Updated July 31, 2022
During the final confrontation between Red and Adelaide in the 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 taken dance, let alone switched places with Red and stolen her life, 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, someone who emulates her, but does so in an intentional way.
Jordan Peele’s Us thus suggests that doppelgangers represent a complex form of intertextuality, which is when one piece of media references another in a conscious way. Us tethers itself to other media by making these frequent references, and the audience is involved with that because they are often the ones recognizing these references. While the film is telling one story, it’s surrounded by other well-known stories that the audience will pick up on, everything from little details in the background to verbal references. These references enhance the film’s doppelganger nature by implying that both the characters and viewer should be aware of what came before in case it comes back. It’s not just referencing something to illustrate what influenced Us, it’s suggesting that the characters and viewer should have prepared for this situation because they’ve seen these other projects. The film is consciously wielding these references to say something about it’s characters to the viewer, but also to say something about the viewer. Simply put, the tethered are just one of the doppelgangers in the film.
While there are multiple examples of intertextuality in Peele’s 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. Alice is a versatile text, in that everyone who reads it comes away with a different interpretation. I know some who focus on its illustrations, its satire, even its role in modern culture. To me, Alice is a horror text, not just because it features frightening sequences, but because modern filmmakers often incorporate Alice into horror films. Much like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) to Mary Shelley’s novel, it’s near impossible to separate this modern usage from the text, and I think Us uses Alice in light of that.
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 both Alice and Us feature a young girl who wanders away from her family and enters a bizarre mirror world, inhabited by white rabbits and upside down logic. Wonderland is never entirely separate from Alice’s world, because rather than just abandoning logic, things sort of look familiar, it’s like they are just upside down. There are still tea parties in this place, still a Queen, but their behaviour is always ironic. The tea parties never end, the guests never even get tea. It’s all just playing off of ‘proper’ society, going through the motions but loosing the meaning, much like the shot of tethered in Us riding a roller coaster without being on a ride. The Queen, for instance, is as bloodthirsty as certain British monarchs, but despite her shouting “off with their heads” every chance she can, no one’s head is ever removed. These characters are tethered to Alice’s reality, which means that just as reality impacts Wonderland, leaving tea parties and Queens, Wonderland’s chaos says something about reality and proper society, which Alice struggles with. Alice soon discovers, however, that this overlap between has existed long before she visited Wonderland. There is something inside her, mimicking, teasing, and in the occasional frightening moment, emerging. It’s why Alice can never quite recite her poems, why they always come out more violent than how she remembers. While Alice’s double becomes more intense in Wonderland, it exists before she visits, and perhaps more troubling, it exists as she leaves, meaning its violent nature is not reserved to Wonderland.
Who is Tethered to Alice?
Us makes several references to Wonderland, particularly through rabbits, as the tethered eat rabbits and Zora’s hoodie has the Vietnamese word for rabbit on it (“Us Trivia”). There are more subtle references, however, as Red functions as a Queen of Hearts figure, obsessed with painting the world red. For the Queen of Hearts, this means painting roses red and chopping people’s heads off. For Red, it means filling the world with the red jumpsuits doppelgangers and murder. There is even a scene where Red discovers a white rabbit stuffy in the summer house, and chops off its head, thus perfectly embodying the Queen of Hearts.
Beyond those specifics, Us and Alice define doubles in a comparable way. 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. Her size and name are constantly fluxing in Wonderland, which just aggravates an old hobby of hers, as the text explains that “this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people” (15). Alice’s physical identity begins radically changing in Wonderland, growing and shrinking, which means that words and names refuse to represent her, because she is changing so often. For instance, when the White Rabbit mistakes Alice for his servant, she lets him, and begins to think she could be, because being ‘Alice’ doesn’t quite feel right for her new size. The narrative goes on to imply that Alice’s name is problematic. Although she has a name, Alice can not be firmly classified, or as the King later describes, “the words don’t fit you” (108). Because the words surrounding her are unreliable, Alice is unable to do as the Hatter instructs, “say what you mean” (61), as she does not necessarily mean what she says, because she does not know who she is. Alice is incapable to “Be what you would seem to be” (81) as her appearance does not match what she seems or feels. Meanwhile, Alice’s other personality begins to emerge within this identity chaos, taking advantage of all this change.
Carroll’s prefatory poem “All in a Golden Afternoon” introduces doubles with the line, “Yet what can one poor voice avail/Against three tongues together” (11-12, 3). The line implies that having a voice is the result of some internal cooperation, which Alice has little of in the novel. She has no single voice, everything is tangled. Sometimes she is Alice, sometimes Mary Ann (the White Rabbit’s maid), other times she has no idea. 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 visualizes 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 notes 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 suggest that Alice tends to lose control and cause herself physical harm. Alice’s double typically emerges when she shows weak behavior like crying, like 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 principal 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 Rabbit’s 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 and took control while she was distracted.
Alice and Adelaide are both fighting for control over their lives. One way 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, and in the final moments of the film, we learn that their situation is far more complex and troubling than just self and other.
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 as self and other. The reveal that Adelaide was Red, and that they swapped places, brings into question the issue of original 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 could 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 (killing) was.
“Yet what can one poor voice avail”
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. Or with the scissors, the two parts and then the third they form together. This becomes more complicated in the film’s last moments, as we see Jason lower his Chewbacca mask, yet another reference to emphasize intertextuality. 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, as his double is dead, or has been consumed.
Alice ends with a similar eerie tone, as although she emerges from Wonderland, she returns for the sequel, and she is still “thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been” (110). As we know from the text, the terms, ‘wonder, curiosity, and pretend’ always show up around overlap moments. Alice understands that her actions are ‘pretend’, or as the text notes, “this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people” (15), but she she does not recognize that pretending is something she can control, as with the line “it’s no use now…to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person” (15). That hasn’t changed by the end of the text, as although Alice’s sister ends the novel by dreaming about what Alice’s life could be when she has grown out of “curious dreams”, Alice does not share that, her dreams are still curious and violent. She consumes her double during these final pages, just as Adelaide does, as she is entombed by flying cards, and in her last moments, “she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger” (109), bringing the two halves together before returning to reality.
Another way of thinking about “The soul remains 1, shared by 2” logic is through intertextuality. You have the original work, the later film, and the reference itself (or the third). The original work (or soul) now has two lives, one on its own and one in this other project. Noticing that reference creates a third, like scissors coming together, because now the original work and this newer project are tethered, each make up one blade that together forms the scissors. By referencing films, Us creates this whole world of doubles, and notably, not even the film cannot control that world because the viewer is one noticing these references. They bring whatever they associate with that reference, their own context with that work, and then view characters and environments in light of that. It’s not just the characters who are doubling here, the film itself is multiplying, which continues after the film has ended as viewers go on to reflect on these references, much like this article does.
Where Does the Double Go?
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’s unclear how the rabbit made its way up the underground’s escalators and hallways, 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. Although it appears like Adelaide and her family have emerged victorious at the end of the film, Adelaide’s final smile brings into question how much overlap continues to exist between her and Red. Reversing the quote from the beginning of this article, would Adelaide had danced if it had not been for Red? It’s unclear what happens to Alice’s double, if Alice may switch between these personalities in her reality after this final scream. I suppose that same questions arrives at the end of Us, because even the film’s title implies that one is never alone. There is always Us.