Swarm is an exploration of the mentally damaging toll obsession and fandom can have on a person. More than that though, it is ultimately a story about the human need for connection and acceptance. Gabe discusses the series' creative approach to an unreliable narrator we're all rooting for. Kat explains the human brain's need for connection and community.
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A young woman's obsession with a pop star takes a dark turn.
Swarm: More than a Critique on Stan Culture, this is a cry for help by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Swarm is an exploration of the mentally damaging toll obsession and fandom can have on a person. The complex and emotional series follows Dre, a fan of the mega-celebrity singer (definitely Beyonce-inspired) Ni’Jah. After a truly horrible thing happens to her, sending her over the edge, she begins targeting non-fans of Ni’Jah. Dre’s obsession with the star becomes her one pillar, a coping mechanism that has anchored her through a very troubled and misunderstood life. After losing her IRL support system, she seeks out justice in the form of murder.
Throughout the 7-part season, Dre travels the country seeking to right the wrongs of those online, trash-talking the Goddess Ni’Jah. In her journey, she interacts with a wealth of characters who impact her mental health even further. From the powerful and entertaining gaggle of strippers to the soft, health-conscious venue employee, and others, Dre is never in short supply of an audience. People are compelled by her peculiarities, desperate to understand her or place her into the right hole, only to find her shape something unlike anything they’d encountered before. She worships Ni’Jah for being a Goddess but finds herself akin to a trickster God, weaseling their way out of hairy situations they brought upon themselves and propelled forward by obsession.
We’ve covered the toxicity of fan culture in previous episode of the Ghouls. The complexities of harm for celebrities and the ownership fans can feel for them is horrific. The series, Swarm, on the surface is a story of toxic Stan culture but evolves further into something simply using this theme as an overcoat, the true wolf beneath is that of loneliness and isolation. As we begin to learn about the troubled serial killer, Dre, we find a deeper pain masquerading as fandom.
The show is a fascinating exploration of stan culture but creator Nabers also explained in a letter to Beyoncé that it is also, “A love letter to Black women.” Dre is a powerful force of chaos who is acting out in desperation but you will find that her entire life is a cry for help and acceptance. Nabers also described the work that went into the world building, a parallel universe with events that parrot ones here in our world, “We did research for months to basically find events within a 2 1/2 year period that we could put our main character into. So it’s really not a work of fiction. We’ve taken real internet rumors, real murders and combined them in the narrative of our main character, Dre. Not much of it is fabricated.”
Here there be Spoilers. I want to work through some of the impactful and intriguing situations in the show. I would argue that even knowing what happens in the show, the performance by Dominique Fishback is compelling enough to make even a re-watch feel new. I can tell you the show play by play but never affect you the way she can, transport you into that vulnerable place of desperation. Dre sports an obsessive personality, one that sustains itself on a crutch. We learn about her throughout the show and are even given a peculiar behind-the-scenes glimpse into her past in episode six. What is created in those snippets of history is a clear picture of a very troubled Dre. Dre is someone desperate for support and understanding. She desires love on an intense level however believes herself incapable of or worse, undeserving of it. She lashes out when not given what she wants. Her only way of conveying love has been in her obsession with Ni’Jah. She tries on several occasions in vicious and heartfelt instances to share this love of Ni’Jah as a way to show her love for someone else.
Dre’s Complicated History
In the beginning, we find Dre getting a credit card so that she can purchase truly expensive Beyoncé Ni’Jah tickets. She has made such a reckless purchase in an attempt to cheer up/reconnect with/celebrate with her roommate and foster sister, Marissa. Marissa loves Ni’Jah too, though not as strongly or desperately as Dre. In this shared love and appreciation for the artist, Dre had found a connection. So she is hoping to reconnect with her and confirm their relationship through this act that in her history, has proven to work. After a fight separates the two sisters, Dre goes out for some forgettable and distracting sex. When she returns, after finding a troubling voicemail on her phone left by Marissa the night before, she hurries to share the Ni’Jah tickets with her sister and cheer her up. Only to find Marissa dead, having killed herself. This last anchor to any semblance of stability finally snaps, letting Dre loose on the world. The ven diagram of Marissa and Ni’Jah becomes a singular circle, the two interchangeable in her mind. When Dre harms someone who spoke out against Ni’Jah, she is getting justice for Marissa too.
Further, the connection with Ni’Jah is something that has grounded Dre and her understanding of herself her entire life. We learn that her first act of violence had been as a child. Her memory of this event has been warped, we discover, through a conversation with Billie Eilish’s NXVIM-esque cult leader character, Eva. In this conversation/hypnotism, Dre explains that she first heard Ni’Jah while being scolded by her grandmother for “spilling the milk.” Only we learn soon during this Get-Out-tea-time-Sunken-Place moment with Billie, that the milk was the color red and definitely blood from some incident that Dre is guilty of. Later, she connects with her new foster sibling over this same love and devotion to Ni’Jah. She finally finds a friend and it’s insinuated that Marissa and her’s relationship may’ve developed into something “funny” (read: queer) had it been allowed to continue.
Her complicated and broken history has affected Dre’s understanding of the world. Throughout life, she has in different ways expressed herself in obsessive and socially-misunderstood ways. She has had an inclination towards violence, not fully understanding the wrongness of harming others as she herself has felt harmed by everyone she’s encountered (except Marissa). She admits to being called, “dyke,” “liar,” “stupid,” and “pig,” throughout her whole life. Her otherness is something people always pick up on and make no attempt at hiding their distaste of. She was always going to be misunderstood and though her anchor had become Marissa and Ni’Jah, it could’ve been anyone and anything.
Though the series is an obvious critique of stan culture much in the same way that Dre’s violence has little to do with actual Ni’Jah, the show has little to do with any specific fanbase. In an article on The Mary Sue that Kat shared with me titled, The Significance of 'Swarm' (or God) Giving Dre a Happy Ending, writer Teresa Jusino critiques the limited reviews of the show saying,
“This is why I find outlets like The Verge calling Swarm a “send-up of stan culture” too surface-level a read. Dre’s obsession with Ni’Jah could’ve been anything. While the connection to Beyoncé and real-life acts of violence make this story relatable to viewers steeped in pop culture, Swarm isn’t just a commentary on the dangers of fandom. It’s a reminder of the importance of actively choosing to connect with other human beings, even—and maybe especially—if they seem a little strange.”
A cyclical critique
Though each episode starts with a title card explaining that this is not a work of fiction and that any likeness to real people, situations, and places is intentional, the story is an act of fiction. There are many events in the series that are inspired by real events and as mentioned, the Beyoncé-ness of Ni’Jah is incredibly unsubtle. The series is a meta-commentary not only on stan culture but all of our obsessions, our comfort watches, and guilty pleasures. For the first 5 episodes, we follow Dre on her tirade. She encounters other weirdos and outcasts like herself and yet she still sees herself as other. We follow as she spirals further into her mind, rewriting the narratives around her to depict herself as heroine. The show is meta even in its casting, featuring Beyoncé’s own pop star protege, Chloe Bailey, a Prince of Pop’s daughter, Paris Jackson, and the incredibly talented pop star, Billie Eilish. Inspired by real events that seem too absurd to be true (but absolutely are), the show takes us on a wild ride. What I appreciated the most however, was it’s decision to turn the focus away from a stand-in for any Stan (or Stan-in) character and instead turns its face to us, the viewers as true villains.
Fishback is compelling and heartbreaking to watch. Her desperation to be loved palpable and despite her gruesome decisions, we sympathize with and for her. Until episode 6, “Falling Through the Cracks.” In it, the show takes a a turn from its usual format of following Dre through her journey to see Ni’Jah and murder any non-fans. The episode is a crime procedural mockumentary following detective Loretta Greene. Detective Greene believes she’s discovered a serial killer and even more interesting, a Black woman serial killer. Viewers are then shown Dre’s journey from a new lens, a stripped down un-glamourized version of events featuring different actors in the roles of Dre and Marissa, her foster parents, and more. In the previous episode, we had seen a quite unbelievable and sad scene where Dre revisits her old foster home. It is here we learn for certain that she and Marissa weren’t biological sisters and that Marissa’s family does not have love for Dre. They live in a large home of luxury and Dre is met with violence when she returns. We go from this understanding of Dre’s life, having taken in all of the absurd pieces of her story as fact, as the promised true story of the title card. Episode 6 destroys our understanding of the events prior and Dre’s mental state.
In this episode, we meet the real foster mother of Dre in a modest home. When she learns that Dre may be in trouble, that she had been a child in need that was denied by her and her husband, she breaks down. She feels at fault, like she ultimately let down this vulnerable young girl and in truth, she had. This is a stark contrast to the unmoving, bitter woman we met in the previous episode. Detective Greene explains that her superiors and other detectives are having trouble believing her about this serial killer. She finds it fascinating that she, a Black woman detective, would be able to find and understand a Black woman serial killer. She even at times feels a kindred connection to her, finding that they share a last name. She wonders what would’ve come of Dre had she been able to take her in.
We also meet Dre’s social worker from childhood. While there, Detective Greene questions her about Dre’s childhood, probing for some explanation for her behavior. A moment of corruption to point to and blame. The social worker erupts into a pained speech about how she cares for each of the kids in her care. She accuses the detective of needing an excuse, to learn that she’s been harmed and therefore, a victim. “You need there to be a reason she was so messed up so you don’t have to sweep your own front door and realize that you are just as flawed.” This is a critique of the detective but also of the audience. An audience that is just as eager to fanaticize Dre as she was to Ni’Jah. We are the swarm.
This episode also provides us with the true ending for Dre, one in which she has been caught, now living as Tony, after rushing the stage at a Ni’Jah concert. We know she’s been arrested and Detective Greene is on her way to see her and hopefully confirm her suspicions. However, in the final episode we’re given an alternate ending. One through the rose-colored glasses of Dre/Tony. Even after finally being acknowledged as herself and to be loved as a queer person, she slips into old habits and murders her lover. In the end, she finally attends a Ni’Jah concert and as the previous episode told us, storms the stage. Only this time, in Dre’s interpretation, Ni’Jah is Marissa. Chloe Bailey’s face is superimposed over the idol, revealing the depth of Dre’s amalgamation of them. Ni’jah/Marissa holds off the security team and allows Dre to speak before ushering Dre into her car and embracing her, allowing her to cry. This fantastic-realism ending is the final scene, one that solidifies the uncertainty of the entire show (minus episode 6) and the reliability of our narrator this far. What has really happened this entire time? Ultimately, we’ve seen a tale of a woman, cursed in her difference and peculiarities who yearns for connection finally find it in the arms of her fantasies.
The Human Need for Connection: We're Hardwired for Community by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
This show was a lot (in a good way) to mentally process, as so many stressful things are happening all at once. The show does a great job maintaining tension, that honestly transforms the 35 minute episodes and stretches them to feel significantly longer. I think because of the short episode length though there were many areas within the plot where I wish we spent more time, but that's just how I felt about it because I require a little more time to process information. I’m a person who loves more context, so the more context the happier my brain. I read an article that did fill in some of this context for me which was very helpful titled The Significance of ‘Swarm’ (or God) Giving Dre a Happy Ending By Teresa Jusino so I recommend reading if you also needed a little more time to unpack the show.
In the show there are threads of connection we’re given as an audience, and then we're tasked with watching helplessly as life and society cuts those threads that land our characters in situations of isolation and vulnerability. Many times putting them in danger. We see in a very creative way the hole that fandoms fill for many people in a society that is by design socially isolating. Because the need for human connection is hard-wired into our brains, and we don't live in a society that fosters that, the similar motivations and points of vulnerability that make people at risk to cults exist with toxic fandoms. In a society that fosters individuality, survival of the fittest and other ableist modes of operation…results, unsurprisingly, in a lot of pain.
Throughout the show we see Dre navigate a world that doesn’t accept or understand them, and we see Marissa as the main point of support, and connection. When that connection is severed in a shocking and unexpected loss, Dre tries to inflict vengeance and reestablish connection with Ni’jah in a truly wild array of murders. It’s hinted that Dre may have murdered before? But never outright stated, and that’s mainly where I wish we got more of a backstory cause it was hard to understand how we got to the point we did. All that is to say, we follow Dre as they desperately search for Ni’jah, the last connection they have after the loss of their sister.
This desperation for connection is explained by science, in an article on Scientific American Why We Are Wired to Connect
They outline how social connections impact us both emotionally and physically. They say: “Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed. When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems. We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”
What is the connection between physical pain and social pain? Why is this insight important?
Languages around the world use pain language to express social pain (“she broke my heart”, “he hurt my feelings' '), but this could have all just have been a metaphor. As it turns out it is more than a metaphor – social pain is real pain.
With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant. The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.
It also alters our motivational landscape. We tend to assume that people’s behavior is narrowly self-interested, focused on getting more material benefits for themselves and avoiding physical threats and the exertion of effort. But because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.
This has major consequences for how we think about structuring our organizations and institutions. At businesses worldwide, pay for performance is just about the only incentive used to motivate employees. However, praise and an environment free from social threats are also powerful motivators. Because social pain and pleasure haven’t been a part of our theory of “who we are” we tend not to use these social motivators as much as we could.