Let’s Talk About Swarm’s Deeply Ambiguous Ending(s)

14 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Spoiler alert: This article discusses, in depth, the final two episodes of Amazon’s Swarm.

If you’ve finished streaming Swarm, Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ Amazon horror comedy about a young woman’s murderous obsession with a pop star who is clearly meant to mirror Beyoncé, allow me to welcome you to the land of Huh?! You did, after all, just watch Dominique Fishback’s serial-killer stan Dre—full name: Andrea Greene, now living under the alias Toni—ride off in the back of a limousine with her idol Ni’jah. Except Ni’jah, who is portrayed by Nirine S. Brown throughout the show, in which she’s usually observed from afar, now has the face of Dre’s best friend and adoptive sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey), who kills herself in the premiere.

So, was this surreal denouement all a dream? We’ll get there! Before we do, I want to discuss not just the finale but Swarm’s penultimate episode, a mockumentary that follows a detective building a case against the “real” Andrea Greene. In a sense, each imagines its own alternate ending to Dre’s murder spree—one apparently grounded in the facts of a true-crime case and the other the ultimate fantasy-come-true for a fan who makes John Hinckley Jr. look sober by comparison. It’s worth taking apart each episode on its own terms, then considering them as two halves of a whole (just like Dre and Ni’jah, but more on that later). That will also mean delving into the show’s loaded depictions of Dre’s gender and sexuality, which I found to be the most frustrating aspect of a series seemingly designed to provoke strong reactions.

Dominique Fishback in SwarmQuantrell D. Colbert—Prime Video

Swarm Episode 6: “Fallin’ Through the Cracks”

For viewers weary of following the terrifying Dre from slaughter to dead-eyed slaughter, this episode offered a brief respite. Framed as a true-crime documentary called Falling Through the Cracks, it centers around Maj. Loretta Greene (Heather Simms from Luke Cage), a Memphis police detective who starts to connect murders she believes were committed by a rare Black, female serial killer. Where Dre is cold, lonely, violent, and brittle, Loretta—a widow who’s shown, early in the doc, feeding a home-cooked breakfast to her two children—comes off as warm, community-minded, nurturing, resilient. Of course, she faces an uphill battle getting higher-ups in law enforcement, who are not Black women like her and Dre, to take her theory seriously.

What’s fascinating about Loretta is that she’s precisely the kind of character Glover and Nabers were trying to subvert with Swarm. In the series’ production notes, Nabers recalls that the idea came to Glover when a Black woman he followed on Twitter “basically tweeted that she was tired of watching shows where the Black women were always therapists, had their shit together, or were saviors. She was like, ‘What’s up with that? We can be serial killers too, right?’” Whether or not you agree that too much positive representation is the biggest problem surrounding Black, female TV characters (I don’t), it’s hard to deny the proliferation of the hypercompetent-Black-woman trope. Such characters—from the ubiquitous “Black lady therapists” Aisha Harris first noticed in 2018 to Noma Dumezweni’s unflappable lawyer in The Undoing to The Queen’s Gambit mentor ex machina Jolene (Moses Ingram)—tend to appear as strong yet sane and soothing presences charged with repairing white protagonists’ broken lives.

Sign up for More to the Story, TIME’s weekly entertainment newsletter, to get the context you need for the pop culture you love

Loretta becomes a more layered character than those predecessors through her investigation of—and insights into—Andrea. It is the detritus that Andrea (played in this episode by London Rose) leaves at her crime scenes, like skincare products and Hot Cheetos, that convinces Loretta she’s looking for a Black woman. Curiously, she feels sympathy for her suspect. Their shared last name inspires identification. “What if we’re kin?” Loretta asks, wondering aloud how Andrea might’ve turned out if she’d been raised by Loretta’s loving family. When she looks at Andrea, Loretta reflects, “Sometimes I see nothing, and sometimes I see myself.” Andrea Greene and Loretta Greene: opposites but also doppelgängers.

Although Loretta makes steady progress in the case, “Fallin’” ends by noting that she is still pushing for Andrea’s arrest. In a coda, we see Glover (appearing as himself) discussing “this show I’m working on right now with Chloe and Damson and Dom Fishback” on an Atlanta red carpet. (It’s probably worth noting that “Fallin’” shares a co-writer, Karen Joseph Adcock, with Atlanta’s great season 4 mockumentary, “The Goof Who Sat by the Door.”) This suggests that the other episodes of Swarm are supposed to exist as fiction in a world where Loretta and the documentary are nonfiction, rather than as a straightforward account of events unfolding in “real life.” This is crucial to understand, going into a truly wild finale.

© Amazon Prime
Dominique Fishback in SwarmPrime Video

Swarm Episode 7: “Only God Makes Happy Endings”

Towards the end of “Fallin’” it’s revealed that Andrea Greene is now living under the alias Toni. The headline of a news clipping reads: “Man Runs on Stage at [blurred-out name] Concert.” Indeed, the next time we see Fishback, her hair is cut short, she’s wearing men’s clothing, and her character introduces themself to a female love interest, Kiersey Clemons’ Rashida, as Toni. They meet outside an Atlanta club in June 2018—the same month Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their collaborative album, Everything Is Love, as the Carters. Rashida needs a ride home with her roommate, a blackout-drunk white woman, which Toni, who has been sleeping in their stolen hatchback, eagerly provides. Once they’ve dumped the roommate in the bathtub to sober up, Toni and Rashida get to know each other. After a false start in which Rashida reveals that she hates Ni’jah and Toni pulls away, they reunite just as Toni loses their car and seem to fall in love.

What’s notable about Toni—aside from the change in gender expression, obviously, which I’ll come back to—is how relaxed they seem. Rashida observes that he’s calm enough to make a good medical student—or, she teases, serial killer. As the season has progressed, we’ve watched the initially creepy, unsettled Dre grow ever more comfortable and even socially savvy as she’s blossomed from repressed stan into self-actualized murderer. Kind, sensitive, and confident almost to the point of flamboyance, in a flashy beaded jacket, Toni starts to appear capable of living a normal life with a partner whose love they reciprocate. Rashida accepts their identity, and her parents welcome them into an upper-middle-class home so idyllic that father and daughter dance together in the kitchen after dinner. Could this be the caring family Loretta imagined for Andrea?

But the domestic bliss can’t last. Rashida effectively signed her death warrant the first time she spoke ill of Ni’jah. So of course she winds up dead on her beloved Anthropologie couch, after refusing to accompany Toni to a Ni’jah show on the night of their anniversary and blowing up at them for spending rent money on such pricey tickets. The last time we see them together, Toni falls asleep embracing Rashida’s dead body. This is an important shot because it suggests that everything that follows could be Toni’s dream. Another hint is the timing. Would there really be enough time after Rashida comes home at the end of a workday for Toni to surprise her with the tickets, kill her after she rejects them, snooze for a bit, burn the body, drive to the Ni’jah concert, murder a scalper, and enter the venue just in time to catch her idol’s performance?

And then there’s the performance itself. Toni pushes to the front of the crowd, drifts onstage, and is grabbed by security guards. “Stop. Let her go,” says Ni’jah, whose body is unchanged but whose face is now that of the late Marissa. “Sing for them,” she urges Toni. “Don’t be afraid.” “I love you all,” Toni manages to mumble. With some silent encouragement from Ni’jah, the crowd roars its approval. She and Toni exit the venue huddled together, as fans scream and flashbulbs pop. In the back of the limo, Ni’jah embraces Toni. “Thank you,” Toni babbles.

Whether or not these scenes are the dream Toni has while sleeping on their girlfriend’s lifeless body is not, ultimately, so important. They are already part of a fiction within the world where Loretta’s documentary is reality, which is in turn a fiction within the real world where you, I, and all other viewers of Swarm exist. So, what do we make of the finale’s title, “Only God Makes Happy Endings”? This fairy-tale ending, where a newly minted Prince Charming rides into the sunset with their Frankenstein Cinderella, is only happy for a protagonist who’s also a villain—and it’s a fantasy, regardless of whether Toni woke up in time to make it to the Ni’jah show. An actually happy ending would’ve seen Toni genuinely transform into the well-adjusted person Rashida thinks they are, or Loretta apprehend Andrea before she could kill again.

Chloe Bailey, left, and Dominique Fishback in SwarmWarrick Page—Prime Video

What is Swarm trying to say—and what is it actually saying?

Once you start looking for doppelgängers among the four characters at the center of Swarm, it’s impossible to stop finding them. If Andrea and Loretta are two sides of a coin called Black womanhood, then so are Dre and Ni’jah—the feral child and the glamorous woman. Until her suicide, Marissa, who’s so beautiful and nurturing and poised, serves as Dre’s real-life avatar for Ni’jah—a psychological projection made literal in the finale. Dre and Marissa are another pair, twin sisters in every sense but the biological one. As a different ideal of Black womanhood, Loretta is the matronly, earthbound version of Ni’jah, who is of course a stand-in for a real woman named Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter who really is worshiped as a goddess.

Venture further down this road, and you’ll remember Billie Eilish’s white-woman wellness cult, an equally unhinged mirror image of Dre and the rest of the Swarm’s Ni’jah obsession. You might also recall that Chloe Bailey is famously a part of a sister duo, and that she and her sister Halle got their start as preteen miniature Beyoncés, uploading covers of her songs to YouTube. And finally there are the dual finales of Swarm, one a “true” story of a hero’s persistence in pursuing a serial killer she’s on the verge of arresting and the other a dark fairy tale whose villain gets to live out (or at least dream) their ultimate fantasy. In both cases, Toni’s fate remains a mystery.

With all this in mind, I think Glover and Nabers are pushing to a surreal, horror-comedy extreme the argument that Black womanhood encompasses both the ideals we see enshrined as Positive Representation and their polar opposites. While cis men and white women pop up throughout the show, often as unwitting accomplices to or obstacles for Dre, it’s Black women whose relationships and conflicts, similarities to and differences from one another, drive the action. More than therapists or lawyers purpose-built to support the character viewers are actually invested in, they’re complex enough to construct a whole, bonkers story around.

This is all compelling enough, I think, to partially redeem Swarm from an underwhelming first impression. Horror stories about deranged fans are nothing new, and the three episodes that open the season felt light on other insights. What continues to trip me up, though, is the Toni transformation. It doesn’t quite come out of nowhere. Dre’s wardrobe becomes more masculine in episode 5, when she returns to Houston. And her repressed desire for women is alluded to in early episodes; she caresses Marissa’s skin and grows uneasy around a lesbian couple in the wellness cult. “There’s a closeness with girls that doesn’t always have to mean they’re… funny,” Marissa’s mother explains in the mockumentary, referring to her daughter’s relationship with Andrea. But she sounds as though she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else.

Yet the connections the show suggests between sexuality, gender identity, standom, and psychopathology feel both disappointingly simplistic—if you’re fascinated by a famous person, you must literally want to sleep with them—and willfully evocative of historical depictions of queer and especially transgender or genderqueer people as criminally insane. The trans or cross-dressing serial killer, as seen in Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and more recently in J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous novel Troubled Blood, is a particularly noxious trope. And this, it almost goes without saying, is a pretty horrendous moment to resurrect it.

It’s hard for me to believe that Glover and Nabers are either ignorant of this history or actively hostile towards the trans, non-binary, and genderqueer community. One clue as to their true intentions is that they’ve said Swarm was inspired, in part, by the sometimes-brilliant, often-controversial films of Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke, who has been known to make inflammatory public statements like “every film rapes the viewer.” (Ni’jah’s husband, Caché, shares a name with Haneke’s masterpiece.) The shock and offense function as exclamation points on the subtler arguments he makes about human misery and also, in a way, liberate these ultimately moralistic movies from charges of moral rigidness.

Examine Dre’s transformation into Toni through that same lens, and you come back around to the evils of stan culture—of pretending you have an intimate relationship with an artist who doesn’t know you exist. Does Dre become Toni because her adoration of Ni’jah has revealed to her that Toni is who she really is, or does Dre become Toni because that’s simply who she needs to be to get closer to Ni’jah? As far as I’m concerned, these were never the show’s most captivating questions. With that final, unnecessary swipe at a vulnerable community, Swarm becomes its own evil twin: a sensitive allegory whose mirror image is openly offensive—a very good show and one of the ugliest things on TV.

Correction, April 7

The original version of this story misspelled the name of a character on Swarm; they are Toni, not Tony.

The story has also been updated to reflect clarifications made by Amazon, after the show’s release, that Toni should not be read as a definitively trans character.

Correction, June 1

The original version of this story misstated the nationality of filmmaker Michael Haneke. He is Austrian, not Australian.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com