One of the most impressive things about Jordan Peele’s Us is the dual performances given by each of the leads as they portray their nominally normal characters — and then their “tethered” doubles. As soon as the tethered are introduced, it’s made clear that, even though they’ve spent their lives forced to mimic the lives of their counterparts, they’re not just mirror images of their aboveground selves. They have distinct personalities and physical tics, from a fixation with fire to rictus grins — but they’re also not completely separate entities.
In the grander allegory of Us, the tethered represent the “other,” the people that we believe to be different from ourselves and persecute as such, even though they ultimately aren’t. The personalities and appearances of the tethered feed into this larger idea, as they play with images and stereotypes that are prevalent in that kind of “us, not them” (pun intended) thinking, or otherwise removed lines of bias.
[Ed. note: Mild spoilers for Us follow.]
Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) is the platonic ideal of a goofy dad; Abraham, his double, serves a dual function as the Gabe who has lived his life by somebody else’s rules, and the “other” perception of Gabe, a racist, criminal stereotype of black men, making him out to be menacing when all he cares about is protecting and freeing his family. The tethered daughter, Umbrae (Shahidi Wright Joseph), is referred to as a “little monster” by her mother, Red (Lupita Nyong’o); though she shares her double’s talent for running, it’s the addition of a permanent, eerie grin that brings up shades of how young women in particular are always expected (and instructed) to smile. She’s manifesting the image that’s projected onto her in the same way that her father is.
It’s a principle that also holds true when it comes to Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and their twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). They become caricatures of themselves — the “them” they’d be described as behind their backs. Josh becomes a pandering ultra-bro, Kitty becomes fickle and appearance-obsessed, and their daughters become defined by their gymnastic abilities.
Where Pluto (Evan Alex) and Red are concerned, the meaning behind how they reflect their doubles becomes a little more complicated. Their mirroring goes beyond dissecting the stereotypes drawn from surface appearances.
Of the tethered family, Pluto’s behavior is particularly feral. Like Abraham, he’s made out to be less refined and more dangerous than he actually is; he’s just a child, responding mostly to the commands of his mother and to the promise of fire. He’s also particularly tied to his above-ground double, as the bond is so strong that Jason can, at times, control his actions. They are literally not that different, in more than just appearance; their motions are near identical, too.
The imagery surrounding Red goes deeper. Echoes of Kara Walker, best known for her black-on-white cut-paper tableaux, are present throughout the film. As the Wilson family walks along the beach near the beginning of the film, they cast distorted shadows onto the sand; when the tethered first appear, we only see their silhouettes, not their faces. Red’s rigidity and exaggerated expressions also bring to mind Walker’s aesthetic — as does, to a degree, Red’s obsession with paper cut-outs. The likeness is all the more appropriate given the way Walker’s work addresses the history of slavery and racism in America through stereotypes, and oftentimes eerie and violent imagery — as does Peele’s.
There’s a parallel to be found in the colors that Red and Adelaide sport, too. Red is dressed entirely in red, and Adelaide is dressed in white. As the movie progresses, however, Adelaide’s outfit becomes increasingly red as she’s spattered with blood, and by the finale, she’s (appropriately) just as red as her counterpart, visually signifying how alike they are.
Each choice stresses not only how similar the tethered ultimately are to their doubles (were it not for the things they’ve had to do simply to survive), and how surface-level perception of something as “other” will immediately change how we treat and think of people. They’re their own unfair stereotypes and expectations, come to wreak havoc upon those who would see them that way.