exit interview

‘We Can Be Serial Killers Too’

Swarm co-creator Janine Nabers cuts through the buzz to explain the series’ elusive protagonist and bittersweet ending.

Photo: Chris Reel/Prime Video
Photo: Chris Reel/Prime Video

Spoilers follow for Amazon Prime limited series Swarm.

I thought I was over serial killers. I don’t need to know anything else about Jeffrey Dahmer, or Charles Manson, or any number of bad (and sometimes hot) white men (real or fictitious) committing awful murders.

But Amazon Prime’s new limited series, Swarm, is different from every other serial-killer show I’ve seen. In large part because the serial killer is a Black woman, something I’ve never seen onscreen before. But also because it’s designed to be provocative, and not necessarily in a gruesome way. In just about every scene, Swarm makes the viewer question what they’re comfortable with, who we allow to be “bad,” and what our expectations are of women — Black women in particular.

“She is the character I wanted to write for a long time,” says Janine Nabers, who co-created Swarm alongside her former Atlanta boss, Donald Glover. “This Black woman is so profoundly settled in her ideology, gives zero fucks, and is going to get the job done. And do it in a way that is on her terms.”

Then there’s the Beyoncé factor. The serial killer in question, Dre (Dominique Fishback), is obsessed with Ni’Jah — a very obvious stand-in for Bey, down to the superstar husband, surprise visual-album drop, and much-publicized pregnancy with twins — and will, as Nabers puts it, “do anything it takes to have that woman in her life.” Read an extended version of the conversation below and listen to the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

Could you have set Swarm anywhere else but Houston?
No, because there is a particular woman that comes from Houston. There’s a particular Black perspective; it’s relaxed but still steeped in that southern mythology. And it’s what is familiar to me; Dre is from Alief, Texas, which is where I’m from. Atlanta allowed people to see a city they thought they knew and really settle into it. With Houston, there’s so many amazing Black women musicians from there. That put Houston on the map, in a way.

Take me back to the day Donald Glover pitched this idea to you.
It was the tail end of season four of Atlanta. Our room broke because of COVID, which was really sad because we were just getting into the groove and gearing up for season three to start filming. This online Zoom room was just not our vibe. I was like, Oh, God, this sucks. This can’t be the end. Then I get this call from Donald one night. I’m thinking it’s about the episode I wrote for season four, but he’s like, “Hey, I have this crazy idea about a superfan. I want this to be the show after Atlanta and I want you to write it.”

Being from Houston and having a real relationship, as a Black woman, of cutting school to go see people perform, I was like, “I want to tell that story from my hometown, and this is how we can do it.” Donald is obviously a star in his own right. He has a particular relationship with his fans where people try to take ownership of him. He was coming to this from his own experience, but it was very clear that we wanted to tell this story from a Black woman’s perspective and write the origin story of a villain.

Let’s talk about Dre. She’s a superfan who becomes violent in a quest to be close to this pop star.
She is deeply misunderstood. She feels connected to two things in her life, her sister Marissa and the artist Ni’Jah, and they go hand in hand. The pilot tells a story of that very clearly: She is a little bit of an alien, a fly on a wall in her own universe, and she is a little mute at times. We don’t exactly know how she’s processing reality or emotion, but we do know that she feels for the music and she feels for her sister, and that is her humanity.

When Donald and I were conceiving of this show, we wanted to tell our own version of these European films we’ve seen in the past, where these characters are complicated and nuanced and we don’t know what they’re going to do next. The Piano Teacher is a film we both really respect. It’s so wacky and compelling, and you can’t stop thinking about the character after you watch it. She sits with you and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also like, Why am I so uncomfortable by what I just saw this woman do? You might question where she’s coming from, you might judge her, you might feel with her, but it’s conflicted. We wanted to portray a conflicting Black woman who’s fighting for another Black woman. What does that look like?

How do you consider violence in a show like this? It starts out hard — Dre enacts this horror in the premiere and then she keeps going. Is there a scenario in which you say, Well, if I make the first episode too violent, people will stop watching?
I love Barry, and that show does not hold the audience’s hands when it comes to violence. As Americans, we’re really comfortable watching white people go crazy because they have earned it in a lot of people’s minds. We wanted to shift that perspective and let it be this Black woman, which we have not seen before, and give her that gravity. It’s okay if it makes Black people uncomfortable watching this Black person do this thing, especially to other Black people. We’ve been seeing this shit for years with white faces.

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

I can almost predict what the reaction will be to this show. The first thing they’re going to say is, “Donald Glover hates Black women.” Because they’ve said that before.
It’s silly to say that. If you take a Black woman you admire and respect and give her a platform to then hire more Black women and cast incredible Black women — Donald did that. After Atlanta, he could’ve had anyone in this business, and he chose to work with me.

At the end of the day, I would hope that Black women watch this show and feel like they are seeing a part of Black femininity they haven’t seen before, and they’re drawn to it. There’s a woman Donald follows on Twitter; she’s Black woman, a teacher. She tweeted, “I’m so tired of seeing Black women on TV play therapists and lawyers and doctors and people who just have their shit together. We can be serial killers too.” That was part of the pitch. And I was like, “Of course we can.” And when we did our research on Black female serial killers, so many of them have fallen through the cracks. They exist, and they’re just not seen or written about.

Did you know any Dres growing up? Did you ever feel like a Dre yourself?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m a dark-skinned girl with a dead right eye. I had a lazy eye when I was little and I had surgery to have it corrected when I was younger. I was a wild child in the world and my parents were professionals. Even though I grew up with so many Black people from my family in my life, they were swimming around a lot of white people.

Texas in the ’90s was very, very different. I remember seeing Mary J. Blige for the first time when I was hanging out with my family in Louisiana and being completely overcome. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. To see that as a person who doesn’t see that for themselves, to look at something and be like, “What? That exists?”

And is also on TV and makes money and is popular.
But also singing songs about a Black woman rejoicing in her Blackness and her ability to love and be seen as beautiful. That was wild to me. Dre, that whole line of someone complimenting your face, and you’re like, “What? I’m ugly” — I remember saying that verbatim as a kid.

I feel very connected to Dre in the pilot, because I know that idea of coming out of your own shell. My sister was Marissa, my cousin was Marissa, and my best friend was Marissa. Those are the people that teach you, Girl, hold your head up high and understand that you are powerful. And if you set your mind to it, if you really want to see Ni’Jah, girl, you’re going to do that. Janine, if you really want to go to write for TV, you’re going to do that.

I watched the pilot with my partner, who’s a therapist. He asked me, “Huh, is Dre on the spectrum?” And I didn’t think about that until he said it. Is she?
We didn’t write her that way. Any definition that can make people comprehend the character is fine — I get it. I love when people ask me questions like that because I understand where we’re coming from. But no, we didn’t define her.

Dominique was like, “When I’m cast as a character, I sit down and I journal as them.” She wrestled with that and then realized she can’t journal as Dre because Dre would never do that. Dre doesn’t go through the world with language. She doesn’t say a lot. We see what she’s thinking through her eyes and her mannerisms.

What kind of attachment or detachment did you want viewers to have with Dre? I am glued to the screen when she’s on it, but I never know if I’m actually connected to her.
That’s very purposeful. When you write a character like Dre, there’s a fine line between the things we recognize of ourselves in her and the things that are just like, whoa, whoa, what? That is the journey we wanted to take people on. That’s how you’re supposed to experience this character. If you really see yourself in her, that’s profound. But you also have to question the way you look at the people you love or the things you’re obsessed with.

Let’s talk about Ni’Jah. Dre is doing anything and everything to get close to her, even killing for her. Ni’Jah has all these similarities to Beyoncé. Was there any fear in doing that?
No, because we approached it with a lot of respect. And Amazon is a corporation, right? The legal stuff we did was very calculated, purposeful, and thoughtful. If it happens, you can write about it. When things happen out in the world and you’re a public person — legally, we’re not lying. We presented everything: “This is not a work of fiction.” That’s the first thing you see when you look at this show. And it was cleared legally, because it is not a work of fiction.

When you’re making a show about the culture, you have to think about the moments within that two-and-a-half-year time period that, as Black people with music, culturally broke through the noise. When you are telling a time period within a very iconic point in an artist’s life — real events that happened between 2016 and 2018 — you’re hitting the benchmarks people will be talking about for years to come. When you see something, anything, in an elevator, you’re going to think about the moment you saw that thing happen and where you were, and who you called and who you texted. It’s about the feeling of being somewhere when our version of the Berlin Wall came down.

This show almost feels like an inverse of the real world. The Beyoncé character, Ni’Jah, is dark-skinned. What are you trying to say with that?
It allows us to see this as our version of a real world. You don’t see a woman who’s Nirine’s color that is at the level of stardom that Rihanna is at. An R&B pop superstar does not currently exist who is dark and at the billionaire, “I own the music industry” level. That was very, very purposeful, and I’m really proud of that.

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

Have you met Beyoncé?
No, I’ve never met her.

Well, that needs to change.
I know. I think every single person in that writers’ room, maybe with the exception of Karen Joseph Adcock, has met her.

Has she seen the show?
I think she has, actually. She knows about the show. People who are in the orbit of Donald know about this show. You Google Donald and Beyoncé, they hang out legit. They’re friends. They’re artists from the South. If Beyoncé has wished someone a happy birthday on her website, she is actual friends with them.

Have you heard at all Beyoncé’s reaction to Swarm?
I wrote her a letter basically being like, “Yo, you’re great. I love you. This is a show that we’re working on. These are the people that are writing on it.” She’s worked with a lot of the people who have worked on our show. It’s a family. This is not a crusade to tear down anyone’s reputation. I know it’s extreme, and I know that our character is doing a lot of crazy shit, but this is a love letter to Black women.

I want to talk about an episode of the show that goes really meta: episode six.
Episode six is about a woman who comes across a very suspicious murder and connects the dots to realize the murderer is a Black woman who is obsessed with Beyoncé. She goes on a journey of her own to decipher who this woman is. And we deal with the internet and the culture of worship around Beyoncé, and how Black people in particular find a community of other like-minded people who really stan this woman.

If Caroline is us, when she goes on the journey in the documentary and sees the similarities between herself and this Black woman who kills for the sake of a pop star she loves, she sees a little bit of herself in her. Oh, could I have turned out this way too? Yeah, if my past had been a certain way, where all the dots led to this particular home, where she becomes the foster sister to this woman, to this other girl she loves. Could I have saved her or could I have become her? That is the question of the episode.

I found myself seeing themes of addiction throughout the show: addiction to stanning, addiction to social media; there’s a sex scene all about junk-food addiction. What are you trying to say about addiction writ large in this show?
When I pitched the finale to Donald, I said, “We leave her in episode five. When we come back to her in episode seven, this is the story of a woman relapsing into her old ways.” When you take ownership of someone that you’ve never met, that is 100 percent an addiction. You are not in touch with reality in the way someone who has an actual relationship with a person in the world is.

There’s something addictive about being in the orbit of someone people know or admire, especially in Los Angeles, especially in our business. There’s a lot of people who are addicted to trying to be seen, trying to be recognized, trying to get some sort of validation. I would say I’m probably addicted to validation; when you write something, there is a part of you like, I want to be acknowledged. I want to be seen. But I would not say this is our way of hitting the thematic lens of addiction. We approached in a more organic way: This woman used to do all this shit, and there’s been a period where she hasn’t been doing it. How do you see her fall into that groove again?

Did you know where the series would end when you began to write it?
Yes, because the timeline is clear. We knew the real events we would dramatize through the lens of our character. The pilot story is a real event and the finale is a real event, and they exist in the world of internet rumors or a YouTube video or Twitter.

I love that final scene where, in her head, Dre is with Ni’Jah at this big concert. Ni’Jah brings her onstage and brings her to her vehicle afterwards and holds her. It took me two watches to realize the line between real and imagination had been crossed. I want to know the process behind that final scene of the final episode.
It’s a bittersweet ending. Donald pitched that to me. I had pitched that entire episode, and he was like, “This is the feeling this episode has at the end.” Dre has gone through so much. You’re not entirely on her side. She does something that’s so upsetting in the finale, and you’re rooting for her to not do that, and she does it. And then giving her this sweet and beautiful ending — obviously, in reality, that’s not how that would play out.

What’s sad is that, in her head, that moment will always exist as something real and meaningful and purposeful.

When you listen to people who do really terrible things, the women who kill their children and they’re like, “I saw God, and God told me to hold my three kids down in water and drown them.” You’re like, “That woman had a psychotic break.” Whatever that woman saw, it was so beautiful and glorious that she did this horrifying thing. That, to me, is the moment of the end: That woman who held her three kids down in the bathtub saw something I’ll probably never see in my life.

In your mind, what happens to Dre’s character at the end of this show?
Well, that moment is taken from a very real moment that exists in history. There is a person that ran onstage at a concert in Atlanta for a certain pop star. That was recorded, and that person’s name was Tony. What happened to that person in reality? I’m pretty sure they were arrested. Who knows who that person is today.

The show starts out setting up the idea of Dre going on a road trip in search of Ni’Jah and then closes in Dre’s imagination with her in the back of a car with Ni’Jah. Was that on purpose?
There’s a full circle. They’re driving home together. Because Ni’Jah’s face is Marissa’s face, right? They’re driving home to their apartment just to kick it again.

So y’all did kind of augment the face to have it look like Marissa as well? Do you think all the viewers will see that and get that?
I would hope so. That’s the point. That was the moment Donald pitched — she turns around and it’s Marissa’s face, but we don’t quite realize if it is or it isn’t. There’s a fine line.

What is the question you most hope viewers leave this show with? Because you don’t leave too many answers.
Will there be more shows like this in the world? Hopefully the answer is yes.

I’m saying this as humbly as possible: I really want this show to start a movement for Black writers to feel unafraid to tackle any subject matter and tell it in as punk a way as possible. I remember watching Shonda Rhimes shows and being like, Damn, that woman is Black and she’s doing that. And now there are Black people telling a story I never thought I would see Black people tell.

That’s the thing: We want a conversation; I mean, people can ask whatever they want about this show, but I think you want people to have a conversation. How did they get that made? How do you make that legally, and physically, and psychologically? How did Dominique Fishback do this role? How did Donald Glover pitch this, come up with this idea? How did Janine write that? I want people to ask those questions.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Into It with Sam Sanders

‘We Can Be Serial Killers Too’