This story contains spoilers for Prime Video’s Swarm. “This is not a work of fiction,” reads an eerie message at the beginning of every episode of new Prime Video series Swarm. “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” It’s a warning — no, a confirmation — that this show is exactly what you think it is. This is a story about Beyoncé, but it’s mostly about the Beyhive.
To drive the point home, the first episode opens up with a cagey-looking young woman desperately trying to purchase tickets to her favorite artists’ new tour on Ticketmaster. (Triggering!) Wild-eyed as if in a trance, our protagonist Dre (Dominique Fishback) whips out the brand new credit card she purchased just for this concert and doesn’t even blink at the price of the floor seats that she buys, which happen to cost more than her monthly rent. It’s all worth it if she gets to be close to Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown), her queen and her reason for living. Well, her other reason for living; there’s also Marissa (Chlöe Bailey), Dre’s roommate and best friend, who happens to be a fan of Ni’Jah, too. The two young women couldn’t be more different; Marissa is outgoing and popular, while Dre is socially awkward to an uncomfortably extreme degree. Still, they rely on each other for everything, and their relationship keeps Dre as level as she can be.
When Marissa gets into a new relationship with Khalid (Damson Idris, with a “Houston” drawl that sounds only slightly different from his South Central LA accent in Snowfall), a wasteman and a cheater, however, their sisterhood is challenged as Dre starts seeing herself as the odd woman out. In these moments of loneliness, she turns to her fellow Ni’Jah stans (coincidentally called “the Swarm”) for comfort. At least they understand where she’s coming from. They love the queen just as much as she does.
Over the course of the show’s plot, we discover that Dre’s love for Ni’Jah isn’t normal. It’s obsessive to begin with, but a traumatic loss in her life takes Drea’s fixation to frightening, truly psychopathic levels. In the first episode, Marissa dies by suicide after a fight with Khalid, and Dre’s gut response to the tragedy is to brutally slaughter her late friend’s boyfriend. With the moral compass she once had officially shattered beyond repair, our protagonist officially becomes the villain of her own story, making it her duty to defend Ni’Jah’s honor no matter what — an oath she swore when Marissa was still alive. To fulfill her life’s mission, Dre takes to scouring the internet for Ni’Jah antis, bookmarking every negative social post for receipts and justification. She becomes a nomadic bounty hunter of sorts, picking up random jobs here and there as she travels cross-country hunting down people who have the gall to not like Ni’Jah and kills them without remorse. As the bodies pile up in her wake, Dre’s backstory is revealed, and we learn that the trauma of abandonment led her to Ni’Jah as a child. The megastar’s artistry saved Dre from that pain, but it also unleashed a darkness in her that, in turn, results in agony for everyone around her. It’s hard to determine whether or not Dre is fully cognizant of the extent of suffering she’s creating in her rampage, but we do know that she doesn’t really care about who she hurts in the process. All she cares about is Ni’Jah.
Swarm is a horror story and a psychological thriller if I’ve ever seen one, marked by creepy sound effects, chilling cinematography, frequent jumpscares, and, of course, gruesome, bloody murders throughout. The limited series isn’t perfect — there are moments where Swarm slips into a frenetic pace that is hard to follow — but it’s also downright hilarious at times, peppered with utterly ridiculous dialogue and situations that you can’t help but cackle at when you’re not peeking at the screen between your fingers. The unsettling nature of the series is rooted in the truly stellar performance of its leading lady, who holds the audience captive in every single scene. As Dre, Fishback seems to unravel a bit more by the second, alternating between childlike naivete and near-demonic possession in her singular pursuit, and she leaves us bewildered, terrified, and self-reflective all at once. “I’m a fan, but not like that,” we tell ourselves as Dre bashes yet another person’s head in. “It’s never that deep.” Fishback’s supporting cast is equally as impactful; singer/actress Bailey fully earns that title by taking her acting to new grown-up heights as she plays Dre’s more grounded foil, and the brief but powerful cameos from stars like young stars Damson Idris, Paris Jackson, Kiersey Clemons, and Billie Eilish (a real thespian! Cast her in all the things, Hollywood!) make Swarm even more fascinating.
The message of this story might be violently hyperbolic, but it isn’t a lie: stanning can be an extreme and sometimes deadly sport. It’s clear that creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers are trying to incite some sort of cultural discourse with the Prime Video project. Through Dre and the rapid deterioration of her mental health, the collaborators underscore the chilling excess of stan culture and the threat of parasocial relationships to our real lives. Admittedly, Swarm personally feels a little too pointed in its exploration of standom at times, zooming the lens intensely on one artist and her fans in particular. From that unforgettable Met Gala elevator footage to the rumors swirling about someone biting her at a 2018 party, Swarm creators have no qualms about satirizing Beyoncé’s life and her fans’ continued interest in it. The specificity with which Glover and Nabers hone in on these moments, even down to recreating Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s iconic monochromatic “Apesh*t” looks, raises questions about why they chose to focus on her — and how they even got away with it. (During the show’s SXSW premiere, Nabers implied that Beyoncé — or “a pop star that shall not be named” — had in fact seen the show. No word on how she took it, though.)
Glover and Beyoncé are peers and former collaborators, having co-starred in the live action remake of The Lion King together and even working together on “Mood 4 Eva” on The Lion King: The Gift. These people know each other, so taking the story in this direction feels…strange. On one end, it’s understandable why Glover and Nabers would look to the Beyhive for inspiration or highlight them as a cautionary tale; Beyoncé is the biggest artist in the world, and her fans are among the most loyal and the most passionate. On the other, however, its satirical critique of the Hive feels kind of malicious, especially in a conversation about the greater dangers of stan culture. For decades, people have taken their stanning seriously. Too seriously, many might argue. The seemingly innocuous question “who’s your favorite artist?” is enough to start a culture war. Sometimes, stans use their individual and collective powers for good (spamming a Donald Trump election rally with fake ticket reservations) but many have also unfortunately fallen into the toxic cycle of bullying and abuse, going as far as to threaten and dox critics, and even turn on their own faves. The Hive isn’t immune from bad behavior either, but Swarm lowkey sets up Beyoncé’s fans as the poster children for toxic standom when we’re not even the worst stans out there. To quote the great Nene Leakes, how’d we get in it?
Ultimately, Swarm is a compelling narrative of the thin line between enjoyment and obsession, and it doesn’t hold back in its sharp commentary on the instability of modern pop culture. Thanks to award-worthy performances and stunning cinematography, what sometimes feels like an unwarranted Beyhive hit piece is simultaneously a breathless experience that will have you watching your back — and your tweets.
All episodes of Swarm are now available for streaming, only on Prime Video.