Warning: This story contains spoilers for Us. Please don’t stab me with massive gold scissors.
The premise of Us is deceptively simple: a family of four’s idyllic beach vacation turns into a nightmare when they are relentlessly terrorized by a group of doppelgangers called “The Tethered.” Scary? [Insert affirmative scream here.] Uncomplicated? Don’t be fooled. To fully understand the ending of Jordan Peele’s latest film, one has to pay close attention to the beginning.
Us takes place in two timelines. In the present, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are fighting off their uncanny lookalikes. But through a series of flashbacks to a traumatic event that took place in her childhood, Peele foreshadows and explains some of what we’re seeing unfold in real time.
The first time we meet young Adelaide (Madison Curry), she’s watching a promotional video for Hands Across America, a benefit event in which more than 6 million people held hands in a human chain that spanned the continental United States for 15 minutes on May 25,1986. The idea was to raise money for hunger and poverty in Africa, as well as the United States. That same year, while celebrating her birthday at a carnival in Santa Cruz, she has a terrifying experience that leaves her traumatized. After wandering off, she finds herself lost inside a fun house, only to come face-to-face with a girl who looks just like her.
As we soon learn, that little girl was Red (Nyong’o), the same woman who, along with her own family, turns up in Adelaide’s driveway 30 years later. But where did they come from?
Us opens with an eerie warning: Countless miles of empty tunnels criss-cross the underbelly of the United States. Some are abandoned subway platforms, others just service ramps, and then there are those we don’t even know about.
The grand finale takes place in one of those very tunnels, underneath the fun house from the beginning of the film. That’s where Adelaide confronts Red, who has kidnapped her son, Jason (Evan Alex) in an effort to lure her down there.
During a lengthy conversation, Red explains that The Tethered were created as part of an experiment for the government to control their counterparts above. They are two bodies with one shared soul. When the test failed, they were left down there to fend for themselves, and eventually went mad from deprivation. That is, until little Red ventured to the surface. On that fateful night, something happened that marked her — and Adelaide — as special.
Eventually, Adelaide kills Red and retrieves Jason, who doesn’t seem all that happy to see her. Something is clearly off with his mother. And moments later, in the car, we find out what: Little Red wasn’t content to simply scare her counterpart all those years ago. She took her down into the tunnel with her, chained her (or tethered, if you will) to a bed, stole her Michael Jackson “Thriller” T-shirt (leaving her with the yellow Hands Across America shirt she wore underneath), and went back up to find Adelaide’s parents, posing as her.
The woman we know as Adelaide is in fact Red. The PTSD she was reportedly experiencing wasn’t the result of her strange encounter. Her despondency was due to an early life lived underground, without any joyful stimuli, affection, or socialization. Eventually, through dance, she learned to express herself, and have a normal life. She met Gabe (Winston Duke), had two children, and was poised to continue being Adelaide Wilson forever. The memory of who she used to be lay buried inside her inner psyche. But with the death of one of their bodies, the memory repressed by one and stoked by the other has resurfaced, intact. And what’s more, Jason seems to sense it.
As the Wilsons drive away from Santa Cruz, the camera pans over the California hills. In the distance, a line of Tethered in red jumpsuits hold hands in a recreation of the Hands Across America campaign. Little Adelaide got her revenge, in the end.