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SXSW 2023: Donald Glover’s ‘Swarm’ is an intriguing, disturbing take on stan culture

SXSW 2023: Donald Glover’s ‘Swarm’ is an intriguing, disturbing take on stan culture

SXSW 2023: Donald Glover’s ‘Swarm’ is an intriguing, disturbing take on stan culture
March 15
11:00 2023

Content Warning: this article contains spoilers and content related to suicide and violence. 

AUSTIN, Texas — Over a thousand badgeholders waited in hours-long lines outside of Paramount Theatre for the world premiere of Donald Glover’s “Swarm” on March 10. While Glover was not in attendance, co-creator and showrunner Janine Nabers appeared on stage before screening the series’ first two episodes.

“We know that the show is propulsive,” Nabers said. “We know that it’s going to evoke a lot of conversation. We know that people are going to have a lot of responses and may be angry or really inspired. So I just want you guys to know that if you have any feelings after watching this, and if you really want to tweet about it, then tweet at Donald.”

Dominique Fishback answers questions following the premiere of “Swarm” on March 10, 2023. Maria Crane

“Swarm” follows Dre (Dominique Fishback), a 20-something superfan of Ni’jah, a fictional pop star. Many in Dre’s life, including her childhood best friend and roommate Marissa (Chloe Bailey), struggle to understand her obsessive loyalty to the singer. Even when she’s struggling to pay her part of the rent, Dre waits in the dreaded Ticketmaster queue with a newly activated credit card to buy tickets to Ni’jah’s much-anticipated tour.

At a time when other young adults are beginning to grow into their own selves, Dre continues to attach the wholeness of her identity to a juvenile idolization. She sees Ni’jah as a symbol of the simpler times, when Marissa and Dre were all each other needed.

As a longtime member of Ni’jah’s fanbase, The Swarm, Dre will do anything to defend her queen. After personal tragedy strikes, her devotion soon turns deadly.

Despite the evident Queen Bey inspirations behind the show, Glover and Nabers make a point to distance themselves from The Hive. The iconic artist’s name was not once mentioned in the series, nor in the Q&A session that followed.

Chloe Bailey speaks during a panel following the premiere of “Swarm” on March 10, 2023. Maria Crane

When asked at the Q&A if “a certain pop star who shall not be named” had seen the series, Nabers replied with a simple “Of course,” but did not comment further. However, she was more candid in addressing some of the series’ other real-life inspirations.

“Every episode deals with real news stories, real events or internet rumors that have happened, and we have put our wonderful women in the center of those stories,” Nabers said.

The first episode depicts a viral 2016 tall tale about a girl, “Marissa Jackson,” who took her own life after the release of the “Lemonade” visual album. Nabers said when Glover pitched the idea of a Black woman who’s obsessed with a pop star, she knew where to run with the pilot.

The event of Marissa’s death is what triggers a dark, violent sense of vengeance within Dre to suddenly emerge. 

“Swarm” is less of a social commentary on stan behavior and more of a deep dive into the effects of mental health. While the grotesque extent of Dre’s actions is extreme, the sources behind her pain are often unsettlingly human.

The show leaves space to explore the raw depths of grief and loss of self, allowing audiences to sympathize with Dre’s more normal reactions and experiences. This makes her more violent episodes all the harder to swallow.

“Swarm” is displayed on the marquee sign of the Paramount Theatre on March 10, 2023. Maddie Moore

Fishback’s portrayal of Dre is perfectly complex. Her pitiful innocence mixed with sudden bouts of impulsive, independent rage has audiences on the edge of their seats throughout each episode. One minute viewers are aching over Dre’s heartwrenching, grief-induced fits of sobs. The next, they’re grimacing at the nauseating image of her blood-soaked hands shoveling food into her mouth seconds after her first kill.

The “Swarm” star spoke at the Q&A about the difficult task of tackling the role and dark subjects it touches on.

“I started to be like, ‘Do I want to do this? I’m afraid,’” Fishback said. “Then I thought about different artists who did things they were afraid of. […] So, yes, it’s very nerve-wracking to hear what people have to say. But I’m very proud that I was afraid to try something different [and tried it regardless].”

Dre is a uniquely built anti-hero made for Gen-Z audiences. While many may not share the same mentality as a cold-blooded killer, Dre is still an easy character to relate to. From feelings as complex as losing a loved one to something as simple as running a Twitter fan account, Dre’s universal experiences leave young viewers torn by empathetic feelings for the young homicidal superfan.

Props from Donald Glover’s new Amazon Prime Video series “Swarm” are displayed during a pop-up event on March 10, 2023. Samantha Thornfelt

Nabers discussed how “Swarm” and Dre are unique in being a portrayal of a Black female serial killer.

“There was a Black woman Glover follows on Twitter and she was like, ‘Why does every Black woman on TV have to be a therapist or a funny best friend or someone looking for love or a teacher?’” Nabers said. “We can be crazy. We can be serial killers too.”

The plot and performances within “Swarm” are all neatly tied together by Glover’s signature cinematic style. While it has its fair share of comedic elements, his newest endeavor dives deeper into darker elements “Atlanta” narrowly explored. While Dre’s actions and reasonings are that of a grossly exaggerated superstar stan, the toll of her mental state still feels very much real.

The series is a disturbing, yet alluring project deserving of all the buzz. Viewers may now think twice before picking fights with stan Twitter.

“Swarm” will debut on Prime Video this Friday, March 17.

Samantha’s rating: 4.5/5

Featured Image: Q&A moderator Sam Sanders is joined by Janine Nabers, Dominique Fishback and Chloe Bailey on stage following the premiere of “Swarm” at SXSW on Friday, March 10, 2023. Samantha Thornfelt

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Samantha Thornfelt

Samantha Thornfelt

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