setup — first with a flashback to our protagonist, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), as a young girl, meeting an eerie mirror version of herself, then to the first few days of a family vacation that she takes with her husband (Winston Duke) and kids as an adult. The second act follows Adelaide’s and her family’s actions after being menaced by horrifying double versions of themselves — played by the same actors — over the course of one long, gory night.
The second act — roughly the middle hour of the 116-minute film — is pretty much perfect, the kind of expertly pitched horror comedy we see far too rarely. And all along the way, Peele is seeding in exposition, like when we learn that Adelaide and her family aren’t the only ones being menaced by their doubles (who are called “Tethers” in the film, because they’re tethered to their mirror images), and the film cuts away to the vicious murder of two of their friends (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) by the friends’ doubles.
Some of this exposition is stated outright, as when Adelaide’s double, Red, explains exactly who she is and who her compatriots are. Other exposition is mostly implied. (Pay close attention, for instance, to whom the Tethers kill and whom they just maim.) And still other stuff is probably just me reading my own opinions into the movie.
Anyway, the third act begins when the family finally makes it to daylight, having killed two of their doubles, with a third double falling right at the top of Act 3. The only Tether left is Red, who absconds with Adelaide’s son, Jason (Evan Alex), and races with him down into a gigantic complex of tunnels that exists beneath the Santa Cruz, California, boardwalk and — it’s implied — the entire country.
The tunnels have the feel of an abandoned military facility more than anything else, and they’re filled with rabbits, which have been set free from cages. (The bunnies are the only food the Tethers get.) This vague military feel tracks with something Red tells Adelaide when the two finally face off in what seems to be a classroom. The Tethers were created by a nebulous “them” to control their other selves.
But the experiment was abandoned for unexplained reasons, leaving the Tethers belowground, mimicking our every movement up here, and living lives where they have no free will, lives entirely dictated by our choices. (The long expository monologue where Red basically explains all of this is the movie’s weakest section and kills its momentum. This was also true of the long expository monologue in Get Out!)
The status quo held until Red and Adelaide met as young girls, and the two begin a fight that’s almost a dance but still recognizably a fight. (Peele intercuts this with footage of the teenage Adelaide — a great ballerina — dancing beautifully as Red replicates her actions in a weirdly grotesque mirror belowground.) Finally, Adelaide overcomes Red and kills her. She finds Jason and exits the tunnels.
But aboveground, the many Tethers have joined hands together in a mirror of Hands Across America, the 1986 event meant to raise money and awareness of hunger, which stretched a 6.5 million-person chain (almost all the way) across the Lower 48. The presence of this massive chain of Tethers should hopefully clue in viewers to the film’s final twist. An ad for Hands Across America is one of the last things little Adelaide sees before she goes to the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents — which is where she meets Red and (the final scene reveals) is forced to take Red’s place in the Tether world while Red comes up to ours.
The movie never makes clear whether this is long-buried trauma that Adelaide is resurfacing as she and her family ride off into the new, post-apocalyptic landscape of a world where seemingly millions have been murdered by their doubles and a chain of those doubles stands athwart the continent, or whether it’s something she’s pointedly avoided referencing throughout the film. You can make an argument for either.
The movie leaves you with the twist: Adelaide was Red, and Red was Adelaide, and they switched places as young girls. Jason, somehow, seems to realize this in his mother’s eyes, and he looks worried as the scene cuts to the camera tilting over the hills surrounding Santa Cruz — where a long chain of Tethers stretches, presumably from sea to shining sea.
What’s it all mean?
There is no single meaning to the conclusion of Us, and the beauty of it is how elastic its metaphor is
One of the reasons Get Out took off so readily with online theorists was that every single piece of it was crafted to add up to the film’s central revelation about elderly white people literally possessing the bodies of young black people. It was a potent commentary on racial relations, yes, but Peele seeded hints about the big twist into the plot as well. He had clearly thought through every little detail of the movie’s world.
You can’t really say the same for Us. Every time you think you’ve got the movie pinned down to say, “It’s about this!” it slips away from you. Its central metaphor of meeting a literal evil twin of yourself certainly can be read as a commentary on race, but it’s also a pretty brilliant commentary on class, on capitalism, on gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma or mental illness. You can probably add your own possibilities to this list.
All of these concepts keep informing one another. If you want to read what happens to Red and Adelaide as a commentary on how differently traumatic incidents weigh on children of means versus children who grow up with little money, doing so can support both an interpretation of the film as being about mental illness and one where it’s about class.
What’s more, Us doesn’t seem to want to be read as social commentary in the same way Get Out was. That middle hour is so fun precisely because it never really bothers to stop and make you think about the movie’s deeper themes. It’s too busy killing off Tethers by chewing them up in a boat’s motor.
Now, granted, my experience of Us was pretty different from a lot of folks’ experiences (at least from the people I’ve talked to), because I guessed from the first flashback sequence that Red and Adelaide had switched places as kids. I assumed the movie wanted me to figure this out, because it was essentially the only way the movie’s larger plot — the idea that everybody has a Tether, and not just this specific family — could make any sense. Something had to have caused this breach in reality, and the connection between Adelaide and Red seemed the most likely culprit.
Yet it’s honestly remarkable that the movie works as well as it does when you figure out its big twist early on, because Peele does a terrific job of teasing you in ways that make you think maybe you didn’t figure it out, or that the twist is something else entirely. (Get Out, after all, didn’t really have “a twist” in the way this movie does, only a reveal that happens before the ending.)
Still, set the twist aside, and let’s take Red at her word when it comes to the origin of the Tethers. Some strange experiment produced them, and now they’re a kind of national id, a barely checked shadow self that every American has. (At one point, when asked who she and her family are, Red croaks, “We’re Americans,” which ... fair.)
The natural pushback to this is — it’s preposterous. By giving so much information but still so little, Peele creates a situation where it feels like he’s going to answer all our questions and then just doesn’t. (Credit where it’s due: I love how accurately the whole third act replicates the experience of falling down a particularly disturbing Wikipedia hole at 3 am, right down to somehow finding yourself reading about Hands Across America.)
And yet ... is the twist that preposterous? I don’t literally have a shadow self, but there’s some other person out there in the country right now who could have had my life and career but, instead, has some less comfortable one because he grew up with parents who didn’t have enough money to send him to college, or because he grew up some race other than white, or because he was born a girl, or ... fill in the blank.
Taking Red at her word means believing in an idea that seems self-evidently kooky, but it’s also an idea that drives much of modern society. Capitalism demands that we cling desperately to what we’ve got, and the fear that some dark underbelly might come and rob us of what little we have is always present.
Yet the very idea of society means we’re all tethered together somehow, and the actions of those of us with power and money often make those without either jerk about on puppet strings, even if we never know how what we do affects our doppelgängers.
And all the while, “they” — whoever “they” are — get richer and richer and more powerful.
Thoughts on a universal read of the ending of Us (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick)
But Us isn’t really “about” capitalism, unless you (like me) want to read that into it. The movie’s metaphor is so elastic that you could easily mount a read of the film that says it’s about climate change or the 2016 election or zombies. (In the scenes set in the underground complex especially, Peele plays off the familiar images of zombie films, like legions of people shuffling about, shadows of some life they should otherwise be living.) And I also want to be clear that if you just want to watch Us as a super-fun horror comedy, it is absolutely possible, and you should do that.
But I think you can get to a kind of universal understanding of Us, one that drills down into what the film is about at its core while still leaving room for the elasticity that allows you to read as much or as little into its central metaphor as you’d like. To get there, we have to look at the hall of mirrors that first brings Adelaide and Red together as kids.
In 1986, the hall of mirrors features a stereotypical painting of an American Indian that sits atop its entrance. The art is offensive in the way all thoughtlessness is. Nobody cared who might be hurt by this painting; they just went ahead and painted it. Peele isn’t digging into one of America’s original sins here in the way he alluded to slavery in Get Out, but the evocation of a terrible genocide is at least there.
In 2019, the hall of mirrors has now, clumsily, been converted into one for Merlin the wizard. The inside is the same. Most of the outside is the same. But the painting of the Indian has been replaced — not particularly convincingly — with a painting of Merlin that’s seemingly just been mounted over the old American Indian one. It’s a really good joke, honestly; it’s a spin on how willing modern America is to gloss over the horrors in its past in the name of simply coming up with some other story entirely.
It’s also key to the movie’s more universal read. The hall of mirrors was constructed in the first place as a distillation of tropes around a racially charged stereotype. Just because it’s now ostensibly about Merlin doesn’t mean that it’s no longer built around those darker ideas. You can’t simply scrub away the darker past by putting a more palatable face on it.
America (okay, this is, like, 99.9999 percent on white America) likes to pretend it’s a country without a grim history, that its self-proclaimed exceptionalism makes it free from anything too dark. But, of course, that’s not true. The hall of mirrors was constructed with an American Indian atop it because whoever built it could be reasonably certain no one would care if it was offensive. Those who might care are mostly sequestered on reservations or died generations ago. And you, if you’re an American, live on the land you live on because they died.
(Sidebar: This could also be a really elaborate riff on Peele’s part on The Shining, another horror movie that is occasionally read by some of its hardcore fans through the lens of America’s general inability to deal with the genocide lurking in its root system. Peele has been dressing like The Shining’s Jack Torrance on the press tour...)
Now consider Hands Across America. The movement did raise some money for hunger — around $34 million — but much of that was eaten up by operational fees, leaving $15 million to be donated to the actual cause. That isn’t chump change, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the problem of actually trying to fight hunger. Is there anything more American than thinking you’ve solved a problem by creating a gigantic spectacle that accomplishes less than you’d think? Again — something dark is covered up by something glossy, and we celebrate the glossy surface.
Us put me in mind of a book I read recently. In The City in the Middle of the Night, the new novel by science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders, the protagonist, Sophie, meets members of an alien species whose telepathic links mean that they are essentially forced to remember everything that has ever happened, stretching back into their distant past. Even when one member of the species dies, that member’s memories are carried forward by those who knew them, and those memories become part of the collective consciousness.
Anders not only shows just how hard this could be for those who don’t quite feel at home in the collective (those who are dealing with huge emotions that they need to understand privately, say), but she also keenly contrasts this species’ long memory with humanity’s short one. Sophie carries the burdens of decisions made millennia before she was born, back on the massive spaceship that brought her ancestors from Earth to this new planet. Those ancestors were shaped by the decisions that you and I are making right now, even as we’re shaped by decisions made hundreds of years ago, and so on. And many of those decisions are now half-remembered dreams.
It is hard to really deal with this, maybe all but impossible. To really sit and think about all of the ways that you are a product of human history, floating through the immense sweep of time and space, rather than someone who can take control of their life and make a difference, is so dispiriting. So we try to gloss over all of that. We put up paintings of Merlin where once paintings of an Indian stood, and we smile and say, “That’s better.” But the painting is still there, underneath the surface. If the aliens Sophie meets in Anders’s novel are doomed to remember, then we, perhaps, are doomed to forget, to pretend that we are more powerful than we are, simply because we’re alive.
This, I think, is why both Anders’s novel and Us spoke so profoundly to me. To try to escape the past is to try to escape yourself. But to try to escape the past is also deeply, deeply human, because to make any progress, we have to find a way to excuse, forgive, or ignore our own faults, to lock them up in a subterranean basement and hope we don’t remain tethered to them forever. But what a fool’s errand that is.
And this reading of the film’s ending, that it was always about the perils of trying to ignore inconvenient truths when they’re looking right back at you in the mirror, is one that unites every other possible reading of the film, too. Race, gender, class, trauma — they’re all covered by the idea that you can have a great life and be a good person but still unknowingly be causing so much suffering.
All of which is to say, when Jason looks at Adelaide late in this movie, seeing, for the first time, his mother’s true self, he’s not realizing that she’s Red, or that she’s Adelaide, or anything like that. He’s realizing that she is, and always has been, both.