‘Swarm’ Had A Bizarre Ending — And There’s A Reason For It

The psychological thriller follows a singer's superstan who goes on a killing spree — and showrunner Janine Nabers is giving her reasons for its finale.
I Run This
I Run This
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

As fan theories continue to build on TikTok and the first wave of Emmy campaigns roll out, “Swarm” has left audiences with more questions than answers.

That’s by design, according to showrunner and co-creator Janine Nabers. “Swarm” follows superstan Dre (Dominique Fishback), who was on a killing spree the entire season, ignited by her late sister Marissa’s (Chloe Bailey) death and the extreme lengths she went to show her devotion for Ni’Jah, a Beyoncé-inspired superstar. Nabers calls the series a “post-truth story” loosely based on separate real-life events throughout two and a half years about a Black woman who’s been “slipping through the cracks” in society.

“We were just always interested in telling the story of a Black woman who’s a serial killer. When we looked into it when we researched it, we found one,” Nabers said of the process with co-creator Donald Glover. “I think there’s something that’s so fascinating when you look at Black women in America and how they go missing left and right. It’s unreal, and no one ever talks about them. So if that’s the case, if there’s a Black woman who’s killing... people aren’t talking about her. That is also another extreme that’s fascinating to us.”

In the finale, Dre kills her girlfriend — the only other relationship we see her embrace after Marissa’s death — for brutally rejecting the Ni’Jah tickets Dre puts herself in debt to purchase for them. Dre then burns her girlfriend’s body, tickets included, breaks into the concert that night, and rushes onto the stage during Ni’Jah’s performance. Then, in what appears to be Dre’s dream, Marissa’s face is superimposed onto Ni’Jah as she whisks her away into an SUV and embraces her in her bosom. Nabers, who gave birth to her now 9-month-old son during the finale’s filming, revealed that Ni’Jah and Marissa offer a sense of belonging and self-identity for Dre.

The limited series didn’t end with a bang. It didn’t even end in a way in which audiences could be sure that it actually happened in Dre’s world. Nabers said she’s never been interested in telling others how to feel about the series, especially in work that deals so heavily with the psyche. Instead, she encourages people to take what they get from the final moments.

“Some people see Marissa’s face at the end, and some people don’t see it. That’s the point,” she said. “That’s the way that we constructed that ending to be; you either see what she sees, or you don’t see what she sees, and that’s it.”

Interestingly enough, Nabers view of a certain aspect of Dre’s story changed while working on the show. She was pregnant during filming, flying from the set in Atlanta to Los Angeles, where she is based, to give birth during the finale taping. She then returned to Atlanta to reshoot afterward and said motherhood made it harder to see how Dre was treated, specifically by her parents. However, she said being surrounded by mainly supportive Black women on set helped her carry her dream out to the finish line. Creating the show, she said, was nothing short of a “miracle.”

If Nabers nabs an Emmy nomination for “Swarm,” she will become the first Black woman recognized as showrunner of a limited series in this way.

For “I Run This,” Nabers discusses that ending, creating subversive and unique content about Black women and she even teases her new HBO comedy with “Insecure” showrunner Prentice A. Penny.

Janine Nabers speaks onstage during Deadline Contenders Television at Directors Guild Of America on April 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Janine Nabers speaks onstage during Deadline Contenders Television at Directors Guild Of America on April 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Jesse Grant via Getty Images

You got your start in theater. How did that become your path?

I came to acting by way of running. I wanted to be a track runner, actually. I got injured when I was a teenager, and I needed an elective in high school. So I took a theater class, and I caught the acting bug that way. When I went to Ithaca College, I led with acting. But what ended up being the thing that I think I left college with was the writing bug.

I went directly from Ithaca College into an MFA playwriting program in New York City. I did Juilliard after that. So I was a professional student until I was basically 28 or 29 years old. Just writing plays in New York and doing one residency after the other. It was great. It was really wonderful. TV was always kind of a dream. But it wasn’t really until after I graduated from Juilliard that I got basically the call from Hollywood. Where Marti Noxon read one of my plays, and she hired me off of my play, which was really rare at the time. Usually, people expected some sort of TV script from you, and I didn’t have that. So 2014 was when I started writing for TV.

What was the play that she read?

It was this play called “Annie Bosh is Missing.” It was performed at Steppenwolf. My family was heavily affected by Hurricane Katrina. So it’s about a woman who gets out of rehab and comes home to Houston in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. She has to find her bearings in a city that she doesn’t recognize anymore. It won a lot of awards. It got a lot of recognition. It was a very meaningful play. But it really helped guide me toward TV.

Wow. I don’t believe in any accidents in life. It sounds like there have been a lot of serendipitous moments that have led you to this moment of being the showrunner and co-creator of “Swarm.” How did your theater background come into play when creating this show?

Well, all of the plays that I’ve written are all very subversive. “Annie Bosh is Missing,” obviously, the logline is very straightforward. A woman gets out of rehab and tries to reengage with a city that’s in chaos. But I subverted that a little bit because this woman is a Black woman who passed for white. At the time in Houston, there was a lot of racial intensity around just the politics of what Katrina meant for Black people at that time.

All of my plays center around Black women and subverting some sort of narrative around this idea of Black life, of being Black. They all have some sort of salacious, or I would say controversial, through-line a little bit. But it’s always just been me writing against the narrative of certain plays I’ve read and respected as a Black person, but it doesn’t ring true to me as a woman. So that has always been part of my journey as a writer: “How can I write about something but make it unlike the things that I think people are writing about?” I want to write about something very specific to me. That might not be interesting to other people, but I’m committed to writing that story regardless.

For me, the grounding with “Swarm” comes from Episode 6 and this idea of Black women, Black girls, slipping through the cracks and no one really caring to notice. Talk about the decision to frame this idea of, Dre, specifically, slipping through the cracks in this mockumentary episode and the challenges that may have come up in doing that?

The “Atlanta” “Goofy” episode was written by the same woman who wrote the “Fallin’ Through the Cracks” episode, Karen Joseph Adcock. She just nailed the “Goofy” episode. So it was just very clear to Donald and I that was her episode that we wanted her to write for “Swarm.”

So the idea of just a Black woman being so unrecognizable to other people that she is able to slip through the cracks. That she is able to just not exist was what the essence of Dre was a little bit. She is a fly on the wall in her own life. You see her in the pilot, and she’s very active. But she’s active in a passive way because people are projecting so many ideas onto her. So for her to be her own person, for her to have her own autonomy, she only has that when she murders.

So that became the play within this story. We knew we wanted to start each episode with, “This is based on true events, this is not a work of fiction.” Then have the documentary episode be our North Star in a way, it’s almost as if that documentary episode existed before, and then the world knew who she was. Then Donald and myself were like, “Oh, wow, this is incredible. There was this serial killer that existed? Let’s make a show out of this woman’s life. Let’s give her a voice.” The meta-ness of that was always something we wanted to play with. It just feels like, again, subverting the expectation of what you think you’re watching and subverting again with that documentary episode.

Dominique Fishback stars as stan turned serial killer Dre in "Swarm."
Dominique Fishback stars as stan turned serial killer Dre in "Swarm."
Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Dre is stellar. I know you all had a different direction in mind for Dre before Dominique said, “Hey, I want to do this role.” How is Fishback’s Dre different, if at all, from your first idea of who Dre was and what she would represent?

I feel like she just knocked it out of the park. Originally, we just thought about finding someone, discovering someone. With “Atlanta,” Brian Tyree Henry and LaKeith Stanfield, no one knew who they were. Obviously, they were respectful actors, and they’ve been working in this industry for a long time. But I think there is something to finding someone that people don’t already have an idea about who they are as an actor. Letting them just take ownership of this very new role. I think that’s what we were looking for.

Dominique is so good. I think that she had been in so many things at that point. So I think we were just, again, a little ignorant and like, “Oh, was she even going to be interested in doing this role for us?” But what’s great about a great actor is that she just became the role. We didn’t recognize her when she became the role of Dre. She fought for that role. She’s so sweet. It’s like, “How can this person play someone so dark?” She was terrifying and heartbreaking. I have so much respect for her because she really did just lay it all out for this character.

So actors show you who those characters are ― I think sometimes you forget that as writers. We’ve been working on that show for so long during COVID, just the two of us, and then with the writer’s room ― so you kind of lose sight of that. When an actor breathes life into a character, that’s incredible. That’s exactly what that was.

What did care look like on set? Because it is very dark and has a lot of heavy themes in “Swarm.” So I’m wondering, did you all have an on-set counselor? Or how did you all show up for each other and the actors as filming commenced?

We had an on-set therapist. Sometimes directors, when they weren’t working, would come to set just to be another person on set that Dominique trusted. In certain scenes, we did that a lot. Donald would come to set when he wasn’t shooting. I was on set. I was there all the time. So, you’d check in. But the counselors really do help. Anytime she needed a counselor or a friend or anything, we were able to provide that for her. So it was a very open and honest experience. Very healthy because you want to protect people’s mental health in general. COVID was really, really hard. To play that character during COVID, where you have to isolate for the safety of other people on set is really, really hard. So that was one of the biggest goals for me as a showrunner and creator for her.

Mostly Black women ran this production, correct? Was that a first for you in TV?

Most definitely. Absolutely. Yes.

It was myself on set. Adamma Ebo, who directed three episodes, was incredible ― was on set a lot. Then all of our writers, and most of our writers were women, they all came to set. It was great.

How’d that feel to have mainly Black women running the show?

It felt great! Because it’s what I created. It’s what I wanted. I think that that is part of the celebration. It’s a miracle to get your show made. To get your show made and to have the people that you want speaking those words. Have the people that wrote those words be there and represent this character and the truth of this story. For them to be Black women, that’s incredible. It’s amazing.

You gave birth during the shooting of the finale and came back. That’s nothing short of a miracle, too. You were literally giving birth to a human and a show at the same time. What was that experience like for you? Looking back, what is your reflection on how you were able to do it all?

My husband is incredible. He came and worked remotely from Atlanta while we were boots on the ground. So that was great. I had a very high-risk pregnancy. I was hospitalized at some point for a couple of days. I had doctors in Atlanta. I had doctors in California. I had to go check in with my doctor every week. I couldn’t walk for more than 10 minutes at a time. So the people that needed to be aware of that situation were made aware of that situation. So it was very helpful for me to be able to be picked up and driven directly to where I was supposed to sit and be for each scene. So it takes a village, and that was incredible.

But it was really, really hard. Because, again, getting a show made is a miracle. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I loved that I was growing this baby inside of me. But I also have been working as a professional writer for many, many years, so I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. So I would do it as safely and as cautiously as possible.

There were a lot of challenges. It’s Atlanta, it’s hot. You have to stay hydrated. You get hungry. You’re dealing with a lot of emotions on set. It is violent. You’re doing rewrites. When I first started working on this show, I wasn’t a mother. The more you’re getting into the weeds of the show and the rewrites of the show and you’re seeing the violence on the show, it’s hard. During Episode 5, I remember calling one of the producers and being like, “I have to take a minute to myself. This is really hard.” Because you’re looking at parents who are turning their back on their child. So obviously, that’s something that I was able to work through. Because the story is what the story is. But your DNA changes, literally. So it was an incredible experience. Donald himself has three kids, so him being a father and having that understanding of what I was going through was also very helpful.

Wow, congratulations. That is amazing. God, Black women.

But I definitely said to people, “If this baby comes out, you’re catching it.” Because everyone was like, “You have to get on the plane at 36 weeks.” So at 35 weeks... And I kept pushing it and pushing it back. They were, “Absolutely not.” I basically got on a plane kicking and screaming and came back and gave birth.

Chloe Bailey, Dominique Fishback and Janine Nabers of "Swarm" pose for a portrait at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival Portrait Studio on March 10, 2023, in Austin, Texas.
Chloe Bailey, Dominique Fishback and Janine Nabers of "Swarm" pose for a portrait at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival Portrait Studio on March 10, 2023, in Austin, Texas.
Robby Klein via Getty Images

Wow. Oh my God. Pivot here. But you’ve revealed what the ending meant with Ni’Jah representing Marissa, but what is the benefit of an ambiguous ending?

When you’re working on a show that deals with a lot of psychology in terms of just the inner demons of someone, you don’t want to tell people how to feel at the end. Because it’s their own psychology, too, it’s interesting that some people see Marissa’s face at the end, and some don’t see it. That’s the point. That’s the way that we constructed that ending to be; you either see what she sees, or you don’t see what she sees, and that’s it.

It’s just the feeling that it’s supposed to get. I’ve never been interested in telling people what they should feel when they’re watching something. I don’t think that’s Donald’s interest, either. We want people to have their own autonomy when it comes to something that they’ve viewed. So that’s why the ending is the way it is.

What is the biggest misconception you may have seen from folks talking about the series that you’re compelled to clear up, if anything?

There are a couple of things. At some point, I said, “This show was a love letter to Black women.” For me, I meant that as Black women who are creating stories, this is a love letter to them. Because I was able to get a show made and employ mostly Black women, that to me is a triumph. I fought for a Black boss in Hollywood. It was so hard to find one and to find one who was willing to also allow me to champion me as a writer and to propel me, to hold me up, which is what Donald did.

So I want there to be more women who are boots on the ground. I don’t want it to be this odd thing that there’s a woman who’s pregnant who’s about to have a baby, running a show. That should be the norm; that should be normalized. That is what I meant when I said that. I want other Black women to be able to tell whatever kind of story they want to tell. To have an institution like Amazon, a very white institution, back them up with the story that they want to tell.

I also don’t think that Black people... we’re not a monolith. We’re not one thing. As hard as it might be for people to digest what Dre is and what she stands for, it’s OK for her to exist with the “Abbott Elementary” stories and the “Insecure” stories. There’s space for all of our stories. It doesn’t have to be this deep, sunken, horrific examination of humanity, it can just be what it is.

Is there any possibility for another season or another project that exists within this world that you would like to or are working on?

“Swarm” is a limited series. “Swarm” is one and done. Does that mean that Donald and I are done telling stories together? I don’t know. Who knows? But for now, the show that exists as Dre and her story is a limited series. That’s it.

What story do you want to tell that you haven’t as of yet?

I have a million stories in my head, and that, to me, is very exciting. There are a lot of stories that I’m working on right now. There are a couple of TV shows that I’m doing, two with Amazon and one with HBO, that are, I think, very original, subversive stories. I can’t wait for everyone to see them, because they will.

Can we get a tease of what they may be about or what we may expect from either of those?

I have an HBO comedy show about if America’s dad happened to have also been this incredible athlete at one point in his life. So it’s like if OJ Simpson and [Bill] Cosby were the same person. And if he went to jail and then got out of jail and then wanted to become America’s dad again. So it’s a comeback story. I’m working on that with HBO, with Prentice Penny, and we’re very excited about it. It’s going to stir some shit up, but it’s very funny.

Does that have a release date yet?

No, it doesn’t yet.

Does it have a title?

It does, but I’m not going to say what it is.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

“Swarm” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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