“Swarm” Keeps Viewers Buzzing Inside a Hive of Horror
There’s nothing like angrily devouring a cold slice of cherry pie after murdering someone in the kitchen… right?
“Swarm” is the mind-bending and psychologically disturbing brainchild of Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, creator and writer of FX’s Emmy-winning series, “Atlanta.” Inspired by an online conspiracy theory related to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album release, this eerie thriller challenges viewers to draw the line between fandom and obsession, and examines the extent to which humans use music to build alternative realities and fill the painful voids in our lives.
The show boasts the production and acting debut from the likes of Malia Obama and Billie Eilish respectively, and features appearances from R&B singer Chloe Bailey, actors Leon and Damson Idris (Snowfall), animation legend Cree Summers, internet sensation Rickey Thompson and even Paris Jackson, daughter of the “King of Pop.” Yes, THAT King of Pop.
The Amazon Prime series focuses on Dre, or Andrea Greene (Dominique Fishback), a queer woman that co-creator Nabers describes in “Vulture” as “an alien in her own universe.” She is quiet, socially awkward, impulsive, passionate and absolutely adores Ni’Jah, an international pop superstar whose character is loosely (or tightly even) inspired by the Queen Bey herself, Beyonce Knowles.
Dre shares a menial apartment and works at the mall with her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) who appears to be her only friend. The pair is inseparable, deeply bonding over Ni’Jah’s music since childhood and scars from a troubled past. Their dream is to meet the pop superstar some day, a promise Dre vows to keep to Marissa. But when missing an important phone call results in a devastating loss, it becomes the catalyst that sends Dre down a dark and bloody path of revenge, destruction, redemption and release.
The series of grim encounters that follow paint the picture of a lonely and grief ridden soul. Dre’s pain (and slanderous tweets) carry her from one dispute to the next, handing out swift justice in the name of Ni’Jah. An attempted reconciliation over tea with Khalid (Damson Idris) ends in explosive turmoil. The road trip that sends Dre sliding down a stripper pole alongside Halsey (Paris Jackson) eventually leads to the pits of a shallow grave. Assistance from a familiar tow truck driver leaves her literally gasping for air, and stalking a “Karen” with a kettlebell in the gym is thwarted by an unlikely diversion. Hollywood “tales” give life to internet mysteries (Who Bit Beyonce?) and sketchy encounters with unassuming strangers keep viewers in a state of uneasy anticipation.
What makes “Swarm” such a chilling watch is any attempt to understand Dre’s psyche. She seems to become increasingly detached from reality with each act of violence. Her sweet face and unassuming demeanor is ironically her secret weapon, as it is exactly that which allows her dirty deeds to continue under the radar. You want to understand and envision the path that led her to this point. Even when she creepily dances while mopping a victim’s blood and runs over a woman with her car (twice), we still desire to enter the anarchic jumble of thoughts in her head in search of the answers to our piercing questions. The undying devotion Dre has for Ni’Jah represents the dangers of how preoccupation with fantasy can distort our sense of reality. It creates a world in which we can escape from the most painful moments in our lives. The suffering and trauma may nudge us there, but it isn’t safe for us to stay.
Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The Hate U Give”) masterfully channels the fluidity of human emotion and gender, delivering mystery and ambiguity in her portrayal of Dre. The kind of versatility and emotional range Fishback displays in this body of work leaves you with a haunting viewing experience, making you feel connected to witnessing a transformation of the character through the primordial elements of earth, wind, fire and water.
Billie Eilish also gives a very compelling performance, emerging as a wise and peculiar figure central to a developmental climax for the protagonist. The way she embodies this calm and sinister demeanor leaves you feeling suspicious, and then mortified once the climactic incident unravels.
Some critics feel the show is a lazy and cheap depiction of crazed fandom, arguing that the project falls short on its mission to examine celebrity obsession as a modern phenomenon. The stories of deranged fans engaging in the stalking, doxing and harassment of critics and naysayers are very real, and it is believed that “Swarm” could have served as an opportunity to explore that deeper.
Another criticism is that the show attempts to cover a tremendous amount of ground in only seven episodes. Trying to tackle a serial killer storyline, social commentary, musical commentary and exploring subtle themes of race causes the plot to swirl into a pit of nothingness. Perhaps that is intentional. Co-creator Nabers told “Vulture” that “It’s okay to not know everything.”
“Swarm” is a sometimes absurdist and intentionally disturbing exploration of identity, passion and our sometimes complicated relationship with reality. Glover and Nabers deliver an unsettling look through the eyes of a woman driven to the brink, desperately clinging to a memory and floating on clouds far removed from the consequences of her actions.