Type keyword(s) to search


Swarm Reminds Us We’re All Part of the Cult of Celebrity

The casting of Chlöe Bailey and Billie Eilish connects the dark and twisted series to reality.
  • Billie Eilish in Swarm (Photo: Prime Video)
    Billie Eilish in Swarm (Photo: Prime Video)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for Season 1 of Swarm, now streaming on Prime Video.]

    Every episode of Swarm begins with a disclaimer: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” While it may read as tongue-in-cheek at first, throughout the series creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers weave in countless elements that blur the line between the world of the show and real life. By casting real-life pop stars in two of the show’s most memorable roles, Glover and Nabers are able to drive home the point that what we’re watching isn’t as removed from reality as we may think.

    Dominique Fishback leads Swarm as Dre, a superfan of pop superstar Ni’Jah. The details about the singer dropped throughout the series confirm that she’s an analog for Beyoncé. Ni’Jah releases a visual album called Festival after her husband cheats on her. Ni’Jah has a sister who’s also an artist (and there is elevator footage of a fight she’s involved in). Ni’Jah goes on two tours with her husband, called Running Scared and Running Scared II. And Ni’Jah’s fans are called the Swarm and their symbol is a bumble bee emoji — if Glover and Nabers could have cast Beyoncé as herself in this, they probably would have.

    But star power from the current pop scene shows up in other ways. Chlöe Bailey, who had Beyoncé as a mentor early in her singing career and has since gained her own fanatic following, plays Dre’s sister Marissa. In many ways, Dre is just as infatuated with Marissa as she is with Ni’Jah. When we first see Dre murder someone, it’s in part an act of vengeance for Marissa’s death. It’s Dre’s fandom that enrages her to go after anyone who doesn’t see Ni’Jah as a genius, let alone has something bad to say on Twitter. But it’s her reverence for Marissa and desire to fulfill their shared dream to meet Ni’Jah one day that sends her on a killing spree, which Dre also believes is being encouraged through messages from Marissa.

    The influence of celebrity is shown in a much more literal sense in Episode 4, “Running Scared.” Billie Eilish, in her acting debut, portrays Eva, the enigmatic leader of a GOOP-adjacent “women’s wellness retreat” (read: cult). Eilish came to fame at a young age after posting her songs on YouTube — her real-life fan base grew from her social media following. As Eva, she knows just what to say to make Dre (who at this point is going by Kayla) feel at ease in the beginning, and in “counseling” sessions is able to get Dre to reveal the secrets she’s been keeping about her violent past and who she really is. Eva even gets Dre to forget the real reason she stayed on the property in the first place: to get up close and personal access to Ni’Jah’s Bonnaroo performance.

    When we meet her, Dre is already hopelessly devoted to Ni’Jah. But when she falls under Eva’s spell during a counseling session, the scene mirrors how fans can fall into a pattern of blindly following those they love and how quickly tunnel vision can take over when in a celebrity’s presence. There aren’t too many differences between the cult of fandom and a literal cult. In the series’s very violent end, though, it also shows how even the briefest moment of betrayal from someone whom a fan has put their parasocial trust in can take a turn for the worse.

    The series’s themes run through even some of the briefer appearances from people who grew up in the spotlight, including Rory Culkin and Paris Jackson. These casting choices are calibrated to make viewers stop and consider what these actors have been up to lately, forcing us to straddle the line between fact and fiction even while actively watching.

    The series’s dark details and surreal moments make it easy to dismiss Dre’s level of fandom as too extreme to be real. But every familiar detail about Beyoncé, every Tweet that could have easily been taken from a real fan account, and every recognizable famous face in the show snaps us back to reality. Swarm wants us to know that the cult of celebrity has a strong hold on all of us, on and off the screen.

    Swarm is streaming on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Swarm, Amazon Prime Video, Billie Eilish, Chole Bailey, Dominique Fishback, Donald Glover, Janine Nabers, Paris Jackson, Rory Culkin