In the final confrontation between Red and Adelaide in film Us, Red notes “And to think, if it weren’t for you, I never would have danced at all”. In doing so, she frames their ensuing fight to the death as a complex ballet, but additionally frames their relationship as a form of violent homage. If Adelaide had never switched places with Red, stolen her life on the surface world, or taken dance, Red would not possess the same level of grace and power as she does in this fight. Although, as Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red is compelled to emulate Adelaide’s actions, she learns to move independently while still tethered. As such, Red is a self-aware homage to Adelaide’s life and culture.
Jordan Peele’s Us thus suggests that doppelgangers represent a complex form of intertextuality, which the film further emphasizes through its frequent references to other media. These references enhance the film’s doppelganger nature while also implying that both the characters and film itself should be aware of what came before in case it comes back.
While there are multiple examples of intertextuality in the film, I want to focus on how Us incorporates Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The identity politics in Alice compliment those between Red and Adelaide, as both projects ask what it means to have a double, and the possible threats a double inherently possesses.
Most of the films cited in Us feature male protagonists and extreme violence, like Lost Boys (1987) and CHUD (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers 1984). Alice is the exception, as the film references her through its multiple white rabbits, mirror worlds, and upside-down logic. Both Alice and Us feature a young girl who wanders away from her family and enters a bizarre world inhabited by rabbits and a mirror reality. Rabbits are particularly evident in the film, as the tethered eat the rabbits and Zora’s hoodie has the Vietnamese word for rabbit on it (“Us Trivia”). There are also more subtle references, as Red functions as a Queen of Hearts figure, obsessed with painting the world red. For the Queen of Hearts, this means painting the roses red but also chopping people’s heads off. For Red, it means filling the world with the red jumpsuits doppelgangers and murdering. There is even a scene where Red discovers a white rabbit stuffy in the summer house, and chops off its head, thus embodying the Queen of Hearts.
Adelaide and Alice have similar anxieties around identity, as while Alice states “I’m not myself you see” (Carroll 41), Adelaide notes “I don’t feel like myself”, to which Gabe replies “I think you look like yourself”. This moment between Adelaide and Gabe encapsulates Alice’s ongoing negotiation with how she feels versus how she looks. Carroll’s prefatory poem “All in a Golden Afternoon” introduces this dynamic with the line, “Yet what can one poor voice avail/Against three tongues tied together” (11-12, 3). This line implies that having a voice is the result of some internal cooperation, which Alice has little of in the novel. Alice deals with the questions of who, where, what, and why throughout the text, and much of this stems from her inability to fix her physical appearance, words, or behavior. Because she cannot fix these things, she cannot fix herself, or speak with one voice. The Hatter’s tea party demonstrates this anxiety, as its characters shout “No room! No room,” to which Alice replies, “There’s plenty of room” (60). The implication here is that, like the tea party, Alice is fighting for room within herself, and to rectify the relationship between her and her double.
The instances in which we see Alice’s double are often violent. Alice note that “sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes” (15), and later that “once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself” (15), both of which illustrate that Alice loses control and cause physical harm. Her double typically emerges when Alice shows weak behavior like crying, as in one scene, where Alice tells herself, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself…to go on crying in this way! Stop this moment, I tell you!” (17). It is noteworthy that the principle feature in this line is an “I”, as it suggests that it is a different “I” than the figure crying. Alternatively, we could read this “I” as an ‘eye’, one which belongs to the double who is always watching, judging, and waiting to take control.
There is a strong similarity in the violent way Red and Alice’s doubles manifest in these works. Alice’s double is often described as having a different voice and tone, like Red. As Alice recites poetry in Carroll’s work, she realizes that her voice becomes “hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to” (19), because it is no longer her voice speaking. The text also emphasizes that the double wants to take control of Alice’s body and life, as demonstrated in the White Rabbits house. When Alice looks at her hands, she realizes that “she had put on one of the Rabbit’s…gloves while she was talking. ‘How can I have done that” (19-20) she asks, realizing that some unconscious force slipped into the external world while she was distracted.
Similarly, Alice and Adelaide are both fighting for control over their lives. One way in which Alice tackles this is by attempting to divide items in Wonderland, like the Caterpillar’s mushroom. During her conversation with the Caterpillar, Alice tries to determine which side of the mushroom will make her grow and shrink, which she describes as “to make out which were the two side of it” (46). However, Alice discovers that the mushroom is “perfectly round, [and] she found this a very difficult question” (46) because she is unable to locate where one side ends and the other begins. This scene implies that duality is not easy to categorize or divide, as personas are reliant on one another. The same goes for the doppelgangers in Us, as Adelaide and Red are dependent on one another.
Like the quote I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “If it weren’t for you, I never would have danced at all”, these doubles are intrinsically connected. Although both Red and Adelaide fight to divide themselves, like Alice, they realize that the question of selfhood is not as straightforward. The reveal that Adelaide was Red, and that they swapped places, brings into question the issue of originality and copy. What seemed like a copy is in fact authentic, and vice versa.
One concern which links Us and Alice, is thus the issue of what happens when doppelgangers are untethered. Early in the text, Alice begins “to fancy what the flame…looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing” (14), but wants to believe that it is possible to remove the flame from the candle. We can read this moment as Alice asking if a soul could survive if separated or extinguished from its body. This question of separation and identity becomes more complex in Us, as the tethered succeed, but have no purpose other than standing in a line. We see Adelaide driving away, but it is unclear how much untethering has changed her identity. Her sinister smile in these last moments implies that the tethered nature still exists and could externalize at any moment. It is left ambiguous if Adelaide absorbed her twin’s knowledge or power in any way, or what the outcome of this untethering act was.
It is possible to read the ending of Us not as a division but as a consumption, similar to Alice’s obsession with eating. Adelaide devours her other self, and in doing so, gains the ability to transit between her surface and underground natures, as demonstrated by this final smile. There are a few instances in Us which demonstrate this fear of consumption and interwoven parts. The film often returns to the motif of two parts creating a third body, like the parts of a scissor coming together. Alice provides an effective way to read this combination as it poses the question, “Yet what can one poor voice avail/Against three tongues together” (Carroll 11-12, 3). We see this three logic throughout Us, particularly when the twins chant in unison, “Jinx, double jinx, triple jinx, blackout”. The implication is that when three is put together, some dark occurrence happens. Red continues this discussion when she describes that “The soul remains 1, shared by 2”, thus creating three entities: the two parts and the one soul when interwoven. This becomes more complicated in the film’s last moments, as we see Jason lower his Chewbacca mask, yet another reference. For most of the film, Jason wears the mask on top of his head, signifying that he has two faces or selves. However, in this moment, Jason collapses the two into one, implying that these parts have become one entity. The same can be said of Jason and his double, as what was two parts have been absorbed into one body.
It’s noteworthy that although the Alice story is extremely prevalent in Us, Adelaide and Red acknowledge the reference in different ways, particularly with this need to consume. When Adelaide returns to the mirror house near the end of the film, a white rabbit jumps out as she opens the door. It is unclear how the rabbit made its way up the escalators and hallways of the underground, but it matches perfectly with a drawing of a rabbit in the mirror house. Rather than following the rabbit, as Alice would, Adelaide descends into the rabbit hole without the rabbit. She observers it but leaves it alone. Red starkly contrasts this as she describes that, in the underworld, “she had to eat rabbit, raw and bloody”, which encapsulates the difference between her and Adelaide.
Adelaide’s tactic is to observe and mimic, a technique she first used after switching with Red and attempting to emulate surface world behavior. Alternatively, because Red was repressed, she became fixated with consuming or destroying the world. Unlike Adelaide, who is content in the world, Red wants to return and refashion reality. However, in their final battle, Adelaide and Red swap places once again. Red becomes graceful and human-like, while Adelaide becomes increasingly animalistic and desperate. During this reversal, Adelaide consumes and represses Red, leaving her body in the underground, a sort of stomach.
The last time we see Red, she is lying in a pool of blood as a white rabbit hops by. This image implies that while Adelaide can return to reality, her double lies dead in the rabbit hole, forever consumed and repressed.