What happened at the end of Us? What are its themes and deeper messages? Watch our take on the new Jordan Peele film and get to the bottom of this parable of inequality.
Us: Themes, Symbols & Ending Explained - Which Side are You On?
Jordan Peele’s Us is a cautionary tale for our society. It’s warning us to change the way we’re going, or what we’re seeing here could very easily be us.
Horror films are all about the return of the repressed. They bring out our buried fears and demons, and force us to look them in the face. In Us, Peele goes further and puts our own face on what we’ve repressed. He makes us reckon with the guilt that we’ve buried, not just as individuals but as a country.
The title has a dual meaning -- it’s both ourselves and U.S., the United States of America. Where Get Out was a symbolic horror designed to make us think about race, Us is a parable of inequality. In this story, there are literally two Americas. And while at first we assume middle-class Adelaide is our heroine and her Tethered Red is the monster, the film’s ending reveals it’s far from this simple.
In most horror movies, the repressed force that rises up gets re-repressed at the end as the hero defeats the monster and cathartically purges the audience’s fear. But these poor scissor-wielding Tethered bent on murdering their Above-Ground counterparts aren’t the true monsters. They’re the biggest victims of all. The evil here is the fact that anyone has been relegated to this miserable, underground less-than-a-life.
“I have a definite world of things that I’m exploring and trying to say with this film, all relating to our duality as human beings, and the guilt and sins that we bury deep within ourselves.” - Jordan Peele
Likewise in our society, while the Other may look very different to us, this film is reminding us that those differences are superficial, caused only by divergent experiences. In reality, we are all the same and we are complicit in the mistreatment of any of our fellow humans.
So we leave Us feeling viscerally shaken up, looking at ourselves in a new light. Because we have to ask: what if we’re the enemy? Which side are you on?
The Ending Explained
Us ends with a twist that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s “which side are you on” question. Adelaide and her Tethered Red face off in a balletic showdown. But after Adelaide triumphs, the defeated Red starts to whistle “the Itsy bitsy Spider,” the song young Adelaide was whistling the day of her traumatic encounter with the funhouse mirror girl. After Adelaide takes her son Jason out of hiding, he looks at her like she’s not sure who she is, just as he looked at her earlier when she killed one of the Tethered with a little too much zest. Finally, as the family is driving away, Jason stares at his mother, putting the pieces together, as we finally see the full flashback of Adelaide’s childhood memory. That day, the Tethered girl attacked the original Adelaide and took her place. So the above-ground Adelaide we know was in fact the Tethered, while Red was the original girl who had her life stolen from her.
Looking back, we can see hints of Adelaide’s true identity. After that day, Adelaide’s parents worried because their little girl stopped talking, apparently due to PTSD. But this was actually because the Tethered Adelaide couldn’t talk, as the Tethered don’t speak English but have their own moaning language. On the beach, Adelaide says it’s hard for her to talk sometimes -- now we know she means this literally, as she learned English later. Meanwhile Red can speak English unlike the rest of the Tethered, but her voice sounds hoarse from disuse.
Still, apart from small hints, we can’t tell that this Adelaide isn’t the so-called “real” or original one and that sends a crucial message -- the differences between these two groups of people are circumstantial, purely the result of having versus not having. In our world, too, we may allow ourselves to tolerate injustice against Others who feel removed from us. On some level maybe we tell ourselves that those Others aren’t really like us, so that we can look the other way and go on with our day. But Us is not allowing us to look away. It’s saying to viewers with a comfortable middle-class life, “We are all the same.” So if you’d ended up on the wrong side of that dividing line, you’d be the Other, and the Other would be you.
What’s most interesting about this ending is that it leaves us not knowing how to feel. Did the good guy win, or the villain? The relief we might feel after the big fight is fleeting as the person we thought was the monster was really a victim, while our hero stole someone’s life and then murdered that person. Still, we can hardly blame Adelaide for doing what she had to do to get out of that miserable underground. So who is the hero?
By building up our identification with this “regular” family and then flipping the script on us, Peele is making us ask a very uncomfortable question. If we align more with Adelaide’s family in this scenario, does that make us the villains? What if we are not the hero in this story?
The Two of U.S.
Thus we come to realize that, in cheering for Adelaide to destroy Red, we were rooting to preserve an unequal system in which the upper classes are saved while the rest are lost. In Us, we see inequality taken to its logical extreme.
When Gabe asks the Tethered, “What are you people,” Red answers, “We’re Americans.” Yet there are two separate Americas in the film and only one gets to see the sky. The other half gets monstrous recreations of a natural life. So the underground place here literalizes and gives visual form to the “sunken place” of Get Out. It’s expanding on the idea that certain people in our society are relegated to a less-than existence where they are denied control of their bodies and lives.
At first as we’re watching, we may think that Adelaide’s PTSD is a stand-in for the experience of being black in America, or the complex identity of the black middle-class. But while racial dynamics do play a part in what we’re seeing, more fundamentally, this is a story about the dangerously stark divide in our country. The Tethered represent the Other (whether that Other is defined by race, immigration, poverty, or something else.)
But these two Americas are connected, as the name the Tethered implies. The middle-class family who we follow are seemingly innocent people. Yet the sin at the center of all this is their middle-class obliviousness. Our heroes have done wrong by going on with their lives while allowing the suffering of others who are literally just like them. If you’re privileged and ignore that others are underprivileged, you’re denying your innate bond to the rest of your people. Adelaide’s husband Gabe in his Howard University sweatshirt, not realizing the seriousness of the situation and trying to offer the Tethered cash, embodies this dangerous lack of awareness.
Moreover, as we’ve seen, the Adelaide we know had to steal another’s place to be where she is. So the implication is that there’s a kind of tacit violence to being one of the haves, an extent to which our unequal society is a zero-sum game.
Elisabeth Moss’ Kitty is the kind of woman who comments on how delicious the rosé is but after her shadow Dahlia murders her, there’s a touching moment of the Tethered putting on Kitty’s fancy lip gloss. She also cuts her face, mimicking the plastic surgery Kitty’s had. These creepy yet tender moments reveal to us what’s at the core of this uprising -- how is this woman who’s never seen lip gloss in her entire life not going to hate that woman who’s always had everything?
The homeless man on the beach has Jeremiah 11:11 written on his sign. In addition to providing another visual mirror through its digits, the verse reads: “Therefore thus saith the Lord: ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.” These fire-and-brimstone words sounds pretty apt for what we witness, but if look at the verse right before this, we also get a little more context: “ They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear My words, and they went after other gods to serve them.” So this is getting at the theme of the sins of our ancestors. That final moment moment of Jason becoming aware of his parent’s sins represents the way that all children eventually have to reckon with their ancestors’ legacy and if they do lead a comfortable life, with the truth that they have benefited from an unequal system. Jeremiah 11:10’s mention of worshiping other gods also speaks to the consumerism, the worshipping of luxury and materialism, that seems to be punished here.
Us is not just telling us we should care about inequality. It’s warning us that sooner or later, we’re not going to have a choice. The set-up might remind us of the H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine in which the upper and lower classes do over time evolve into different species. The underground working-class descendents the Morlocks feed on the plump, mindless above-ground Eloi who descend from the elites. Us is likewise a cautionary tale about the way that vast inequality endangers us all because if you give people nothing, they have nothing to lose. And if we let the uprising happen, it will be too late.
Duality and Doppelgangers
“I tend to draw inspiration from my own fear. At some point I ask myself what’s the scariest thing for me personally. And in this case it was the idea of seeing myself.” - Jordan Peele
As Peele looks closer at this fear of the Other, he concludes that it’s actually based in a fear of oneself. In other words, this “Other” that we’re so afraid of is really those aspects of ourselves that we’ve repressed or denied. So, the Other is us.
“We tend to blame the outsider and blame the other… when in this movie, the monster has our faces.” - Jordan Peele
The doppelganger of each member of Adelaide’s family reflects some buried part of them. Jason struggles to light fire for his magic trick, while his shadow Pluto is a pyromaniac with a scarred face. Gabe’s Tethered, the primal, wailing Abraham, embodies that pain and forcefulness that Gabe doesn’t project through his cheery, unthreatening, goofy dad persona.
“There is a darker self that we suppress and we suppress it because we are afraid of what it means. It holds our guilts. And our evil...” - Jordan Peele
In this story the horrors really do come from within us. Adelaide has repressed the memory of what she did. She doesn’t know that she’s the “villain.” And as that memory returns, she has to face that she’s guilty. So the doubles here represent the way each person must reckon with their own repressed darkness and guilt. That’s why each member of Adelaide’s family must kill their own Tethered. And the idea of the Tethered are especially scary to us because we’re so uncomfortable with looking honestly at our own worst selves.
“No one really wants to look at their faults, their guilt, their demons.” - Jordan Peele
The doppelganger makes for a terrifying monster because it understands you and can anticipate what you’ll do.
“Throughout mythology, doppelgangers often represent bad omens or foreshadowing of one’s death.” - Jordan Peele
As the film ends, Adelaide smiles, seemingly okay with what she’s done (perhaps because in any fight with a doppleganger, it’s assumed that only one can survive.)
“They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.” - Adelaide, Us
“When you would have an encounter like that, you get a sense of your own mortality. It’s almost like one of you has to go, right? And you sort of know that in your bones.” - Jordan Peele
When Adelaide and Red face off in their dance-slash-fight, the song we hear is called “Pas de deux,” inspired by Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker is also a story of entering a nightmare mirror world. And the way the scene is choreographed with Red in the darkness literalizes the feeling of fighting with your own shadow.
“The reason Doppelgangers have always been a source of fear for people is there’s something just primal and unnatural feeling about seeing yourself.” - Jordan Peele
To express the doppelganger theme, Peele uses symbols of duality. Most prominently, the central instrument of violence in the film is the pair of scissors, a staple of the horror genre.
“There’s a duality to scissors, both literally and physically. They’re a whole made up of two parts. But also they lie in this territory between the mundane and the absolutely terrifying.” - Jordan Peele
Scissors aren’t just an image of duality; they’re also an instrument that creates duality -- they cut one thing into two, just as this movie is full of divides. The Hands Across America demonstration that inspires the Tethered, while it’s based on an event that intended to unify the US, creates a barrier, a line of people that can’t be crossed. On one side is half of America, and on the other side is the other half.
The bunnies are another prominent symbol which Peele has said represent duality to him because they’re as adorable as they are terrifying.
"Rabbits -- you can tell in their eyes -- they have the brain of a sociopath. If you put a rabbit brain in a human body, you have Michael Myers." - Jordan Peele
The opening credits showing the bunnies in cages get at the way the Tethered are bred as experiments, not viewed as human beings. They’re copies of people without souls, only allowed a partial life. Adelaide’s daughter Zora wears two shirts with references to rabbits (one with a white rabbit, and one with the Vietnamese word for “bunny.”) And some have seen a connection to Alice in Wonderland, where a white rabbit leads Alice into an alternate world. The sequel Through the Looking Glass also reminds us of the mirror imagery running through this film.
Peele took inspiration from many other horror movies when it came to doubles and duality.
“I love the doppelganger mythologies in different movies that have dealt with them. Hitchcock, of course, ... Vertigo, which in its essence is a doppelganger tale as well.” - Jordan Peele
Peele has said the “Mirror Image” episode of Twilight Zone, in which doppelgangers from other universes can come into ours and take our place, was a key inspiration.
He asked his actors to watch a list of horror films including: The Shining (we can see the influence of that film’s creepy twin imagery, as well as its theme of a perverted family turning on itself), home invasion movie Funny Games by Michael Haneke, The Babadook, It Follows, A Tale of Two Sisters, Let the Right One In, The Birds, The Sixth Sense, Alien, Martyrs, and Dead Again (which deals with past-life doppelgangers and also features deadly scissors.)
We see Jason wearing a Jaws shirt and when Gabe fights off Abraham in the water, Peele has said in a Los Angeles Times article that the scene is channeling the Jaws-inspired fear of, “an open body of water at night.” When young Adelaide is on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, she hears mention that a film is shooting nearby, which is apparently The Lost Boys, in which a threat comes from above. While here, as Peele said, we get a mirror image of that.
The VHS collection we see at the start includes The Goonies (which also involves tunnels underground and inspired a crucial speech in the movie --
“Their time, up there down here. It’s our time. It’s our time down here.” - Mikey, Goonies
“It’s our time now.” - Red, Us
as well as C.H.U.D. (i.e. Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, which is about once-human creatures coming up from underneath New York City.) The way that pop culture references like the Goonies and Hands Across America have shaped Red’s simplistic plan emphasize that she’s stuck in childhood, as if, after the day she was kidnapped, she could no longer continue developing as a person.
So after raising these complex questions of inequality and our repressed guilt, what message does Us leave us with?
First of all, the movie is serving as an alarm bell. It makes us feel this uprising of the Tethered is an inevitable event sooner or later, in one form or another. Our shadows are coming for us. There is only so long you can flee from your repressed guilt and sins. And as a people there’s only so long we can flee from the wrongs on which we build our society. Like Gabe offering to go to the ATM after his home is invaded, we might hope we can find an easy fix for our social ills. But to a certain extent, this movie is acknowledging that there is no simple or easy solution to inequality because the wrong is too big. And if a reckoning is coming, it will be painful.
So perhaps the best response to this movie is to embrace our discomfort -- don’t look for a way to feel better, because there’s a lot we should feel uncomfortable about. Meanwhile, we can commit to the painful exercise of looking inward.
“This country and how this country looks at the world… we have a fear of the outsider… The thing we do not face often enough is our part in what’s wrong with the world.” - Jordan Peele
And most of all, what we should take from this film is an increased empathy for the Other. As Adelaide watches the two children of her Tethered die, she’s overwhelmed by a spontaneous, deep feeling for them. Even though she’s trying to kill this shadow family, she grieves for these kids because she knows that underneath the monstrous facade, there is a person in there. And we can learn from this -- it can be all too easy not to view the Other as human, because that makes it easier to justify the divides we take for granted. But Us is forcing us to remember that we are all brothers and sisters and there’s nothing we can do to escape that truth.