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Them Review: A series of Unfortunate Events

In the first season (subtitled “Covenant”) of the new Amazon horror anthology Them, the East Compton of the early 1950s is a place riddled with monsters. They come in different shapes, colors, with different motivations. Blurry are the borders between the real and imagined — which is very much the point.

The only reality of the series created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe that seems relentlessly clear is the violence. But even that isn’t necessarily true. All day, every day, we all disagree on matters of harm and impact. This has always been the issue with the conjunction "microaggression": how the prefix "micro" fails to adequately express the immensity of how a look, a grin, a joke, a song, a dance, a doll, can so easily be transformed into weaponry, and how this methodology is designed with space for deniability. Microaggression is a reduction, a dismissal of impact. And it fails entirely to capture the rage and the madness these seemingly small gestures can elicit over a lifetime: the compounded threat, the compounded trauma. A salesperson’s (or customer’s) casual denigration, so casual, so prevalent, to feel welcome in a business is experienced as an occasion for joy; something like the shadow of achievement.

Microaggression as a descriptor fails to recognize the snowball effect: whiteness building momentum on its own matter, its own projection, its own compulsion to consume and destroy everything in its path. And this is accomplished by a refusal to let us breathe. To let us be human. A desire to turn us into monsters.

Terminology exists for this now — the anger gap. But during the mid-twentieth century period known as The Great Migration, at which time Black folks fled the horrors of the Jim Crow South only to be met with other violent white populaces throughout the country, anger was not an emotion we could afford to express. But there was so much to be angry about (there is so much still to be angry about). Compounded threat, compounded trauma.

This is the cultural moment in which Them is situated. We meet the Emorys — husband and wife, Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), and their daughters, Ruby Lee (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie Jean (Melody Hurd) — en route to their idyllic new home in Los Angeles’ East Compton neighborhood, then a beacon of the middle-upper class, eugenicist, white supremacist suburban project. Henry has accepted a new job in engineering, and though the audience already knows they’ve left North Carolina for reasons only partially revealed, in the car they exude positivity and optimism. The warmth of their hope is tempered as soon as they arrive in their new neighborhood, greeted only by the intense stares of the residents who will soon, in a closed HOA meeting, describe them as ‘black mold’: a contaminating, infecting menace.

Reference is often made to West Compton by these same characters — once a white neighborhood, then a Black one. This pattern is now referred to as "white flight," or the propensity of rich white people to devalue entire neighborhoods, cities, workplaces, schools, professions, and so on, once they become accessible to people of color overall, but particularly Black folks. This is evidenced both historically and within the context of the show, which concerns itself with the violence of these transitions and the inflammatory rhetoric regarding purity, preservation, and protection (dually wrapped up in gender roles) which is always the precursor to atrocity. Such rhetoric informs the perspectives of individuals with power, who then make choices with widespread, systemic impact, like, for instance, selling homes with interest rates upwards of 20 percent through predatory lending schemes, intentionally decimating the financial futures of an entire neighborhood.

Them is a show overtly preoccupied with the concept of the American Dream: who it applies to, who it doesn’t, how it doesn’t. In press notes, the show's creator describes it as “examin[ing] and interrogat[ing] the American Dream of homeownership through the lens of terror. And what darkness undergirds that Dream.” To accomplish this, the show reimagines the haunted house as located in suburbia, and thus, effectively collapses any imagined distance between the American Gothic and Afro- or Negrogothic. What does it mean for a house to be haunted, yes, but not just a house—a leasing agreement, a religion, neighborhood, city, country, and culture?

The "ghosts," so to speak, are indeed ghosts of racisms past that haunt the present, but it is not so much the ghosts themselves that inspire terror—it’s what drives them. The covenant they’ve made with themselves and their god. And in this way, Them is Black horror, but it’s also a series distinctly about whiteness. Not white people—whiteness, as a condition, ideology, psychology, and culture.

I’m sure many will refer to Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), the Emorys' across-the-street neighbor, as a Karen due to the character’s pathologically obsessive need to police everyone around her. But this doesn’t quite contain the terror of her character’s commitment to upholding very particular standards of cleanliness, purity, and uniformity. In an echo of the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”— itself an intensely racist and xenophobic text — Betty is overtly preoccupied with a minor imperfection in her blue-patterned kitchen wallpaper: a metaphor that extends through the series, as her fixation mirrors her fixation on the Emorys, and her perception of them as a blight on the neighborhood.

She surveils the Emorys from the moment they first pull into their driveway, leading her minions in several targeted actions designed to communicate a clear lack of welcome. To Lucky, who has already left behind one house haunted by the memory of a group of malevolent white people, the threat laden in their gaze cannot be unseen or easily ignored. Between the two women is a distinct color story: Betty’s world in cool tones, everything in Lucky’s rendered warm. To her, it is Betty who is the interruption, the tyrant, the menace, her capacity for the "dumbass bitch" antics on the side of barely existent. Nevertheless, the constant exposure, the constant policing, wreaks havoc on Lucky’s well-being, and she cannot shake the feeling that regardless of what’s happening outside, there is still "something rotten" inside their home — a sentiment shared by Gracie Jean.

As for Henry, an engineer and World War 2 vet, this well-spoken, very respectable Black character is referred to almost exclusively by his white neighbors and colleagues as “buck,” “Kong,” “son,” “boy.” His new boss is, frankly, off his rocker. And in one notable scene, in an elevator at work, he stands quietly between two white colleagues engaged in conversation. One of them drops a pen, and a several-second power play ensues where everyone stands still in the knowledge that Henry is expected to be the one to bend down and pick it up. He does.

Within days of arrival, Henry is quite literally choking on the rage and frustration he’s forced to swallow amongst the "all-seeing eye," screaming into a large wad of paper towels in a bathroom stall. This is, of course, exacerbated by several stressful incidents (apart from the menacing neighbors), including Gracie and Lucky’s reported encounters with "mean old Miss Vera," the stern schoolteacher featured in one of Gracie’s picture books, and Ruby’s anxieties — which Henry shares — that the two may be mentally unwell, knowing what danger this can mean for Black girls and women. Ruby herself is so alienated and lonely at school, she gives too much of herself over to a white girl she admires named Doris. And it doesn’t help anyone’s nerves that every other Black person the family encounters warns against the white folks in Compton, who they describe as "straight evil."

From this constant need to perform — the need to manage all these perceptions, to manage grief and guilt like tiptoeing through a minefield — appears The Tap Dance Man (Jeremiah Birkett), a truly terrifying minstrel figure destined to become one of the next great distinctly Black monsters.

Contextualizing Amazon’s Them,” this period saw some of the most successful minstrel shows put on by Black performers who sold their acts to white audiences on the basis of being "authentically" Black. In a movement not dissimilar to the Lovecraft Country episode “Jig-A-Bobo,” which saw a monsterized rendition of Topsy, the caricature of Black girlhood from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Tap Dance Man embodies the perverse madness of the white imagination: that in order to survive, we should be continuously forced to “tap dance for whitey.” To take our subjugation with a smile.

And to be clear, there is a lot of subjugation, some of which could be extremely painful for Black audiences. Them is a horror show, through and through. But while the violence is challenging, it’s not necessarily exploitative in its treatment. That is, the camera’s gaze doesn’t revel in it. In fact, the episodes with the most violence not only include specific trigger warnings, they’re also shorter than the rest on average. While catharsis is certainly achieved, it definitely takes time to get there.

Nevertheless, there are some truly stellar moments (little Gracie Jean is an absolute hero), but I frequently found myself wondering who exactly this show’s intended audience is supposed to be? Despite sharing similarities with other Black Horror projects, it renders whiteness monstrous in a way I’ve never seen accomplished so thoroughly. Again, not individual acts of racism — whiteness. The lengths white people will go, what they will destroy, to preserve it.

All and all this is a show about Black rage and what I enjoyed most was its accomplishment of that precise movement only Black Horror is capable of producing: in reassigning where we locate the monstrous and why, it reduces white ideology to ash. Even in films where the representation is only symbolically black, like Halloween, Scream, or It Follows, audiences are so thoroughly programmed to view Black characters as the "them" at the end of some distressed white woman’s pale-pointed finger. The entitlement of whiteness is predicated on forgetting they too are a them.