“There we are – demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance – and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don’t you see?! We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!”
– Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II.
I’ve written, in a few other places, that there is a thin line between comedy and horror. Both genres have characters that, by necessity, make over-exaggerated gestures and actions to portray both humour and fear. Slapstick antics and gruesome violence practically grow from the same Dionysian Mystery of blood drunkenness, but generally I’ve found that they are often caricatures of human beings that act as artificially as possible to say something subversive about the reality from which they are supposed to be based. When phrased this way, it doesn’t sound really scary, does it? Certainly, it doesn’t sound funny. You can argue that dissecting a piece of horror, like a joke, can kill it.
If only it were that easy.
I’ve heard the age-old story that everyone has a twin – a doppelgänger – somewhere on the other side of the world, but Jordan Peele’s Us takes this idea to a whole other sinister place. Aside from being haunting, long after seeing it, Us makes me think about the people in the film. It makes me think about its supposed monsters: the Tethered.
I mean, there is the discussion that Jordan Peele has with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson in the “Jordan Peele Doubles Down” interview of Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue #3, where they explore the possibility that he may have created the first definitive doppelgänger monster film – complete with a theme of doubles throughout the entire movie – but I can further go into the logistics of the Tethered situation. I think this is where the idiom of analysis potentially destroying the basis of a story comes into play – along with a lot of film spoilers.
If the Tethered, these clones of everyone on the surface of the United States, were created by the government generations ago and abandoned when proven useless to their purposes, how have they managed to survive this long? If they were such failures, why didn’t the government just terminate them? How is it possible the Tethered have existed for generations and yet somehow give birth to precisely the same doppelgängers as their originals’ children above ground? Are they still “made” and did someone or something still make them? And, for that matter, where do they get the resources to clothe and feed themselves if there are no staff left to do so, aside from possibly eating rabbit meat? And this isn’t even considering how they gained the materials to craft gloves, red jumpsuits, and golden scissors like Michael Jackson recreating Thriller in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Republic of Gilead. Is it possible Red had been able to lead them through other tunnels over the years to gain these resources, and teach them how to replicate the skills of their originals? And are the Tethered – and were they before the start of the film – actually capable of taking care of themselves without some kind of intervention: without being given any kind of guidance or orders?
When we really get a glimpse of them in flashbacks (in their “natural” habitat below the Santa Cruz coastline) they pretty much follow the actions of their surface counterparts in clumsier, cruder, more violent ways. They can’t speak, and they are only capable of inarticulate grunts and screams. And most, if not all, of their actions are mimicry or synchronized versions of what their original counterparts – supposedly normal human American beings – are doing above. And, through the perspectives of Red and Adelaide, we are given to believe that their actions are the reflexive results of possessing some kind of psychic link: or sharing the same soul.
If anything, the Tethered – as Red calls them – seem more like mentally or cognitively impaired clones of human beings: more like vestigial limbs than actual people. At best, they seem to have different conditioning, stimuli, or nerve endings that make them more resistant to pain caused by injuries that would otherwise incapacitate a mundane human being. And yet it all comes back to one main question: something that has been on my mind since Red told Adelaide about the supposed origin of the Tethered.
Why were they made in the first place?
And I think, as some other writers and critics have mentioned, that Red’s perspective is skewed for … obvious reasons. She could only speculate, based on her observations in that underground facility, surrounded by the broken and hollow versions of the people she thought she knew, along with the tunnels and resources there themselves, as to what the US government was planning to do with the Tethered after making them. She believes that the government actually made the Tethered, banking on their psychic connection to their original, to control the latter: and that when that didn’t work out, they simply abandoned the entire project.
But is that what the government was planning to do?
Some critics of Us, such as Koom Kankesan in his Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Reviewed article have pointed out that everyone in the film – Tethered and original alike – are portrayed as lacking depth, or dimension: as being fake. As being plastic. And there is that word: plastic. There is another word that is derived from plastic as well. It is called plasticity. Plasticity means there is a certain flexibility or potential involved in an object or a subject. They are not fixed things. They can moulded. They can be shaped.
They can be shaped just as the Wilson family is created by Peele to show us a “typical black American family.” And just as their friends, the Tylers, are created to be a superficial or stereotypical white upper-middle class family filled with narcissism, emptiness, and a lack of personal fulfillment. And there is a disconnect that is there even between the originals – from Adelaide’s parents, Russel and Rayne Thomas, with their strained and dysfunctional relationship – all the way to Adelaide herself and her husband Gabe Wilson and their almost complete and utter lack of understanding of each other. Even their children, such as Zora with her running and constantly being on her phone, to Jason constantly playing with his broken lighter and hiding from others, symbolize a connection and a sense of disconnection that Peele crafts but just feels … artificial.
I think that the strength of Us is similar to that of Peele’s other film Get Out, and it’s the reason why it’s dangerous to pursue the logistics of the world as it might unravel, or … untether the entire structure of the thing. Us exists, and functions, in this liminal place – this almost Twilight Zone of suspended disbelief – between the literal and the figurative, satire and fact: or plot and symbolism. The premise is both the plot and the symbol. The plasticity of the idea gives it multiple meanings in different contexts.
Imagine, for instance, that Red was mistaken, with her own limited experiences understanding this world underneath America. Perhaps the government didn’t actually want the Tethered to develop mentally. Maybe they made them just so as to clothe and feed themselves and know how to deal with their basic animal needs. And then, consider, that Red herself claims she was able to motivate them, organize them, give them orders. Is it that much of a stretch of the imagination that the people that created the Tethered could have specifically engineered, and then trained them to obey? To have no will of their own, or at the very least, develop and encourage something of an easily submissive – or receptive – mindset into them? They were, perhaps, educated just enough to maintain their basic upkeep, but not enough to rebel. And fed and medicated at the bare minimum to survive, but not develop higher brain function. Maybe the very method of creating them compromised their own cognitive functions, and it was something done to them on purpose?
After all, what government or great power hasn’t – at some point – valued the possibility of an organized, synchronized citizenry that doesn’t question, and simply obeys orders?
Of course, there is another way of looking at this. Perhaps the Tethered were made for more than just attempting to maneuver their originals with their psychic connections. They could have been created to anticipate the actions, moods, and desires of the originals from which they were derived by observing their subconscious reflexes and reactions, although that would be a fairly inefficient manner of simply gathering intelligence to use on one’s citizens. Maybe they were supposed to be replacements for key individuals or groups: nice, obedient, and easily manipulated citizens. Or maybe, they were meant to be sleeper agents that they could exchange with their originals: training them to believe they were the original, and have them report information, perform assassinations, or bring down governments, groups, and even the families in which they could be replaced. If the latter is true, then the government did fail: as the Tethered do not seem to be able to pass themselves off as neurotypical. They just can’t blend into society such as it is, or was, in that world.
I think you might begin to see the connotations and implications of what I am trying to say here. And when you strip away, again, the logistics of it, maybe the Tethered are made by Peele himself to symbolize the “true Americans” as Red put it: the silenced, the oppressed, the voiceless, the medicated, undocumented workers, the rebels, the people barred from education, from human knowledge, and from humanity itself. You know, actual prisoners – representing a time honoured American socio-economic prison system – if their adopted jumpsuits are anything to go by. You have to figure, that the Tethered as Red explains, are still human beings. They can still feel emotions like sadness, pain, and anger, as well as resentment. For all they might have been conditioned to express otherwise, those feelings have to go somewhere: they need an outlet … even if they need permission to pursue that outlet.
And if you view Us in that reading, from that perspective, think about the supreme irony of what happens with the Tethered, and how the meeting of Red and Adelaide – and the twist towards the end of the film that you can see a mile away – actually works.
Adelaide, from 1986 (the 1980s in which I grew up possessed this nostalgic feel of dark fantasy and urban horror, feeling old and folkloric even when it was still the present), with her background in horror, and Goonies, and Thriller, meets her mirror image down below the world with its eerie almost mall-like escalator and the 1950s Cold War sterility of the facility beyond the fun house. And Red meets her, her face vacant and twisted, not unlike that of Alice’s restless undead father in “Strange Fruit” from Alan Moore’s American Gothic run of Swamp Thing, and promptly chokes and knocks her out, leaving her handcuffed down with the Tethered while she steals her life … and becomes the Adelaide we know in the film.
The original Red manages to do what none of her fellow Tethered can. She adapts. She actually uses the therapy her original’s parents give, thinking she is traumatized – and she is, just not for the reasons they believe – to pass as a “normal person.” More than that, remember what I said about the government potentially creating the Tethered to anticipate the actions of their originals? Well, in his interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, Peele explains that the Tethered learn to psychologically anticipate and act several moves ahead of their originals, thanks to Red’s guidance and leadership. That’s right. Red, who is the original Adelaide, who lost her young mind and faculties down below with the Tethered, learns to utilize that burning sense of self-righteous anger warped into the revenge of a stunted child’s mentality, motivating her to take control of the Tethered; to teach them how to unleash their aggression, and organize, and overthrow the very government, and the society that inadvertently allowed for the environment of their creation. If there isn’t a punchline to a joke in that, somewhere, I will eat my Tethered version’s scissors.
And yet it goes beyond that. When you take that reading into account, for good or ill, and you see how the Tethered all unite towards the end of the film – those that survive in any case – into a human chain across the nation, the symbol of political protest makes itself clear. And not just because the film shares its two letters with a certain country under a current socio-political clime.
Yes, the film’s characters and dynamics are all artificial. It is all plastic. Peele means it to be. In making almost everyone relatable – to a fault – with some levity, and humanity but many different moments of cognitive dissonance, he shows us that there are no heroes or villains in the world he portrays. Rather, it is the system that is wrong, that creates dehumanization and an intrinsic us versus … them dynamic embodied by the uncanny valley of the Tethered’s bizarre and grotesque actions: symbolic of a citizenry’s, of an individual’s, repressed unhappiness and resentment threatening to boil over until given release by an angry, young woman of colour steeped in it all – a child victim of survival in that system – that will sweep everything away …
The ending of Us is like an awkward pause, or exhale after the punchline has been delivered. It isn’t perfect. Certainly, how the original Adelaide’s movements became subjugated to the original Red’s instead of the reverse is an interesting conundrum to consider, and others have. And, definitely, I have to wonder just what will happen to the Tethered without Red – their Messiah – to lead them, or their originals which they have, presumably, all been slaughtered. Will they turn on each other? Will they try to adapt by exploring the remnants of civilization? Or will they hold hands in protest like the deranged parody of the flash mob that they are, against the thing that tried to make them until they all die, until the end of time?
When I left the theatre, moving through the empty lobby and taking the escalator down to the ticket area, I heard Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One of Us” begin to play, with the lyrics: “What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus / Trying to make his way home …”
Later, I would find out that the Biblical quote tattooed on a Doomsday prophet near the boardwalk funhouse leading to the Tethered’s tunnels, was the passage Jeremiah 11:11. It specifically references God becoming displeased with the Judeans for worshipping “false idols” once again and proclaiming: “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.” While I’ve read elsewhere that Peele may have referenced this passage with regards to the Tylers’ dependence of their virtual assistant Ophelia even as it failed to protect them in their cottage, or even Zora’s constant use of her phone as a form of disconnect from reality, I think this quote can be better applied to American society and the persona one takes on: embracing appearances instead of the truth. And perhaps the Covenant of the Lord being broken, is this case, is the ideal of the social contract of the United States to love, respect, and protect one another or, further, just a narcissistic, self-important failure of basic human empathy. Or, maybe, if God is also a human concept or belief – a reflection of humanity – that might say something about this film as well.
Maybe there is a twist in that, somewhere, or a punchline. Or the revelation that I watched, and was immersed in, a piece of art that will become an important social commentary of the twenty-first century (that writers such as Ian Dawe in his Sequart article Jordan Peele’s Us: One for the Ages also seem to think). But for all you can take something apart, it doesn’t quite stop the laughter. It never keeps the monster down. And sometimes, films like Us make you realize that you still need to smile at yourself, in the dark, in the mirror, even when it sometimes disturbs.
And especially when it does.