For the first three-and-a-half episodes — or half the limited series’ runtime — “Swarm” seems like a thinly veiled venting session.
Created by “Atlanta” veterans Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, the horror-satire focuses on Dre (Dominque Fishback), a fan obsessed with global pop superstar Ni’Jah. Dre spends her days “defending” the artist on social media and her nights listening to Ni’jah’s music, dancing to Ni’Jah’s music, or otherwise letting Ni’Jah’s music take her away from life’s hardships. Dre’s fandom defines her because she wants it to define her; she’s not interested in healthy debate or exploring other avenues. Much like religious acolytes or anyone who went to Harvard, Dre’s sense of self is completely defined by one thing.
At first, it feels like “Swarm” is similarly one-note. Dre’s extreme fandom leads her down a dark path, creating repetitive problems resulting in the same solution: Dre takes action “for” Na’Jah and ends up, well, murdering someone. Her pattern of behavior emphasizes, again and again, how dangerous an extremist ideology can be — especially when applied to entertainment figures, who are generally meant to provide fun diversions, not all-encompassing devotion.
Donald Glover, of course, is an entertainment figure: a TV star, writer, creator, and a celebrated rap artist (when he goes by Childish Gambino). Considering his occasional annoyance over how people react to his work (not to mention his, at times, savage sense of humor), it doesn’t feel presumptive to think he has opinions about modern fandom — feelings that could be expressed in a series described as “his brainchild,” which a) relates fears particular to a famous performer (like a homicidal killer acting in your name) while b) still exacting a warped revenge on couch critics who just don’t get the art.
But in the fourth episode, “Swarm” shifts its mode and method of attack. Without getting into spoilers, the back half delves deeper into Dre’s personal history and the circumstances that led her down this twisted path. The series, showrun by Nabers, becomes a critique of true-crime’s influence as well as an empathetic character study, which is a tricky pivot from pitch-black social satire. “Swarm” still indulges in the genre’s lurid preoccupations, but by the end, it’s more like the creators were setting a trap than having their cake and eating it, too.
Meet Dre. The Houston native works at a mall’s T-shirt stand and lives with her lifelong best friend, Marissa (Chloe Bailey). But she’s been falling behind on rent and putting a strain on her most cherished relationship. Well, her second most-cherished relationship. Dre’s devotion to Ni’Jah is complete and unchallenged. Her favorite question for strangers is, “Who’s your favorite artist?” and if the unknowing sap responds incorrectly, Dre will rattle off all the reasons why they’re stupid, unsophisticated, and wrong — disparaging their favorite musician (“he’s a pedophile”) while touting how many more Grammys Ni’Jah has than, seemingly, anyone else.
While never harmless, Dre’s fixation only grows when tragedy strikes. Spurned by friends and family, she hits the road, fueled by a need to escape as much as her misplaced vengeance. You see, being a child of the internet, Dre spends a lot of time on her phone. She runs a fan account on Twitter, sharing videos, news, and ticketing tips — among all things Ni’Jah — and, this being Twitter, she’s encountered a number of virtual run-ins with trolls. So when she leaves Houston, Dre decides to search for the real people behind the hate accounts, whether they’re just a random hater or an influencer-type who picks fights to gain notoriety.
Here’s where “Swarm” gets a little tricky. Per Nabers, each episode is inspired by “real news stories […] or internet rumors” related to extreme actions taken by obsessed fans. Most episodes start with the “Fargo”-esque message, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional” (though the closing credits include the mandatory legal language stating the opposite). Dre’s excursion covers more than two years, from April 2016 through June 2018, and each city she visits is given a month and year within that timeframe that relates to the real or rumored crime that inspired it. Music fans and gossip hounds will likely make the connections with ease, and over the first few episodes, it seems that’s the whole point of “Swarm”: to reenact events that really happened or people believed were possible, all to emphasize just how toxic America’s stan culture has become.
Courtesy of Prime Video
The first hint otherwise is also the most obvious: “Swarm” would fall apart without the dedication and honesty brought to Dre by Dominique Fishback. From the start, she’s in no hurry to betray the character’s more extreme impulses and lets you see how Dre could get by in this world, until now. But once the killing starts, Fishback is able to play up the horror without separating from Dre’s identity. (Glover’s direction in the pilot often creates frames within a tight, 4:3 frame, often built to emphasize striking imagery centered on Dre and her misdeeds.) It’s not as thought she flips a switch and becomes someone else (as could’ve been the case, given the writers’ inspirations for each crime). Dre is emotionally stunted, but never inscrutable, and how Fishback embodies her motivations makes for a powerful performance.
It’s also key to “Swarm’s” larger message about how we treat people, how we’re taught to treat people, and how we’re encouraged to treat people in order to feel better about ourselves. Glover and Nabers’ series never excuses Dre’s actions, but it does refuse to put them in a neat little box. Dre never becomes the kind of serial killer who’s so disconnected from reality she’s easy to write off as a work of complete fiction, even as the show pushes back on the use of simple “sob stories” to explain how people become “monsters.” (There’s no trauma porn here!)
“Swarm” has its flaws: Seven episodes is maybe one more than we needed, and the finale runs out of steam. Episode 6, “Fallin Through the Cracks,” will certainly have its fans, though its loose construction needed further refinement to better justify such blunt (but effective!) choices. Still, with Fishback a riveting constant, well-deployed gallows humor, and more to the story than meets the eye, the buzz around “Swarm” is worth hearing out.
“Swarm” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Festival. Prime Video will release all seven episodes Friday, March 17.