How ‘Swarm’ Co-Creator Janine Nabers Created The Black Female Anti-Hero She Always Wanted To See

It’s 4:00 a.m. and Janine Nabers is tired.

She’s spent the past five hours watching Dominique Fishback flatten the world’s biggest pop star with a beat-up, four-door sedan. Billie Eilish is on the pavement, blood gushing from her nose as a group of white women in crinkled linen blouses scream and rage, their haute couture hippie blouses blowing in the wind as they mount the car’s hood, tear at its rear-view mirrors and chase it down a rocky stretch of road.

The scene is a pivotal one for the creator’s latest TV show, Prime Video’s dark, psychological horror thriller Swarm. It marks the relapse of Fishback’s Dre, who found some semblance of peace – albeit the manufactured kind – amongst these Nexium Cult stand-ins after a multi-episode killing spree in pursuit of her idol, a global icon named Nijah whose similarities to Beyonce are entirely intentional.

Nabers remembers how tricky the scene was to navigate. Fishback doesn’t drive, Eilish has never acted in something like this before. The stunts were complicated and the editing process long. And, did we mention she was pregnant at the time?

“The stakes were really high,” Nabers tells Uproxx. “You’re dealing with stunt people and then you’re dealing with the real actors. There are so many things that you have to do in order to really stay safe while making a shot like this.”

But the end result was worth it.

“[It’s] a really beautiful and brutal scene that I think will be one of the things a lot of people talk about with the show.”

Beautiful and brutal have historically been mutually exclusive terms when it comes to depicting Black female characters on-screen. While their white counterparts are allowed to be messy, flawed, psychotic, and even homicidal, Black women are unfairly held to outdated likability standards. They’re the therapist, the best friend, and the accompaniment to someone else’s story. Not always, of course, but often enough to motivate Nabers to create a seven-episode fever dream about a Black woman on a killing spree while chasing her favorite artist.

“I came to LA in 2014 when the anti-hero was really starting to make a big swing. We’d seen the Tony Sopranos and we’d seen the Mad Mens, but now we were starting to see more women in that role too,” Naber says while talking about writing the character of Dre. “When Donald pitched this idea, it kind of clicked for me. We see so many white men and women behaving badly on TV, but we still have empathy for them. We still find them funny, we find them scary. All of these really powerful, iconic characters, but it’s always been reserved in a very white space. So I just really wanted to focus on creating that for us, for the Black community within this Black cultural lens.”

“Donald” as in Glover, as in Childish Gambino, as in the multihyphenate creator behind Atlanta, tapped Nabers to flesh out a concept he had about stan-dom – its relatable highs and dark, depraved lows. Nabers had written on his FX series before it came to a close, and she’d served on other shows where female characters were afforded the space to behave badly (though, admittedly, not this badly).

“My first boss in Hollywood was a woman, and I learned a lot from her,” Nabers says, recalling her work on shows like Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, UnReal, Dietland, and later, Watchmen. “You learn so much about being brave and being able to say, ‘Look, this character’s a woman. I’m a woman. I wrote this character. This is what I think, and this is why you probably need to listen to me because you’re not a woman.’”

Glover’s influence allowed the writing team to take liberties with images of some of the biggest names in the music world, name-dropping artists like Halsey and recreating the events surrounding Beyonce’s Lemonade release. “I think if a room of black writers gives you a shout-out culturally in a way that’s really funny and a little meta, I would hope that Halsey would understand that we fuck with her,” Nabers says of the show’s pop culture references. “I hope Beyonce understands that.”

But it’s her DNA that’s infused in this thing. From the horror influences to the Houston backdrop, to how she ran her set, employing both an intimacy coordinator for the show’s racy sex scenes and a sensitivity coordinator for stars like Fishback to decompress the heavier, emotional beats of the story. Nabers built an environment that allowed her cast and crew to go to the dark places Dre’s obsession demanded.

On the much-discussed opening sex scene, she remembers Chloe Bailey’s work ethic. “It’s really just about making sure Chloe feels protected, which she does,” Nabers says. “She is such an incredible professional. I just hope that people see past just this one 15-second scene and really kind of just focus on the story at hand.” That scene, according to Nabers, introduces the character of Dre in a way that’s both intimate and alienating. Playing with horror tropes surrounding women’s virginity that have existed on screen for decades, the showrunner wanted people to understand Dre’s sense of isolation in a visceral way.

“I think when you look at the horror trope, there’s always some sort of underlying sexual component to it. And for me, it was always trying to subvert it as much as possible,” Nabers explains. “As a black woman, I really wanted to make sure that we understood that Dre’s relationship with sex was very foreign to her and that was part of her character. You see that kind of become the thing that a lot of people talk about with her.”

But if Dre’s otherness, and her embrace of violence as a means to ascend the fandom hierarchy challenged viewers, writing about the destruction this female anti-hero left in her wake also pushed Nabers out of her comfort zone. She recalls writing the show’s fifth episode with Malia Obama (yes, that Malia Obama) and how she had to advocate for her mental health during the process.

“When you have life inside of you, your chemistry changes, right? And so that is very much part of the growth of myself as a writer,” she says. “I remember at some point kind of stopping and calling one of the producers and being like, ‘This is really hard for me to write these parents,’ and having to take a couple of days to get back into the groove of it.”

As Nabers says, the train must always move on. She gave birth while filming the series, returning to set just a short time later explaining, “That’s just how TV works. It can’t really stop for anything.”

Inevitably though, that movement does come to an end. In Swarm’s case, an ambiguous one meant to test the viewer’s story retention and keep them dwelling on the unsettling imagery of the show long past the credit’s scroll. Nabers admits she sees the story as beginning and ending with Dre’s sister, Marissa (Bailey) but it’s up to fans to suss out whether that dreamlike meeting between the serial killing stan and her stadium-packing deity actually happened. It’s another way she’s trying to put her own stamp on the world of TV.

“I believe in endings,” Nabers says. “And this show has an end. You might not understand it, you might question it, you might read into it. But that’s an ending for me. “That that’s what artists do. We made an album, we made a character, we made a world, and now it’s your time to take it in.”

If she sounds confident in the world she built, empowered by the team she built it with, and excited by the prospect of throwing down a kind of gauntlet, it’s because she is. She’s investigated the “weird dance” of celebrity worship with Swarm, placing an unsettling amount of light on the dark corners of the internet that invite us to comment on Britney Spears’ Instagram posts ad-nauseum and embed ourselves in each other’s lives to a “scary” degree. And, she’s created a Black female character who not only broke bad – she broke the damn internet.

Nabers credits the women she’s worked with in the past for giving her the drive to not only keep going in the industry but to keep creating characters that make us cringe and cower in their relatability, ones that mow down victims in their stolen sedans and gorge themselves on pies after murdering fuckbois and literally consume the thing they love most to the point of self-destruction.

“There is no other character like this,” Nabers says. “We’re starting on a blank page. So for me to be able to say what I need to say as the creator of her, I think is really powerful. And I think all of the women that I worked for before me taught me that.”