Jordan Peele has brought us a new masterpiece that has a lot more to say than what’s on the surface. The spoiler-free version was Monday.
In 1986, Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wandered off at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. While in an abandoned house of mirrors, she finds herself seeing a little girl who looks exactly like her. 33 years later, Adelaide (Lupita “I’m gonna get more Oscars” Nyong’o) is now Adelaide Wilson, married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and the mother of Zora and Jason Wilson (Shahadi Wright and Evan Alex). The family heads to Santa Cruz for vacation at their beach house, but Adelaide reveals she still has nightmares about her encounter from the past. That night, Jason sees another family of people clad in red in the driveway. Gabe tries to confront them, but they quickly attack and infiltrate the house. They are revealed to be doppelgängers of the four named Red (Nyong’o), Abraham (Duke), Umbrae (Wright), and Pluto (Alex).
Red explains that she was the “shadow” of Adelaide who has been living underground for her entire life, forced to live a perversely mirrored existence of Adelaide’s life, having been forced into marriage with Gabe’s doppelgänger Abraham and forced to bear his children, one of whom, Umbrae, is a monstrous psychopath and the other, Pluto, is obsessed with fire. Red doesn’t speak well, but the other doppelgängers only communicate with animalistic grunts. Red handcuffs Adelaide around a table. Abraham overpowers Gabe who flees to the family’s boat. Gabe manages to kill Abraham with the motor. Zora tries to outrun Umbrae, but only escapes when Umbrae attacks a bystander. Jason manages to lock Pluto in a cabinet and Red goes to free him, allowing Adelaide to free herself. The family flees to their neighbors’ house, arriving only after their neighbors Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their daughters Gwen and Maggie (Cali and Noelle Sheldon) are killed with scissors wielded by their own doppelgängers: Tex, Dahlia, Io, and Nix, respectively. Confronting the new versions of their neighbors, Gabe kills Tex on Josh’s yacht, Zora kills Io and knocks Nix over the bannister, then Jason kills Dahlia to save his mom and sister. Adelaide kills the wounded Nix with her own scissors.
The four find out that this is happening everywhere, with the red-clad duplicates, dubbed “the Tethered” killing their originals and then joining hands in a long line. Gabe, Zora, and Jason want to just hide, but Adelaide insists they flee the country. Zora kills Umbrae by hitting her with a car and, the next morning, Jason tricks Pluto into setting himself on fire, killing him. Red then abducts Jason and Adelaide follows her to the boardwalk, going through the house of mirrors and into an underground facility. Red explains that the Tethered were created by the government to control the population, but were then abandoned underground. They have acted out the actions of their above ground counterparts mostly mindlessly. Red believed that her contact with Adelaide in 1986 meant that she was destined to lead the Tethered and that this was all a display for Adelaide, who ends up killing Red. It’s revealed that, in 1986, Adelaide met her doppelgänger, who choked her unconscious, crushing her windpipe, switched clothes with her, and chained her to a bed before taking her place. Jason realizes this, but says nothing. The Tethered are revealed to have made an unbroken human chain stretching into the distance.
Okay, this movie is two nested levels of story and corresponding allegory: Personal and social.
On the personal level, this story is about Adelaide and her family facing off against their doppelgängers. Now, the doppelgänger is an old concept literally meaning “double-goer” and it refers to seeing a non-biological double of a living person (so The Parent Trap doesn’t count, but The Prince and the Pauper does). Mythology tends to be inconsistent about what a doppelgänger represents. In older Teutonic Myths, they’re just a person out there who represents another you, typically an evil version, and seeing them is a sign of misfortune. Later, this was expanded to encompass another German myth, the fetch, which is an apparition of a living person, having form and mind but no soul. This film originally describes the Tethered in these terms, saying they have the mind and body but they don’t share the soul with the people they mirror, explaining their lack of speech and animalistic behavior.
Usually, when the doppelgänger is used as a literary figure, they are intended to represent the duality of man. Where we are good, they are evil. Where we are peaceful, they are violent. Where the person fails, the doppelgänger succeeds, and vice-versa. One reason why this device has lasted so long and permeated through so many different cultures is because humans tend to naturally envision other hypothetical versions of ourselves, including the raw, feral version. Our dark reflection.
This movie really tries to drive that idea home with its portrayals. Gabe is erudite, Abraham is brutish. Zora is snarky and somewhat lackadaisical while Umbrae is a psychopath. Jason masks himself to be scarier, Pluto hides his disfigurement under a mask. Kitty is vain, Dahlia mutilates her face. Even the names of the characters somewhat mirrors their counterpart: Gabe is short for Gabriel which is the angel that destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, while Abraham is the longer form of Abram, the Biblical figure who entered into the covenant to create Israel. Zora means dawn while Umbrae means shadow. Jason means healer or life-giver while Pluto refers to the god of death. Pluto and Jason even tend to literally mirror each other, possibly due to the fact that, since they’re younger, they haven’t had as much time to diverge and therefore their connection is stronger.
The only real exception is Adelaide, because even though Red calls her the shadow, the two have more traits in common than any of the others because they’ve each lived part of their lives as the other one, becoming somewhat more harmonized. This was one of the many things which first hint at the ending. This includes the revelation that Red is the only doppelgänger who can talk, even if her voice was damaged by Adelaide’s attack. “Red” likely isn’t even the fake Adelaide’s name, only a name that the real Adelaide gave herself, because the red exit sign, the red apple she dropped, and the red shirt all represent freedom and the life she lost. Meanwhile, the fake Adelaide suppressed the memory of the event completely.
The majority of the film is based around Red trying to send a message to Adelaide using the Tethered, although the first thing that triggers it is the image of a small real spider emerging from beneath another fake spider. This reminds her of how she first encountered the real Adelaide while she was singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” a song about a creature who, much like the Tethered were supposed to be, keeps attempting to climb up only to be knocked back down (keep this in mind for later). The next sign was the outfits worn by the Tethered (presumably made over the last 20 years since Red became their leader). They’re red outfits with a single glove, which is the Michael Jackson outfit from Thriller, which was on the shirt that Adelaide was wearing that night. The last is the fact that the Tethered all join together in a human chain, reminiscent of Hands Across America, the last ad that Adelaide saw before her abduction. It’s all designed to remind her of the truth about the two of them: Hence, “us.”
However, it’s the fact that either one could be the “real” Adelaide that makes the personal allegory work. The fact that the fake Adelaide took the real Adelaide’s place and lived a mostly normal life means that it isn’t that the doppelgängers are inherently evil or lesser, it means that they could go either way but their circumstances force them to be the way they are. Just like regular people.
The movie’s conclusion almost wants us to conclude that the Adelaide who is alive at the end is the “evil” one, but I don’t think it’s that simple. We only get a glimpse into what Fake Adelaide’s life was like before she took Real Adelaide’s place, but it is a horrifying bastardization of an existence, with most of her actions out of her control. We hear the Real Adelaide, as Red, recount her life, where she was forced to marry Abraham and bear his children against her will, which is implied to be exactly what would have happened to Fake Adelaide. So, is Fake Adelaide really evil for wanting to avoid a tortured existence? If she’d done it without putting Real Adelaide in her place, we’d call her a hero. But instead she chose to condemn a person to a tortured existence and then ignore her… which is something that, on a social level, the film accuses everyone of doing.
As for the societal allegory, the Tethered are a fairly straightforward metaphor for The Other. They are a group that is defined by being “not us.” They could be any number of things, and the movie gives equal credibility to several interpretations.
First, they could represent the poor, as evidenced by the use of Hands Across America, which is one of the truly colossal failures among fundraisers, earning only $15 million of the desired $50 million and having many breaks in the chain of people. The Tethered are the people below the “real” people who starve and are ignored or forgotten, much like the poor and the homeless. During the initial scene of the Wilson doppelgängers confronting the Wilsons, the Wilsons are all wearing outfits representative of their prosperity, a college sweater from Howard University, a soccer mom outfit, a hoodie with an iPod, and a tuxedo t-shirt. When they later kill the doubles, it’s using a golf club, an expensive car, a decorative geode, a boat, and a yacht, things that are representative of the upper class. At the end of the movie, the Tethered actually make a continuous chain, seemingly representing a successful version of hands across America, representing America’s poor finally being noticed. The bible verse cited in the movie, Jeremiah 11:11, reads “Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” This could be either an interpretation of the Tethered as the evil which descend upon humanity as punishment for humanity’s evil, or the verse is reflective of the fact that the Tethered have been tortured and ignored by their creators. Either way, it works.
Second, they could represent African-Americans. The Tethered are essentially former slaves that have been released without giving them any resources or help integrating into the rest of society. They’ve been stuck in the same place for generations which is represented through a red-lined corridor, which I’d even argue is probably a reference to the fact that the act of excluding African-Americans from owning property was called “red-lining.” Red even forces Adelaide to spend the movie shackled so as to feel how she felt waking up having been abducted and shackled and transported into a different society against her will. I’m not saying that’s a metaphor, but if it’s not then I don’t know what is.
Third, they could represent the image of foreigners. They were created by the government as a way to control the populace, much how governments tend to play up the threats of foreign attacks as a way to manipulate their populace into giving them more power. If you need an example, I’m going to ask you to look at pretty much any government. While they seem to be a violent threat, the reality is that after they get through a period where they have trouble communicating (i.e. not being able to talk), they tend to acclimate and assume the same traits as their surroundings.
One thing that works pretty much regardless of the interpretation is the presence of “the itsy bitsy spider,” which is just a song about a futile existence of attempting to advance only to be knocked back down into your place. The only way Fake Adelaide breaks the cycle is by throwing another spider down the waterspout in her place.
Whatever the interpretation, the key is that Adelaide proves that they would be indistinguishable from the “normal” people if only they were given similar circumstances. While the movie suggests that the Tethered don’t have souls, the fact that Adelaide risks her life for her child while “Red” orchestrates a genocide indicates that perhaps that’s just how the creators justified their mistreatment of the Tethered. Under any of these interpretations, the allegory is a comment on America. Rather than “US,” then, the film is actually “U.S.”
Overall, it’s trying to cram all of this into the movie that is its biggest weakness. It’s hard to make this much allegory work within a cohesive narrative. It leaves a lot of questions for the audience which, while they mostly can be answered, require way more thought and observation than most people are willing to put forth to fill plot holes. This film was meant to be broken down and chewed by the viewer, but at some points it basically shoves a ton of stuff at you in quick succession and you start choking. I still thought this was an amazing movie, but I also admit that I understand why a lot of people won’t, and those people aren’t wrong not to like it. That said, I would tell everyone to at least give it a shot, because it does have something to say that might be helpful to you.
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