NEW YORK: There was nothing on television quite like Swarm. This ultraviolent fever dream of a series, from the Atlanta team of Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, tells the tale of a tormented young black woman, Dre (Dominique Fishback, outstanding), who idolizes Ni’Jah, the world’s biggest pop star — or at least the one with the most militant fanbase, who call themselves the Swarm and drown out any and all online detractors with bee emojis. If this all sounds familiar, it should: the series is directly inspired by Beyoncé and her Beyhive, right down to the talented younger sister, elevator-attack security footage, and a Black Is King-esque album with Afrofuturist visuals.
When Dre’s adoptive sister Marissa (Chlöe Bailey, herself a Beyoncé disciple) falls victim to her two-timing boyfriend (Damson Idris), Dre snaps, embarking on a cross-country killing spree that sees her dispatch anyone who besmirches Ni’Jah’s good name with extreme prejudice. Along the way, she encounters a bizarre cast of characters played by Rory Culkin, Byron Bowers, Kiersey Clemons, and Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael).
One of the more eye-opening people she encounters on her journey is Eva, a mysterious young woman played by none other than pop superstar Billie Eilish in her acting debut.
“That’s Carmen Cuba,” Nabers tells Rolling Stone, crediting the show’s casting director for the find. “We were looking to cast the episode and she suggested Billie, and I said, ‘Does she act?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘What has she been in?’ And she said, ‘Nothing.’ But what’s so incredible about this process is that you have a lot of people that work on the show that are multi-hyphenate and people who have so many different passions. We gravitate toward people who are juggling multiple hats.”
Eilish pops up in Episode Four of Swarm, which is titled “Running Scared.” After Dre goes full “Hannibal Lecter on Ni’Jah,” biting her at a club (again, sound familiar?), she arrives in Manchester, Tennessee. It’s April 2018, and Dre is desperate to see her pop idol at Bonnaroo. But she doesn’t have a wristband. A tense run-in with a creepy cop leads her to seek refuge with a coven of woo-woo (mostly white) women — the kind that do all their shopping at Erewhon and have purchased more than one head-scratching Goop item.
“I feel so drawn to you,” Eva tells Dre.
Things begin to get creepy during a hike at dawn, when the women all confide in Dre that they believe Eva is possessed of magical healing powers, able to cure everything from alcoholism to stuttering — bearing a striking similarity to another cult leader, NXIVM’s Keith Raniere. (The women also have initials carved into their shoulders, just like those in NXIVM’s sex-cult sorority DOS.)
According to co-creator Janine Nabers, Raniere, who finally received his comeuppance around the time the episode is set, was the inspiration for Eilish’s Eva.
“When you look at the time of the show’s story, and the fact that there’s a true-crime element of every episode, that element of Episode Four is NXIVM,” explains Nabers. “They existed in New York — in Albany — and that was the period in our lives when they were preying on women. It’s about the idea of a cult-like mentality of someone that can be your savior, and you see that reflected in music. That was always part of what that episode was going to be. We took the Keith Raniere character out of it because we really wanted to focus on the women.”
Following the hike, Eva summons Dre to a private room under the guise of self-help — only to trap her in a triggering bout of mindfuckery akin to the “Processing” sequence in The Master (no doubt inspired by Scientology auditing).
“I’m gonna snap my fingers, and when I do, I want you to say your name,” Eva tells Dre. “It’s what we call a ‘grounding point.’ And we’re going to keep adding to your ‘grounding point,’ so it’s strong — like you.”
Before long, Dre is spiraling. She loses trust in the women, who’ve confiscated her precious phone and cleaned the blood off the backseat of her car, and gets bloody revenge, running over Eva not once — but twice — with her car.
When I mention the scene to Fishback and Nabers, they burst out laughing.
“Stunts did that! I don’t even got a licence!” exclaims Fishback. “But that Eva character essentially asks for it. Dre was trying to leave. She wanted her phone. She went into her mind without her permission, got information about her sister that she didn’t freely give you, and then that? It’s over for you. It’s over.”
Both Fishback and Nabers came away incredibly impressed by Eilish’s work ethic and ability on set, especially given her lack of onscreen acting experience.
“She’s so respectful of the craft. She came in with ideas, wanting to talk about it, being game to rehearse,” offers Fishback. “I think she’s wonderful. I’m such a fan of her as a person due to what I experienced with her on set.”
“She came in and their chemistry was really wonderful,” adds Nabers of Fishback and Eilish. “This show, in terms of women and violence, is so empowering for me, because you see it from such a masculine standpoint usually in the history of film and TV. To subvert that with this, and with Billie, was great.”