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SXSW 2023 Swarm Review- The Buzz Is Real In Prime Video’s Bloody Satire

Swarm is gritty, raw, and very bloody. It is an alarming, chaotic ride alongside a very deranged driver.

The limited sampling of Swarm provided for eager SXSW 2023 attendees was barely enough to get a firm handle on this slippery series with so much more to offer than kills. At first blush, Prime Video’s series from Donald Glover and Janine Naber is a twisted love story about one woman’s obsession with a Beyonce-style star named Ni’Jah. Dre(Dominque Fishback) spends every waking moment thinking of her. She vehemently defends her on Twitter and plays her songs lovingly in an empty room.

It would be easy to say the entire series is one long fatal attraction with bodies stacking up along the way. Fishback’s Dre is obsessed, and that’s with a capital O with her favorite singer. So much so that when tragedy rocks her already spiraling life, she completely breaks down and makes it her mission to take down any of Ni’jah’s detractors and get close to the singer.

Dre is a mess. She lives with her good friend(no one could be her best friend but Ni’Jah) in a tiny Houston apartment and works in the mall when she remembers to leave her music and room. Dre is behind on her rent, and that is straining their relationship. She also isn’t above committing a little credit card fraud to buy VIP tickets to a Ni’Jah. Every stranger she meets gives her an opportunity to ask who their favorite singer is. God forbid they answer anyone but Ni’Jah. When that happens, she barrages them with all the reasons they are very, very wrong.

After Dre’s life explodes, she takes to the open road needing to escape her demons and bad deeds. That catalyst allows her to release all her rage on any internet troll who has taken aim at her idol. Each episode features a month and date stamp, which could feel meaningless until a deeper dive reveals the real or rumored news stories about fixated fans behaving badly. It would seem, at first, that is all Swarm has to offer. Dre’s an addict, and Ni’Jah is her drug. Like most addicts, she goes to extreme lengths to protect her addiction.

Einstein’s saying that when you keep making the same mistakes and expect different outcomes, that is the definition of insanity applies here. Dre is undoubtedly in need of a good therapist. Her decision-making highlights the dangers of extreme ideologies. Whether it’s fandom, addiction, tainted love, or religion doesn’t matter. Extreme views always lead to extreme actions. I’m not suggesting everyone runs out and kills people, but it is detrimental to close our minds to everything that isn’t our focus.

Episodically, the series could feel flat as each episode, in the beginning, is more of the same. Dre reads something negative someone posts something about Ni’Jah, and she calmly flips out, hunts them down, and kills them before meticulously cleaning up the mess and stealing all of their snacks. Pretzels are a particular favorite.

Things swerve in the latter half of the season, and Dre’s origin story unfolds. There’s a reason she is so lost in her obsession. While the first half doesn’t give us much to hold on to with Dre, the latter episodes make her a sympathetic character. It becomes a savage commentary on true crime culture(watch out, citizen detectives) and a character study of one very troubled young woman. It’s a tough ask, and the abrupt shift gives a bit of whiplash, but by the end, you feel like this was a masterful trick Nabers and Glover pulled off.

Swarm is an anxiety-inducing, disorienting experience, especially with the constant buzzing that invades most moments. Fishback swings wildly from nearly blank-faced to rage-filled in an instant. Her meticulous dedication to Dre allows us to see her as anyone we might meet in the grocery store or elevator. Anyone could be waiting to snap and bludgeon us to death in the name of their fixation. It’s unsettling to imagine Dre could be anywhere, waiting to catch us singing Nickelback’s Rockstar instead of whatever they think we should. She’s a homicidal Rickroll I can’t get out of my head.

Fishback brilliantly shows what utter devotion looks like. For Dre, Ni’Jah is a Goddess. She is Dre’s religion—her reason for being and who Dre defines herself as. Dre is nothing if she isn’t a fan first. It’s the kind of dangerous love that makes people destructive.

What makes Swarm so great is Donald Glover, a massive star himself, is poking fun at himself, his rabid fan base, and at the keyboard warriors who sling hateful critiques from the perceived safety of internet anonymity. Ask anyone under twenty-five or a fan of Community, and they will instantly declare, “I love that guy.” When performing as Childish Gambino, the Atlanta star and rap artist has a history of being uncomfortable with his fame. He has occasionally been irritated with critics who didn’t understand his vision. He has a savage sense of humor that can cut to the bone, and he uses it.

Dre is emotionally immature. Frozen at the one point in time she felt happy, she is not equipped to handle the world, and Fishback never lets us forget, Dre isn’t a monster just because she does monstrous things. Glover’s gorgeous, tightly focused shots of her remind us that this is her story and all of ours. We all bear responsibility, and Dre is not so unbelievable we lose the thread that she could be real. That’s the scariest part about Swarm. It never excuses Dre’s behavior, nor does it wash her motivations in the typical past trauma backstory. There is nuance in life and people, and this deceptive series paints in the gray but delivers it to our screens in gorgeous technicolor. Swarm premiers on Prime Video on March 17th, 2023. Find all our SXSW 2023 coverage here.