Spoilers follow for the Prime Video limited series Swarm, all seven episodes of which premiered Friday, March 17.
In Swarm, the sound of buzzing bees is a portent of violence. As the limited series follows Dre (Dominique Fishback) on a killing spree in honor of her dead best friend Marissa and their favorite artist, pop star Ni’Jah, an insect drone enters the sound mix — a nod to the show’s barely veiled references to Beyoncé and her committed fans, the Beyhive — cueing Dre’s internal shift into simmering frenzy. When Marissa’s family kicks Dre out of her funeral, when Dre attacks a man who mocked Marissa online, when Dre approaches Ni’Jah and bites into her flesh: buzz buzz. But the aural anxiety of Swarm also signals Dre’s desire to be seen and heard, to connect with someone as she once did with Marissa. As Swarm moves Dre around the country, it pokes and prods at what obsession and loyalty do to an individual, positioning those guiding forces as distorted reflections of the same desire for closeness. It’s why Swarm’s fourth episode and midway point, “Running Scared,” is simultaneously so intriguing and frustrating: It finally builds out how Dre sees herself, especially in relation to other women, but too quickly abandons its sly look at how these bonds can be warped and weaponized.
Co-creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers primarily tackle two kinds of obsession within Swarm: sisterly and smothering, and devious and delusional. The former encompasses Dre’s adoration of Marissa (Chloe Bailey), who dies by suicide at the end of premiere episode “Stung” after she’s unable to reach Dre in a moment of crisis. Although we meet the two at a point when Marissa has grown weary of Dre, Swarm fills in years of friendship that began when Dre was adopted by Marissa’s family. As teens, the girls saw Ni’Jah together; as adults, they try to take care of each other despite financial shortcomings and near-estrangement from Marissa’s family. As flawed as this relationship is, there’s a loving core that counters Dre’s other, increasingly troubling pairings with pop star Ni’Jah and cult leader Eva, both of which fall under that “devious and delusional” category.
Ni’Jah is Dre’s primary infatuation, and in every episode, she is doing something to prove her loyalty, whether that’s spending thousands of dollars she doesn’t have to see the “queen” perform or murdering Twitter trolls. Swarm gets a lot of glee out of mocking Ni’Jah through critical tweets and detractors’ rants, but the series isn’t interested in taking direct aim at Beyoncé as an artist or entertainer. We see Ni’Jah’s music videos but don’t see her speaking to press or to fans; Swarm fails to develop her personality or messaging, so she remains just a symbol to Dre. Yet the series also doesn’t commit to examining what kind of groupthink, peer pressure, or single-mindedness drives fans like the Swarm. Ni’Jah is presented neither as a performer mobilizing her supporters through social media nor as a celebrity who spends time dropping clues and hints to her followers. The series suggests Dre has dissociative identity disorder by veering her from stammering and awkward to uninhibited and carnal, but it avoids a definitive diagnosis on fandom in general. Instead, Swarm focuses on Dre’s homicidal reaction to Marissa’s death and how she fuses Marissa and Ni’Jah together in her mind. The friendship Dre and Marissa can no longer have transfers to a parasocial relationship between Dre and Ni’Jah; the forgiveness Dre can never receive from Marissa becomes Dre needing Ni’Jah’s forgiveness for biting her in episode three.
Following a spree in which Dre kills a number of men she believes wronged Marissa or Ni’Jah, “Running Scared” sees Dre fall in with a cult of white women living in rural Tennessee. Here are women who are, like Dre and Marissa were, practically joined at the hip, in tune with each other’s impulses and cravings, and equally likely to snipe at or support one another. And also like Dre and Marissa, these women have mixed up affection and codependency as they jockey to be family to each other. The episode is the closest Swarm comes to making an argument about the specific ways women can both empower and enervate each other within vulnerable or fraught circumstances, and the series does itself a disservice by not spending more time exploring the contradictions within these dynamics or how they fuel obsession.
Directed by Ibra Ake and written by Ake and Stephen Glover, “Running Scared” begins with Dre driving to Bonnaroo to see Ni’Jah. When a white cop won’t leave her alone on the road, a white woman named Cricket (Kate Lyn Sheil) intervenes and chases him off with accusations of racism. Like other white women in the Glover brothers’ work, Cricket is self-involved (“I got rid of him for you”) and self-serving (“I love talking to you” even though Cricket has started, and dominated, the conversation), and strong-arms Dre into tagging along to the mansion where she and her friends are staying for Bonnaroo. What Cricket doesn’t mention is that all these women are under the thrall of the enigmatic Eva (Billie Eilish), who speaks in typical millennial self-help jargon with some casual cultural appropriation tossed in: Their rural location is “the best reset,” Dre has “a great aura,” Eva and her circle of friends are “the tribe.” At first, Dre is unsure of Eva, whom Eilish plays in a cleverly muted way; her tone is almost coquettish when she tells Dre she’s “a goddess” and “special” — just like Ni’Jah — and blasé when she explains to Dre that their group specializes in “unlocking female potential.” Her tranquil demeanor, all unblinking eye contact and stylish outfits, draws in Dre, and the series’ most compelling and intimate scenes occur when Eva works to break Dre down.
Over two sessions in a secluded room, Dre allows Eva to question her on what draws her to Ni’Jah, her sisterhood with Marissa, and the violence she’s been committing over the past two years. Ake shoots this “counseling” session like an interrogation, with close-ups on each woman’s face and lighting that illuminates their shifting expressions, the editing switching back and forth between the women’s rapid-fire dialogue to track their maneuvers for the upper hand. This dynamic resembles the head rush of euphoria that comes from a fast friendship: the secrets that tumble out during a sleepover, whispered at night in the dark and traded like currency, objects to be valued and cherished. There’s certainly an undercurrent of menace, since Eva wants to collect Dre into her sect. Yet Dre is more forthcoming with Eva than anyone else in the series. When she grins and says of her killing spree, “I really liked it. It made me happy,” it’s the most self-aware moment she exhibits over seven episodes. This is a confession, and it comes via the first relationship that demonstrates both acceptance and challenge since Marissa. Around her late friend, Dre was a sycophant and hanger-on, spying on her sexual encounters, kissing her self-harm wounds, and sabotaging her romances. When Eva ends her second therapy session with Dre with a kiss, it’s that Dre and Marissa dynamic flipped on its head — Dre the object of desire, Dre being asked to stay, Dre the person someone wants to befriend.
If the spectrum that Swarm establishes is, at one end, Dre and Marissa as a genuine-if-lopsided friendship, and at the other, Dre and Ni’Jah as an attachment that exists only in Dre’s imagination, then Eva exists in a sinister in-between. The disclosures she coaxes out of Dre are the kind of truths that could establish a meaningful connection, and Swarm suggests she’s done the same with the cult’s other members. As obsessed as Dre is with Ni’Jah, so too are women like Cricket with Eva. That’s all messy, intriguing stuff, and Swarm feels boldest when it wonders when person-to-person devotion becomes abstract glorification, and what inner mechanics inspire someone to give themselves over to another. When the show slows down enough to put Dre back on her heels and gives her a frenemy in Eva, someone with whom she can parry and spar, it contextualizes how female companionship can be amplified into something more dangerous, dueling longings for consumption and recognition.
By separating Dre from one hive and dropping her into the orbit of another queen, Swarm sharpens its conflation of love and family with control and coercion. It’s too bad, then, that the series abandons the commune so quickly to put Dre back on fury road, wielding sledgehammers, knives, and lies to make her way closer and closer to Ni’Jah — and further and further away from the place where her motivations felt most clear. Swarm should have let her stay a while.