‘Swarm’ Falls Apart
Sharp, bloody satire of music fandom flies off the rails at the end
At the South by Southwest premiere screening of Swarm, Amazon Prime’s new limited series, there were big laughs, even bigger gasps of shock and a meaningful silence replaced by rapturous applause at the end of the two episodes shown.
Those two episodes primed (so to speak) the pump for the debut to follow one week later on March 17, not that the series needed it. As the first post-Atlanta series from superstar Donald Glover (who serves as the show’s creator, musical contributor and hype man), it got a major push at SXSW with buses featuring the show’s star Dominique Fishback, a convenience store activation on a hip stretch of South Congress Ave. and building wall signage with the show’s bloody poster art.
Well deserved: the first two episodes are great: moody and surreal and funny like Atlanta, but with surprising right turns into shocking violence, like if the writers’ room had just done a rewatch of Pulp Fiction after absorbing Michael Haneke’s filmography and Beyonce’s Lemonade. The episodes raised expectations for a hilarious, controversial examination of a Black female serial killer, which, as showrunner Janine Nabers (Atlanta, Watchmen) pointed out at the post-screening, is an unusual character to portray in pop culture. In fact, Nabers seemed to be a little concerned at what the online reaction might be for what was to come when Amazon dropped all seven episodes of the series. Not for nothing is she not on Twitter.
Now that we’ve seen the whole show, that’s understandable. Where the first two episodes are dark, but funny and accessible, Swarm turns into a very complex, very problematic portrait of a serial killer that, for all its smarts and layers, still manages to perpetuate some bad tropes at the worst possible time for them.
The story, in short: a young woman named Dre (Fishback) is a superfan of a Beyoncé-inspired fictional singer named Ni’Jah. She and her roommate Marissa (Chlöe Bailey) grew up on the artist’s music, but the two are growing apart as Dre tries to score tickets to an upcoming concert while Marissa would rather spend time with her boyfriend. A series of cataclysmic events leads to several deaths and soon Dre is on the road, blazing a path of chaos fueled by social media anger and her own stunted psyche across multiple states over several years.
Complicating things, the show presents the story as true crime, or at least inspired by a bunch of real-life events associated with Beyoncé and the “Beyhive” collective of her fans, who are known to get aggressive against any haters who come their way online. “This is not a work of fiction,” each episode trumpets at the start, except that it is, and mixing its fiction with real events serves to keep the audience off balance and unsure how much of its murder spree really happened.
For a while, the show coasts on its daring bursts of violence, its experimentation with genre and tone (one standout episodes has a Midsommar homage and Billie Eilish as a charismatic feminist cult leader), but mostly its phenomenal lead performance. For five of its seven episodes, Fishback makes Dre tragic, pathetic and sympathetic. Once killing empowers her, she’s absolutely terrifying.
But then the show stumbles, badly. An ill-considered sixth episode breaks out of format to give context to the what’s come before, draping it in true-crime docuseries format. It’s something that worked great on Atlanta as comedy, but here it completely stops the momentum. The episode tries to explain away Dre’s origin by introducing a dogged investigator on her trail, but the docu-episode doesn’t carry its own weight by being smart, satirical or satisfying.
Instead it’s a clumsy transition toward the series finale, which makes a narrative jump you might have suspected involving Dre’s sexuality. Only, that doesn’t pay off because we don’t see the transformation ourselves, we only hear about it in the previous episode in passing. That denies Fishback a way in for a major change of her character; the result is jarring and troubling, equating once again in pop culture violence and psychopathy with suppressed sexual desire and gender fluidity.
By then things are truly off the rails for a series that won’t be back for another season (it’s a limited series with a beginning, middle and end, Nabers says), and a dreamy, very ambiguous ending only muddles what came before.
Take the seven episodes of Swarm as a big swing at a Black take on serial-killer dramas, one that has an incredible acting performance at its center. Nabers overstuffs her series with ideas about duality and insider takes on fan culture. For a while, Swarm looks like a self-contained, one-time-only masterpiece of a show, arrived fully formed and perfect. But it’s got an ugly ending, cynical and sad, with very little of the wit and energy that fuels the first half of the season. It will leave you cold and unsure of what happened, like you’re standing on the outside looking in at what these brainy TV creators have made intentionally obtuse.
Kind of like a fan who bought expensive tickets to the sold-out concert only to find out at the gate that they’re fakes. You’ll have every right to feel a little rage.