The following contains HUGE spoilers for the movie Us. Do not read on unless you’ve seen the film.
On Sunday, May 25, 1986, America held hands.
Hands Across America was a massive charity and publicity event devised by music manager and non-profit consultant Ken Kragen. The idea was a simple one. Those sea-to-shining-seas you hear so much about? Let’s connect them by forming a human chain.
Of course, one single line of human beings stretched across the continental United States was impossible to pull off. There is impassible terrain to contend with as well as everyone’s busy schedules and eventual boredom. Instead Hands Across America opted to focus on the major cities, amassing a crowd of people who numbered high enough to connect both coasts in theory, just not in practice.
Even without the literal execution, Hands Across America was a success. It generated $34 million in donations and created a memeable, unifying experience long before the existence of the internet meme machine. Hands Across America was a symbol of what America could accomplish when it valued unity, hard work, and a willingness to fudge the numbers a little bit… and it is a symbol that Jordan Peele uses to great effect in Us, his terrifying follow-up to Get Out.
Us begins with the real Hands Across America, gaps in the line and all, and ends with a new, more literal Hands Across America. The difference between the two human lines that bookend the film and everything that occurs in-between is central to the theme of Us. For the film is about the failed American experiment. It’s about the country we wanted to make, the one we felt divinely mandated to make… and the country we actually ended up with.
In Us, Peele presents many of the traditional symbols and trappings that we associate with Americana early on. The beginning of the film is filled with classic American symbols and moments like a Hands Across America commercial on a grainy television right on a shelf next to a VHS copy of a film all about American exceptionalism, The Right Stuff. Then we follow young Adelaide Wilson and her family to one of those truly American institutions: the boardwalk.
At the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, Adelaide’s family walks among all the booths where carnies in Black Flag shirts try to entice them to buy useless crap. Adelaide’s father draws upon his baseball pitching experience to win her a totem from one of America’s most important icons (and eventual fallen idol), a Michael Jackson thriller shirt. While Adelaide’s dad tries to win her another prize (or more likely just wants to drunkenly wail on some plastic moles with a mallet), Adelaide finds herself drawn to something on the beach. She makes her way through the sandy darkness and ends up in a Native American “Vision Quest” themed hall of mirrors. Once inside, she is surrounded by walls designed to look like the American wilderness. The lights go out and she runs into her doppelgänger, jumpstarting the events of the film.
Before the (excellent) opening credits have even begun, think of how many American symbols Us exposes the viewer to–Hands Across America, a homeless guy holding a Bible verse (not uniquely American, but we’ll take it), The Right Stuff, boardwalk, baseball, a ride called “The Big Dipper,” Native American visions quests. This is a film positively awash in American imagery.
On a base level, Peele’s presentation of American symbols and concepts is just fundamentally good storytelling. Specificity matters in telling a story and the beginning of Us is filled with so many excellent, and specifically time-appropriate details. As the story develops, however, it becomes clear that Peele has an even deeper purpose for dealing in American mythology. Us is us. It’s also “U.S.”
Most of the American symbols at the film’s beginning represent the concept of American excellence or the kind of country that America has always aspired to be: Hands Across America was aspirational, we sent human beings to goddamned space in The Right Stuff, baseball is awesome, etc. By the time the movie moves to the present day, it’s hard not to realize that those American dreams have stagnated. The boardwalk remains the same–overcrowded and loud. That same sign-toting homeless man has died anonymously in the streets, with decades worth of beachgoers standing by and allowing it to happen. The only real meaningful difference now is that the Vision Quest hall of mirrors has a more politically correct Merlin theme.
That’s not even to mention all the changes in the country that Peele allows to go unmentioned. The viewer in the theater need only compare their paycheck to their parents’, read a report on climate change, or take a cursory look at Twitter to realize that things have taken a turn for the dystopian. To be clear, the United States of America was never really the shining city on a hill. Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” while owning actual men.
That never really stopped America from believing in the American dream and American exceptionalism, however. After two World War victories, the evidence for the fluorishing American dream was all there: baseball, apple pie, and nice family days in the Santa Cruz sun. There was a time in the ‘80s, before the market crashed, where joining hands across the country seemed possible. And lo’ it behold, it almost was! By the time Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason Wilson make their summer trip to Santa Cruz, however, that vision of American idealism is mostly gone. And then it comes back and the horror begins.
When Us gets rolling and the Wilson family doppelgängers (Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto) finally attack, they first strike a decisive victory. The doppelgänger family, led by Red, forces the Wilson family to sit on their couch and converse with them. Gabe’s first question is understandable.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“We are Americans,” Red croaks.
Yes they are. As we come to find out, the doppelgängers are people called the Tethered who have lived below the Earth’s surface in a series of seemingly abandoned tunnels. At some point, the U.S. government discovered that there can exist two bodies for every soul–one that lives above ground and another they placed below. The Tethered have lived in the rabbit-infested tunnels their entire lives, acting out grim recreations of their respective partners’ above ground actions like sad little marionettes.
That all changes one day when young Adelaide makes her journey into the Vision Quest hall. As Adelaide walks closer to the source of one of the underground tunnels, so does her Tethered second half. When the two meet, Adelaide’s Tethered acts impulsively and subdues her counterpart then chains her to her bed in one of the dank dormitories. The two Adelaides have switched spots for the rest of their lives, with the new Adelaide making off with the Michael Jackson Thriller shirt. The original Adelaide, eventually known as Red, treasures the only item that she entered the underground with–a Hands Across America shirt. Adelaide (again, now Red) hangs the shirt on the wall and as she grows older begins to rally her new fellow below ground peers around it.
The image of American unity proves to be a strong one to The Tethered. Through an idealized vision of American excellence, Hands Across America, Red is able to gather up the entire population of Tethered to prepare an attack on the above grounders. They all adopt a singular red uniform with the same scissors as weapons. Out of many, they become one. E Pluribus Unum. They’re going to head to the above ground world and take over from their doppelgängers. It’s their time, they’ve played the role of shadow long enough, and to prove that they’re worthy of being real, honest-to-goodness aboveground Americans, they’re going to pull off Hands Across America, but for real this time.
The Wilson family’s fight against their doppelgängers, and eventually everyone else’s doppelgängers is legitimately thrilling stuff and excellent storytelling. On a symbolic level, however, what the Wilsons struggle against themselves is communicating is a deeper struggle altogether. The Tethered rising up from the ground holding the Hands Across America banner is really America, the myth rising up against the American, the reality. Hands Across America is back from the dead and it is mad as hell.
What’s particularly fascinating about all the competing symbolism at play here is that none of it is pretty. This is not a happy rebellion. There are no good guys. After all the Tethered are really just… us. They have been downtrodden and abused, but they share our soul and our flaws all the same. While The Tethered prove their American bona fides and rally under a concept of American exceptionalism, they themselves are so ugly and broken. They are physically and emotionally scarred and begin their new reign on Earth with an unambiguous genocide.
The Tethered’s Hands Across America moment is a legitimately powerful and beautiful symbol, but it’s also only made possible by bodies in the streets. Sounds familiar to another North American journey, right? Their story is our story, all over again.