DISCLAIMER: The following contains spoilers for Prime Video’s Swarm.
Trigger warning: Mention of suicide
We all have our pop culture idols — the artists we admire. We appreciate their work and are entertained by them. However, some folks take idolizing a touch too far. The term “parasocial relationship” is nothing new, especially given the stratospheric rise of social media. Our collective, chronically online nature serves as prime breeding grounds for parasocial tendencies to fester.
Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ new series, Swarm, tackles parasocial relationships with verve, never shying away from blatantly drawing comparisons between global pop sensation Ni’Jah’s overzealous fanbase and Beyoncé‘s “BeyHive.” The show addresses the toxicity of stan culture with ballsy gusto. It’s the same no holds barred approach Glover took with his critically lauded dark comedy, Atlanta. Fans of Atlanta will undoubtedly sink their teeth into Swarm. It’s the darker sister to the series, and while they tread similar thematic ground, Swarm‘s overall tone is less bitingly funny and more bitingly bloody.
Dominique Fishback stars as Dre, an obsessive Ni’Jah fan who hails from Houston, as she embarks on an unexpected (and bloody) cross-country trip to defend her love for the pop star following the suicide of her best friend, Marissa (a delightful Chloe Bailey). Initially, Dre seeks vengeance for Marissa’s death, slaughtering those who treated her poorly or mocked her on social media.
Starting out, you might believe Dre wishes to rid the world of evil people. That is until her murder spree morphs into a dedicated mission to eradicate anyone who spews vitriol about Ni’Jah. Fishback is a revelation in this role. Swarm could easily put her on the awards season map as an early Emmys frontrunner, and it should. She attacks Dre with piss and vinegar, doling out an audacious performance that buzzes with truthfulness. Fishback infuses Dre with serrated-edge complexity and nuance. You want to despise her for being, essentially, an unhinged murderer, but you can’t. I love the subtleties she adds to Dre, such as Dre stuffing her face with food after she kills.
However, Swarm is more than a surreal takedown of parasocial relationships and stan culture. It’s about Black women and mental health and the marriage of the two, namely, about how they, unfortunately, fall through the societal cracks. There’s even an episode akin to Atlanta‘s “The Goof Who Sat by the Door,” titled “Fallin’ Through the Cracks,” which airs a fake documentary chronicling the story of Dre. The outing tells us that Dre, adopted and discarded by Marissa’s family, fell through the cracks.
In a society pervasive with white supremacy and systemic racism, Black women are often left on the sidelines. Swarm deftly brings this to light in a boundlessly creative way.
Cinematically, Swarm takes big swings, making intriguing camera choices and experimenting with the show’s color palette. I love the transition between the vibrant colors and the darker tones and how they simulate Dre’s emotional and mental states. The title cards vary from episode to episode, not unlike Atlanta. The series also plays with musical cues and sounds, immersing us in this uniquely heady, sometimes fantastical experience. For example, we hear the buzzing bee sound whenever Dre loses her grip on reality or becomes angry. That buzzing also indicates an increase in narrative tension. The abrupt stoppage of the music suggests Dre snapping back into the present. Genius.
Additionally, some of the camerawork showcases the isolation of Dre. When Dre reunites with Erica (Karen Rodriguez) in episode five, “Girl, Bye,” she lies about working as a makeup artist for Ni’Jah’s mother. Dre becomes so enveloped in her lie that she believes it herself. The camera slowly zooms in on her face as she monologues, then focuses on the tears streaming down her face. It’s a star-making moment for Fishback and an indication of the creativity behind the camera.
Swarm is no stranger to high-stakes action, gripping tension and larger-than-life characters. From Dre killing a woman she works with at the strip club, Hailey (Paris Jackson), after murdering said woman’s abusive boyfriend to Dre hitting Eva (Billie Eilish), the leader of an all-women cult, with her car, the show unflinchingly displays violence. It also represents the drastic mood swings and swirling storms of emotion within Dre.
At the bare bones level, Swarm isn’t only about Dre’s obsession with Ni’Jah. It’s a meditation on grief, loss and isolation. Deep down, Dre was in love with Marissa, so she fostered her passion for Ni’Jah to keep Marissa alive. When Marissa’s father finally disconnects his daughter’s phone two years after her passing, Dre loses it, even going to the Jackson house to threaten Marissa’s mother at gunpoint to restart said phone.
There are moments in the season where it appears Marissa is texting Dre from beyond the grave, serving as her conscience as Dre falls headfirst into a murder spree. When Dre loses Marissa’s tether to this plane, she takes it out on her family. Of course, we know the relationship between Dre and the Jacksons is fraught with tension and complicated emotions. Dre’s actions are fueled by a desire to belong and be loved — to be seen. Marissa was the only person in her life who made her feel that way. Fishback conveys this beautifully.
The season finale, “Only God Makes Happy Endings,” boasts a terrific turn from supporting player Kiersey Clemons as Dre’s girlfriend, Rashida. Dre changes her name from episode to episode to cover her tracks, and this go-round, she renames herself, Tony. Much like every episode preceding it, there’s a lingering sense of impending doom. You wait for Dre’s inevitable turn on those with whom she’s interacting. How will they disparage the glorious Ni’Jah?
However, Dre seems so happy with Rashida that you relax a little, thinking, “Perhaps nothing will go wrong this time.” Of course, Rashida makes the mistake of voicing her dislike of Ni’Jah and insults Dre, leading to her death. Dre choking Rashida is unsettling and, ultimately, tougher to watch than the other murder sequences. Dre’s incessant apologies as she kills Rashida, as if an inexplicably noble cause binds her and she must act on Ni’Jah’s behalf, are tough to hear.
Then, when Dre kills her way into Ni’Jah’s big concert that evening, she rushes onto the stage to get closer to her idol. Remember when she bit Ni’Jah in episode three, “Taste”? Nobody recognizes Dre as the infamous biter, making it easier for her to slip in undetected. For most of the series, we don’t see Ni’Jah’s face. Thus, the reveal of it is as shocking as it is brilliant.
Of course Dre sees Marissa as Ni’Jah. To her, the two are synonymous. Ni’Jah, with Marissa’s face, encourages Dre to sing to the roaring crowd. They applaud Dre. The season ends with Dre resting in Ni’Jah/Marissa’s arms as the pair drive off into the sunset. Dre wants to be loved. She spends so much of her life living on the outskirts, bearing witness to other people’s lives but not living her own. (For example, her addiction to social media.) If that’s not a metaphor for Black women being underappreciated and neglected in society, I don’t know what is.
Swarm is a trippy, bloody, must-see series as addictive as Dre perpetually living in Ni’Jah’s orbit. Dominique Fishback seamlessly steers this ship, delivering an award-winning, fearless performance of one of the most complex characters I’ve seen on TV. I’d wager the series wouldn’t be the same with another actress in that role.
This sharp satire bursts with Glover’s stylistic sensibilities and similarities to Atlanta while carving its own path as a separate entity. It’s a darkly hilarious, thought-provoking and profoundly visceral experience that reminds us of the toxicity of our celebrity obsession.
All episodes of Swarm are now streaming on Prime Video.
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