The instant that Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, hit theaters, a thousand publications published articles and Youtubers posted videos with titles promising variations on “US ENDING EXPLAINED.” I haven’t read any of those articles; I’m not going to watch any of the videos. Because that claim is absurd. Dan Olson of Folding Ideas did a much better video about this than I ever could, which I’ll link to down below, but let’s be clear: Anyone who says that they can “explain” any piece of art to you is lying.
All they can do is consider it. Which is what I’m doing here, and now that I’m saying it out loud… well, it sounds kinda pretentious. Oops.
Hello, by the way, and Welcome to The Week I Review. My name is Sorta Tethered, and this video is a spoilerific companion to the regular ol’ review I posted of Us earlier today. If you haven’t seen this movie, I’d recommend watching that other video, going to see the movie (it’s quite good), and then coming back to this one.
And now: an abridged reading of Jeremiah chapter 11 – New International Version:
‘Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God. Then I will fulfill the oath I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey’—the land you possess today. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. *Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.* The people will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes. Do not pray for these people or offer any plea or petition for them. The Lord Almighty has decreed disaster.’
I should have known from Us’s opening shot what it was really about, with the first onscreen image being a commercial for the 1986 Hands Across America charity event and all. That event, which happened only once, was supposed to be a powerful symbol in the fight against poverty and homelessness, where people across the country linked hands in an unbroken line from coast to coast for fifteen minutes. Of course, it failed, but it surely would have been a statement had it succeeded.
And that’s why The Tethered are set to recreate it.
(It’s interesting that Santa Cruz, where Us’s new Hands Across America demonstration starts, was not actually on the original route, though it seems appropriate in 2019, since the Bay Area is having a rather public reckoning with its housing and poverty crises.)
But even without all that context, I should have realized it for a very simple reason: Us is, at least in part, a home invasion film, and every single home invasion film ever made – don’t @ me – is, at least in part, about class and inequality. By their very nature. Wealthyish protagonists have homes – typically very nice, secluded ones. Then less affluent folks go to those homes and make them pay for their extravagance.
As a result, these films are pretty much always about white people – because white people have all the wealth. Even in Us, which focuses on a clearly comfortable black family, there’s a notable disparity in that level of comfort. The Wilsons are doing fine, but their vacation home ain’t got nothing on the Tylers. When the power goes out, the Wilsons are plunged into darkness. They can run to their boat, but that boat is only semi-functional. They feel they can call the police, but aren’t taken all that seriously and given far too long a wait.
And, of course, Adelaide is put in handcuffs in her own home. By the shadow that wants her and her family to suffer.
Not so with the Tylers. There is only a momentary blip as the power is cut and the generator kicks in – even their smart assistant keeps on keeping on. And when their doppelgangers come, it’s quick and nearly painless – except for Elizabeth Moss, because women always have it worse in horror movies, don’t they?
But it’s not the racial wealth gap specifically that drives Us’s narrative; it’s this country’s as a whole. Before handing over those cuffs, Red tells the Wilsons who they are: “Americans.” The film’s title is often stylized with both letters capitalized, and so it should be: the United States itself is the thread that binds everyone together, the one that the Tethered have come to sever.
And to finally escape the cramped, crowded tunnels long since forgotten by the people who built them; the Tethered see no sun or trees; breathe no fresh air. They eat nothing but raw rabbit. They are always underneath: out of sight and out of mind.
Growing up, both of my parents worked in organizations dedicated to helping those in poverty or the homeless. As such, our dinner conversations often focused on these issues. But even so, I often just forgot about those people when I was living my generally middle-class lifestyle in a town that had some absurd wealth of its own.
Jeremiah 11 foretells violence against the people who have turned their back on the god who gave them the land flowing with milk and honey – that followed false idols who will do nothing to save them from the coming calamity. And what are these gods? America itself, for one; that image that we have of ourselves as compassionate or caring, or had before November 2016.
Money in general and capitalism in particular are often considered false idols, and certainly the economic system that makes it damn near impossible for people at the bottom of the ladder to rise up seems that it must come to an inflection point. Will that be a revolution? Will it require the mass slaughter of elites? Jeremiah may have felt so.
And the violence that he foretold is as brutal as promised.
Us’s big twist, that the Adelaide Wilson we have been following since the shift to present day was not the same Adelaide Wilson we saw in 1986 but her shadow, is metaphorically effective while being literally nonsensical. It isn’t like the reveal comes entirely out of nowhere; there are moments where her behavior is much closer to the one demonstrated by the shadows, which raised the question long before it was answered.
But Red’s monologues about both the nature of The Tethered and also their relationship don’t really make sense when Red/real Adelaide was not actually born into that life. I have wrestled with this since literally the montage reveal, because it felt like Us was trying to have its cake and eat it too. It had intentionally misdirected me where the rest of the film had seemed honest. Look, the mechanics of the Tethered as demonstrated in that carnival sequence are confusing enough as it is and fall apart with the slightest questioning, but the scene itself to be effective enough that I didn’t care.
However, if the link is between the original and its tether – and it’s a one-way link, by what system does a shadow going aboveground suddenly take control? The Tethered do more depressing versions of the things that their real iterations are doing. They appear to know in real time the thoughts of their counterparts and therefore share their memories. Is that just a result of whomever is belowground? How does actually real Adelaide still know where actually fake Adelaide is going to be in order to block her way with that burning car *after* the Tethered have left their tunnels?
There are a hundred questions you can use to poke holes in all of this, and I understand the impulse to do so. I did it. But really, what we should do is consider the metaphor. And what it means that the Tethered’s prophet, the one who was able to bring the downtrodden to the surface to take on the elites was herself an elite stolen by one of the downtrodden who was then able to exist as an elite.
And so it becomes a question of nature vs nurture. Are people in an upper caste by their very existence better than the people in a lower one? Or is it the environment that they grow up in that makes them succeed (or fail)? Us falls unequivocally on nurture… but in a way that almost both-sides-y way.
Nurture is obvious: after the initial treatment period, Shadow Adelaide was able to become Adelaide proper. She becomes a functional member of society. There are, of course, moments where her past self comes out, as the lasting effects of her early trauma will never fully recede – and the impact of that trauma on the Tethered as a whole is deeply relevant to this conversation about upward mobility but is not something I am going to delve into here.
But even more than that, it took someone from the aboveground to come and teach the underground how to rise up. Shadow Adelaide steals a spot in the sun instead of helping the people around her. And the Tethered knew quickly that her counterpart was special, even if they didn’t know why. She had seemingly innate talents that those born Tethered lacked. She could survive there without being completely consumed.
Which, ya know, sounds a bit like “nature.”
But I think, to give Peele the benefit of the doubt – as I must we do share an alma mater, after all – that this is saying those formative years aboveground were enough to create a foundation that couldn’t be broken by poverty – though Adelaide was still young, she was old enough.
So what is this saying about the social ladder? Perhaps that society is zero sum. That one person can only get ahead if another person is made to suffer in their stead? Certainly there are people who feel that way, though they do so in service of those empty deities.
Or maybe that everyone just needs to be given opportunity to do great things.
That one person can change the world.
All of them. None of them.
The final confrontation between the two Adelaides feels a bit like Roy Batty’s bizzare battle with Rick Deckard, full of monologuing at and toying with our protagonist until it’s time for them to die.
But though she fails to bring her shadow family to the world that she was born into she succeeds in her larger plan of showing the world the strength of the people she was forced to join but chose to save.
That final helicopter shot is reminiscent of the ending of Karyn Kusama’s cult-horror film The Invitation, as the survivors of the Jonestown-style poisoning look out onto the hills and see them lit up by the red that signals a successful sacrifice. But that moment never worked for me; what could have been powerful is instead completely absurd.
On its face, all the now-untethered in their red outfits, hand in hand over the hills beyond the horizon should be equally absurd… but it’s not. It is so powerful. To see these people, these humans, Americans, long since forgotten. They have shown themselves in a literally biblical display of violence.
The world will know them, and it can never go back to the way that it was.