Did you hear the one about George Washington’s secret police? It’s true, they were called the Culper Ring. The first spies in America. He’d send them after his enemies, which included friends of the British – and the early abolitionists. Hey, maybe it’s not true – but it could be true. Right?
I saw Us for the second time on Monday. I’ve been thinking about it a great deal.
Interpretation of the film is a minor cottage industry at present, and there are dimensions of the film I feel others are better qualified to talk about; in particular, pal Dom has a great theory about its climax I encourage folks to check out. I don’t necessarily want to add to the din, but after this second viewing, things began to crystallize for me. (Spoilers begin after the first picture.)
There is the double meaning of the title, Us – which refers to the enemy that Adelaide has met in Red (for clarity’s sake, I’m referring to Red as the version of Adelaide who dresses in red as an adult.) But it’s also a common abbreviation of the US, or the United States; this is a movie about America. Red describes her family as “Americans” which is a very peculiar turn of phrase – usually, it’s the last thing you’d expect a clone to call herself.
But call herself an American she does, and she talks about the side of America that’s been there almost as long as America itself – the American conspiracy theory, the paranoid notion that explains everything.
Did you hear the one about the fluoride in the water? The government puts it there. It’s supposed to help us with our teeth, but why would they undercut the dental industry like that? I think there’s something in the fluoride that makes you think the way they want you to. Hey, maybe it’s not true – but it could be true. Right?
This theory is dropped by Zora, and I seized upon it, as all conspiracy theorists must – all the coincidences in a basic day that add up to something sinister hiding where you don’t know where to look, like alarm clocks and the color red. The theory that explains a part of the world that’s hidden from view – much like mythology does.
Given what happens at the end, there’s easy comparisons to be made to the classic fables of the doppelgänger and the changeling, a spirit that acts as one’s extra soul (this conceit reversed in the film, one soul with an extra body) or that steals away children and replaces them with wicked lookalikes. All these fables are, are attempts by people to explain what’s happening in the world around them – why you suddenly don’t feel like yourself, or why your kid has changed as all children do.
We still have mythology – we have creepypastas and astrology and the Ouija board in addition to more traditional faiths. But we have the conspiracy theory too, updated to the newer boogeymen in our lives – powerful forces such as the state or corporations, that we all know have towering levels of control over our lives. Conspiracy theories often veer into racism or antisemitism – but often come out of awareness of same, of people of nonwhite races or non-Christian faiths who have a lot of reasons to distrust the power structures of our lives. I know someone whose grandparent was a test subject for MK-ULTRA; knowing what we do know, who wouldn’t stop once in a while to wonder about what we don’t?
The joke nowadays is that the conspiracy theory is dead, because with the current lackwit as President, he couldn’t possibly be expected to not blab about the UFOs at Area 51 if they had any. But it seems more powerful than ever, with old friends such as the Flat Earth Society making a surprising comeback thanks to the power of epistemic closure on the Internet – and the simple fact that no one really trusts those in power any more, not after a war that drags in half a dozen countries and was founded on a lie, and a financial crisis that sets the world economy on fire that saw next to no punishment.
Because the comforting thing about a conspiracy theory is that it makes sense of the world – it puts a Them in charge. Sure, you may hate Them, you may hate what They have done to the world, but at least there’s a Them to hate – at least there’s an enemy. The other possibility is that the people in charge are as fumbling in the dark and blind to the world as we are, no more understanding the machine they ride than we understand it as it rampages through our lives.
Just as some balk at an atheism that says that the world was spun not by gods, but by chance, so too they balk at a skepticism that dismisses there being a Them in charge; that says “there’s no Them. There’s just Us.”
Did you hear the one about the tunnels under America? Miles and miles of them, all throughout the continent, so maybe the people who made them even forgot about them. I hear there’s things down there, maybe animals or an underground society or labs where they do experiments on people – experiments on how our brains work, so that they can make our brains work the way they want them to.
Hey, maybe it’s not true – but it could be true. Right?
Maybe there really are secret conspiracies, that got abandoned due to not being able to get an efficient return on investment; maybe there are clones, but we control them as much as they control us, making their use as a means of control suspect. Maybe a grand plan amounts to little more than the disenfranchised holding hands across America, tethered to each other instead of their duplicates. Maybe “I Got Five on It” really is just about drugs.
Us demands an interpretation; it wants the viewers to turn it over and shake it and talk about how it spoke to them. It invites a conspiratorial angle to how it functions. But maybe the moments I seize upon are just moments – I have friends who just as quickly seized upon Adelaide’s facial expressions, or the use of the rabbits. Maybe Peele meant for all of these interpretations, or none of them; maybe he knew we’d put two and two together and come up with the number twenty-two (or 11:11, which is just two and two in Roman numerals.)
All myths, and all conspiracy theories, come from the brain, and the fact that one can dismiss the notion of a God but believe the world is flat tells us that the pattern recognition principles of our brains are universal, and so are the twisted paths they lead us down. That we’ll always be making something out of nothing, including our own notions of consciousness – that we pretend that there’s just one of Us, or that there’s an Us to be.
But maybe that’s a comforting lie, as comforting as any myth or conspiracy theory. After all, even with proof of the existence of the Tethered, the Tethered tug at us as surely as we tug at them, like two sets of fingers on a Ouija board pointer, neither one in charge. All the existence of the Tethered mean is that no one’s in charge – no one in charge of the universe, no one in charge of the world, and with the existence of another you that sometimes is bound to you and other times you’re bound to it, maybe no one’s even in charge of yourself.
Did you hear the one about the human brain? It evolved out of warm soup, and it runs on electricity, and we can isolate and extract and study every part of it, but there’s definitely something hidden in there. Something indefinable, but essential, something that is the difference between Being a Person and Not Being a Person. They know this exists, so we know that the difference exists. I hear they even measured it at 21 grams.
Hey, maybe it’s not true – but it could be true.