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Swarm Recap: The Making of a Murderer

Swarm

Girl, Bye / Fallin’ Through the Cracks
Season 1 Episodes 5 and 6
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Swarm

Girl, Bye / Fallin’ Through the Cracks
Season 1 Episodes 5 and 6
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

Right as Swarm seemed to be establishing a rhythm, culminating in Dre’s encounter with the DecaWin cult, Janine Nabers and Donald Glover’s brainchild morphs into a full-blown serial-killer thriller, with the Beyoncé references getting shunted to the background as we peek into Dre’s past. I’ll admit to feeling somewhat misled by the trailers, with my personal love for Beyoncé tainting my expectations for the series. Her larger-than-life shadow looms over the show in an unavoidable way, but as Swarm continues, she’s not as key to the plot as one might have assumed.

At its core, Swarm isn’t about fandom or the cult of celebrity; it’s a story about grief, loss, and longing, and the dire routes one woman takes to cope with these feelings. In some ways, you could switch out the Beyoncé references for another artist with a huge, devoted fandom like the Barbz or the Navy — though I do think Bey is the most natural route for a show like this, the BeyHive being the prime example of celebrity culture. It was intentional on Nabers’s end to play off of Beyoncé’s larger-than-life persona this way, and I appreciate that Swarm is igniting conversations about mental illness, community, and trauma that can stand on their own.

Ni’Jah’s presence is inescapable in the first few episodes and a large part of the fun; viewers can pick out all the little Beyoncé Easter eggs, from the Ivy Park–inspired gear to the blurred-out Destiny’s Child posters on the walls to the historically accurate milestones like the reference to BeyChella. But as much as everything seems to have been touched by Bey, we don’t really get to see Ni’Jah that much at all. In fact, we don’t know much about the superstar other than the blanks we’ve subconsciously filled in ourselves through those reference points. Now as the season ends, Ni’Jah almost feels like a Wizard of Oz–type figure, which means the real story lies with Dre, Swarm’s Dorothy.

Dre’s love for Ni’Jah is so apparent that it took me a moment to even ask: Why exactly does Dre love Ni’Jah? In the first few episodes, we see her speak a bit about being a fan, how talented Ni’Jah is, or repeat some heartfelt lyrics, but it’s what her obsession drives her to do, not where it stems from, that has taken center stage. What we see more as the episodes progress is Dre’s obsession with Marissa and how her love for Ni’Jah is somewhat a proxy for that bond, as their shared love for the singer brought them closer together. The shift of focus to Dre’s background in the second half of the season makes the show’s promises of deep commentary on stan culture ring hollow, but the puzzle pieces of how Dre became who she is are starting to fall in place.

After her violent escape from the cult, Dre rushes to repair Marissa’s phone since it’s her last connection to her deceased sister. This introduces the next fun guest star, Rickey Thompson as the phone-store employee who informs Dre that the line is being shut off by Marissa’s father, forcing Dre to return to Houston. She visits the mall where she and Marissa once worked and runs into their old manager, Erica. In another award-worthy performance from Dominique Fishback, the camera pans close to Dre’s face as she lies about her whereabouts, saying she’s doing makeup for Ni’Jah’s mom, letting her emotions spill over when describing the fantasy life she wishes she was living in Marissa’s honor. Her delusion and commitment to the story is impressive, underlining just how much of an unreliable narrator she is.

Dre’s next stop is the home she and Marissa grew up in. In one of her most childlike outfits of the whole season, she returns to the site of her trauma, which also happens to be the place she found love. The homecoming is unsettling: She breaks in through the window, greets the family dog, snoops around, and holds her foster mother, Patricia, at gunpoint, demanding Marissa’s phone line be turned back on. This confirms that Dre and Marissa truly were sisters, if not by blood, and not just extremely close friends. It gets messy quickly, and for the first time, Dre is on the defensive when her former foster father chases her through the house with a gun, yelling about how she killed his daughter. Played by Leon (I know Black aunties everywhere screamed), Dre’s foster father Harris provides another, more holistic perspective on the story.

Before it becomes a full-blown chase, Harris, with his shotgun pointed directly at Dre, states that she’s always been trouble, going as far as saying he regrets ever even taking her in. As she runs away from him, Dre ends up in Marissa’s old room, where the memories and emotions hit her violently. It’s especially evident that her love for Ni’Jah and her love for Marissa are intrinsically connected as we watch her gaze at Marissa’s vanity, which is now a shrine to both her sister and Ni’Jah, and completely lose her shit. Fishback is so raw that the scene is uncomfortable to watch. Dre narrowly escapes Harris’s wrath, eventually leaping out of the window, injuring her leg, and limping away into the night.

Then in the following episode, we’re yanked out of Dre’s world and given more of a bird’s-eye perspective courtesy of Loretta Greene (played by Heather Simms), a detective for the Memphis Police Department who has noticed a pattern in a string of murders throughout the country. In a mockumentary style reminiscent of an episode in last season’s Atlanta, Loretta walks us through her reasoning that the suspect behind all the murders has to be a Black woman, and her realization that all the victims said something negative about Ni’Jah.

Evoking a true-crime documentary, and censoring out Ni’Jah’s name and image, closes some of the gap between the audience and this fictionalized serial-killer superfan. For the entire episode, every character is all but saying the name “Beyoncé,” with Darryl, a fan who is interviewed, wearing what looks like a real IvyPark fit and the fan base being called out by name. This brings the spotlight back to stan culture and the para-social relationship with fandom, as Darryl rattles on about how the Hive is a community that would do absolutely anything for their queen. But when he tries to say murder is too far and that this suspect couldn’t possibly be in the Hive, the look on his face—and the examples of threatening tweets from Hive members—says otherwise.

Loretta acting as a detached observer provides some comedic relief while also adding context to the whirlwind of the previous five episodes. Most notably, an interview with one of Marissa’s old friends, Gwen, gives us a look at the bigger picture. For Marissa’s birthday, her parents let her have a slumber party with a few of her close friends. This came days after Dre was bullied onstage at the school talent show, and Harris, knowing that Dre had always been a bit off, tried to keep her contained to the attic while the rest of the girls had their fun. The group of friends had a tradition where they pranked whomever fell asleep first. When Marissa happened to be the first to doze off and the girls jumped on top of her, Dre violently tried to defend her sister and ended up stabbing Gwen. All Dre kept saying after getting pulled away was that she was sorry she “spilled the milk.” This confirms that Dre refers to harming others as spilling the milk, as it aligns with the childhood memory she told Eva about the red “milk,” therefore alluding that Dre has always been homicidal. Shortly after, the Jacksons “got rid” of Dre, leading to the cut family photographs.

As Loretta’s bread crumbs take her to Houston, she’s determined to answer the questions about Dre that we’ve all been wondering. She tracks down Khalid’s brother and learns about Marissa’s death and the association with Ni’Jah. Things quickly start to fall into place and Loretta follows her instincts, stumbling on Dre while stalking Marissa’s social media. Then, she meets with Patricia and gets the full history of Marissa and Dre’s relationship. Patricia mentions how intensely close the two were (Harris actually felt their relationship had a sexual nature) and discusses how the two bonded over Ni’Jah.

Speaking with Patricia leads Loretta to Roberta, the social worker on Dre’s case. They chat about surface-level things like the system and how wicked it can be to innocent children who end up having special needs that not all foster parents can handle. When Loretta tries to push for more concrete details about Dre’s violent tendencies, Roberta pushes right back. She refuses to “gossip” and give up Dre’s “sob story,” saying that by even asking, Loretta and the cameraman are disrespecting foster children and labeling them as violent.

With Roberta and Loretta’s conversation, Swarm is looking all of us directly in the eye. First, by not divulging the actual details of Dre’s home life, Swarm avoids the trap of Black trauma porn and makes us question why as a society we’re so keen to hear about the gruesome, abusive lives of those who have been failed by society. Second, instead of relying on the stereotype that someone must be abused as a child in order to become a serial killer, Swarm threatens to debunk the idea that Dre’s past is the sole reason for her actions. Painting Dre as the problem, and not the online community that galvanized her behavior, allows superfans watching to say “that couldn’t be me.” Roberta simply states that Dre was lonely and searching for community, something that we all can relate to, and by juxtaposing Dre’s tumultuous upbringing with the delusional loyalty of someone “normal,” like Darryl, Swarm argues that all of the Hive is complicit in this behavior on some level.

Weeks later, Loretta hasn’t been able to convince her superiors to put in the resources to track down Dre. For the most part, Loretta accepts that getting the department to care is a lost cause, but then she gets a call about a person who somehow got past security and climbed onstage at a Ni’Jah concert in Atlanta before getting arrested (another real Beyoncé moment). The mug shot features pictures of Dre with a new masculine identity, going by the name of Tony. Loretta immediately embarks on a trip to Atlanta with the goal of speaking to Dre herself. The documentary closes with a call to action declaring Dre as one of the most prolific female serial killers, featuring a phone number to call for anyone who has seen Andrea Greene.

Hive Mind

• Although I argued that you could switch Bey’s presence with another big artist, thank God they didn’t. The universal love for Beyoncé (Nicki is too polarizing) makes the cult themes more tantalizing, like everyone is under a spell.

• Janine and Donald put their stamp on every single detail of this show. I loved the very meta ending of the mockumentary, with Donald talking about creating Swarm. Also, if you call or text the number they used at the end, you’ll actually get a response.

• I especially love the choice to cast Ni’Jah as a woman darker than Bey. Nabers herself said this was intentional, stating that “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.”

• It’s ironic that Dre’s binge-eating is what ultimately sparked something in Loretta that led her to believe the serial killer was Black. When she said, “I’ve never met an old white woman who ate Hot Cheetos. Definitely never seen a white woman in a bonnet,” I cracked up.

• These are pivotal episodes, as some fan theories (beware, there’s spoilers of the finale in the thread) suggest that Dre actually killed Marissa herself, Marissa’s scars weren’t self-harm but scars from that fated sleepover, and Harris is rightfully blaming Dre. Some believe that Dre killed Marissa after she decided to go to Atlanta with Khalid and proclaimed to be done with the Ni’Jah obsession. Then, Dre texted herself from Marissa’s phone as an alibi. I’m not sure how I feel about this one yet, but knowing how unreliable and prone to hallucinations Dre is, anything could be possible.

Swarm Recap: The Making of a Murderer