“Stan culture” is as strong as ever., The celebrity/artist worship that we see folks partake in on social media, coming to the defense of their “favs” at any hint of disrespect or ridicule (or sometimes genuine critiques), is as fascinating as it is annoying. “What if a Beyonce-Stan was a serial killer?” is the generic pitch of Amazon's new horror/Psychological thriller Swarm, and the answer is terrifying and particularly bleak.
Created by Donald Glover, creator of FX’s Atlanta and Houston native Janine Nabbers, the Amazon series stars Domonique Fishback as Dre, whose obsession with pop star and clear Beyonce analog Ni'Jah, takes her down a very dark path. Swarm is extremely unsettling by design, featuring really gruesome and violent imagery, so if that’s not your cup of tea, steer clear.
The show explores the dangers of obsessiveness from fans and the dangers of this hive-mind response that these fan groups can have. It also picks at individuals left on the margins and what finding community in an idol can be the only thing that makes life livable for some — if they are living for someone they will never meet.
There is no light at the end of the tunnel for this series, though, as it's purposefully incredibly dark. There doesn't seem to be a moral through-line to its madness, but its singular star performance and direction make it something unlike anything else on TV.
The first episode, set in Houston, follows Dre and her best friend Marissa, played by Chloe Bailey, who bonded by their love of Ni’Jah (and more which is steadily revealed throughout the series). Marissa’s boyfriend Khalid (Damson Idris) becomes a wedge between Dre and Marissa and their shared love of their idol after an incident at their job at the mall.
Marissa decides to move in with Khalid after Dre’s delusion about Ni’jah starts to affect her life and the revelation from Dre that Khalid cheats on her. Ni’Jah releases an album and inspires Dre to go out to the club and finally lose her virginity, while at the same time, Marissa tries to call Dre to make up, also inspired by Ni’jah, but Dre misses the call. Dre finds Marissa killed herself after an argument with Khalid. After being denied entry to Marissa's funeral, Dre goes to Khalid's home, where he is remorseful about the fight that led to a tragedy.
Despite Khalid being heartsick and remorseful, Dre brutally murders him in a psychotic display of rage. This sets Dre on a cross-country serial killing spree where the targets are people who have wronged Ni’jah and in her pursuit of meeting her idol.
Dominique Fishback is a force. Fishback is probably most known for her performance in Judas and the Black Messiah, where she played Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s girlfriend, and Black Panther Party member. Dre is unstable and unsettling in her psychosis, and Fishback captures her naivete and her delusion revolving around her pop-star idol. You feel sorry for Dre, but all it takes is a look of hunger or Dre catching wind of her next target for that empathy to turn to dread. It's a star performance and the real highlight of the series.
Glover has taken the visual language and techniques that he has honed working on Atlanta and applied them tenfold to Swarm. It's shot on film, giving it a quality that isn't often seen on TV. The series' use of setting is great. Having a show that takes in Houston before setting out to other underrepresented areas that aren’t seen very much in film and TV is a good thing (seeing shots of Third Ward and greater Houston was great). The episode-to-episode direction is incredible, and the location-jumping nature of the show is reminiscent of another recent series Poker Face if that was about a serial killer on an adventure across the United States.
Dre is a throwback to the psycho killers of old, but the series' POV doesn't revolve around the victim or the girl in distress being chased by her killer. We are constantly in the mind of Dre, making it a unique horror experience.
Swarm looks incredible and is genuinely thrilling, but there's no real point to its madness. On the surface, it's a critique of excessive fandom. Its pop star is less an amalgamation of various celebrities and more just a hollow Beyonce clone, pulling events from her life in the tabloids and inserting them into the show.
There's a lot of thematic meat left on the bone that doesn't get fleshed out, and that may not be the show's mission, but it can be glaring to take a step back after watching the series. All in all, Swarm takes a big swing and succeeds in its surface-level premise and in its visual execution but isn't much more profound than what it is.
Swarm is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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