The word doppelganger (derived from German, meaning ‘double-goer’) has always been intertwined with the horror genre. Its origins, deriving from mythology focusing on an evil twin, explain why its depiction on the big screen is always synonymous with scary stories. Although in most instances horror films incorporate twins into their story for a shock reveal at their conclusion, there have been standouts throughout the years that have something else to say. This just so happens to be what Jordan Peele has done with his sophomore film Us.
With his first feature Get Out, Peele made it clear that he could mix horror and political subtext without ever having to diminish either in the process. Get Out made a clear statement on American suburbia and how black people’s brains and bodies are seen as two different entities, with this suburbia only wanting the physical aspect. So it’s no surprise that Peele’s second film, about doppelgangers rising and invading the homes of America, is richly filled with connotations.
There’s not one true definition of what the doppelgangers (otherwise known as ‘tethered’ in the film) may represent. Red (Lupita Nyong’o), the leader of the tethered, answers quite simply in the film “We’re Americans” when asked who they are. The simple but short quote seems to sum up most people’s interpretation of the film, that the tethered are a metaphor for immigration, that people take land and call it theirs – believing they’re protected with four walls around them, but this is inevitably false.
What Peele has done in this film is not just comment on contemporary events through his depiction of the tethered, he has tried to shatter the expectations of the doppelganger all together. Us is certainly not the first time that a physical copy of someone has been used to reflect on political change. Since silent film, the doppelganger has been used to reflect on human indifference, war tensions and societal and economic change at the time those films were released. The Dark Mirror looked at the post-war worry of returning to a safe home, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) feared the invasion of communism within America, and The Stepford Wives (1975) perfectly dissected the changing of gender roles for women and free movement. These films have a definitive line between good and bad with their doppelgangers, whereas Us differs completely from this narrative. Neither the doppelganger nor the self is defined as the ‘bad one’.
The ‘plot twist’ at the end of Us is something that fully supports this breakdown of what a doppelganger is. The twist that the tethered Adelaide (also Nyong’o) switched herself with the Adelaide living on the land is one that may just seem like ‘jumping the shark’ in order to have a significant ending, but this reveal is one that had so much set up that if they had left it ambiguous, plenty of audience members would be speculating that they had switched during childhood as soon as they left the theatre. This twist is the key factor in breaking down this definitive line of a good and bad Adelaide. This final piece of information solidifies the fact that whoever the ‘real’ doppelganger is is of no importance. One is fronting an animalistic defence of what she now has, whilst the other is forming an uprising, trying to claim what is rightfully hers. Not one of these desires really is a bad motive, both are justified in why they’re performing these actions.
If anything, the tethered personalities complement and complete their copies. The following examples show how each main family member and their tethered work as one.
∙ Adelaide/Red – Both have each other to thank for where they are now. When a younger Adelaide switched herself, she finally connected these two worlds for good. Red impersonating Adelaide’s dancing and performing finally got the other tethered to see she was the one to lead them. One is fighting for safety whilst the other is revolting.
∙ Gabe/Abraham (Winston Duke) – The father figures appear to be the weakest link in their households, but both of them show strength that supports their family. Although Gabe’s remarks may just appear as comedy, these real reactions are actually aiding his family with his emotional strength powering on, whilst Abraham has his physical strength to support Red. When both families meet for the first time, Abraham’s dominating presence allows Red to speak and explain why the tethered are here.
∙ Zora/Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Joseph) – They may appear to some viewers as the closest we get to a good and bad version, as Zora and Umbrae are more like the angel and devil sitting on the shoulders of their joint conscious. If you look at Freud’s model of the psyche, it’s clear that Zora represents the Superego: the morality of both of them that looks to help others. When she informs her family that the “government put fluoride in the water to control our minds,” she’s doing it for her family’s safety; she does not benefit from giving them that information. Umbrae is the id, going off her instincts and instincts alone. When she runs and jumps on top of the car during the family’s escape, this is her ignoring her own family’s proximity in order to complete a task herself.
∙ Jason/Pluto (Evan Alex) – Masks normally convey the fact that someone wants to be different, but Jason and Pluto wear their masks for conflicting reasons. Jason is constantly trying to be different and see how far he can go each time. He cusses in front of his family and runs off by himself to explore, whilst Pluto does nothing but conform and copy. His death is the perfect signifier of this, as he willingly burns himself alive, stepping back into a blazing fire all because he wanted to copy Jason’s exact physical movements.
The tethered are not copies of us living above the ground, but they are the exact opposite of what we are. When we come together we finally form one complete whole, whereas before we were two pieces always missing, which is why Peele has subverted the expectations of what a doppelganger is in film, especially in horror.
Doppelgangers will always seem to be someone’s exact lifeless duplicate, or that person’s depiction of true horror. It may be a psychopathic killer like in The Dark Mirror or maybe a subservient slave similar to The Stepford Wives, but these double-goers will always be someone’s worst nightmare. So Peele’s closing shot of Us, where the millions of tethered hold hands across America, is not a visual look of horror but a sign of unity and connection.
The only comparison you can make about there being an exact replication of something is within the political subtext of the film. ‘Hands Across America’ perfectly marked the Reagan era of the United States: a country looking for change after an unnecessary war and an economic crisis, where people lost their individuality and started to look for answers. There is only one imitation in Us: how the politics of then and now appear to be one and the same, that nothing has really changed thirty years on, that maybe the sole difference of breaking this repeating pattern would be for our opposites to finally change that.