This article contains major spoilers for Us, up to and including the final scene.
Even with only two films, Jordan Peele has already made a name for himself as one of the best and brightest horror directors of our time. His much-lauded debut feature Get Out was a tight paranoia thriller — a cutting condemnation of the ways racism manifests among the white upper-class, as well as a hilarious black comedy, leaving horror fans on the edge of our seats to see what he would do next. His second feature, the recently released Us, did not disappoint. It’s more sprawling and bravura than Get Out in just about every way imaginable, sticking with you both as pure, gut-level horror and as a light shone on the worst aspects of American society. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final scene.
The real plot of Us is difficult or impossible to discuss without spoilers, due to the way its scale spirals outward. In its first scenes, it appears to be the story of Adelaide, a woman who was traumatized as a child when she saw a little girl who was identical to her in a house of mirrors. Then the same doppelganger appears, now fully grown, and with similar duplicates of her entire family — twisted, inhuman “Tethered” that communicate primarily through violence.
After Adelaide and her family manage to escape and reach the house of family friends, we realize they’re not the only ones being attacked by these copies; everyone is, all across the country. Adelaide pursues her shadow — Red, only named during the credits — to the same house of mirrors where they first met. The two travel down a long one-way escalator to a surreal, empty facility, where we finally get an explanation for what is happening.
An unclear length of time ago, the government performed an experiment in social control. They made copies of people (the Tethered), intending to use the copies to manipulate the actions of their originals. But the experiment failed and the Tethered were abandoned underground to live out a grotesque mimicry of their originals’ actions. Red was the one who led their uprising, organizing the Tethered across the country to kill their originals and free themselves.
It’s a chilling concept with the logic of a nightmare — a race of manufactured subhumans helplessly going through the motions of daily life, subsisting on raw rabbit meat, longing for the day they can sever their ties with their originals and replace them. It’s fine stuff for a horror movie, but with little thematic weight.
The final scene changes all that. The Tethered versions of Adelaide’s family have all been killed, and the originals are en route to Mexico and safety, when Adelaide remembers what really happened in that hall of mirrors as a child. She remembers climbing up from the underground, knocking her original unconscious, dragging her back down, taking her place in the sunlight. The Adelaide we know — the mostly well-adjusted, normal woman we’ve spent the entire film with — is herself the Tethered. And Red, with her automaton gestures and a voice like rocks and glass, was the original little girl.
It would have been so easy for this to come off as nothing more than one last shock twist, as is so common in so many horror movies. It’s a testimony to Peele’s skill that it is not. The reveal is integral to the film, because without it, Us would mean something entirely different and its cut would be frustratingly dull.
The final reveal says that there is no “us” or “them.” When Red says she and her family are the same as Adelaide’s, she means it literally. Adelaide is human because she was raised to be one: told she could do anything she wanted, be anything she wanted, surrounded by people who believed the same of her and themselves. Likewise, Red is Tethered because that is what she was taught she was: a monstrous copy and nothing more, raised amid other monsters, told again and again that she had no choice but to live a psychic imitation of Adelaide’s life. There’s no psychological safety net for the Tethered being fundamentally inhuman, fundamentally different. There’s no difference. There was never any difference. It’s nothing more than an accident of circumstances.
America has a truly staggering amount of poverty for such a wealthy nation. Social services are few, ineffectual, and constantly under attack from right-wing politicians. Even supposedly left-leaning voters rarely go out of their way to donate their time and money to organizations affecting real change, especially on a smaller scale. More often than not, they just vote blue and pat themselves on the back. This isn’t a coincidence, but something grown directly out of one of the most core ideals that holds up American society — that hard work is rewarded, without fail, with success.
Call it the American Dream. It’s what brought immigrants and colonists here for centuries. It’s also a lie. An incredibly dangerous one, at that, because what it really means is that if people are successful, it is because they earned it. But if they’re not, it’s because they inherently don’t deserve it. That is clearly, objectively untrue, but it’s also baked into the very foundations of the United States. The American public’s reluctance to support welfare programs stems directly from disdain — that these systems will be abused by people who are simply too lazy to support themselves, and would rather leech off good, honest citizens. (Never mind who decides what good or honest looks like.) This is to say that there are an incredible number of people who live in inhuman conditions — who are considered less than human by the majority, when they are considered at all.
This is what Red means early in the movie, when says she and her family, and by extension all the Tethered, are Americans, There is nothing inherently subhuman about them. They were systematically oppressed until that is what they became. Americans who live in extreme poverty are no different than those who live in extreme wealth — they were simply not born with access to the same privilege. There are exceptions, just like Red and Adelaide, who are few and far between, but are still held up as proof that the American Dream is nothing but fiction designed to keep those on top… on top. It is easier and more reassuring to tell yourself that you’re different — that you earned what you have — than to admit you were just lucky. And the luckier you are, the truer that is.
The very first shot of the movie is a TV commercial for Hands Across America: a charity stunt from the 80s that called for a chain of hands across the country to end hunger. This is Red’s plan. She does not organize her uprising simply so the Tethered can take revenge or claim their right to live as humans, but to make a statement that the world can’t ignore. The very last shot of the movie is this chain of hands — millions of the Tethered forming a line of red across the country in a bloody condemnation of what has been done to them, as well as a desperate cry for understanding, spoken in the only language they know.