Let’s set the record straight: Amazon’s Them: Covenant is not swagger-jacking Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) or Us (2019).
The unjustly slander toward Lena Waithe over first-time creator Little Marvin’s horror anthology shows that the narrative function of race in film and TV isn’t going anywhere soon — especially when paired with other shows like Lovecraft Country and Barry Jenkins’ upcoming Underground Railroad. I was taken aback by the comments on my timeline as Them: Covenant, which debuted a trailer on the two year anniversary of when Us hit theaters, had people labeling it as a “knockoff” and angered Twitizens who felt like it was “both Jordan Peele movies combined.”
With the show scheduled to drop on Amazon Prime (Apr. 9), I was fortunate to screen the first four episodes that set the stage for all the real and supernatural forces that threaten to taunt, ravage and usher this Black family out of a seemingly idyllic Compton neighborhood. After an unnerving prologue, which jumpstarts the Hitchcockian-esque mystery, the main story begins in 1953 and centers on the Emory family — ambitious engineer Henry (Ashley Thomas), former teacher Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), and their two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd) — on their way to a new home in Compton, California.
Over the course of 10 days, audiences are dragged into a suburban — albeit malevolent — setting where the micro- and macro-aggressions of the Emory family’s seen (and unseen) antagonists trigger flashbacks and jump-scare-inducing moments that Black people still contend with now. “I started writing [Them: Covenant] a few years back during a summer where it felt like every single morning I was waking up, grabbing my phone, and looking through social media to see videos of Black folks being terrorized in some way,” creator Little Marvin said about the show during his stop at Deadline’s virtual SXSW studio this year.
The first episode shows how corrosive racism has already affected the neighborhood right as the Emory family pulls into the driveway of their new home. Once settled in, their placid white neighbors are out in full force to antagonize, led by a proto-Karen named Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), whose crazed smile belies a psychopath behind the eyes. Director Nelson Gregg (American Horror Story, Ratched) frames the classic 1950s aesthetic with polished Pleasantville vibes featuring just enough cracks under the surface to add an element of unease. Add in that prior to World War II, Compton was 95 percent white, and fans of shows like Snowfall will see an eerie transition of how white fright morphed and affected the Black community in less than 50 years.
As the first day ends on an intense note, we’re plunged deeper into the supernatural and real world racism that faces the Emory family in the second episode. The everyday bigotry that Henry and eldest daughter Ruby (Wright Joseph) encounter at work and at school help to push the entire story forward, while exploring the fragile mental states of both husband and wife concludes the episode with the most terse pie-eating scene since What’s Love Got to Do With It. The MVP award for episode 2 and the four-pack screener goes to Deborah Ayorinde, a name everyone will shout from the rooftops after seeing how she reacts to Betty and her Stepford Wives-like neighbors. How she faces the evil forces from outside their home — specifically an effigy placed on her front lawn — and the otherworldly hate that emanates from inside position Ayorinde as a standout star and definitely not your everyday, average Scream Queen.
Instead of looking at Them: Covenant through the lens of Black trauma, Little Marvin frames the cruelty and terror directly through white fright. Henry and Lucky must defend themselves against it and put on a brave face with their children despite society not being on their side, plus neighbors who are at odds with them outside their front door. If that wasn’t enough, when the youngest daughter Gracie (Hurd) begins to experience strange possessions and unexplained scares (courtesy of Miss Vera, the schoolmarm of Gracie’s books), questions and mysteries surround the already mentally unstable housewife and homemaker.
Them: Covenant is slated as an anthology series, meaning this season should end with more closure than confusion. “What I can say is that [Them will be in] a different time and a different place every season,” Marvin teased. The show greatly establishes a chilling nightmare with gore, shocks, and racially-tinged moments that should embarrass any Karens enough to refrain from misspeaking at the next Zoom meeting. Little Marvin and Lena Waithe successfully present a horror-and-mystery-filled tale that avoids the quagmire associated with Lovecraft Country and instills enough hair-raising, intense and twisted moments that you’ll be unable to look away from.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.