This article contains major Us spoilers.
It’s easy to judge someone even as they sit right next to you. Young Jason Wilson (Evan Alex) is tempted to do just that in the final seconds of Jordan Peele’s Us. By his side in a car headed south is his mother Adelaide (a ferocious Lupita Nyong’o), who went into the bowels of hell to retrieve him like a maternal Orpheus with the good sense to not look back. Nevertheless, it was down there where Jason saw Adelaide not just kill her doppelganger, ostensibly credited as “Red,” in a moment that audiences cheered, but do so while becoming every bit as wrathful and cruel in her execution as the other doppelgangers whom Jason accurately described as “us.”
In the final moments, he is having flickering doubts of who his mother is, but his suspicions are not nearly so dire as those experienced by the audience. For as this is occurring, we witness crosscuts to the first scene and get a confirmation that only the most astute viewers guessed: The Adelaide we’ve been following the whole film is not the little girl who got lost in the opening sequence. Our Adelaide, who viewers likely coded in their head as “Good Lupita,” has all along been the one born to the tunnels of doppelgangers. She is one of “the tethered.” When she told her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) earlier in the movie that she has no idea why she wandered off from her father at the Santa Cruz boardwalk some 30 years ago, it’s because she never did wander off. That little girl, the real Adelaide, was attacked by her double, dragged into the tunnels and handcuffed to a bed, therefore never receiving medical attention after having her throat crushed (hence Red’s raspy whispers for the rest of the film).
As a final horror twist, it is effective in the sense that many moviegoers will not see it coming, and in that it provides a lot more cohesion to the basic plotting of the film: The reason Adelaide was so scared of Santa Cruz is she knew that this was exactly the pathway she used to escape 33 years ago, and it’s why she absolutely knew what the “family in the driveway” wanted, right down to handcuffing her to the table. It is also how Red was able to break free from the tragic bondage of the other tethered. She wasn’t born like them as a practical clone, so she was the first to break the cycle of being forced to mirror in the shadows the golden lives of those above ground. She knew what she was missing. Her revolution even seems to have begun the day of Adelaide’s tour de force ballet recital (hence why Adelaide stopped dancing at 14, having “felt” Red getting closer). It’s a revolt informed by faint memories of a relatively luxurious life, such as when Red decides the best way to make a statement is to unite “Hands Across America.”
However, the true potency of the ending is not in how it connects this narrative jigsaw puzzle of a horror movie; its real horror lies in its crystallization of an allegory about a nation so divided upon itself between those above and below that it feels like the only destiny is a bloody one of self-destruction. Us very much is about what Red tells Gabe of her family: “We’re Americans.” This is an American tale… and perhaps an end times one given its vision of income inequality run rampant.
Jordan Peele was not exaggerating when he told us in December that Us is not about race, at least as far as race can be extracted from the conversation of American life. As it turns out, it’s about what it means to be an American, and more precisely what it means to be a “have” in this country and a “have not.” In that context, the simplicity of who is right or wrong, “Good Lupita” or “Bad Lupita,” becomes a blur. In a fascinating New Yorker article last year, Elizabeth Kolbert tracked the psychology of inequality in this country by examining how many people below the poverty line of their home states view themselves as middle class, and might even be more insistent on certain cultural values (just like Red and her fanatical belief in God) while those living in undeniable wealth likewise refused to see themselves as affluent. Almost everyone views themselves as in the middle and scrambling to keep up with the Joneses.
In one illuminating anecdote, Kolbert quoted a woman with an income of $2.5 million a year as saying affluence is relative, and that while she might fly first class, she has friends who travel for vacations on private jets. “That’s affluence,” she whined.
This “grass is greener” dissatisfaction, which has demonstrably grown in the last 30 years just as nearly four decades of Reaganomics have expanded income inequality to its highest level since 1928, is encapsulated by the entirely sympathetic and even lovable Wilsons in Us. With his half-rimmed glasses and easygoing demeanor, Papa Gabe in many ways appears like Peele himself, or at least how viewers imagine him to be. Definitely affluent enough to rent an annual vacation home on a lake where he buys an amusingly shoddy boat, he has the perfect nuclear family unit, yet is in constant envy of his friends the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). Josh Tyler snarks that Gabe’s boat is ridiculous (and it is), and has an even nicer vacation home with a car so ritzy that getting to drive it is the only thing that lets Gabe accept Adelaide’s plan of leaving the comfort of the Tylers’ home during desperate times.
He is so enthralled by what he doesn’t quite have that he cannot fathom the lives of Americans with much less. Americans that at the end of the day are basically just like him minus the advantages and wealth. Red, Gabe’s double in Abraham, and their two beastly children are vindictive and monstrous because society left them no other choice. All clad in red jumpsuits, it is not hard to pick up on the implication that they’re convicts imprisoned by the system. In the film’s dreamlike logic, they are actual clones and doppelgangers of other Americans above ground, with seemingly one copy for every breathing one of us. But thematically, “they’re us” without the luxury of choice most people of privilege take for granted. There was no Obamacare for “Red” after she was choked, just like there was none for any poor Americans in 1986.
Hardened by an American system that literally created them and then discarded them to a prison below our feet, we are either oblivious or pretend to not see their plight. And when that despair turns into anger, those who’ve lived a life as charmed as Gabe cannot comprehend how they’re Americans or why they’d be so cruel. The violent horror movie plot of Us is a warning (or perhaps a prophecy) about what happens when income inequality gets so great that the only way to gain attention is to make a statement—statements that may not be channeled through peaceful means.
All of which brings us back to “Good Lupita” sitting next to her son’s wary eye in the film’s final moments. The woman we rooted for to kill her tormentor, her double, is actually the double who personally damned a little girl to the life of the Tethered. In a flashback, Adelaide’s parents take the girl they think is their daughter to a child psychologist who says she’s suffering from PTSD. Her father cracks, “She wasn’t in ‘Nam.” But in a way, she was. Vietnam and so many of America’s wars are a meat grinder for the impoverished and most underprivileged Americans to be placed in. If they come back with PTSD, like the Tethered, they’re marginalized by a society who only visibly values the happy, like Adelaide and Gabe.
Our Adelaide did suffer a nightmarish trauma. She did have PTSD, which she grew out of thanks to the love of her parents and outlets like ballet; she persevered because she had the opportunity to do so. But unlike Gabe, she is fully aware of the artifice of her safety net. She grew up among the tethered, but she did not try to help them. Her survivor’s guilt is fueled by the fact that after achieving the rare thing of upward mobility, she didn’t try to help her own community or pass the ladder down. She seized her opportunity and ran with it, pretending the generations of squalor she sprung from didn’t exist, as long as she looked the other way and didn’t have to return to it.
Thus it would be easy to judge Adelaide. There is something more sinister about her selfishness than Gabe’s ignorance. But we cannot fully do so, because like Jason, we’ve come to know her as an ultimately well-meaning and kind woman. She loves her family and went to the Underworld—or certainly followed white rabbits through the looking glass—to retrieve her son. She faced her own past sins to save his life, and she isn’t the one walking around with scissors and slaughtering innocent people. But her culpability for this American dysfunction does not make her innocent either, just as even though Red, Abraham, and the rest might be right to be furious, they are still killers. Before Adelaide then in turn kills Red, the latter whistles the little tune she hummed as a little girl before our Adelaide stole her life. There is reason to be angry, but Adelaide is still protecting her son by (viciously) ending Red’s life.
There are no clean answers between who is good or evil in this scenario, and in our world it is hard to honestly gauge. The best thing might be what Jason decides to do: put his mask back on and relax in the warmth of his mother’s love. And yet, that may just be perpetuating the cycle of choosing not to truly evaluate who we are, both as individuals and a society, and thus turn a blind eye to the problem until it becomes as undeniable as a million jump-suited “monsters” standing hand-in-hand in the light of a fiery morning.