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'Swarm' is about how we're doing fandom wrong

Dominique Fishback stars in the Beyoncé-inspired thriller series<em> Swarm. </em>
Warrick Page
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Prime Video
Dominique Fishback stars in the Beyoncé-inspired thriller series Swarm.

Many spoilers for Season 1 of Swarm lie ahead.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, an internet personality dared to publicly criticize a very famous musician with an overly zealous fanbase. Those stans descended upon the critic swiftly, hopping into their mentions and DMs to talk trash and even go so far as to post death and rape threats. The involved parties shall remain nameless here because I'm not particularly interested in dealing with these stans myself. But let's just say said artist – whose admirers are collectively named after a popular children's toy – has elicited and even encouraged this behavior many times before. It's one of the more nightmarish scenarios that can play out on the internet, an all-too-common "love" language spoken across fandoms of all kinds.

Swarm, a bizarre new series created by Janine Nabers and Donald Glover and streaming on Prime Video, takes that nightmare and pushes it to its most extreme limits, concocting a thriller that serves as a spikey admonishment of celebrity worship. Like Glover's previous project Atlanta (which Nabers also contributed to), it expresses a discomfort with and cynical attitude toward social media and fame to sometimes frustrating results.

Hive mind

An excellent Dominique Fishback plays Dre, a socially inept retail worker with just two interests in life: Her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey), an up-and-coming makeup artist, and the global pop superstar Ni'Jah (Nirine S. Brown). As kids, Dre and Marissa bonded over their shared love for Ni'Jah, but now that they're both young adults rooming together and with bills to pay, Dre's fandom remains in arrested development; she speaks breathlessly of the artist, and she takes anything that registers as less than glowing praise of the singer as a very personal affront. She can barely sustain a conversation without mentioning Ni'Jah and spends half of the rent on tickets to a concert, a surprise for Marissa's birthday. From the get-go, it's clear something is off about Dre.

At the end of the first episode, Marissa is dead (she dies by suicide after finding out her boyfriend Khalid, played by Damson Idris, cheated on her) and Dre's already simmering obsession with Ni'Jah boils over into fully unhinged. She sets off on a killing spree, hopping around various cities under assumed aliases and identities; most of her victims have spoken ill of Ni'Jah either online or in Dre's presence. "Who's your favorite artist?" she baits them. If they don't say Ni'Jah or fail to muster up much enthusiasm for her artistry – which is often – they're doomed.

Dre (Dominique Fishback) is a super fan obsessed with her favorite pop singer.
Quantrell D. Colbert / Prime Video
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Prime Video
Dre (Dominique Fishback) is a super fan obsessed with her favorite pop singer.

Unlike me, the writers of Swarm are far less opaque in their references to a pop culture icon and their devoted followers: Ni'Jah's legion of fans are known as "The Swarm," and the bumblebee emoji is their insignia; she's revered as a queen and a goddess. She's won dozens of Grammys; her husband is a famous rapper with whom she's done a joint tour called "Running Scared." There's surveillance camera footage of said husband being attacked by a woman in an elevator while an expressionless Ni'Jah stands by and does nothing.

She is an obvious, translucently veiled analog for the real-life queen and goddess Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter – right down to the show's clever depiction of a notoriously odd incident long rumored to have involved the actress Sanaa Lathan. Yet for all the highly specific Beyhive Easter eggs – or honeycombs? ... actually, let me not force this metaphor – strewn throughout, there's the dreadful understanding that this is only about Beyoncé in an abstract sense. Really, it's about taking the idea of the devoted fan and stretching it to its limits, in calling upon the tendencies of obsessive fans and sadistic serial killers both fictional and real – like Misery's Annie Wilkes, Mark David Chapman, Jeffrey Dahmer, and You's Joe Goldberg– and putting them in the shoes of a Black woman. To add to the surrealness of it all, Marissa's ghost seems to be "communicating" with Dre via text message, egging her on like the dog that "inspired" the Son of Sam.

'Falling Through the Cracks'

There's been a small uptick in amoral or morally dubious Black women TV characters lately (see Industry's Harper, for one), but there's something especially notable about Swarm, and its creators are absolutely aware of it. In the first couple of episodes, it falls into the trappings of many serial killer narratives by leaning into the shock value and novelty of a Black woman dropping bodies left and right; Dre is seen primarily through a series of tics (binge eating, rattling off Ni'Jah's accomplishments) and a singlemindedness to commit murder.

<em>Swarm</em>
Quantrell D. Colbert / Prime Video
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Prime Video
Swarm

Nevertheless, Fishback is mesmerizing and clearly committed to the role. And the show begins to find its groove a bit later when Dre ends up at a commune made up of woo-woo influencer types, including one played by Billie Eilish, who coerces Dre into unpacking her traumas and confronting, to some extent, her crimes. It feels like a direct reference to Get Out's Sunken Place, allowing a bit of Dre's humanity to crack through to the surface and for us to more deeply contemplate what it means to form an attachment to an iconic figure you have no real interpersonal connection to.

The series suggests Dre has been able to get away with her crimes largely because of her invisibility as a Black woman, and the penultimate episode (one of the show's best) is a faux crime documentary show-within-the-show called "Falling Through the Cracks." It profiles a Black detective named Loretta Greene, who presents herself as uniquely capable of recognizing a Black woman serial killer based on explicit cultural clues like Hot Cheetos and shea butter.

That Dre is ultimately seen in this way by another Black woman echoes how the show attempts to be in dialogue with its audience – it's a very specific type of viewer who will recognize the irony in casting Paris Jackson in a cameo as a stripper who claims to be Black on her dad's side. (As well as this kicker: "That's why my stage name is Halsey.") Like the fandoms it's satirizing and critiquing, it speaks a language all its own, one that requires being constantly online, knowing your memes, and staying up on your Black celeb gossip to even begin to unpack it.

"Stan correct"

Even if the reference points are plentiful and Dre is a refreshing spin on the sociopathic serial killer, what should we make of this funhouse mirror interpretation of fandom's twisted facets? A bit can be gleaned from the second episode of Atlanta, where local rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) encounters a fan at a restaurant. The interaction starts friendly enough, but then the fan's tone gets more serious, almost grave: "Don't let me down, man. If you let me down – I don't know what I'd do." Paper Boi's confused and creeped out, as he should be.

The moment moves on quickly, but the man's plea to the stranger he admires says a lot about how many of us project onto artists and perceive intimacy with them where none exists. Dre embodies that Paper Boi fan to the nth degree. Her relentless preoccupation ostensibly leads to a complete break from reality upon the death of her sister Marissa, and we're left wondering whether what we've witnessed is only a product of Dre's troubled mind: In the final moments of the last episode, Dre makes her way into a Ni'Jah concert, jumps on stage and stops the show. Ni'Jah encourages Dre to sing, though in a shocking reveal, the face of Marissa is now superimposed upon Ni'Jah's body. Then Ni'Jah whisks Dre away into a limo and cradles her in her arms. Dre seems, finally, at peace.

This is the most time we spend in the presence of "Ni'Jah" for the entire series; heretofore, she's only been refracted as a flat symbol, a montage of fleeting images, musical snippets, social media reactions and glowing adjectives. Who Ni'Jah really is as an artist is less important to Dre and the story than who she supposedly represents to her and other starry-eyed fans – and that, Swarm implies, is the problem. The show's tagline is "Stan correct," a play on words that could possess multiple meanings; one that takes on the perspective of Dre and her ilk or one that points the finger at Dre and her ilk.

Curiously, this also makes it so that all the onus falls on the stans and that the many ways artists can fuel these responses, either directly or indirectly, are left uninterrogated. (It's perhaps not a coincidence that Donald Glover and Chloe Bailey have had close working relationships with Beyoncé. It's also probably not a coincidence that Glover once infamously and irritatingly interviewed himself.)

But Swarm is at its best when it leans into the absurdities of social media and the ease of slippage between internet selves and "real" selves. Ultimately Swarm seems to want viewers to recognize a bit of themselves in Dre – the part that might put a little too much stock in celebrity, the part that may occasionally forget that everyone, including those strangers you argue with on the internet, is human, too.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.