Discussions about favourite artists and albums are generally innocuous, the kind of light conversation that provides insight into a person’s tastes without revealing too much. On Swarm, the delightfully off-kilter Prime Video horror series from Janine Nabers and producer Donald Glover, the protagonist, Dre (Dominique Fishback), wields such queries like a mallet. In Dre’s world, only one answer is acceptable, and only one “artist” exists. A fan of Ni’Jah, a Beyoncé-esque pop diva who inspires near-religious devotion, she expects everyone she encounters on her cross-country crime spree to view the star with the same level of reverence – or at least keep their mouths shut on social media.
Glover knows his way around satire; many of Atlanta’s best episodes were send-ups of music-world surreality. Swarm, with its contained plot and undertones of horror, has a different mood but it is just as interested in cultural commentary. Series creator Nabers wanted to counter many of the reductive stereotypes applied to Black women in film and television, so Dre doesn’t fit neatly into a category. She isn’t a hero, victim, or a reliable narrator, but culled from celebrity stan culture and a mishmash of meme-worthy real-world events, Dre is a villain fit for Gen-Z. The obsessive tendencies she – and the other members of Ni’Jah’s fan army, the Swarm – display are behaviours that would be rewarded in some online circles where monitoring every aspect of a performer’s life is considered normal and admirable.
That Dre runs a fan account on Twitter, follows Ni’Jah’s updates on Instagram, and knows every detail about the birth of her twins isn’t the problem; it’s that she cultivates this knowledge instead of fleshing out her own life. Dre lives vicariously through the people around her or over-invests in their experiences. Nowhere is that more evident than in her relationship with her best friend, roommate, and “sister” Marissa (Chloe Bailey), with whom she shares an apartment. From Dre’s perspective, their lives have melded into one, and there is no need for anything or anyone outside their dyad. Having grown up loving Ni’Jah’s music, however, Marissa considers the fandom portion of her life over and is ready to move on to new experiences with her chronically unfaithful boyfriend Khalid, played with sleazy charm by Damson Idris.
Though she’s naive and rash, Marissa is a fully realised person ready to step into adulthood. Dre is not. Hints are given that something has always been “off” about her behaviour, but Swarm isn’t out to diagnose its characters. Instead, Dre serves as an avatar for a particular type of fan, one so invested in their heroes they’ve absorbed some of their key traits. Like the popstars she admires, Dre sheds looks and personas when they cease to be useful. A mirror that those around her can’t help but project onto, she draws in a new set of victims at each stop on her road trip. In Texas, she’s the world’s worst stripper and a soundboard for Paris Jackson’s needy fellow dancer. A trip to see Ni’Jah’s festival set at Bonnaroo means joining a wellness circle and pretending to tolerate meditation and hiking. Dre’s malleability allows her to pursue her sole goal of getting closer to Ni’Jah even as she leaves a slew of bodies in her wake, bumping off those foolish enough to disagree with her or stand in the way of her mission.
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