settings icon
profile icon

Newsletter | Swarm Tells The Bloody Truth About Stan-dom

Newsletter | Swarm Tells The Bloody Truth About Stan-dom
Dominique Fishback in Swarm. Amazon Prime Video
  • Team OTTplay

Last Updated: 08.29 AM, Mar 23, 2023

Available On:

This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on March 23, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


WHERE DOES ONE EVEN BEGIN with Swarm — Amazon Prime’s latest binge offering? Let’s start with just the roster of star power pulling up for this show: It is co-created by Donald Glover (aka rapper Childish Gambino), showrunner and star of the much-lauded, critically-acclaimed Atlanta and Janine Nabers, a writer on Atlanta and the Damon Lindelof-created brilliance Watchmen. The cast features Chloe Bailey, twinsies with Halle, Disney’s new Little Mermaid; along with cameos by Paris Jackson — daughter of Michael; Rory Culkin — brother of Macaulay and Kieran; Rickey Thompson — social media meme sensation; and before we forget, there’s global pop star Billie Eilish making her acting debut as an enigmatic leader of an all-female commune. Oh, and also, the former First Daughter Malia Obama is credited as one of the writers on the series. Does Swarm have your complete and undivided attention now?

HERE’S THE PREMISE OF THE SHOW: a young Black woman, Andrea “Dre” Greene (played by Dominique Fishback), is obsessed with an R&B star named Ni’Jah, and this takes a brutal, bloody turn. Over seven half-hour episodes, Dre transforms from a strange and sweet-faced woman to one briskly dispensing justice by way of sledgehammer, kettlebell, cast-iron frying pan or any other heavy object at close range. Her victims: the people who don’t worship her goddess Ni’Jah like she does. Or if you have the wrong answer to “Who is your favourite artist?” But she’ll also shoot someone for being annoying. The threshold for her violence is just very, very low.

Ni’jah is clearly based on Beyoncé. She too comes from Houston. Her fans are called The Swarm, much like the Beyhive. She has a sister who gets into a fight with her cheating brother-in-law in an elevator. In case there were ever any doubts, a character named Hailey (played by Paris Jackson) jokes in an early episode: “You’re a killer bee. Part of the swarm. Talk about Ni’jah, you get stung.” The central character’s obsession forms the groundwork for the show to explore the real-world implications of fan culture and social media sites. It also doesn’t hold back on pushing these possibilities to their very bitter end, to show us the effects on someone who hasn’t always felt seen by the world. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Swarm opens with the title shot of the words: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is intentional.”

We meet Dre in the first episode, as she is maxing out a brand new credit card to buy overpriced tickets to a Ni’Jah concert. It’s a birthday surprise for her roommate, best-friend and fellow superfan Marissa “Ris” Jackson (played by Chloe Bailey). Dre is barely employed, living in Houston in 2016. By the end of the episode, Marissa dies by suicide, finding parallels with her cheating boyfriend and the release of Ni’Jah’s album with the same subject matter. (Beyoncé released her visual album Lemonade in 2016.) Dre murders Marissa’s boyfriend Khalid (played by Damon Idris) in response. With this episode, many of the recurring motifs and metaphors are immediately established: the buzzing of bees gets louder and louder before each bloody attack, the camera is robust and ready, and the series being shot on film gives the colours that something extra: blood is more bloody and after each of her kills, Dre throws open a nearby refrigerator and shovels fistfuls of food into her mouth.

THIS REPEATED ACT of greedily eating is cleverly braided into the fabric of the show. It feels like Dre’s insatiable hunger acts as a metaphor for the real things that stan culture stands in for in the lives of young fans: self-respect and dignity, love and friendship, acceptance and money. It also speaks to the endless consumption of the tiny bits of information searched out by fans to feed their desperate need for identification and intimacy with their idols. It isn’t surprising at all that when Dre finally manages to wrangle her way into the same room as Ni’Jah at an after-party, she seeks to gobble her up and ends up biting her on the face. (Again, it’s the showrunners of Swarm drawing from the real life controversy from 2018: the #WhoBitBeyonce internet debate.)

It doesn’t take a cultural critic to tell us why more and more showrunners and filmmakers are going down the route of the horror genre, especially in showing us the lives and stories of people outside of the white-male experience set in present-day America. It allows for the fiction, fantasy and format of this genre to channel and temper the full-blown anger and rage of these communities. Swarm should be watched because it tells us something about contemporary lives, using television as a medium to test out truths. And there’s also Dominique Fishback’s carefully calibrated performance as Dre, where she moves between meek and monstrous, slowly stepping out of the shadows to strike fear.