When a bee uses its singer, the bee dies, but hornet stingers are meant for multiple uses. It’s no wonder that in Prime Video’s Swarm, the “beyhive” was reimagined with a lot more bite. Starring Dominique Fishback and co-created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabors, Swarm is an oxymoronic mix of avant garde comedy and egregious cautionary tale.
We open on Fishback’s Dre, a young girl who is obsessed with pop sensation Ni’jah (Nirine S. Brown). She is applying for a credit card to get coveted tickets to Ni’jah’s latest tour. She gets them for herself and roomie Marissa (Chloe Bailey). The two are clearly best friends. As their history is revealed throughout the season, you understand that the depths of their bond go beyond blood. Dre has always been called “weird” by others, but Marissa sticks up for her. She’s understandably miffed about the tickets — she had to ask her parents for money just to cover the rent — but after a fallout with her boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris), she tries to make up with Dre.
We learn that Marissa has attempted to take her own life in the past, much to Dre’s angst. Dre kisses Marissa’s cut scars on her arm and holds them dear. Marissa says simply, “You don’t have to do that every time you see them.” When she senses Dre’s distress and embarrassment, Marissa follows up with, “But I love your passion.”
It’s this line that defines the relationship and sets the tone for the rest of the series. Or it would if the series could decide on a tone. There’s something uneven about the story being told, and it starts with never quite settling on what the story is. Dre is a proud member of the “Swarm,” the collective of fans from the Ni’jah Nest. Modeled unabashedly off of Beyoncé’s Hive, they can often be seen leaving bee emojis on the posts of people they don’t like, or more importantly, don’t appreciate their queen.
So is this show where Dre defends her queen to the literal death an homage or a degradation of the Hive or fangirls in general? It’s hard to tell. Before each episode an edict is set forth saying, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events are intentional.”
Case in point, die-hard Beyoncé stans might recognize the name “Marissa Jackson.” I wasn’t Hive, and even I remember hearing at the time about a fan who killed herself after learning of Jay-Z’s infidelity in Lemonade. It was a hoax, but the series takes this and builds a world around it. The problem is that the world isn’t a facsimile of the real world, but rather an exaggeration. Much like in Atlanta where the story made way for moments of magical realism, Swarm takes the same approach, just slightly more grounded and much more dark.
I’m afraid the marketing is going to promote this series as a tale of what happens when fandom goes too far, but really it’s not about that at all. The series is filled with other Swarm who would not go to the lengths that Dre does. It feels kind of unfair to act like her actions are the result of her liking a pop star and not that being overly obsessed with a pop star is a result of her very real mental health issues. And even if this were the message, it’s completely undone in Swarm’s final moments. I know there are elements of Swarm the producers want to keep a surprise, but I think it does a disservice to the story to pretend to alienate Beyoncé fans instead of inviting them in.
However, I do think all the shots at the Hive are tongue-in-cheek. Swarm features Beyoncé protege Chloe Bailey, so I don’t think she would seriously take shots at the fans. Let’s just hope the Hive sees it that way and Glover doesn’t wake up to bee stings on his social media!
The influence of Donald Glover and Atlanta is all over this series and to great effect. Several episodes are penned by Stephen Glover and directed by Adamma Ebo of Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul. Each episode dives further and further into the uncanny valley of chaos, and Dominique Fishback deserves all of the recognition (and complementary therapy sessions) for her frightening portrayal of Dre. There just comes a point when — as a viewer — you realize that Ni’jah may be the apex, but she’s nowhere near the point in this story. You also begin to wonder if the writers knew that.
Dre is a gorgeously complicated character, but her depiction rests solely on Fishback’s back. A lesser actor could easily give way to what seems to be a one dimensional character on paper. Then, at the top of the final episode there’s a huge reveal that has absolutely no backstory. And it’s because of Fishback that you buy it! But were the writers counting on Fishback to fill in the holes? Were Dre’s vulnerability and misguided heart sacrificed for a meta joke about a Black health nut who indulges in a night of making sweet love to powdered donuts and Doritos?
There are tons of cameos, some known, like Paris Jackson (who was hilarious and did a great job), and others who are so secret we can’t reveal them or their very impressive performance (talk about a double threat)! While I loved the cameos and thought they slotted into the narrative nicely, I still felt cheated on truly understanding Dre, especially outside of her Ni’jah fixation. There’s no doubt she’s a fan — she often starts conversations Ni’jah’s Grammy stats — but does the convention exist because she wants others to like Ni’jah or because she’s looking for someone to sting?
Dre moves both like an overmedicated sloth and a lonely psychopath with no impulse control. She carries her emotions close to the vest, but when it’s time to show them she sprays them over you like a freshly cut vein. I can’t stress enough how good Fishback is in this role, but it’s almost an uncomfortable amount. Dre doesn’t walk, she stalks. She appears to be completely self-unaware, but really she may be too aware of herself and trying to avoid it at all costs.
And since she is, as the viewer, it’s easy to get to the point where we are too. The series becomes a horror movie instantly. Then the penultimate and final episode both turn heel, delivering what could be the best or worst episodes of the series. The ending works because Swarm had to stop at some point. It was relentless. If you truly understand the humor and brilliance of Atlanta, then Swarm will work for you too.
Swarm airs on Prime Video, Friday, March 17, 2023.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com