Don’t proceed with reading this review unless you’ve already seen the series, if that kind of thing matters to you.
Fandom: always a promising topic. Obsessive, deranged, sociopathic, reality-denying fandom: even better. All such stories lean on the suspense of the tipping point, the cracking moment: when will the fan’s love for their chosen star turn to hate (perhaps because of finally becoming aware of rejection) … or when will the fan’s status suddenly switch from anonymity to some gruesome form of stardom?
In one of most hallucinatory passages of Swarm (created by Janine Nabers and Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover), the hunch of young Dre (Dominique Fishback) proves correct: in the midst of a showbiz after-party, she is suddenly just a few feet away from her idol, Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown). Presented with a luxuriant fruit bowl, Dre picks something out and takes a long, juicy, slo-mo bite … until shouts fill the soundtrack to break the mood: some psychopath has just bitten Ni’Jah! Dre races out through the crowd; nobody bothers to intervene and stop her, since that would doubtless put a dampener on the viral social-media speculation that is sure to follow concerning the identity of this miscreant …
If you’ve heard anything about this series, you will likely know it is basically a speculative fantasia based on the activities of Beyoncé’s hardcore fanbase, the Bey Hive. Its members apparently like to gang up (mainly via social media) on anyone who disses their idol … so why not extend that, in fiction, to the logical conclusion of murder?
That’s the High Concept in a nutshell, but Swarm also has a twistier goal: to mess around with the usual relationship between the ‘true story’/real-world referent, and what is then made of it on screen. Post-truth and all that: the sort of tag-slogan that can cover innumerable sins in the current worlds of film & TV creation. Hence the opening claimer (as distinct from disclaimer): any similarity is intended, reality-correspondences should be inferred … at least, up until the point where the fiction has indeed far outstripped its inspiration. It’s in this rapid-oscillation chamber of conceptuality that Swarm pitches its play.
Swarm is slow in changing lanes but, once it starts doing so, it doesn’t stop. For the first three episodes (as well as the fifth, co-written by Malia Obama), we remain pretty much in the same groove: we observe the extent of Dre’s dissociation (don’t touch her, whatever you do!); we see the alienated social world she lives in (including the suicide, in episode 1, of her sister Marissa, played by Chloe Bailey); we wait for the inevitable acts of murderous violence that she will commit against any avowed Ni’Jah hater.
The series makes good use of jolting ellipses between each episode – Dre is frequently cagily reinventing herself in some new part of the USA, and we catch up with each new incarnation after the jump – but, for the four episodes just mentioned, it essentially sits within its chosen milieu. We enjoy watching how she can slip in and gain access to anyone anywhere, how she can trick people, how she so effortlessly lies, piling one fake identity atop another.
These alike-episodes borrow elements from Janicza Bravo’s Internet-crazy feature Zola (2021) – mercifully without the ‘like’ icons and whatnot flooding the screen at regular intervals – and also from Harmony Korine’s overly influential Spring Breakers (2012), with its surreal colour-wheel styling and zany character get-ups. Like the latter, these episodes of Swarm give the sense of the same thing churning over and over in a loop: the killings are always a sudden, ugly thud, before we are back into the trippy, flourescent flow, Nicolas W. Refn-style. Huge-font titles slam up, differently designed, in each episode: the TV update of a Stanley Kubrick technique. The directors involved in the series are Glover, his younger brother Stephen (who’s also in the writer pool), Adamma Ebo and Ibra Ake.
Episode 4 pleasingly shakes up this template by dropping Dre, serendipitously, into a New Age ‘female empowerment’ commune – memories here of Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995). Humour is milked from the face-off of our black, no-nonsense anti-heroine with a bunch of white, bland-faced, sing-songy, sanctimonious types (Billie Eilish and Kate Lyn Sheil are among the well-cast players here). Sessions of meditative psychoanalysis repeatedly pull and push Dre into some tense psychic zones … until, that is, she decides to yet again flee, and the violent action clicks into place once more.
Episode 6 is the mind-spinner. It begins without warning, hurling us into some new, unfamiliar reality-status. Mocked up as an episode of a sensationalist, true-crime, investigative TV series titled Fallin’ Through the Cracks – remember Robert Downey Jr as a camera-toting Steve Dunleavy-replica in Natural Born Killers (1994)? – it follows a jolly black cop, Loretta (Heather Alicia Simms), as she cannily investigates the shadowy trail of a serial killer (at last those words are uttered!).
At first, I took this conceit to be – beyond the excess of its mock-doc concept – simply a clever way to speed up the mechanics of the plot via this behind-the-scenes flip-through of information and pursuit, i.e., everything we can’t learn by sticking to Dre’s narrative point-of-view. I figured the 7th and final episode would begin with Dre behind bars, facing trial …
But no. Because, as we watch the break-out special 6th episode, we slowly twig to many discrepancies between the fiction we’ve seen and this ‘reality show’ unfolding. The actors’ faces – even Dre’s! – are different. Dre’s family background isn’t much like the one we saw bleakly depicted in the previous episode. And all these fastidiously bleeped-out references to a star are clearly about Beyoncé, not the made-up substitute of Ni’Jah. So, clock this: Swarm vouches for and reinforces its own reality-effect by imagining a documentary that references the Beyoncé fan phenomenon. And yet that reality-effect is, essentially, in the service of a fiction: the made-up story of psycho-killer Dre. Whoo hoo!
The finale (episode 7) drops us back into the fiction. Far from being identified and arrested, Dre is now floating disguised as a male. She enters into a prolonged intimate relationship (the first time we’ve seen such a possibility in her life) with savvy student Rashida (Kiersey Clemons) – whose mind is open enough to accept the evident queerness of the situation. End of affectless alienation? Hardly. Because not only does Rashida abhor Ni’Jah, she even prefers the music of the star’s sister (i.e., the corresponding token to Beyonce’s sister, Solange Knowles). And the trigger for the final murderous catastrophe is exactly as for the initial one: Dre spending all available money on front-row tickets (they’re not cheap) for a Ni’Jah show. The mini-saga of Dre needing to get a replacement ticket is an elaborate action-sequence highlight all to itself.
Ultimately, we arrive at another hallucinatory incident: Dre so overcome with ecstasy at the concert that she rushes on stage, where she is tackled and dragged off (a scene ‘previewed’ in the mock-doc). But now a parenthesis opens – and it is never closed. Ni’Jah, up close, is incarnated in the body of the beloved lost sister, Marissa. The star stops the security team, invites Dre to take the mic, takes the girl into her car and under her wing … This episode’s title more-or-less tips the hand: “Only God Makes Happy Endings”. We end on this quasi-religious high.
Glover has invoked The King of Comedy (1982) as a key reference point, and that makes some sense. But Swarm turns around even Scorsese’s ‘mad fan’ parable in this concluding episode. In that film, the fantasy of Rupert Pupkin (to replace the star he worshipped) finally, against all odds, conquers reality entirely; it takes over the televisual world as well as the physical one. Legend has it that Jerry Lewis desperately tried to convince the makers to ‘clarify’ that the ending (Rupert’s ascendant TV triumph) is all a dream, and that the transgressive fan is really rotting in the clink, safely put away – and Jerry apparently even scripted that finale for Scorsese’s benefit.
Swarm, on the other hand, leaps into fantasy mode without leaping out again. It’s a step further than even season 2 (2017) of The Girlfriend Experience, in which Amy Seimetz’s strand staged a bold, ambiguous ending that stretched out a happy ending/impossible salvation for the double-dealing heroine (Carmen Ejogo as Bria) before revealing it to be a dream on some level (hers or the series’) and snapping rudely back to the grim, no-exit reality.
Post-truth as a terrain can still be intriguing and even captivating when it interferes, in these lively ways, with the codings of fictionality.
© Adrian Martin 10 & 11 April 2023