Them is relentlessly brutal to both its characters and the audience. From its theme to the mise en scene, everything about Them necessitates a trigger warning. It has racial commentary, racial abuse, sexual assault, mental health crisis, PTSD, self-harm, violence, infanticide, and maltreatment of psychiatric patients.
Them follows a black couple, Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) and Lucky Emory (Deborah Ayorinde), who relocate from Chatham County, North Carolina to East Compton, California along with their two daughters, Ruby Emory (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie Emory (Melody Hurd). The story is set in 1953, and they are amongst the black people who migrated to California during the Great Migration in search of better livelihood. They become the first African-American residents of the neighbourhood called Palmer Drive.
Palmer Drive’s residents feel like characters from a David Fincher movie written by Lars Von Trier. The Emorys are forced to battle racial abuse from their bullying, psychotic neighbours, headed by Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), who have a dream of ‘Keeping Compton White’. However, Emorys have another surprise waiting for them. In their basement lies a rotten, otherworldly horror that is particularly motivated by a racial bias towards black people – a hatred more powerful than even that of their neighbours.
Them is eerie right from the onset. Years before the family moves to their new home, we are given a glimpse of the social environment around their home in North Carolina. Lucky is seen feeding her baby boy, when a creepy stranger — a white woman — approaches their abode. She begins to sing Old Black Joe by Stephen C Foster, and a triggered Lucky asks her to go away and tries to protect her son from the stranger. Why did the song trigger her? The answer lies in the history behind the song. Old Black Joe is said to be based on Foster’s black servant Joe, and the controversial artist himself is known for his songs containing racist ideas.
This scene is just mild compared to what follows. Every pivotal scene that follows is scarier, creepier, and more shocking than the one before. Even before the basement spectre takes charge entirely, the humans pose a real threat. Hours after the family moves in, Betty’s only mission in life becomes to chase them away. She even breaks down and feels blue that she is alone in this. However, she is not alone for long.
The best thing about Them is its solid conflict. It is usual for the audience to ask the residents of a haunted house to just leave the place, but it is trickier here. Emorys have shelled all their savings to buy this house, and both Lucky and Henry are in for the long haul. “Enough running,” they assure each other. It gets to a point when we wish for the real estate agent to just pay back the money and let the family go. Them also takes a deeper dive into the issue. We realise the conspiracy behind the sale of the house and how the real estate agents of the time used black people to drive up the value of plots elsewhere.
From episode 2 onwards, we realise that the situation is simply too bleak. Both Henry and Lucky are haunted by their past traumas. Them is not just a story of the emancipation of black people in the US, but it also takes a look back at how black soldiers were treated during the war and the mental repercussions of the same. While Henry, a veteran, battles PTSD, Lucky’s trauma emanates from an incident that happens during Henry’s absence.
Another thing that makes Them stand out is how all the characters, including the neighbours and the supernatural ones, have a definite character arc. Lucky is the first to sense the spookiness in the house. Neither Henry nor her daughters believe her, and they even question her sanity. In their defence, they have trials of their own to deal with.
Henry struggles to focus on his job as an engineer as he is torn between the burden of everything going on and a nitpicky, authoritative bigoted boss. Ruby gets bullied at high school and establishes a bond with an imaginary friend. Even little Gracie is not spared, as a ghostly Miss Vera haunts her constantly. The helplessness of it all gets to us.
Betty has a lot of issues too. We realise that, as a child, she was subjected to sexual abuse by her own father. She also struggles to finance the ‘mission’, and also has to deal with a partner who doesn’t share her eagerness to chase away the Emorys. Yet, Betty truly scares us. Her psyche and her fixation with a torn wallpaper reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
All characters go through hell and worse — as do we, the audience, who are witness to this — to get where they stand in the final episode, which ends on a cliffhanger.It is not just the writing of Them that is impressive. Other departments like cinematography, editing, and colouring are also commendable, and the visuals are astounding. Them takes what Jordan Peele’s Us and Get Out did and elevates their central themes by multiple levels. It leaves us with a lingering thought: humans can be as evil as the devil, and even manifestations of evil can have some humanness in their dark corners.
Director: Little Marvin
Cast: Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Alison Pill, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video