When you start a show that takes a couple of episodes to figure out, it’s usually either a work of genius or a catastrophe. In the case of “Swarm,” the new Prime Video show created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, the distinction remains up in the air. I still haven’t fully determined how I feel about the show succeeding in its mandate after finishing all seven episodes.
Warning: Spoilers for “Swarm” below!
I do know that the show’s conceit — a young woman with a slavish devotion to a pop star modeled after Beyoncé turns to murder as an extreme member of the Beyhive-esque “Swarm” — is amazing. Success or not, it’s the most talkable show I’ve seen this year.
Unless you wish to read the manifold online analyses, “Swarm” certainly requires multiple viewings to catch all the nuances. I think the food-bingeing scenes, which we see when the main character, Dre (Dominique Fishback), kills someone, might alone prevent me from rewatching “Swarm,” but there’s always the fast-forward button.
Here’s what I’m thinking about after my first watch:
Some of this shit actually happened.
The show’s opening card suggests that the show’s events are inspired by real life and real people. Many of the Beyoncé parallels are obvious — the Ni’Jah visual album, the Jay-Z/Solange-esque attack in the elevator; the suggestion that Ni’Jah’s sister is “more spiritual.”
But several of the plotlines were drawn from actual headlines: Dre biting Ni’Jah in Episode 3 is based on a story Tiffany Haddish conveyed about Beyoncé being bitten at a party in Los Angeles she attended with her husband, Jay-Z (Ni’Jah is at a party with her husband Cache when she’s bitten). Allegedly, the biter was Sanaa Lathan, which sounds questionable at best, but the episode even throws in a cheeky “Love & Basketball” reference following the bite.
The sequence in Episode 2 involving the strippers who murdered the good Samaritan who helped them change a tire was culled from the story of strippers who did the same to a Missouri man in 2017. Unlike in the show, that killing wasn’t in self-defense.
The cult in Episode 4 is modeled after NXIVM, all the way down to the women being branded. The only thing missing in “Swarm” is the male leader.
What does Beyoncé think?
One might assume that Queen Bey would take umbrage with a show lampooning the most negative parts of her career. However, Nabers said that Glover and Bey are real-life homies and that many of the show’s writers have worked with her.
The show doesn’t really make Bey look bad — it sends up the irrational devotion of some of her fans, whom she’s never mobilized to do wild shit like Nicki Minaj has with her Barbz. That said, I also wonder what Nicki thinks of the show…
If nothing else, the inclusion of Beyonce’s protégé Chloe Bailey as Dre’s foster sister Marissa and the catalyst for Dre’s bloodshed would suggest that she’s cool with it. I doubt Bailey would do the show without Bey’s imprimatur.
Speaking of Chloe, there’s that sex scene.
I learned that “Swarm” was on the air through the online chatter about the sex scene between Marissa and her boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris), in the first minutes of the first episode.
Never mind that that scene ranks somewhere between “Red Shoe Diaries” and an episode of “Family Matters” on the scale of graphic content — there’s no nudity outside of an arched booty. Folks’ primary gripe seems to focus on the fact that Bailey, who came to prominence as half of Chloe x Halle, a teenybopper R&B group that Bailey formed with her sister, has dared to venture into grown-up content.
For detractors, it’s an over-sexualization of a Black woman and yet another bad decision for someone who decided to cut a single with Chris Brown. However, many child stars transition away from their teenybopper images by way of edgy content: Drew Barrymore and Alyssa Milano are just two examples of actors who went from adorable kids to dabbling in softcore porn.
I think that castigating a woman who owns her womanhood and sexuality and is getting a check cut in the process is the domain of folks desperately in need of business of their own.
I love seeing Black horror.
“Swarm” reminded me, above all else, that Black folks have a spotty reputation with horror in general: We exist as tokens to die in white horror films, and horror material for us, by us has been infrequent and often suspect (remember “Def By Temptation?”). Jordan Peele upended all of that with 2017’s instant classic “Get Out,” making way for more horror written, directed by and starring Black people, including 2021’s horror anthology “Them” and the 2021 “Candyman” sequel.
“Swarm” has the DNA of critically lauded horror fare like “Midsommar” and “Hereditary.” It also has the distinction of having a Black woman as a serial killer in a genre that typically writes them as the sympathetic (and doomed) figure. (2019’s “Ma” flirted with this but didn’t stick the landing).
The meta episode was genius.
Episode 6 takes a true-crime documentary approach that plays out like one of the standalone episodes of Glover’s “Atlanta.” I was put off until what I was watching clicked about 10 minutes in. Detective Loretta Greene (an excellent Heather Simms) has a film crew following her as she investigates the murders.
They even used a real-life Glover interview on the red carpet in which he’s talking about working on “a show with Dom Fishback,” and I’ve never seen meta done so well.
Donald Glover vs. Black women. Again.
Glover has been dogged for years by the perception that he hates Black women. He’s catching it now for an interview in which told Fishback that he wanted her to consider Dre more of an “animal.”
Though Glover’s complicated relationship with women in general is fodder for his material, going back to his 2011 debut Childish Gambino album “Camp,” I won’t speculate about his perceived hatred of Black women. And I’m not sure it’s fair to base any conclusions on the motivation he gave Fishback for a fictional character.
But consider that Nabers, a Black woman, co-created “Swarm.” Consider that Fishback’s career, after smaller roles in “The Hate U Give” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” will likely change for the better after the show. If that’s hatred, I want some as well.
It’s not as if Glover and Nabers depicted white people any better. If anything, I’m not sure if there’s a single redeeming white woman in the entire series. An impressive Billie Eilish as a cult leader, Paris Jackson as a white woman-adjacent stripper, a MAGA-esque woman who insults Ni’Jah on Twitter … the viewer wants them all to meet their end via Dre’s affinity for blunt-force trauma.
Dominique Fishback is a revelation.
It matters not how you feel about the show… Fishback’s depiction of Dre is acting par excellence. Rare and special is the actor who can tell whole stories through their visage alone; even more so the actor who can tell widely disparate ones.
Just when you thought you’d seen everything from Dre, the Episode 7 finale has her transform into a stud lesbian, falling deeper into her alternate reality as her crimes catch up with her while she maintains her obsession with Ni’Jah.
Fishback was excellent at making everyone feel uncomfortable yet sympathetic; frustrated yet hopeful. It’ll be a travesty if she doesn’t get some awards season love next year.