Streaming on Prime Video from 9 April, THEM is going to be your next must-watch anthology series and for a whole host of reasons you might not be anticipating. Whilst there’s understandable suggestions it’s just another version of Jordan Peele’s US – mainly because of how the series has been marketed – Little Marvin has created a world all of its own.
Having seen the opening two episodes, it captivates beyond expectation and deep levels of discussion over the themes are sure to follow. Created by Little Marvin, and exec produced by Lena Waithe, THEM is set in the 1950s and opens by explaining what happened in the States between 1916 and 1970. During that period, over 6 million African Americans left the rural South (to escape the racist Jim Crow laws that were upheld) and headed off to the Northeast, Midwest and West with the promises of jobs and a better life. Known primarily as The Great Migration, the limited anthology THEM follows the Emory family in 1953 who move from North Carolina to this all-white neighbourhood in LA (Compton), and even two episodes in… it offers a unique, horror-fuelled perspective to what we usually see, in an unsettling emotional sense.
The Emory’s are Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), Henry (Ashley Thomas), Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd). Set over 10 days, THEM opens on Day 1 and offer us a snippet of memory from Ayorinde’s Lucky Emory and her young baby boy, in their house in North Carolina. It’s a normal day, and her home is in the middle of nowhere, when she’s approached by a strange white woman, seemingly stalking her, who wants to take her baby. It’s creepy beyond-belief but before we see the outcome of what happens, and it’s not completely clear if it’s a dream or flashback, she wakes in the family car on their way to LA.
What happened here? At this stage I’m not sure but I have a feeling we’ll return, and it’ll be brutally uncomfortable to watch. In truth, I don’t want to delve into story details too excessively now, you need them to unravel to fully embrace, but let me assure you these episodes have stayed in my mind for a week after watching. I’ve seen idle comments about the series being a vehicle to say, ‘all white people are racist’ and if that’s your take from it, when you haven’t even seen it, then you’re not paying attention and maybe not even wanting to understand. I’d implore those people to watch and find out for themselves. Sure, there’s racism from white people at the core because – after all – this is 1950s America but there’s also other elements going on.
The white neighbourhood ‘covenant’ is led by Alison Pill’s unerring Betty Wendell, and her flock of housewives. While Pill plays it dark and powerful as the most influential woman on the street, and most of her friends will listen to her every word, I’m unsure if everyone is on board with her prejudiced intentions to intimidate the new family to leave. This ponder also applies to the men in their lives, who get together in a basement (so brave…) to discuss ways to terrify the Emory’s to leave and let’s be clear, these situations are shocking to hear but it must be signified.
THEM digs deeper than your average horror/supernatural series, it’s taking on the psychology of racism, the natural desire to protect your family and, probably, the intense psychological state of loss, which is a profoundly visceral experience to watch, as it should be. This will get inside your mind, much like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now does, especially in its explorations of major moments in relationships. But here’s the thing, this level of discomfort is important. We’d be ignorant to say there isn’t systemic racism within society, and even if you’re already supportive of equality in every respect, I believe there’s always time to learn and listen. I wouldn’t say THEM is preaching, but it’s definitely teaching. And that’s important, and why not at extreme levels?
Of course, THEM has a supernatural element lurking but I haven’t got into the full throws yet, and whether this becomes an allegory, I’m unsure, but it all fits the loop of the fear of looking after your family, when under severe duress, and that energy you put on your kin. There’s a murky underbelly of mind-games alongside that otherworldliness, including their new house which has an atmosphere running through every crack and crevasse, but it’s how it’s shot that also brings everything to life.
Expertly shot, with unique stylistics, I loved the inventive way certain, major scenes are shot, and when you’re adding some downright tremendous performances from the entire ensemble, even this early on, then we’re surely in for a treat. While Ashley Thomas’ Henry is all about trying to live their life probably and calmly, and gives a great portrayal, it’s Deborah Ayorinde who was my absolute stand-out. Full of passion, fury and vividly real, she’s one to watch and then some.
Layers of discussion are to come, there’s no doubt it’s an intense ride that’s stayed in my head but whether that heaviness is exhausting we’ll come to learn, either way between the reality and the evil that lurks amongst the shadows, you’ll be coming back for more.