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53 unanswered questions I still have after seeing “Us” twice

I left my second viewing of “Us” with even more questions–not because the movie has plot holes, but because Jordan Peele has left us with so much to think about. (Warning: spoilers.)

53 unanswered questions I still have after seeing “Us” twice
Evan Alex as Jason Wilson doppelgänger Pluto in Us. [Photo: courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic/Universal Pictures]

Of all possible reactions to the new film Us, the least likely of all is a dismissive “meh.”

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Some Get Out superfans may be let down by their own stratospheric expectations for Jordan Peele’s follow-up, and it just may not be others’ hypnotic cup of tea, but Us is not a film that invites shrugs. It’s a movie that leaves viewers with more questions than answers–the kind of movie where, love it or hate it, you almost have to go somewhere afterward to chop it up and try to figure out just what happened.

Writer, producer, and director Jordan Peele on the set of his film, Us. [Photo: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures]
The plot, for the uninitiated–but, good lord, what is anyone uninitiated doing here–involves Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) returning as an adult with a family of her own to the beachside city where she once had a chilling encounter with a doppelgänger as a child. Just as she feared, the doppelganger finds her and brings along shadow versions of Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex.) Much like the film’s predecessor, Get Out, what unfolds from this set-up reveals a scope far broader than the initial premise and is packed with pointed pop-culture references and little details that seem designed to stick in viewers’ collective craw.

“Everything in this movie was deliberate, that is one thing I can guarantee you,” Peele told Mashable over the weekend. “Unless you didn’t like something and that was a complete accident.”

The second half of his quote is glib, but the first is dead serious. Peele is a director with both vision and precision, which means that every tiny beat–a throwaway line from Elisabeth Moss, a Black Flag T-shirt–is eligible for intense scrutiny. What does it all mean? Us is basically a metaphor for class struggle, and how those who ascend out of poverty tend to pull the ladder up behind them, but what else is going on here? Since so many people must be wondering the same thing (enough for a spectacular $70.2 million box office take, the best ever for an original horror movie), it’s prime time for poring over Us’s puzzle pieces and trying to put them all together. (One note, though, before going any further. It’s tempting to question the logistics at play in Us, but lines in the film like, “That would take a shitload of coordination,” and “It took years of planning” are meant to discourage us from thinking too hard about how the Tethered procured so many thousands of jumpsuits and shears. Those quotes are basically Peele’s way of addressing the audience directly, promising we’ll have more fun looking elsewhere for answers.)

As someone who has now seen the film twice and scoured the netherworld of Reddit looking for answers, here are all the questions I still have about Us. Feel free to tweet at me or Fast Company with your guesses at answers. Spoilers of the utmost spoilery caliber will follow.

  • Several movies in the entertainment center at the beginning of Us comment on what we’re about to see–The Goonies, The Man with Two Brains, C.H.U.D., Nightmare on Elm Street–but what does The Right Stuff imply?
  • Is the one glove just a Michael Jackson reference? Or was it inspired by the hand trauma Red recounts when saying that she got “sharp objects that sliced through [her] fingers” for Christmas while Adelaide got toys? Or was it inspired by the Tethered woman playing Rock Paper Scissors with her Tethered boyfriend while wearing only one glove? Is it just something that was popular in the ’80s, a pop culture time period beyond which Red never got to meaningfully engage? Or does one glove simply symbolize an act of untethering?
  • What was the deal with Jeremiah 11:11? This Slate post offers up what that bible verse says, but does it mean anything, other than the twinning look of “11:11,” a numerical motif throughout the movie? (It’s even there in the score of a baseball game Gabe is watching at one point.)
  • While we’re looking for hidden significance, there are the shirts. The Thriller one leaves us with much to unpack. Jaws is just a nod to beachside horror. (At least I think that’s all it is.) But what about Black Flag? Is it a nod to the duality of . . . Henry Rollins?
  • What is the significance of the rabbits? In addition to being sustenance for the Tethered, they’re a visual motif throughout the movie. Zora is wearing a T-shirt with a rabbit on it–possibly her track and field logo?–and when Adelaide finally goes underground near the finale, she gets there through a door with a rabbit on it. Is that an Alice in Wonderland reference? If so, to what end?
  • Why does Red at one point during the home invasion scene cut off a stuffed rabbit’s head with her shears?
  • If the government shut down the cloning experiment that created the Tethered, why did they keep all the Tethered alive? Is it because the Tethered are part of a separate experiment? If so, what could that experiment be? Could it be an attempt to see whether the Tethered would ever organize and try to pull off something like the events of the movie?
  • Did Red know the entire time that she and Adelaide switched places? It seems obvious that she did, but she never reveals it while monologuing. That could simply be for the viewer’s benefit, to parcel out the information, but is it possible she just repressed it?
  • Did Adelaide know the entire time what she, as a child, did to Red, or did that all just come rushing back to her at the end? Has she been living with this information the whole time and that’s why she says at one point, “I have a hard time, uh, talking”? We only know what she is like from seeing how she behaves during this one weekend. Is she awkward with everybody because she knows she’s an impostor, or did she just repress all that? Is this the ultimate example of “forgetting where you came from”?
  • Why did Red not escape as a child? Did she not know she could? By the time she learned that she could and broke her tether through dancing, did she decide instead that it was more important to free the Tethered than to just help herself?
  • How did Red come to know the backstory of the government program to make the Tethered? Does her knowledge of it suggest that her savior status among the Tethered led the government scientists observing the project to fill her in? If so, why?
  • Did Adelaide start dancing as a child because Red below had already been a dancer before she was brought underground? The line, “To think, if it weren’t for you, I would never have started dancing,” could either mean that the switch inspired her to dance, and allowed her to control Adelaide’s dancing, or it could just mean that without Adelaide’s dancing, Red wouldn’t have been forced to dance. (My brain is exploding right now.)
  • What is the deal with the names of the Tethered in the credits? Sure, Adelaide’s shadow is “Red,” and red is everywhere in this movie, but why is Josh’s (Tim Heidecker) shadow named Tex, while so many others have Greek names? Are the names of Zora and Jason’s Tethereds–Pluto and Umbrae–tied to any specific Greek Mythology?
  • What is the significance of Gabe having gone to the historically black Howard University and still continuing to wear a sweater with the school’s imprimatur many years later? What does this say about the theme of upward mobility or lack thereof?
  • What is the significance of Red’s response to Gabe’s question, “Who are you people?” which is a very smiley “We are Americans”? Is it merely a “We’re not so different, you and I” kind of moment? Or is it a nod to first-generation Americans who are constantly asked, “Where are you from?”
The Wilson family doppelgängers (from left), Pluto (Evan Alex), Abraham (Winston Duke), Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Jospeh) and Red (Lupita Nyong’o) in Us. [Photo: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures]
  • Hands Across America is used to symbolize middle- and upper-class Americans’ stated desire to help those in poverty and their lack of meaningful, lasting follow-through, but is there something about that time period that made HAC particularly hypocritical?
  • When we see, in flashback, young Adelaide arranging little toy animals in a row as her parents meet with a school counselor, is that a reference to Hands Across America? Does that help guide Red toward her interest in HAC?
  • When Red is dying at the end, she whistles a tune that is definitely not “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” the song she and Adelaide both whistled at different points in the movie. What song was she whistling, and what does the change mean?
  • Why does Red smile so sinisterly when she tells Jason and Pluto, “Don’t burn down our house”? Is she just reiterating the point that they are all connected, with her use of ‘our,’ or is she saying something more?
  • What is the significance of Jason digging tunnels at the beach instead of building sandcastles?
  • How come Jason is the only one who figures out he can–or is able to–control his Tethered?
  • What kind of “magic trick” is basically just a lighter? Why can Pluto do it right away, when Jason has such a hard time doing it?
  • What does it mean that the family is said to have visited the summer house the previous year for a grandmother’s funeral, and that Jason had lost his magic trick during that visit? Is there a chance Jason and Pluto switched? Is that why Adelaide seems so perturbed when Pluto starts snapping in rhythm near the end? (Which Jason had trouble with during the already famous “I Got 5 On It” scene toward the beginning.)
  • When Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) almost cuts Adelaide’s face and then cuts her own instead, is it because she recognized Red in Adelaide? Also, she cuts her face right on the spot where she mentioned earlier that she’d gotten plastic surgery, but why?
  • Are we to infer that all the dead people on their surface were killed by their Tethereds, or was it just kind of a bloodletting free-for-all?
  • When Adelaide assures Jason at the end that “everything is gonna be like it was before,” how does she know that and to what time period does “before” refer?
  • The cuts on Adelaide’s face at the end almost form an “x” and a “?”–does that mean anything? Is that why Jason looks at her in a spooked out way?
  • What does it mean that Jason took a rabit with him back up to the surface?
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