Jordan Peele's second feature film, Us, is horrifying, to be sure. But by the time the credits start to roll, you might find yourself a little bit . . . confused, shall we say. Between all of the complex layers, hidden meanings, and creepy scares that are introduced over the course of the horror film, there is a lot to unpack. Who are the Tethered? And what do they want? Where did they come from? Put on your red jumpsuit and strap in, because we're breaking it all down, below.
Warning: BIG spoilers for Us will follow! You've been warned.
In the beginning of Us, we meet the Wilsons: parents Adelaide and Gabe (Black Panther costars Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke) and their pre-teen kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). Together they travel to Adelaide's late grandmother's home in Santa Cruz, CA, for a Summer holiday, but it's immediately clear that something is up with Adelaide. As she confesses to Gabe later that night, she's haunted by a traumatic event that happened on the boardwalk there when she was a kid. No matter how many glasses of rosé Adelaide has with their family friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), she's unable to move past it.
In the flashback to young Adelaide, we see her wander off from her parents at the boardwalk's amusement park on her birthday, ending up in a house of mirrors attraction all by herself. The storm rageing outside cuts the power, and Adelaide stumbles through the funhouse looking for an exit. But all of a sudden she's faced with a living, breathing reflection of herself — a little girl who looks exactly like her, down to her pigtails and the "Thriller" t-shirt her father won her at an arcade game just moments before. Adult Adelaide goes on to tell Gabe that she ran out after that, but he finds it hard to believe her story until the entire family is soon confronted by demonic versions of themselves (who we learn are called the "Tethered") that same night.
The Wilson family are then held hostage in their living room by their doubles. Red (Adelaide's jumpsuit-wearing double who is the only Tethered to actually speak) is in charge, and makes it clear that the doubles have arrived to kill the Wilsons and take their place in the real world. The Wilsons are able to escape, with both Gabe and Zora killing their Tethered doppelgängers, Abraham and Umbrae. They arrive at the home of the Tylers (who have all been brutally killed by their own doppelgängers at this point), and learn from a news broadcast that the entire country is under attack by murderous doubles. Where did they even come from?!
Essentially, the Tethered are the result of a government-funded nationwide cloning project. In some ways the experiment was a success, in that it was able to replicate human subjects physically, down to every last hair and molecule. However, the science was unable to copy the mind and soul, so to speak, of the original specimens. This was a problem since the whole point of the experiment was to create doubles to control the people they were modelled after. The Tethered were therefore left physically perfect, but mentally damaged — with the exception of Red, none of them can even speak (they just howl and groan).
Red fills Adelaide in on this during their showdown at the end of the film, where she also reveals that once the government realised the clones were basically useless, they left them to rot in a series of underground tunnels lurking under the continental United States. As for why Red is able to speak and think and lead the rest of the Tethered in a murderous uprising against the people aboveground? Well, that's where things get REALLY complicated.
Adelaide confronts Red in the underground tunnels beneath the hall of mirrors she entered as a child, encountering multiple rooms filled with rabbit cages, bunk beds, and classrooms. Adelaide comes across Red in one of the classrooms as the latter stands in front of a chalkboard covered in drawings of stick figures holding hands.
Red has always been different from the others, standing out with her voice and intelligence. Her plan all along has been to kill the original copies of the Tethered and form a line inspired by the 1986 charity event Hands Across America, in which people joined hands in a human chain for 15 minutes. According to Red, the line is a symbolic act to bring awareness to the Tethered's existence.
Adelaide succeeds in killing Red in the end, but that's not where the horror ends — through one final, chilling flashback that occurs as Adelaide is driving her family to safety to Mexico, the truth is revealed.
After young Adelaide (played by Madison Curry) encounters her double in the dark of the hall of mirrors, we see that the young doppelgänger actually knocks her out and drags her underground into the tunnel, handcuffs her to a bunk bed, and switches places with her. The "real" Red leaves Adelaide there to suffer with the Tethered, taking her place in the world above; this is why Adelaide's parents felt their daughter had changed after the day at the beach, why "Red" is the only Tethered who can speak, and why she leads a rebellion.
The metaphor of the Tethered is a bit convoluted, to be totally honest. But Peele's final shot, which is an aerial view of thousands of the Tethered linking hands across a mountain range in California, is yet another reminder of the importance of the Hands Across America imagery.
The 1986 charity event was meant to raise awareness for famine in Africa and homelessness in the United States, but here Peele presents another way to look at it: people of privilege turning a blind eye to those in poverty, unable (or unwilling) to see the true nature of our nation's shameful history of subjugation until the fatal consequences of their actions are literally staring them in the face.
After all, like Red says after she breaks into Adelaide's home at the start of the film, the Tethered are "Americans."