Warning: Major spoilers for Jordan Peele’s Us ahead.
After seeing Us, Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out, you immediately understand why Rorschach test imagery was used so prominently in its marketing.
Like the famous psychological ink blot test, Us is a movie that invites you to make your own meaning out of its evocative imagery and themes — acting like a reflection of your own thoughts. The short answer to the question, “What does Us mean?” is, essentially, “What does it mean to you?”
The longer answer is that it can mean a whole lot of different things to different people. And that’s where this article comes in. Although it’d be impossible to “explain” exactly what Us is trying to say — and although that ambiguity is one of its greatest accomplishments — we do have some theories about what it all means.
So here are just a few ways of understanding Us.
Us is about the duality of human nature
Perhaps the most obvious and recurring theme is the duality of human nature, as symbolized here by the doppelgängers. There’s a reason why 11:11, a double of doubles, pops up everywhere.
The concept of battling our mirror images has been around since humans first started telling stories. From the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamia, to boss battles in Legend of Zelda or horror movies like The Shinning (a personal fave for Peele), it’s a timeless trope.
All of these distortions and exaggerations distill the Wilsons to their most basic, primitive instincts.
The concept taps into our fear of seeing ourselves, metaphorically speaking. We don’t want to take a hard look in the mirror. Because if we do confront who we really are, we might find we don’t recognize the person staring back at us. That’s why doppelgängers are part of a specific kind of horror: the uncanny, which turns the familiar (like your own reflection) into the subtly unfamiliar (your reflection smiling when you aren’t). They’re an off-putting mixture of opposites and similarities.
In Us, the double for each family member defamiliarizes an aspect of their personality.
Gabe is your archetypal dad: protective, oblivious, and kind of bumbling. Those endearing qualities become sinister when they’re reflected through his double, Abraham, who turn those stereotypically masculine qualities into brutish strength and violence.
As a too-cool-for-school teenager, Zora rarely smiles and seems disinterested in anything that isn’t her phone or driver’s license — including training for high school track and field. On the other hand, her double, Umbrae, always has a smile on her face — but it’s even more cold and uninviting than Zora’s surly expressions. Zora’s one-track mind is weaponized in Umbrae, an unstoppably fast killing machine.
Jason’s double, Pluto, turns his lovable little-kid energy into an unruly animalism. That harmless magic trick Jason keeps attempting manifests on Pluto as horrible burns covering the lower half of his face.
With Adelaide and Red, well, that’s a bit more complicated — more on them later.
All of these distortions and exaggerations distill the Wilsons to their most basic, primitive instincts. The Tethered tap into our fear of the dark parts of our inner selves taking control, a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The uncanniness of doubles isn’t just experienced through the main characters. It’s in every detail in Us, even its structure. The wholesome, opening image of Hands Across America is mirrored in that horrifying final shot of the Tethered’s line.
It’s even why Peele used scissors as the Tethered’s main weapon. “There’s a duality to scissors — a whole made up of two parts, but also they lie in this territory between the mundane and the absolutely terrifying,” he said in an Entertainment Weekly interview.
Us is about the unconscious and repression
For anyone who took psych 101, Us is practically begging to be interpreted through psychoanalysis — specifically Freud’s theories on the ego and id, and Carl Jung’s interpretation of the id as the “shadow self.”
Don’t worry, we won’t go full psychobabble on you. But it’s notable that one of Adelaide’s most important memories (which the movie goes back to twice — get it?) is overhearing her parents talking to a therapist.
That’s because you can view the Tethered as a physical projection of each character’s unconscious, or repressed fears, anxieties, and traumas.
To summarize briefly, the id and the ego describe two different elements of our personalities. The id is all our primordial urges, like anger, hunger, the desire for sex, and the fear of death. Then there’s the ego, which we develop in response to the external world around us. The ego regulates the id’s animalistic urges, so we can all be law-abiding citizens in a functioning society instead of primitive tribes killing each other all day.
So the ego, or “self,” is who we think and say we are because we’re around other people. The id, or “shadow self,” is the darker side that we try to repress, but that comes out during porn searches.
This is more or less how Red describes the relationship between the Tethered and their more civilized, above-ground counterparts.
A Tethered and their double are two halves of the same whole, a soul split into two different bodies. Even their location nods at this psychoanalytic interpretation, since the id is described as lying below the surface of the ego. And as we described in the section above, the Tethered version of each family member is a more primal version of themselves.
This also explains why the tethered suffer the brunt of the trauma of everything that their counterparts above experience. The id is where all our repressed feelings go, when we shove down all our icky and uncomfortable stuff so we don’t have to deal with it.
You can view the Tethered as a physical projection of each character’s repressed fears, anxieties, and traumas.
When Kitty gets a face lift, she gets a positive ego boost because it makes her look younger. But during the scene when her shadow self, Dahlia, is putting on lip gloss, we see scars on her cheeks — painful repercussions of having her face literally cut open to fit society’s beauty standards.
Similarly, Adelaide had her C-section in a clean hospital bed with doctors doing minimum damage to her body, but Red describes how she had to rip the baby out of her own belly. Society dresses up and normalizes surgery, but our unconscious brains still experience it as traumatic.
Red says in her final monologue that the Tethered were created in an attempt to control the people above. In a lot of ways, the id’s urges do control our actions, though we rationalize them in more civilized terms. So, for example, our lust for sex combined with our desire for protection turns into the institution of marriage.
If we wanna get really trippy with it, we can imagine the shadowy people behind the experiment as advertisers, who tap into our unconscious impulses (sex sells, baby) in order to get us to buy stuff. That feeds into the running theme of consumerism in Us, like Gabe’s purchase of a dinky boat to keep up with his wealthier friend Josh.
Us is about systemic oppression
The key to this read is in Red’s declaration to Adelaide: “We’re Americans.”
At a time when our country seems gripped in terror of foreign invaders and unknowable monsters, Us gives us the Tethered, who are none of those things. Instead, as the title indicates, they’re us: human beings just like the Wilsons, or the Tylers, or all of us watching in the audience.
But the Tethered, unlike the Wilsons and other surface-world people, are literally at the bottom rungs of society. They were created in secret, forced to live underground, and eventually abandoned and forgotten. They enjoy none of the simple pleasures that we take for granted, like the sky over our heads. Instead, their miserable lives are dictated by the whims of people who don’t even know they exist, and they have no voice in the matter.
In other words, they’re a marginalized population. And you can see them as standing in for any number of real-life groups pushed out of mainstream American society, be it the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the traumatized, or what have you.
According to Red (really Adelaide, but we’ll get into that later), whoever created the Tethered hoped to use them to manipulate their above ground counterparts. But when the experiment failed, the Tethered were no longer considered useful. So their creators abandoned them, because it was easier than dealing with them.
Which is not so different from the way we treat our own oppressed populations. The Shaman’s Vision Quest that Adelaide visits early in the film is a perfect example of cultural erasure: Native Americans being reduced to gross ahistorical stereotypes, while their very real present-day concerns go largely unheard.
When Adelaide returns as an adult, the hall of mirrors has been rebranded as Merlin’s Forest, presumably in a nod to cultural sensitivity. But nothing’s changed, really – there’s even still a totem pole out front. And the inside still leads you down a tunnel of horrors. Trying to paper over the ugly bits only gets you so far, if you haven’t actually reckoned with the problem at hand.
The surface-worlders in Us are fatally late to this lesson. While they went about their #blessed lives, their Tethered counterparts continued to struggle — then to start plotting their escape, in the form of a violent revolution/statement that would claim countless lives.
Perhaps that bloodshed could have been avoided if, as (the real) Adelaide tells Red at the end, Red had only taken Adelaide with her – that is, tried to help her, rather than ditching her below. But it’s too late now. The Untethering is the surface world’s comeuppance for failing, for generations, to see the suffering under their own feet.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Wilsons, since (with the possible exception of their matriarch) they clearly had no idea the Tethered even existed, let alone that their actions were subjecting them to such horrors. But part of the tragedy, in Us as in real life, is that intentions are immaterial when the consequences are real. For the Tethered, they are very real, and very agonizing, indeed.
The final reveal — that Adelaide and Red had actually switched roles as children — adds another prickly layer to the metaphor. The oppressed became the oppressor, and didn’t do jack shit about the people she left behind.
In the film, the girls are so young when this happens that it’s hard to blame her for not taking a more righteous stance. And it’s unclear how much of her early memories Red even retains once she settles into her aboveground life; it seems quite possible she’s repressing her memories rather than purposely hiding them.
But does that make the situation any less tragic for the girl trapped in the tunnels, while her counterpart gets to soak in sunshine and savor strawberries?
Us is about the guilt of privilege
If Us is about unjust suffering, it’s also about unearned privilege. They’re two sides of the same coin, not unlike the doubles themselves.
Us digs beyond the simple horror of the Tethered doppelgängers and into the tragedy of their existences – which is that, ultimately, they aren’t any different from their surface-world counterparts. They’re identical in every single way, and even share a single soul.
Zora and Jason didn’t get to grow up in a nice home with loving parents because they deserved those things more than Umbrae and Pluto did. They were just lucky enough to be born on the right side of those tunnel walls. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why Kitty gets to nip and tuck her way to superficial perfection, while Dahlia bears the scars of those same procedures.
Moreover, as that late twist about Adelaide reveals, there’s no cause to believe the Tethered wouldn’t have done just as well with these privileges and supports as their doubles did. The difference between a surface-world person and their underground shadow is entirely one of circumstance, not substance.
Red ascends to the surface world early enough to blossom into a brilliant dancer, a beloved wife, a caring mother – while the real Adelaide is shaped by her environment into the tortured figure we see breaking into the Wilsons’ home.
It’s an unsettling thought experiment for anyone who’s ever felt a twinge of guilt over their own good luck, or shame for not helping others with less of it. Which is to say, almost everyone.
The idea of America as a meritocracy is so ingrained in our culture that it’s taught in schools as a fact. But that’s plainly untrue, as demonstrated by both data and anecdotal evidence. Some kids get into college because their parents write checks to the right people, while other kids see their lives derailed by trauma because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s an unsettling thought experiment for anyone who’s ever felt a twinge of guilt over their own good luck.
If you’re on the losing side of that unfair calculation, you might react with sorrow and rage like the Tethered did. Possibly, like them, you’re driven to action. Or perhaps you lash out in envy, like Gabe buying a boat to keep up with his wealthier friend; you don’t have to be Tethered to notice that others are living better than you are.
But if you’re on the winning side, you’re faced with a whole other set of unpleasant emotions. Such as regret that others had to lose so that you could win, or fear of being called out for your privilege by people with less of it. Maybe even — gulp — the self-loathing that comes with wondering if you even deserve your blessings at all.
Often, these feelings are easy enough to ignore. We avert our gazes from the downtrodden, or reassure ourselves that we’ve worked hard to get where we are, or set our sights on the next brass ring.
In Us, though, the Wilsons are forced to confront these harsh truths. Their doubles are inescapable reminders that not everyone is as lucky as they are; that no matter how paltry their own lots seem in comparison to some others’ (like the Tylers’), there are others with still less; that what they do have came at the cost of another’s pain.
When the less fortunate are peering back at us with your own faces — when we see them as us — it suddenly becomes very difficult to explain we get to be on one side of the ground, and they’re stuck on the other.