“Swarm” Doesn’t Quite Nail What Makes Stan Culture So Toxic, But Dominique Fishback Is Amazing In It

Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’s new limited series highlights Dominique Fishback’s considerable talents but doesn’t quite know what to say about stan culture. (Warning: contains spoilers.)

To understand Swarm — the new Prime Video limited series about a pop stan turned serial killer — and its dark, surrealist sensibility, it’s helpful to consider the work of its creators. Donald Glover came up with the concept and tapped Atlanta scribe Janine Nabers to write the show. Nabers worked on a Season 4 Atlanta episode titled “Work Ethic!” in which Van and her daughter Lottie navigate the exploitative machinations of an Atlanta film studio run by an imperious Tyler Perry–esque character named Mr. Chocolate. Van and her daughter play multiple characters in increasingly degrading, trope-laden scenes. When Van finally confronts Mr. Chocolate and demands that her daughter be released, she calls him a con man: “You just make unrelatable shit that takes advantage of the people you say you’re trying to help.” 

In a 2022 Complex interview about the episode, Nabers confirmed that “Work Ethic!” explored the tensions between supporting good Black art versus bad Black art. “It’s OK to not be a fan of someone’s work if you are Black and they are Black because that only helps them get better as artists,” she said. “We don’t have to hold each other’s hands so much in terms of being a supportive entity as much as you can.” 

This is particularly insightful framing for Swarm, a thriller that contends with stan culture, emotional intimacy, and true crime hysteria through the lens of the unsettling protagonist Andrea “Dre” Green (Dominique Fishback). Stanning, after all, is the ultimate declaration of artistic preference taken to its extreme — much of the digital feuding between fanbases comes down to debating each other’s taste levels — and both “Work Ethic!” and Swarm use Black women leads to navigate the guiding forces behind such visceral reactions.

Embracing a similar surrealism to Atlanta, Swarm is set in an alternate 2016, in which a brown-skinned pop icon named Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown) and her husband Caché (Stephen Glover) are a megastar duo a la Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Dre and her foster sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) both share a devout fealty to Ni’Jah above all other entertainers and a codependent bond that befuddles coworkers and onlookers. Dre rapidly unravels when Marissa expresses a desire to move out with her partner Khalid (Damson Idris) and runs afoul of Dre’s plan to surprise her with Ni’Jah tickets. Circumstances escalate quickly — Dre goes clubbing after Ni’Jah debuts her Festival album, only to return to find Marissa dead by suicide after an argument with Khalid. Incapacitated and catatonic, Dre loses their shared apartment and most of their belongings except for Marissa’s cellphone, a memento of their relationship. She seeks to honor their bond by killing anyone who speaks ill of Marissa and, by proxy, Ni’Jah.

The series grapples with numerous contemporary cultural questions: What are the inherent dangers of obsessive stan culture? Can we find more complex and intricate roles for Black women onscreen where they aren’t heroes or saviors?  

On the latter question, Fishback gamely steps up to the challenge. She puts on the equivalent of a one-woman show, navigating between personas and deepening Dre’s character as the immersive episodes shift in format from psychosexual thriller to road-tripping dark comedy to true crime mockumentary. There’s no running monologue in this series to allow the viewer to intuit the motivations behind Dre’s tenuous grip on reality and rational action (apparently Glover told her to play Dre “ more like an animal and less like a person”), and so Fishback’s ability to quickly transition from a near tangible discomfort and pallid disassociation in one scene to a chilling frenzy is remarkable. 

At times, her performance is laugh-out-loud funny: the cascade of microreactions Dre has in under 20 seconds as she listens to Hailey (Paris Jackson), her new coworker at a strip club in Tennessee (and an obvious Halsey stand-in), discuss her Black heritage is a masterclass in nonverbal expression. Fishback perforates Dre’s character with a marked vulnerability. Her frustrations and struggle to make emotional connections outside of her virtual standom runs alongside her violent outbursts, allowing the viewers to read her actions as not just disembodied brutality, but also a nearly compulsive reaction to anyone challenging the fixations that give her comfort. “He is nothing. But Ni’Jah, she’s everything,” Dre says as she encroaches upon an impending victim, menacingly wielding a hammer. In uttering “he is nothing,” Dre is literally speaking about the victim’s favorite artist, but when she says Ni’Jah is everything, she could have just easily been referring to how she internalizes her own obsessive dynamic with Ni’Jah  — one that is constantly in service of an artist who functions as her North Star, to the expense of any and all relationships around her .

By Episode 4, on the way to see Ni’Jah’s headlining performance at a music festival, Dre (going by the pseudonym Kayla) crosses paths with a NXIVM-style cult led by Eva (Billie Eilish). In a one-on-one session with Eva, Dre finally sheds a few layers: She discusses pieces of her childhood trauma, her inner machinations, and triggers as Eva’s conditioning slowly reveals these deeply repressed memories.

But once Dre realizes that the “tribe” is invested in isolating and controlling her, she devolves into derangement, violently lashing out at the group of white women who manipulated her desperation for love and family with near-maniacal glee. She does eventually glean some facsimile of family: By the finale, Dre is in Atlanta presenting as Toni, a stud lesbian sporting a close-cropped Afro who ends up in a relationship with a grad student Rashida (Kiersey Clemons). SZA’s “Normal Girl” plays as they hook up for the first time: “Wanna be the type of girl you take home to your mama / The type of girl, I know your fellas, they'd be proud of … I wish I was a normal girl.” This time around, when Rashida rejects Dre’s romantic gesture of Ni’Jah tickets — the ensuing bloodshed doesn’t feel triumphant. Tears stream down Dre’s face while she strangles her paramour as Rashida wheezes, “I love you.”

Absent a backstory for Dre, Fishback adds dimension and humanity to an inscrutable character with a nuance that elevates the series.

Absent a backstory for Dre, Fishback adds dimension and humanity to an inscrutable character with a nuance that elevates the series. Her performance nearly seems at odds with the intentions of the creators: Both Glover and Nabers put an emphasis on rejecting humanity in the character. “I kept telling her, ‘You’re not regular people. You don’t have to find the humanity in your character. That’s the audience’s job,’” Glover said in a recent Vulture interview. Yet Fishback imbues her performance with a significant amount of pathos — enmeshed with the ad hoc violence and abrupt tonal shifts, she invites viewers to speculate about the conditions that influenced her decline. 

Where the show falters, however, is in its examination of stan culture. Fans of Ni’Jah’s call themselves members of the Swarm. Similar to the bevy of siloed episodes of Atlanta, Swarm draws from a variety of real-life events. And while some threads seem like unbearable pastiche — one episode features a re-creation of the Carter–Knowles elevator fracas at the Met Gala afterparty, for example — others serve as clever devices that  reverse engineer moments in Dre’s journey. The infamous alleged Beyoncé-biting incident is transformed into an instance of Dre’s stanning going overboard. In a dissociated state of rapture, Dre bites Ni’Jah at an afterparty she crashed and goes from defending Ni’Jah at all costs to hoping that her fellow “killer bees” don’t discover her as they go on an all-out search for the culprit.

At the show’s strongest, Swarm showcases how Dre’s obsessive fixation with Ni’Jah is a sublimation of her complex relationship with Marissa as well as a projection of her inability to maintain substantive or formative connections with women in her life. It’s a compelling angle, but the show fails to engage with some of the most common threads across any stanbase — the formation of parasocial relationships and the sense of built community, whether genuine or not. 

In Swarm, Ni’Jah — perhaps since she’s based on the famously private Beyoncé — largely exists in visual context only, with all insights into her persona and stature encapsulated by the reactions of fans and critics alike. There is some acknowledgment of these layers — in the premiere, Marissa realizes that Dre still tweets from a Swarm account and tells her “those are not your friends, those are some crazy-ass fans who don’t give a fuck about you.” As Dre descends further into madness, however, her fandom becomes an increasingly isolating endeavor, which belies the names of their fanbases, both metaphorical and literal: Swarm. Navy. Army. Hive. All indicate participation in a collective experience of celebrity worship.

Stans protect their beloved entertainer’s status, public perception, and perceived power, not only because of what that artist represents to them individually, but because of the rewards they reap from their investments, however nominal: increased community, a presale code, a thank-you note on Instagram, or discounted merch. Such gifts rationalize and encourage their mass engagement. 

Swarm doesn’t quite fully grasp this. In Episode 6, a Black woman detective searches for Dre in a true crime mockumentary. A Hive member contributes to the doc, expressing how the Hive may be militant, but they wouldn’t mobilize to commit physical violence, as texts of threats of violence sent to strangers on the internet by Swarm members scroll on the screen. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but Dre never sought validation from her “hive” to reinforce her choices. “There are usually some factors that contribute to a child lashing out,” a social worker says to the lead detective. “I don’t appreciate you portraying [foster children] as monsters,” she adds. “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 you're just as flawed. That girl was lonely, and she was looking for acceptance.”

In concept, this could serve as a compelling entry point to frame how standom is not a mental illness; it is a compulsion accessible to whoever chooses to let the comforting artifice of parasocial bonding to a celebrity serve as a source of strength. But in practice, the show struggles to lay claim to that angle, forfeiting any examination of the various impetuses that can enable the more toxic fringes of stan activity in favor of narrative flourishes.

Like “Work Ethic!”, Swarm boldly contends with hyper-relevant topics with deft skill. But both conclude with open-ended and unanswered questions. “Work Ethic!” demurred on directly confronting whether there was value in assessing “good” versus “bad” Black art; while Swarm makes pointed satirical nods to the culture of digital fandom and the extremities it can take. But it stops short of making a greater cultural point about social behavior and celebrity, ultimately giving Fishback’s notable performance center stage. It’s a welcome compromise, although one that takes the sting out of the premise. ●

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