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The Trauma of Terror: Reviewing Amazon’s New Anthology Series ‘THEM’

by Michael John Scott

It’s all about the trauma these days. After all, we suffered through 4 years of some of the worst trauma America has experienced since the Civil War. Unfortunately, the banishment of the former king has done little to mitigate the remaining pressures.

Trauma takes many forms in 2021.  It’s in news form, essay form, and Twitter threads. In pop culture, creators are mining the depths of trauma both personal and historical in a variety of ways — documenting the testimonials of real-life victims in shocking detail; weaving harrowing experiences into fictional characters’ narratives.

In those sometimes heartstopping fictional characterizations, the trauma is merely a plot point; at other times, it is the point, or rather, the wrestling with and processing of it.

The new Amazon series Them, created by Little Marvin (Lena Waithe is one of the executive producers), has been billed as an anthology that “explores terror in America.” Is there much difference between terror and trauma?

Unlikely and definitely not in the case of THEM, as the first season centers the Emorys, a Black family moving from rural North Carolina to the suburbs of East Compton, Calif., in 1953, back when East Compton was virtually all white, and the second great migration continued from the Jim Crow South to so-called friendlier climes.

Even if you hadn’t already seen the much-talked-about trailer, it would be easy enough to guess what said terror might entail based on that short description alone: Good ol’, mid-20th century American racism. (With a brief detour to the 19th century in a later episode.)

Them is drowning in terror and trauma, and that trauma and terror are so horrific, several episodes begin with content warnings of graphic violence. I’m not one who believes every piece of art depicting awful events needs such disclosure, but in this case, the producers made the correct choice; there are scenes involving Black pain and suffering so mortifying, I can imagine many viewers not being able to finish watching it.

NPR’s Aisha Harris observes:

The attention to the details of this suffering is chilling not necessarily because of what is depicted — there’s a time and place for such explicitness in the right creative hands — but because it’s depicted in service of a cynical mode of storytelling. Each of the Emorys are haunted by a demon corresponding to their individual life experiences, and through these spirits, one can see the makings of a potentially more interesting character study than what we’re given — a story using supernatural elements to tap into trauma within Black families with the richness and sharpness of a movie like Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou or, more recently, His House, the captivating haunted house tale about a South Sudanese refugee couple living in the U.K.

Instead it borrows from the playbook of last year’s unwieldly and exploitative Antebellum, and shows like Westworld and Lovecraft Country, which favor slick convolution over coherent narrative choicesThere are So! Many! Ideas! And! Tones! being mashed up here, and to little effect. At one point the show diverts to a baffling hostage-in-a-bunker plotline for reasons that remain unclear.

When the full trailer for Them dropped last month, the Twitter timeline was alit with commentary about how the show’s themes and aesthetic seemed to be biting from Jordan Peele. Superficial similarities aside — the titles Us vs.Them; the casting of Shahadi Wright Joseph in both projects — such conclusions gloss over a few realities, such as the fact that Peele himself has always been vocal about the many films that inspired his own work.

These genres fundamentally build upon and play with these familiar elements but it doesn’t make for a bad or boring teleplay. There’s as much scary horror stuff of the Stephen King variety in Them as there is Peele’s influence and most of it is downright attention-grabbing and hair-raising.  I liked it, then again I do like a touch of the supernatural, sprinkled with a dab of horror.  I particularly like it when it’s used to advance the story, as it is here.

For some, THEM may change their way of thinking about race.  I know it made me take a long look at myself, as well as wonder about those confused feelings of my wonder years.  I loved this show and binged it over two days, and I expect you will too unless of course, you are a white supremacist (read dedicated Trumpist), in which case you will be cheering the antagonists and loving the show but for very different reasons.

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Posted by on April 15, 2021. Filed under REVIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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Glenn R Geist
Glenn R Geist
8 months ago

Some would say that Huckleberry Finn was a sympathetic and accurate picture of the American South. Is there something odd that it’s being suppressed now because of its linguistic accuracy, while perhaps more vindictively and politically biased fiction is in demand? So much of what we “know” about the past is the present. Fiction is also about what’s excluded.

Glenn R Geist
Glenn R Geist
8 months ago

I watched a few episodes of fiction about the family of a young woman who had spent years studying Kung Fu at the Shao Lin Temple. It being of our time, they’ve already dedicated episodes to sexual abuse of young women by employers and about racism. It’s what we have to include these days to remind us that all men are pigs and that the United States of America alone introduced and maintained slavery and of course; white people, white people, white people.

A few months ago when we suddenly rediscovered the race riots of a hundred years ago and were accused of not knowing (not true) and not having been taught (not true) I looked up how many had been killed in those years in pogroms in the Ukraine alone. It was thousands and tens of thousands and it didn’t stop for a very long time – even after the fall of Hitler.

Slavery existed in Dutch and Spanish colonies before our revolution. The Us accounted for about 14% of the overall picture. We don’t have slavery any more but the punitive spirit persists and we want to punish the deeds of people 150 years dead along with the descendants of people who gave their lives and risked their lives to end it. Fictionalized stories contend with real stories in making us angry and vindictive about things we didn’t do and our parents didn’t do and our grandparents didn’t do and every day it’s white people white people. None of this is about compassion, about a society based on equality under the law, but rather about pumping up the anger in as blurry, and generalized and race based fashion.

YEs, I remember the tail end of segregation too. I remember being really upset at being asked when I was 8 or 9 to call a hotel employee “boy” when he was older than my father. I remember feeling sick at some black kids being shouted at on the streets of St Louis. But that was then. That isn’t now. We are still changing – not all of us at once or at the same rate. Our divided hostile culture insures that racism will persist. It persists in all races though, if not at all educational levels, but I remember when it was dramatically worse for all sorts of people, when my wealthy family couldn’t live in quite a few neighborhoods, stay in many good hotels or be employed at many companies and I see that this has changed too. I’m sick of living in the past and not letting go of the past. I’m sick of the race baiting under the disguise of being “Woke” and I’m tired of the self flagellation, the dictatorial control over expression and vocabulary and cultural reference. It won’t be a new world until we notice that it is.

Bill Formby
Bill Formby
9 months ago

Mike, I started watching this last night. Trying to be objective I really like the subtle horror as it crept into the storyline. However, the racism displayed made me really uncomfortable I guess because I saw so much of that behavior as a youth from even within my family. But, then, mixed with the horror aspects of the film made for so many twists and turns.