Dre from “Swarm:” A Psychotic Take on Invisibility
I’m a big fan of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” so I was ecstatic to see the trailer for “Swarm” with Dominique Fishback as the show’s lead. After watching it, I wasn’t disappointed. Everyone in the show had striking and real performances that made the tale believable. But before I dive in, be warned: there are spoilers ahead!
Andrea, or “Dre” (Dominique Fishback), is introduced to the audience as a socially awkward recluse obsessed with the popstar — and Beyoncé euphemism — Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown). Dre is the personification of the weird, quiet girl in the corner with no friends. She and her adopted sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), bond over Ni’Jah’s music, promising they’ll see Ni’Jah in person one day together. For Marissa’s birthday, Dre buys tickets to Ni’Jah’s concert to fulfill their dream. Yet, Marissa decides against going to the Ni’Jah concert with Dre to escape with her new boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris), and it’s through Khalid the idea of invisibility is introduced.
Khalid takes Dre’s awkwardness around him as an indication of interest. He tries to make a move on her, kissing her, but Dre rejects him out of respect for her sister. To Khalid, Dre is a young, naive virgin he can easily get along with. He reduces Dre to an object of untouched youth and a sexual adventure, denying her individuality. Dre’s invisibility in Khalid’s eye infects Marissa. After Marissa’s initial rejection, Dre tells her that Khalid tried to make a move on her at her job, but Marissa incredulously stares at her and scampers off to Khalid’s dingy car. She doesn’t see Dre as her sister, but rather as a nuisance in the way of her love. Marissa was the person in Dre’s life who constantly loved her for her, but that love is less consistent now that she is enamored with Khalid. Marissa was Dre’s best friend who valued and saw her — her best friend she is now invisible to.
The disconnect between Marissa and Dre pushes Dre into an ocean of insanity. Dre decides to go to the Ni’Jah concert alone, where her phone dies. She has a one-night stand and awakes in the guy’s bed the next morning. When Dre charges her phone, Dre sees Marissa has tried to call her numerous times, followed by various frantic texts and videos. It turns out Khalid cheated on Marissa and Marissa needs Dre, whom she could not contact. Dre frantically returns home, finding Marissa without a pulse and overdosed on pills. She killed herself out of heartbreak because of Khalid’s infidelity, which Dre had tried to warn her of. And at this point, Dre self-baptizes in the ocean of insanity. After Marissa’s funeral, she visits Khalid’s house, bludgeoning him to death because he “killed” Marissa. She then eats a pie from Khalid’s fridge with blood-caked fingers, compulsively gorging. It is revealed to the audience that Dre suffers from an eating disorder and that junk food is a tool for dissociating from her reality.
She then goes on a road trip, breaking into and entering a man’s room where she sees VIP backstage passes to get into a Ni’Jah concert and an after-party. She finds out that the pass belongs to George Clement (Byron Bowers) and manipulates him into a situationship with her, thus using him to get up close and personal with Ni’Jah. Her parasocial relationship with Ni’Jah is, again, a demonstration of invisibility. Ni’Jah has no idea who Dre is; Dre is just one fan among a mass of people who idolize Ni’Jah. However, Dre goes further than the average fan-girl. Sheseeks her idol for self-fulfillment — to feel alive and recognized.
Dre’s parasocial fantasy fuels her to the point of delusion. She locks George in a freezer, using his pass to sneak into Ni’Jah’s after-party. This delusion viscerally warps Dre’s mind at the after-party. Approaching Ni’Jah, she hallucinates biting into a plum, when in reality, she bites into Ni’Jah’s chin. After realizing what she did, Dre flees the scene, disoriented and staggering. The next day, Dre wakes up to her social media feed flooding with Ni’Jah fans threatening the assailant who bit Ni’Jah. The media transforms Dre into a monolith where she’s “that b**ch that bit the Queen.” Her identity is robbed and reduced to a single story of this crazed person who harmed their idol. The same community she saw herself deeply intertwined with doesn’t see her as one of them anymore, but as an outsider: invisibility in isolation.
With the media uproar, Dre’s homicides are catching up with her, for a detective named Loretta Greene (Heather Simms) thinks Dre is the next big serial killer. She has lots of evidence of documentation for her case on Dre, and she portrays Dre as a poster child for a Black woman gone mad. Greene makes a spectacle out of Dre’s downward spiral to bolster her reputation as a detective and get her “big break.” Dre is painted as a one-dimensional psychopath, and the narrative of Dre being a troubled girl is driven home by the testimony of one of her previous classmates. In the documentary, Greene digs up Dre’s adolescent years, finding one of her former classmates, Gwen Guillory (Lauren Lee). At the start of the interview, Gwen prefaces her anecdote, stating how weird Dre was growing up. Gwen invited Marissa and Dre to a sleepover. During the sleepover, Gwen says Dre thought Gwen was bullying Marissa, and Dre proceeded to stab her repeatedly with scissors. Gwen did survive the encounter, traumatized by the instance, shedding tears at the recollection of the memory. (Gwen was quite obnoxious; I can’t blame Dre for her moral conflicts.) The social isolation Dre goes through isn’t given a platform, just the reaction to another person’s acts; it makes her seem erratic and illogical, fitting the narrative of a crazed serial killer. Dre is more than a detective’s enigmatic case; she’s a person. However, the media’s sensationalization swallows her individuality and paints her as whatever Greene desires.
After biting Ni’Jah, Dre heads to Bonnaroo to go to another Ni’Jah concert. She goes to a gas station bodega, but a police officer trails her to the gas station on his motorcycle. He parks by the front of the gas station bodega, staring daggers at Dre as she side-eyes him through the glass for what can be assumed was her being a Black woman in a white area like rural Tennessee. A white woman about Dre’s age takes note of this. She gets the cop to go away, later revealing that she threatened to record the cop being prejudiced against a Black woman. The woman, Cricket (Kate Lyn Sheil), invites Dre to stay at her large house with her friends so Dre doesn’t have to live out of her car for the next few days leading up to the Ni’Jah concert.
After arriving at the house, Dre befriends the girls, specifically Eva (Billie Eilish), who sits Dre down and asks her questions about her life. It takes a turn when Eva starts snapping in short intervals, brainwashing Dre into telling her the necessary details of her life. Dre loses her perception of time in the process. It’s revealed that Dre was part of an accident in which she possibly caused her grandma’s death, or at the very least witnessed it, hauntingly calling the blood “spilled milk.” Food appears here again as a means of dissociation, implying that Dre sees the blood of those she’s murdered as spilled milk rather than what it really is and represents. The image of spilled milk also connotes something minuscule and easy to clean up, which is corroborated by how easily she kills throughout the show. This is one of the rare moments where Dre opens herself up to another individual she believes wants to get to know and understand her. Still, in the end, Eva brainwashes Dre to indoctrinate her into Eva’s Midsommar-esque sisterhood cult.
Objectified as a means to an end — in this case, to become another member of Eva’s cult — Dre is made invisible once again and has her mind breached. It is only upon finding out that she’s been losing her grasp of time that she realizes Eva intended on having
Dre miss the Ni’Jah concert. Dre avenges the sisterhood, making Eva and other cult members roadkill, literally running them over with her car that she misses the show and finds her phone’s out of service. Next, Dre returns to her foster home to coerce her foster father, Harris (Leon), and mother, Patricia (Kimberly Ann Parker), into paying her phone bill. She’s met with hostility and a shotgun fire by Harris that she luckily evades. Harris and Patricia admit that they only adopted Dre to cash in the foster care check to pay for medical bills and Harris’ business endeavors. Once again, Dre is reduced to an asset for those around her to exploit; Dre is made to face isolation in a place she and her sister Marissa found camaraderie, a kind of slap to the face that reminds her that she has no home. Harris and Patricia still mourn Marissa, blaming Dre for taking their little girl away. Her sisterhood with Marissa goes unacknowledged, and she’s made a scapegoat for Marissa’s decisions that she couldn’t control. Dre is submerged in the shadow of Marissa’s death, losing value as a person since her life is reduced to how much her foster parents were banking with each check. Dre manages to get away in one piece. There’s a time skip to a couple months later. Dre now identifies as a man named Tony and falls in love with Rashia (Kiersey Clemons), a college student. The two date for a while, Rashida being the first person after Marissa to see Dre for who he is. She even states that she hates Ni’Jah’s music. Tony doesn’t murder her for it initially; he embraces it, as he sees that their differences draw them together. The two are happy together, and Tony remains present in his own reality, no longer “spilling milk.” Unfortunately, Tony’s selfish nature reigns; Tony buys Ni’Jah tickets for Rashida’s birthday party like an idiot. Rashida calls him out for inconsideration, and Tony relapses, choking out Rashida and burning her body. He does so out of obligation as a member of the “swarm,” aka a fan of Ni’Jah. This is the one time Tony isn’t invisible and is finally connecting with someone, and his idolization and parasocial relationship with Ni’Jah literally erased Rashida. Ni’Jah is his religion, so Rashida living outside his “belief” in Ni’Jah made him see Rashida as no different than all his prior victims. He comes full circle, doing what was done to him to the one person who cared about him most at this time of his life. He goes to the Ni’Jah concert, having a massive hallucination. Ni’Jah calls Tony to the stage to sing for him, and Ni’Jah’s face transforms into Marissa’s. After singing with Ni’Jah, Tony lays on Ni’Jah’s shoulder in her car, crying tears of gratification. In this warped reality, Tony lives out his dreams with Marissa, fulfilling the promise to meet Ni’Jah face-to-face at one of her concerts. Finally, he’s seen by his idol that he’s worshiped all his life. He imagines Ni’Jah’s face to be Marissa’s because Marissa is the only person he was ever close to in the world who shares his love for Ni’Jah. In the parasocial relationship he conjured up, Ni’Jah understood him. It’s not only a way of honoring Marissa’s dream even though she’s dead but also a way to achieve self-fulfillment and have the person he sees as a god finally value him in return. But, Tony could only find solace in what, in the end, is just a delusion. Dre/Tony is a cautionary tale, allowing their environment to define them. As a result, they live in the confines of their own mind, and the only joy
Dre/Tony finds is in fantasies and dreams that never come to be. Dre/Tony’s trail of self-destruction and external violence tore their life apart, subjugating their identity to invisibility by defining their life only by the idolization of Ni’Jah. Unfortunately, invisibility isn’t just being seen; it’s also never seeing yourself. Ultimately, Dre/Tony never saw themselves and got lost in their imagination.
I recommend this show to all the viewers. It was amazing to watch and experience, and at times kind of entertaining to watch Dre/Tony’s downward spiral as a member of a popstar fandom that paralleled a cult.